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Columbus Day 2016

We all have basic needs. Clean air, clean water, clean food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, good health and a healthy social environment. We all have wants. Social environments become toxic when we permit the wants of some to interfere with the needs of others.

524 years ago, a group of people from Europe crossed the Atlantic ocean in search of things they wanted. Their basic needs were adequately met at home, but they wanted more.

When the European group arrived, led by Christopher Columbus, they discovered other people living on the lands they explored. That contact was fatal for many, because it led to an exchange of microbes. This exchange affected both groups, but the effects were devastating for the indigenous peoples. They lacked immunity to some of the diseases that spread, and in many communities it killed most of the people living there. This effect, for the most part, was accidental and unplanned.

This massive loss of life made it easy for the Europeans to move in and take whatever they wanted. The indigenous people fought back, as was their right. They had a right to their resources, their way of life, their system of meeting needs.

The European desire to fulfill their wants was fine. There’s nothing wrong with wants. It was only when they began deliberately destroying what remained of the indigenous people – their warriors, their homes, their independence, their means of living – that the wants of the European visitors became toxic.

And despite knowing it was wrong, they rationalized it for centuries. They still do. Not only the Europeans, but all of us. We exploit others to meet our wants and we rationalize it. It’s not exclusive to Europeans, or the West.

All living things have needs, and all those who wish to survive do what they must to meet those needs. Work, steal, fight, cooperate, trade and exploit – they’re all strategies seen throughout the animal kingdom. We’re part of it.

One of the things that makes humans unique is that we’re aware of the difference between needs and wants. We recognize that when we say “My right to swing my fist ends at your nose.”

Our right to use force ends where other people begin. We do it anyway, of course – we always have. That doesn’t make it right.

524 years ago, one group of people used force to satisfy their wants. In the process, they largely destroyed what remained after disease ran its course. They not only rationalized it, they celebrated it. They still do. It’s called Columbus Day.

In the past few decades, the awareness that it was wrong has spread. The indigenous peoples always knew it was wrong. Their descendants know it was wrong. Peoples in other lands recognized it was wrong.

The descendants of the Europeans are very late to this understanding, but they’re coming around. There is – justified – bitterness at how long it’s taken for this to happen. But it is happening, and that’s progress.

But not in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

We have one group of people with power and wants, and another with existential needs, including clean water. The indigenous peoples are fighting to protect their resources, and the group with wants and power has deployed it in the form of attack dogs, pepper spray and lawyers.

So here we are again. We can rationalize this and seize what belongs to others, or we can respect the needs of people living in Standing Rock. The power is there, as it was before. The ability to rationalize it is always present. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

If we really wish to celebrate something this day, let us celebrate a new approach. Let us leave the people of Standing Rock in peace and meet our energy needs elsewhere. Let’s harvest the sun and the wind. Let’s stop pouring poison into the atmosphere we all share. Let’s meet our needs and wants in ways that respect the needs of others.

Let’s acknowledge that we are all in this together. Let’s exercise enough discipline over our endless desires to live with self-respect. Let’s cultivate the ability to live without making excuses for bad behavior.

Achieving that – learning from our mistakes – would make Columbus Day worth celebrating.

Written by Influential Prose

October 10, 2016 at 8:06 am


One of the things that Bart Erhman goes into in “God’s Problem” is the business of sacrifices. We know that animal and human sacrifices have occurred throughout history and there are plenty of biblical stories that include animal sacrifices. It’s only natural to wonder how that got started.

I’ve read quite a bit about early primate behavior and there may be a connection here. Food distribution among primates is based on power. The most powerful in a group get first pick, the best selection, be it meat or fruit, and others get what’s left. So right away, the most basic need for survival is filtered through this hierarchy.

So say you’re munching along and someone more powerful than you wants your food. What to do? If you’re strong or stubborn, you fight. If you’re neither, you give it up to placate the bully. This pattern of social behavior is ancient, goes on for millions of years. Still happens among schoolchildren.

Along come protohumans who look around and see everything as alive – the wind, the rain, the sun, all these are endowed with a personality. And it’s not hard to imagine they would view a bad storm, volcano, tornado, massive forest fire or other natural disaster as an expression of anger.

So they respond to fury the way they always have – try to placate it with food. They’ll even provide it pre-cooked on a fire. Thus sacrifices.

Written by Influential Prose

September 3, 2014 at 2:17 am

Posted in behavior, evolution

A Crackpot Theory

This is an observation borne from life experience, and it may not be correct. I call it my crackpot theory because I’ve never taken time to dig deeply into it, so take it for what it’s worth.

Certain personality traits tend to cluster among people on different sides of left-right political spectrum. Among conservatives, I see greater focus on and anxiety about security. I also see an intense focus, often bordering on obsession/compulsion, on the issues that matter most to them. They like hierarchies and clearly defined roles.

People on the left tend to exhibit creative impulses. They don’t worry much, and perhaps consequently, they don’t plan ahead very precisely, preferring to take things as they come. This results in some disorganization, and it manifests in personal behavior as well – it’s tougher to get people on the left all the same page. Herding cats is the common refrain.

Now of course not everyone fits neatly into a left/right divide, and some people will be somewhere in the middle. But I see these differences in personality even among people who pay no attention to politics at all.

That said, it strikes me that maybe a major factor that distinguishes the left/right worldview in any culture is attention span.

People with a shorter attention span will absorb a broader range of information, because they don’t dwell too long on any one thing. The appetite for stimulation and novelty spurs them to skim from topic to topic and because they are exposed to more information, they’re more readily able to see patterns.

Conservatives prefer to dig deep. They examine a subject or several subjects throughly, seeking to develop a firm grasp on each one, and show less interest in unrelated topics.

So you can see where this is going. Conservatives have longer attention spans. Viewed in terms of access to resources and information, conservatives focus narrowly and drill deep. Progressives survey a broader territory, but more shallowly, and can more readily form a “big picture” view.

The key thing is, *both* strategies are effective in the right time and place.

I don’t want a creative, absentminded progressive running a nuclear power plant. I’d prefer  a conservative who is absolutely obsessed with his job, knows it inside out, and is ready to react when something goes wrong.

By the same token, conservative authoritorian impulses don’t work well in areas that require flexibility, creativity and willingness to try new approaches.

We spend a lot of time and energy demonizing and belittling people on the other side of the spectrum, regardless of where we sit. That’s inevitable. Power, like any resource, is attained by some mixture of cooperation and competition, and we tend to cooperate with people most like us and compete with people most different.

But we would do well to recognize that simple differences like attention span can influence a wide range of behavior…including our own.

Written by Influential Prose

August 25, 2014 at 6:50 am

Posted in behavior, sociology

Time and Temperaments

I’ve long struggled to understand how Thomas Jefferson could declare all men are created equal, how he could condemn slavery as a slaveowner himself, and simultaneously have a relationship with at least one of his slaves. The contradictions between conviction and behavior seems impossibly hypocritical and alien for an otherwise brilliant man.

But we ourselves do something very similar. Most of us have eaten meat our entire lives. We don’t dwell too much on the idea that the animals we kill, clean, cook and eat are herd animals with some social and emotional sense – they know who among them is aggressive, who is cooperative, who leads. They recognize external threats, feel fear and contentment. Their temperaments vary; they have personalities.

We grew up on a culture that normalized eating cows, chickens, fish and more. That’s not a judgment, merely an observation. We grew up thinking of it as normal. (Unless, of course, you have vegetarian parents!)

Jefferson grew up the same way with respect to slavery. It was a given. It was the way the world worked if you had a farm in the South. His entire generation grew up in that world. It wasn’t a world they created, and at the time it didn’t seem possible to create a world without it, because so much of the early U.S. was economically dependent on slavery. It took a war, hundreds of thousands of lives, and several generations for change to come.

Slavery was always wrong, but we see it much more clearly in hindsight. Yes, there were people who saw it clearly at the time, too…just as we have vegetarians among us today.

Circumstances change, but large-scale social patterns persist.

Written by Influential Prose

August 1, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Posted in behavior, history, sociology