Looking at Life at 75 Years and Counting

"Your teeth look good for another 75 years," said my dentist last month, just before my 75th birthday. Though I can't expect to last as long as my teeth, the milestone offers an occasion -- or at least a pretext -- to reflect on what the next 75 years may bring to my fellow mortals.

Given what I'm seeing today, however, I'm not sure I want to keep my teeth company for another 75 years.

In addition to good teeth, evolution has blessed me with excellent eyesight and hearing, and Fortuna has given me a strong family and good friends. I have never been confidently affluent nor desperately poor, though there were months of food stamps and seasons without reliable transportation. My first adult job (teaching 1st grade, 1952) paid $1500/yr; my last (Senate aide, 1997) $36,000/yr. In between I supported myself variously as a teacher (pre-school to university), free-lance orchestral musician, and small retail proprietor, while raising two children and serving five terms on the Kent school board.. My total retirement income is now just under $20,000/yr -- unimaginable wealth to half of the humans living on earth today, but modest in middle America.

My 25 years of formal education (all but five of them at public institutions) were enhanced by years of freeloading at libraries but somewhat attenuated by never quite figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Driven by a lifelong curiosity about how things work -- language, stories, drama and music; science, knowledge and learning, information systems and computers; community, faith, government and politics; and latterly, justice, democracy, liberty, trust and compassion, I ended up a generalist, with ideas and opinions about practically everything. But I also have a strong skeptical streak, not only about the state of human knowledge, but about my own.

And the outlook is bleak: I see the human world and its subsystems as made of vast numbers of directable but unreliable parts connected in irregular and ill-understood ways. Can they be managed to produce coherent behaviors? You bet. Even before geeks wrote algorithms for directable characters and interactive digital storytelling for computer games, techniques were developed and deployed by the advertising and public relations industry to direct human desires and fears, create facts and realities ungrounded in the real world, spread urban legends, frame issues, suppress challenges and competition, control science, and manage public opinion to serve ideological, commercial or political purposes.

Since the proliferation of radio, TV, and computers, the mediasphere and blogosphere have replaced print journalism and the reading public as the principal engine of political discourse. On the Web one finds references to "neoconosphere," "jesusphere," and "liberalsphere" and their respective efforts to gain control of public opinion and thought.

And to a "bushosphere" that has shown its willingness to meet terror with terror, and not only to terrorize weaker, poorer peoples with "Shock & Awe" bombing, illegal detainment, torture, "collateral damage" and nuclear warheads, but to terrorize our own people with lies, illegal surveillance, the squandering of our common wealth in unwinnable wars, and the usurpation of the powers of We-the-People to determine public policy and govern ourselves..

I consider the possibility that the Bush imperium deliberately released information about torture and kidnapping to terrorize the Muslim world into submission and that they allowed revelations about domestic spying in order to terrorize Americans into giving up their freedoms and their dreams.

I suspect that Bush & Co has calculatedly used incompetence and mismanagement as a strategy to convince us that government can't work and that education, health care, Social Security, disaster relief and resource management should be turned over to the private sector.

I sense that the Bush administration has knowingly infected us with a virus of epistemological uncertainty. We're not only unsure what we know and how we know it, we're unsure that it's possible to know anything reliably. We're uncertain about everything from the softening of polar icecaps to the legality of data mining, from the effects of GM crops to the need for nuclear warheads, from the progress of the "war on terror" to the hazards of free speech or blasphemy.

I fear that Americans are becoming doubtful, distrustful, resentful and fearful -- not only of our history and government, but of our future, and, tragically, of one another.

"Granny D" Haddock, who has about 20 years on me, reminds us: "Life is about living, and about helping other real people get through this world with a minimum of pain and a maximum of human dignity. We simply can't do that with authoritarian politics and its deadly abstractions. ... We have a duty to look after each other. If we lose control of our government, then we lose our ability to dispense justice and human kindness. Our first priority today, then, is to defeat utterly those forces of greed and corruption that have come between us and our self-governance."

She's right. Until we start planting our feet in the real world and using our eyes and ears to comprehend the beliefs, ideas, hopes and suffering of real people, we're not going to be able to live together. We'll just be using our teeth to bite one another, and our feet to run qualifying rounds for a final Darwin Award, to be granted in some distant millennium by whatever aliens find our cinder of a planet.

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