A World Ruled by Fear and Self-Interest Offers Little Hope

The front page of the Kent Ravenna (Ohio) Record-Courier 8/30/10 carried a photo of a big black tank - an M113 armored personnel vehicle. The news story began "Thirteen tons of rolling steel makes up the newest defense the Brimfield Police Department has to keep police officers and the public safe in the event of a serious criminal incident or natural disaster" and continued "The cost to Brimfield taxpayers? Not one cent."

I found something rather poignant about Brimfield acquiring this fearsome-looking but basically toothless old tank. (It has no weapons) But, as the article pointed out, many people are still haunted by the 2005 case in which a terrorist killed three people with an AR-15 assault rifle before he could be apprehended, and see this tank as a means to prevent a recurrence.

And who knows? - it might work, or at least help. But it makes me uneasy: as news, saving taxpayers' money is right up there on our public screens with saving human lives.

I'm bothered by the poverty of our public understandings, meanings and ideals, the mediocrity of our socially- shared beliefs, expectations and hopes. We're running the same old unreliable models of human nature and human society, based on the same old scripts of fear and self-interests, the same old xenophobias of distrust and disdain for people of color or different faiths, for immigrants and poor people, and the same old myths about terrorists & taxes, wars & freedom, guns & security, Social Security & socialism, gays & god - all now computer- enhanced and widely blogged.

In a new book entitled "The Emperor's New Drugs" Irving Kirsch, argues that antidepressant drugs are based on a faux pharmacological model of how the brain works. He cites evidence showing that drugs like Prozac work primarily as placebos, not by correcting some chemical imbalance in the brain: "The secret of their power lies in such slippery psychological notions as hope, belief and meaning rather than hard chemistry," notes one reviewer.

No doubt beliefs, meanings and hopes - and expectations - play a large role in the effects we experience from medications. Indeed, they underlie all human experience. And almost everything in human society - money, property, nationality, government, politics, economics, science, religion, is based on linguistic models that we agree reflect reality.

Declarative statements like "I am a Democrat" don't just reflect a reality, they create one. And a $50 bill that declares itself worth fifty dollars, is, as long as we all agree that it is. (This can get out of hand, as it did in Zimbabwe, which in 2009 was printing money in denominations of ten trillion dollars. At that point, everyone agreed it was worthless.)

If the effects we experience from pills are based as much on expectations, belief, hope and meaning as on the chemicals employed, to what extent are our political decisions and interpretations of public policies based on our expectations, beliefs, hopes and meanings about how things work?

It's not a matter of lying. We all lie to ourselves to manage information and make models that fit with the realities we prefer; we lie to others to persuade them to agree with us, or to elicit actions or beliefs we favor. When we don't agree with a proposed model then we presume that the proposer is lying, deliberately making a model to deceive us or cripple our cause.

Do we have either drugs or placebos - or acupuncture or talking cures - that will be effective against metastasizing xenophobia? Can we cure terrorism by spending $100 billion each year of taxpayers' money on the war in Afghanistan?

The trouble is, although most scripts and models are authentic enough to go where they are intended to go, like a lot of drugs, they have unintended consequences or side-effects, which may be tolerable, or may be deadly.

Our current political models may not be good enough on a planet inhabited by a species that has depleted its fossil fuels in developing conventional, nuclear and cyber-weapons; a species with non-adaptive cultures pursuing self-interests, exploiting and killing one another, unwilling to control its population, and proliferating competing scripts and models of reality as fast as the military industrial complex, politicians and entertainers can generate them.

I'm depressed. I can no longer imagine either pill or placebo, policy or political script that can give meaning to the state of the world today, that offers relief from the pains of war and poverty, and hope for a durable peace and prosperous future for all of mankind. I see little hope of agreeing widely on realities with reasonable chances for leading where we want to go, let alone the expectation of reaching any kind of consensus about where we as humans want to go and how we will share the costs of getting there.

One model suggests that with the $100 billion a year of our tax money that's now going for war in Afghanistan we could repair and modernize the infrastructure in our cities, invest in education for all children, embark on national search for renewable energy resources, and probably put two million Americans back to work.

Pill or placebo? Fact or fiction? Science or propaganda? As long as we squabble over saving taxpayer's money, racial profiling, or denying an Islamic center in New York and fail to agree on where we want to go, it doesn't matter much.

This column appears in the Kent Ravenna Record-Courier Sunday Sept 12, 2010.

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