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I will soon be moving to the Earthaven Ecovillage, and while I can bring my two kitties, my foundlings will have to find a new home. Perhaps, just perhaps, one of you readers of this blog will open your heart to a loving tom. Here they are.

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This is Slinky, a gray tabby with chocolate overtones. He showed up in January 2012. At that time, he was not fixed, and fought all the time. I finally had his wounds cleaned out and him fixed. The vet said he was a year and a half then.

He’s now mellowed out, and put on a bit of weight. More exercise would be good for him. He loves to go for walks with me at night around the neighborhood. He is still somewhat territorial with the other cats — likes to patrol the porch where the food bowls are.

A very affectionate boy, a people cat. Loves to be scratched all over, and begs for more; he is always very careful with his claws. He likes to sleep in a tray with a towel in it that sits on a high counter in the kitchen so he can see what’s happening, and begs for pets when the human goes by. He often asks — he is a talker — to be inside at night as well. Does not roam. Slinky is a confident, alert and friendly cat. Likes to snuggle on my chest when I lie on the couch, and to come to bed at night for scritchies– but prefers to sleep in his tray.

He is incredibly hardy — early on, he would sometimes sleep on the porch next to the window in such cold weather that his fur was covered in hoarfrost! I think Slinky was abandoned by someone in the neighborhood who moved. He needs a loving home, best without any male cats in it, as he tends to challenge them. Likes children.

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And here is Yellow. He is orange and pure white. He started living under my house during the big snows the winter before last. He was already fixed. I had him checked out, and the vet said he was then 2-3 years old.

Yellow is a shy cat. I think maybe he was abused because he flinches when a person moves abruptly trying to touch him. He is much calmer now. He gets along with other cats but remains wary.

He is affectionate, purrs readily, and loves to have his ears, chin and belly scratched. He likes to be outside a lot but stays close. At night, he lies out where he can see other people and cats and watches. He loves wet food. He is very easy to care for, and keeps his soft fur immaculately clean. He needs slow handling by a gentle person, and will make a lovely companion. A quiet household without other cats might be best.

Lately, Yellow has carved out the bathroom as his “safe room” and rushes in for pets when I am in there. He’s become quite the lap cat.

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And now Yellow and Slinky have begun to play together! These sweet kitties each need a forever home. Might you be able to give such a gift?

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The Americans of de Tocqueville’s time, when they wanted to make something happen, didn’t march around with placards or write their legislators demanding that the government do it. Instead, far more often than not, they simply put together a private association for the purpose, and did it themselves.
— John Michael Greer

When various transitioners and change makers seek to influence the politics, economy and future course of a small town, they first organize a civic association. There are many kinds, from churches and town beautification committees all the way to activist groups and guerrilla gardener clubs. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw such civic underpinnings as something essential, the very foundation of American democracy.

These civic groups in turn seek to influence the official power holders — the town hall and its minions. They serve as pressure groups while working on the particular projects they have undertaken, and so act to counterbalance the power gathered by local politicians and bureaucrats. Among Transition Towners in particular, there’s been much debate whether and how much one ought to work with the folks at town hall; in Europe, there seems to be more cooperation across that particular divide than here in the States.

There is, however, another power-wielding group in every town, and it rarely gets the consideration it deserves. Professor Domhoff has done a great deal of research on and written extensively about these people — the so-called “growth coalition.”

Local power structures are land-based growth coalitions. They seek to intensify land use. In economic terms, the “place entrepreneurs” at the center of the growth coalitions are trying to maximize “rents” from land and buildings, which is a little different than the goal of the corporate community — maximizing profits from the sale of goods and services.

Unlike the capitalist, the place entrepreneur’s goal is not profit from production, but rent from trapping human activity in place. Besides sale prices and regular payments made by tenants to landlords, we take rent to include, more broadly, outlays made to realtors, mortgage lenders, title companies, and so forth. The people who are involved in generating rent are the investors in land and buildings and the professionals who serve them. We think of them as a special class among the privileged, analogous to the classic “rentiers” of a former age in a modern urban form.

The most typical way of intensifying land use is growth, and this growth usually expresses itself in a constantly rising population. A successful local elite is one that is able to attract the corporate plants and offices, the defense contracts, the federal and state agencies, and/or the educational and research establishments that lead to an expanded work force. An expanded work force and its attendant purchasing power in turn lead to an expansion of retail and other commercial activity, extensive land and housing development, and increased financial activity. It is because this chain of events is at the core of any developed locality that the city is for all intents and purposes a “growth machine,” and those who dominate it are a “growth coalition.”

Although the growth coalition is based in land ownership, it includes all those interests that profit from the intensification of land use. Thus, executives from the local bank, the savings and loan, the telephone company, the gas and electric company, and the local department store are often quite prominent as well. As in the case of the corporate community, the underlying unity within the growth coalition is most visibly expressed in the intertwining boards of directors among local companies. And, as with the corporate community, the central meeting points are most often the banks, where executives from the utilities companies and the department stores meet with the largest landlords and developers. There is one other important component of the local growth coalition: the daily newspaper. The newspaper is deeply committed to local growth so that its circulation and, even more important, its pages of advertising, will continue to rise. [And] labor unions often join the developers as part of the pro-growth coalition.

Rather obviously, the primary role of government is to promote growth according to this view. It is not the only function, but it is the central one, and the one most often ignored by those who write about city government. City departments of planning and public works, among several, become allies of the growth coalition with the hope that their departments will grow and prosper. In addition, government often provides the funds for the boosterism that gives the city name recognition and an image of togetherness, which are considered important by the growth coalitions in attracting industry, and government officials are expected to be the growth coalition’s ambassadors to outside investors.

The growth coalitions also have a well-crafted set of rationales, created over the course of many decades, to justify their actions to the general public. Most of all, this ideology is based in the idea that growth is about jobs, not about profits.

It never fails to amaze me how little these people figure in the plans and schemes of those who wish to transform towns in the direction of greater livability, sustainability, prosperity and democracy. While the civic group contingent provides checks and balances for the powers-that-be at the town hall, who minds the ballast on the side opposite the growth coalition so the boat does not capsize?

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Political powers assembled off the radar can wreak a great deal of damage unless they are checked by another powerful group, one not under their thumb. And we all know that, right? We are all suffering from a global system where governments function, more and more, as glorified gofers and talking heads for the new sultanate: the shadowy, transnational coalition of bankers and financiers whose doings escape scrutiny and accountability. Similarly, if a town’s citizens have over generations permitted the growth coalition to turn their town hall into a servant of profit rather than common good, isn’t it utterly naïve to think that the civic group contingent could possibly provide adequate checks and balances to this formidable unholy alliance?

John Michael Greer has been making hints for some time about the benefits of old-fashioned benevolent societies from Freemasons to Moose to the Odd Fellows. Not so long ago, they played an important role in America’s public life, a role that stretches all the way back to the early days of the republic. Providing a powerful social presence in each community, they were committed to improve local quality of life above all. Most of these groups fell on hard times in the 50s and 60s as the result of the government taking over the caregiving functions which once provided inexpensive health care and other welfare benefits to member families. But I suspect there is more to the loss of membership. The 50s and 60s were also times of relentless pro-science propaganda (Better life through chemistry!) and the promotion of sober secularism (God is dead! Religion will fade by the end of the century!). In this opinion climate, the once secret inner workings of the lodges acquired a whiff of embarrassment. What I think of as the “silly hats, mumbo jumbo and secret handshakes” routine has seen its better days, and the only folks I know who still hang onto that particular style of old timey mystique and pageantry without loss of membership are the Latter Day Saints.

There was a very good reason why Freemasonry was first feared and persecuted, then infiltrated by the rich and famous (both Mozart and emperor Joseph II belonged). It had become an important locus of power through the creation of a trustworthy and united brotherhood devoted to the betterment of the human world and shielded from the prying eyes of the other powers-that-be.

Humans love social games that shroud their companionate doings with a veil of secrecy and throw in a dab of useful magic. Long ago, there were the secret rituals among awe-inspiring paintings and eerie echoing music in deep caves. Much later, the early Christians celebrated their love feasts well away from public view, hid in the catacombs, and signaled to each other through graffiti of fishes and other symbols. Various “heretics” of the Middle Ages, like the Brethren of the Free Spirit and later Anabaptists, walked from town to town, hiding in the cracks of the system, opening minds. Then came Freemasons and took Europe and America by storm. And now we have millions-strong computer gamer brotherhoods like the World of Warcraft, where devoted virtual-warriors ally with and battle each other in the interest of some benevolent vision, through magic powers they acquire along the way. The might of discreet alliances with other trusted people is immeasurable. It can more than counterbalance the power of money and influence peddling, as long as it has the numbers, the vision, and the unity.

There was a time in late 19th century America when obscure rural lodges came quietly into being, first in west Texas pioneer country. Much later, they gained fame as the Populist movement. Their secret lodges had all the various customary trappings of magic and spectacle and grew like Topsy, creating wildly popular cooperative arrangements that favored the interests of small farmers and ranchers. This alliance eventually spread into many states, and provided the grassroots power that nearly came to tipping the balance not only in state politics, but nationwide.

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Close, but no cigar. They made a huge mistake. Forgetting their place in the scheme of things, they “outed” themselves in the eager hope of grabbing political positions with their chosen candidates. In other words, they moved into the civic group square in the diagram, while also playing politics in the government square. Having abandoned the place that gave them power, they were coopted. The elites of the growth coalition — the large landed interests, along with the robber barons and their helpers — lacking effective counterbalance, won. Again.

Taking Greer’s advice makes sense. It’s time to learn from the lodges of old, build on their templates, and with the help of skilled young computer gamers create new ones so opaque to the powers-that-be, and so imbued with a deep kind of magic suited for the 21st century, that their power will discreetly begin to right the balance that has wronged our world for so long. Only trustworthy people grown united and fired up by the zeal to make lives good again for each other and those who come after, will be able to finally put public governance on a sound footing and stage the second American Revolution. Do you object to the secret agendas of the elites? Then let us create our own secret agendas, ones that befit a free people devoted to furthering our common weal!


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It always seems that in all areas of life, 10% of the people cause 90% of the trouble. These 10% f**k s**t up for everyone all the time.

Our world has been taken over by disruptors. This is not altogether surprising; any ecological system will become vulnerable to disruptive and predatory organisms if the conditions are right. A system that is unable to mount an immune reaction to such invaders will succumb and suffer until it either dies, or is able to once again rouse itself into an effective response. The closely cooperative and sharing human world that enabled our ancestors to survive the severe challenges of the last ice age began to change with the advent of the Holocene, when benign climate ushered in an era of plenty. There are a number of theories that address what exactly happened then, and I will leave that for another time. Suffice to say that gradually, perhaps in only a handful of societies at first, a new social order was born. Or perhaps, a new disorder.

In a nutshell: the cooperative human game began to be disrupted in a few places, and the disruption infected other societies and spread over time. I consider it highly likely that our ancestors responded to the new world of plenty with greater tolerance for disruptive personalities, and even welcomed the talents that go along with them. Yet here we are — on the brink of disaster. Isn’t the key issue of the new paradigm to return to playing the cooperative game and to make sure that this time, it remains evolutionarily stable? Recognizing the disruptors is the first order of business when coming to grips with them. Who are these people who undermine trust and cooperation to such an extent that civilized societies appear seriously impaired in their capability to deal with the challenges of the 21st century? Let’s shine a light at them.

Dicks gift us with meanness. They work hard to belittle, diminish and abuse a person. I have waxed eloquent on dickery before; it consists of the endless variations on slugging the person rather than the objectionable belief, idea, behavior, or product. In verbal skirmishes, it had already been recognized by the ancients as the ad hominem: attacking the person rather than their argument. Dicks are oblivious to the damage to people and relationships they leave in their wake. They want to be right. They want to showcase their memes. They want to win.

Trolls relish sowing chaos, deception and confusion within human communities, and have been known to paralyze them. They generate emotions in others while not investing any of their own. Trolls love to yank people’s chains! They feed on the chaotic emotional energy they stir up, and on the attention paid them.

What all trolls have in common is bait: messages intended solely to upset or insult. If people “bite” by getting riled, the troll proceeds to “reel them in” and does his best to wreck the conversation and damage the good will within that community. To this end, trolls apply a wide range of havoc wreaking, noise generating methods with great success. Spurious accusations, previous statements twisted into meanings never intended, demands for proof for any and all statements made, requests for information already provided, willful contradictions, off-topic bunny trails, arbitrary word usage redefinitions, or seizing upon small mistakes to subvert the thrust of the main argument; these are just a sample of the rich trollish repertoire. They cultivate the fine art of missing the point, never answer inconvenient questions, and set people up to argue with each other by using subtly invidious language.

If one tack does not produce the desired discord, the creature will switch to another. When an otherwise peaceable community starts fighting, look for a troll loitering nearby. Still, trolls are not all bad; they can liven up a moribund discussion and interrupt groupthink. And dealing with them can foster a community’s spirit of self-governance. Unfortunately, their positive contributions are far outweighed by the pointless conflict they generate. The troll’s goal is not to win an argument but rather to provoke a futile one that runs forever.

Predators take advantage of others. Most predators are not sociopaths. They are folks whose scruples do not stop them from skimming off or plundering what they did not earn. Some are thieves and embezzlers, some are bankers and financiers. They are mobsters who run protection rackets, and government officials who scheme to bilk the citizens. They are shadowy slavers running sweatshops and brothels, and high placed economic hitmen reducing whole countries to debt peonage.

A rare variety well illustrating their anti-social nature are ‘patent trolls:’ people who sit on patents preventing others from using the invention and coming out of their cave only to sue those who may be “infringing.” They are the free riders on an economic system where restrained, accountable behavior of most of its participants is still prevalent. Predators want to fatten themselves at others’ expense. Some predators specialize in inflicting physical harm.

Aggrandizers are people who exhibit the “triple-A” personality: they are ambitious, acquisitive and aggressive. They played a key role in the shift from the stable, sharing economies of egalitarian tribes toward the increasingly intensifying economies that replaced them in larger and larger areas. These high-energy people endowed with considerable talents tend to rise readily into leadership positions. Aggrandizers promise goodies, and often deliver: they are the tireless organizers of feasts, the forgers of trade alliances, the consummate politicos, the able warriors. They have a knack for finding ways to motivate people to produce more, and using that surplus for previously unavailable benefits for the community. In the short run, they can do a lot of good. In fact, this is how they win people over.

As egalitarians the world over have understood, however, the people most eager for power may not be the best choice to bear its burdens. Non-aggrandizer leaders do not present the same threat, nor do they require constant vigilance. To put it plainly, despite their short-term benefits, aggrandizers are highly dangerous to the well-being of human communities. If their ambition is allowed to go unchecked, they turn anti-social in the long run. Lack of effective limits corrupts them into dicks, trolls and über-predators, and they end up causing massive damage to the societies they once served. They want power, wealth, prestige, and status, and they never have enough.

Disruptors are skilled stage magicians: they distract the cooperative chumps by layers of spectacle, while the real action goes on veiled, camouflaged, unnoticed. Dickery mixes abuse and unscrupulous behavior with “nice” behavior in order to disarm the dupe. Trolling creates maddening swirls of distracting trivia, confusion and strife able to cripple a community. The predators ooze an aura of charm, allure and cunning in order to take advantage. And aggrandizers offer an endlessly gratifying cornucopia of goodies, all the while subtly diverting more and more power and wealth to themselves. The world taken over by the disruptors is a world of spectacle: all the world’s a stage — to keep the chumps spellbound.

For most of us, meaningful social relations rest on the default assumption of mutual cooperation, leading us to see others as fellow cooperators even when appearances suggest otherwise. The belief in the universality of this social contract can blind us to the fundamentally uncooperative nature of disruptor behavior. Typically, we waste our energies on arguing with disruptors, nagging them and shaming them, hoping to bring them back into the fold. None of that works. They do what they do for a reason. They disrupt because they find such behavior rewarding. And until we find a way to shift those rewards, they will keep on doing it. Why wouldn’t they? The disruptors do not follow the universal social contract; they take advantage of it. Isn’t it high time for the rest of us, the predominantly cooperative ones, to get savvy and to restore the cooperative human game that has been part of our birthright as a species for most of its existence?

I am not branding the disruptors as the darkling “other,” the evil side of the human community that needs to be eradicated. Scapegoating and witch hunts are disruptor ploys. Cooperators understand that behaviors rather than persons need curtailing or eliminating, and look for strategies arising from working with each other. So how do we deal with individuals who have come to thwart the cooperative game so regularly and so profoundly that dealing with them has become something of an acute emergency for civilized societies? Together we can shift the pattern of rewards. What we feed… will grow. Withhold cooperation from the disruptors. Cooperate with the cooperators.

Don’t feed the disruptors. Feed cooperators.


Those who cannot love want power.

There are human beings among us, a sort of a dangerous subspecies, who – whether through nature or nurture – have become sociopaths. Some call them psychopaths, but they are nothing like the paranoid recluse Mr. Bates in Psycho. They are charming, personable, seemingly just like you or me, sometimes very successful, captivating, often very smart… and they pass for sane, moral human beings. They are neither.

The sociopaths are quite numerous in many societies. This “disorder” is estimated at 4% in the United States. About as frequent as color blindness. Both genders are represented, but women less. They are not recognizable by any quirks or special marks. They can, however, be known through their behaviors. These are the kind of people who leave a path of destruction and pain behind them without a pang of conscience, and cause far more harm to individuals and to society than their prevalence would suggest. They are overrepresented among the criminal subset, but most criminals are not sociopaths, and most sociopaths are not criminals. That means that most of the sociopaths live among us as neighbors, friends, coworkers and family members.

Their moral disorder is at present incurable, and most of them are not interested in being cured. They typically hold the rest of us in contempt: we are the suckers with feelings and a conscience. They prey on us without remorse. They study us carefully so they can mimic our ways. Isn’t it about time to study them back, and learn to recognize them so we can protect ourselves and our loved ones?

What they are like:

  • hollow, dead inside; they have a frozen core that human warmth cannot reach
  • they are unable to feel normal human feelings; what they show is practiced imitation
  • most remarkable by their inability to empathize (if a person does feel empathy, even if they fit some of these other points, they are not a sociopath)
  • they resent being stigmatized by moral people, and enjoy getting back at us
  • they harm people they profess to love
  • they often harm without reason, except for the thrill of domination, winning and watching people hurt
  • they suffer from a sense of profound loneliness & boredom, and may self-medicate with TV, alcohol and drugs
  • they generally recognize themselves for what they are before the age of 10, and can recognize others of their kind readily
  • their charm is superficial, their emotions shallow
  • they do not suffer from delusion or irrational thinking
  • but will sometimes attack via crazy-making or “gaslighting”, using nonsensical ideas just to confuse us and make us question our own sanity [The word comes from the film Gaslight (1944) where a predatory husband manipulates his wife into near insanity]
  • may show concern about getting found out; often, they are control freaks and guilt trippers
  • they are unreliable and feel no compulsion to keep promises or rules; they love chaos
  • they are glib and insincere: these smooth, superb, habitual and inveterate liars and manipulators never fess up unless you stick their face in the evidence, and sometimes not even then
  • their ongoing deceptions impose on others a false reality made of distortions and fabrications
  • they lack, along with conscience, any sense of shame, guilt or remorse
  • they have poor memory and do not learn from experience; even though they profess to have occasional insights, they lose them, forcing their partners into a dreary vicious circle of revisiting the same issues over and over
  • they are pathologically egocentric and unable to love, and notably unresponsive in intimate relationships
  • chronically crabby and irritable
  • they do not accept responsibility for the harm they do
  • boastful, huge egos, grandiose sense of self-worth
  • typically they do not have a life plan or a direction

A caveat: a list like this can only point in a direction, and cannot diagnose. It is also important to keep in mind that most sociopaths lead relatively normal lives, and often have much to offer; they tend to be smart and entertaining and talented in a variety of ways. They are dangerous but not “all bad.” Societies that recognize the signs and subtly disadvantage anti-social behaviors have fewer antisocial people.

How to recognize the charming predator:

1) Listen carefully for details of their stories; if you hear deception, check it out, don’t ignore it. Check their life stories and references.
2) Listen to your deep sense: do you want to trust this individual with intimacy or secrets? Or is there a little voice of caution and warning deep inside?
3) Watch out for the pity play (or getting taken advantage of on account of your compassion and sympathy). These folks love it when we feel sorry for them and try to help, and so often present themselves as hurt by forces over their head. Do not fall for it.
4) Look for genuine signs of empathy for other people’s pain.

If this is a family member, have them tested. Psychiatrists have useful questionnaires, and brain scans can identify abnormal processing of emotion. The official labels for these people fluctuate, and descriptions of narcissistic, borderline, or anti-social personality disorders have significant overlap with sociopaths.

How to protect yourself and your loved ones:
(adapted from The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, 2005)

  • Accept that some people just do not have conscience. Not all people are basically good.
  • Go with your instincts rather than deferring to the role this person is playing (animal lover, doctor, knows all the right people, etc.)
  • In a new relationship, practice the “rule of three”: one lie or broken promise can be a misunderstanding, two can be a serious mistake. But three says you are dealing with a liar. Cut your losses and get out.
  • People in authority can be sociopaths. If given instructions that go against your moral code, refuse to follow. Get help and outside support.
  • Suspect flattery. It’s a good sign of a manipulator.
  • Don’t confuse the fear of a menacing individual with respect.
  • Do not join the game: trying to outsmart him, to analyze him, to banter with him. Or her. It never works.
  • The best way to protect yourself is avoidance and refusal of contact. Focus on standing up for your own life, not pushing against the psychopath. They are better at hitting back than you are.
  • Reserve your pity for the deserving unfortunate. Do not waste your help, money and resources on a sociopath. Giving another chance is for people who possess a conscience.
  • Never agree to cover for a sociopath, or to help them conceal their true character.
  • Defend your soul. We are not a failure. We have a conscience, and we do love.
  • Heal hurt and damage through learning to recognize them, warning other people, and exchanging support with others who have been hurt. Doing the right thing is balm for the soul.

Reading up:

    Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare (2007)
    SociopathWorld
    Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare (1999)
    Dr. Hare’s youtube vid on psychopaths in corporations (10 min)

People don’t so much resist change; they resist “being changed.”

Suppose you are sitting next to someone on the plane who let it slip that he thinks blacks are mud people, or that whites are Satan’s pawns. Instead of raining down the fire and brimstone of your righteous indignation and summoning your superior world view for an assault on his obviously faulty belief system and a morality in shambles, why not just have a conversation with the person behind the beliefs? You may learn something interesting. You may enter a very different mind world for the duration of the flight. Is that such a bad thing, to learn what fellow humans really think? Do we always have to be on the lookout to stomp out wrong-headedness with the big ol’ boot?

So what if your next door neighbor believes that God created the world five thousand years ago. Will it make him more likely to pilfer your silver spoons or be rude to your elderly mother? “But wait a minute,” you say, “that same guy is trying to dilute the teaching of evolution at the school where our kids go!” When I was in school, they split us up for language class because some students wanted to learn German, and some French. Is it just too outrageous to create two types of classes, one for students who want evolution straight from the bottle, and one for those who want to learn about the controversy, discuss “intelligent design” and learn to evaluate its claims? Instead of trying to convince the neighbor – probably a futile undertaking anyway – why not set up a situation both sides can live with happily enough? It seems to me that the latter path is far, far easier than the former. And it fosters neighborly good will to boot.

That old hypothesis is on its last leg, isn’t? If only we turn everyone into rationalist skeptics, the human world will get right. If only we turn everybody into savvy doomers, or angry activists, or sophisticated progressives, or godly conservatives, all with a unified voice, everything will turn around. The religious folks from centuries past thought that if only everybody would be Catholic, the whole world could be at peace… no more wrangling, no more disharmony, no more error. It did not pan out. That hasn’t prevented scientists from trying the very same thing. They’ve had a good run of it, but when all is said and done… it just ain’t gonna happen. Humans are ornery critters, each unique as a snowflake, each wanting to think his or her own thoughts. The One-Right-View Age is over. It’s been a failure, leading neither to God’s city on a hill nor a rational utopia but to never-ending divisive strife.

For too long, I have been like a marionette, leaping into the fray, perennially arguing with people whose opinions are different (and incorrect, of course!), hoping to set them straight. Crafting exquisite arguments, and getting nowhere. For all the vehement “big” battles of words and logic I have had with people over the length of my life, how many did I convince through a clever or powerful argument? I remember one, but he was open and ready. If a person wants to change their mind, if they open their mind to evidence they have not so far considered, then change is possible. But that is up to them! Isn’t it their job to make up their own minds? And isn’t my job to be of use to them, on their own terms, if asked?

Arguments can be giant bracing fun, especially with worthy enemies. I love these jousts where memes can be fine-tuned and sometimes, the best idea steals the show. Nothing I am saying here is directed against argumentation itself. But while I have learned a great deal about crafting good and bad arguments, and how well my views hold up under scrutiny, I have missed out big time on learning about other people and their worlds. Nobody is likely to be open and forthcoming under the onslaught of ‘know-it-better-than-thou-ism.’ And now that I am thinking this through, it seems possible that the whole effort to “change other people” is part of the domination paradigm. Isn’t persuasion a form of manipulation? A power game? Trying to override their ideas with my ideas, to overcome them, to make a conquest for my memes, isn’t it domination in another guise? None of us likes it when others push us to change. When we perceive that someone is targeting us, prodding us, selling us this idea or that, trying to win us over, convert us, we balk. And rightly so. A natural resistance builds up; a push leads to a counterpush. In a world of freedom, respect, and autonomy, the only appropriate person to change me is myself.

I don’t think reasoned argument changes people’s minds, anyway. Just the other day I was trooping once again through the barren grounds of trying to convince someone that if drugs were regulated and cheap, nobody would burgle houses to feed their heroin addiction. It fell on deaf ears. The retort is always the same. Criminals will be criminals. Are people holding up 7/11s to stoke their tobacco habit? Meh… it makes no difference. Or, take my older yet otherwise sharp-witted neighbor. She got embroiled in a Jamaican con that promised huge sweepstakes winnings if only she first sent them money. And lots of it. We neighbors tried to talk sense to her, the cops came and described similar cases, her daughter flew in to yell at and plead with her. To no avail. Her estate eventually had to be placed under agency oversight…. And when I go visit her, the phones still keep ringing with golden promises. People believe what they want to believe for their own deep reasons and needs. Suddenly, I am done. My evangelizing years are over.

And so it came upon me to wonder: what would it be like to surrender the idea, the burden!, of having to persuade or convince other people to think or believe differently? There is so much moaning out there in the doomersphere regarding all the folks who cleave to mistaken beliefs, those who are asleep, ostrichlike, or zombified. Why? Apparently we think that these folks are somehow getting in the way, they are stopping us from doing what needs to be done. But are they really stopping us? Or are we projecting on them our own frustration regarding not having a viable alternative in place yet? What if they are simply doing what kids everywhere do when things get weird… they are waiting for a better game to start?

But seriously, don’t. Don’t be a dick. All being a dick does is score cheap points. It does not win the hearts and minds of people everywhere.

Having made a small detour into the skeptic/atheist community on the web, I am happy to report that their blogosphere erupted with a controversial yet very well received presentation made at a recent convention organized by the Amazing Randi which has become known as the “Don’t be a Dick” speech. The speechmeister of note was Phil Plait who runs an astronomy blog. He began with noting:

Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning is about, it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise. … What I see is that hubris is running rampant. And that egos are just out of check, and sometimes logic in those situations falls by the wayside.

And closed with the quote above. For people who would like to follow the gist of the speech, I refer you to a summation and a rebuttal at the Ooblick blog. The comments I want to make here really have to do with dickery itself. People seem to have a hard time recognizing it. Which is a problem in a world infested by dicks all the way up to the highest places, wouldn’t you agree?

While many people welcomed Phil’s chastisement, others objected to it on the grounds that asking to eschew dickishness amounts to turning feisty discussants into fluffy bunnies and kissy-face accommodationists. I got into a discussion with a blogger who posted this frustrated reaction:

Pissed me off something hardcore having to sit through him lecturing me about being too mean to people. I felt the same way in a thread over on Pharyngula [part of Science Blogs] where people were saying women didn’t like how abrasive the skeptics/atheists are. It’s not true, I love it, it’s entertaining, it’s informative, it’s fun. I’m not a weak little girl, daddy doesn’t get to tell me to play nice with others. … And probably he didn’t mean it was never OK to raise your voice in a crowded room, but that’s sure what it sounded like to me.

After engaging and doing a bit of exploratory tapdancing, she said to me:
I don’t know that I think dicks are necessarily bad for the world. I find them entertaining and fun. I think the world would have been a much poorer place without people like George Carlin, HL Mencken, and Christopher Hitchens. I don’t have a problem with people arguing, I don’t think that behavior is bad, even when it’s vehement…

At this point, I opined that vehement arguing is not dickery in my world. Verbal abuse and underhanded argumentation is.

She also clarified: What I heard Phil Plait say was “Don’t be confrontational, don’t call people on being really stupid, and don’t be honest if it’s rude. We all have to watch our tone and be super nice and polite all the time or else other people might think we’re angry and negative people, and I want everyone to like skeptics and think we’re fluffy bunnies.” And I’m not a fluffy bunny. I don’t want to be a fluffy bunny. I don’t like fluffy bunnies. Plus, if you only eat rabbit, you die of malnutrition.

I challenged her to admit that she really *liked* abusing the opposition. And she freely did(!), speaking from the heart: I’ve been completely upfront about saying that I like vitriol and venom. I like it, I enjoy it, I think it’s fun and I enjoy reading it and listening to it. A witty verbal riposte is like sex to me. Someone tearing someone apart using big words and an arched eyebrow without raising their voice — if that’s not an artform, nothing is…I have memorized the review of North by Roger Ebert and think it may be the greatest piece of literature written in the 1990s. I like hate, I think it’s fucking sweet, particularly when applied by someone with great acumen and a large vocabulary.

It had begun to look like we were talking past one another, but when she used an example I could check out, new understanding dawned on me. I said: Thanks for the review tip. Fabulous! But notice… Ebert is not being a dick. He nowhere abuses either the actor/hero or the filmmaker. He abuses the movie.

Look, have all the vitriol you want, just don’t put it in people’s coffee, ok? There is a difference between attacking the idea, belief, behavior, presentation, product, etc., and attacking the person.

Clever flames are a pleasure. Ripping some hapless person to shreds is a pathetic ego trip.

She acknowledged that. And suggested that Phil should have made this clearer. So I thought… maybe we all need to be clearer. What exactly *is* a dick? Where else would I turn for enlightenment regarding this vexing question but… wikipedia, right? There I have learned the following:

“Don’t be a dick” is the fundamental rule of all … social spaces. Although nobody is empowered to ban or block somebody for dickery (as this itself would be an instance of such), it is still a bad idea to be a dick. So don’t be one.

Being right about an issue does not mean you’re not being a dick! Dicks can be right — but they’re still dicks; if there’s something in what they say that is worth hearing, it goes unheard, because no one likes listening to dicks. It doesn’t matter how right they are.

Being a dick isn’t equivalent to being uncivil or impolite (though incivility and rudeness often accompany dickery). One can be perfectly civil and follow every rule of etiquette and still be a dick. Avoiding dickery is not simply a matter of observing the more obvious rules of etiquette, but is a broader and more important concern, generally involving the practice of maintaining a position of respect for the intrinsic qualities of another person during the course of interaction.

Telling someone “Don’t be a dick” is usually a dick-move — especially if it’s true. It upsets the other person and it reduces the chance that they’ll listen to what you say. Focus on behaviour, not on the individual. (The term “dick” in this essay is generally defined as “an abrasive and inconsiderate person” of either sex.)

There, in a nutshell. I recommend reading the whole of it. But while a dick does come across as abrasive and inconsiderate, that’s not quite the gist of dickery, the icky heart of dickery. I say dickery consists of the endless variations on slugging the person rather than the artifact. It had already been recognized by the ancients as the ad hominem: attacking the person rather than their argument. It can be pretty safely said that most of the argumentation fallacies are dick sieves. You’d think we were to study them in order to avoid them. But nooo! Dicks love to use them and use them liberally. They are oblivious to the damage they leave in their wake; they want to be right. They want to showcase their memes. They want to win. Trampling the actual human underfoot is par for the course.

A quick round of “Spot the Dick” game:

Christian: I will pray for you.
Very ill person: Look, there is no God and no heaven and you are wasting your time and mine with your superstition. [⇐ Dick]

Colleague of a Christian who has been hit upon for conversionary purposes and has enough: No. I am not interested. And I mean that!
Christian: I will pray for you. (Previous remarks and current tone implying that the person is about to become Satan’s roast beast.) [⇐ Dick]

I still cringe remembering a car scene with a dear friend who has since died. She told me she thought God helped us find each other, and we were blessed. And instead of responding to the message underneath, which really said, “I feel so lucky to have found you,” I turned to her and expounded on the bad theology… because, hey, there are plenty of women like us out there who are as in need of a friend who are not sent one, blah blah blather blah! Ouch. The inner dick, in fine fettle, putting ideas above the relationship.

So. Ain’t it sweet to know that dickery is avoidable for those itching to smack idiocy with passion and snark? When the rumpus begins, just remember…

To me – and I accept that this is an unusual and unpopular viewpoint – the real issue is that we are behaving like a bunch of undignified, narrow-minded twats.

A powerful and growing agreement exists among people hacking away at the current impasse that we must begin with building circles of increasingly powerful community. Yet, tension keeps recurring between those who call for education toward growing awareness and for sharing those awakenings with others a la women’s consciousness raising groups of yore, and those who bank on relocalizer groups working to bring about small practical changes into their lives, villages and towns. And then there are those who argue that such small changes can lead to political quietism on the one hand and on the other, that practical localization achievements can be swept away by the Powers that Be in an instant if they so choose, and therefore localization and personal changes are not enough. What if all are right? It’s not either/or. I want to weave these three points of view together and take a good look at the emergent pattern.

The red pill club
Vast are the multitudes these days who have seen past the curtain. Just this morning, sitting at the local java joint, the conversation turned to the state of the country. So I looked toward the guy doing most of the talking, and popped the question. Why is it that America is unable to go after all those criminal banksters and fraud-peddling financiers, full well knowing we wuz robbed? He got it on the first try: “Because those people who caused the problems and those who are supposed to fix them are in bed together.” “So,” I say, “it’s kinda like the mob used to do it? At first he looks startled, then responds, “Exactly; you put key people on your payroll, one way or another.”

Like a diamond, awareness has many facets, but it is clear to the core: the colorful ever-shifting overlay of spectacle designed to distract us has lost its coherence, and the increasingly ugly reality is visible to any who pause to look. To switch metaphors, we’ve awakened finding ourselves wading in bullshit and humanure up to our knees. Within the deeper layers – and there are always deeper layers – there is of course far more than that: understanding that the crises of our age are intimately bound with the underlying structure of our civilization, for example. Or that the touted “efficiency” of the industrial machine is a lie, that this machine is grossly inefficient and destructive – but the measuring sticks used are meant to obscure that inconvenient reality. Or, closer to the vest, the realization that our touted “food security” is practically non-existent, embedded as it is in an agricultural system rooted in ridiculously wasteful practices and propped up by artifice (subsidies and legislated favoritism).

My most recent awakenings have to do with a deeply perceived need to segue to a more “whole,” unfragmented, undomesticated form of thinking and indeed inhabiting my world, and tinkering with what it means to embody what I care about. The other day, I heard a click when someone pointed out that after America’s Founders crafted the rather inspired Constitution, having worked a bit too hard to make sure that the new American government was tilted toward the elites, their successors contrived successfully to convince the increasingly educated and aware “middling sorts” that this is Freedom. No need for Jefferson’s “revolution every 50 years,” folks! Just think positive thoughts, recite the Pledge and the heroic industrialists, CEOs and other bigwigs will take care of everything in this best of all possible worlds! Now even this bamboozle is unraveling in the very heart of conservative America. These days on the internet, every week seems to bring another small piece of the large puzzle.

How well have we done with the job of ‘awareness’? While incremental gains have been made over the last 200 years and more, I would say that the last 10 years have made a huge difference. Significant levels of awareness are no longer the province of a few intellectuals or rebels. The ‘tuning in’ of the 60s, pushed underground, joining with other streams, has morphed into something much deeper and far more pervasive. In particular, the last two years have seen a mass awakening. People now know. Not intellectually, I mean. We know in our bones. Millions and millions of us, right, left and center. In part, we know because of the internet. We finally have a way to talk with one another, help each other find useful information, reinforce our best sense of what is going on, and cross-check with others firsthand. And in part we know because of the ongoing visible decay of the old ways of living and growing impotence of the old ways of thinking. We also have the elites to thank: the economic unraveling and their increasingly brazen and obvious plunder is doing wonders to shake people from their slumber all around the world. And in the U.S., the end of unemployment checks for millions this November will force yet another layer of reckoning.

When my book club recently read Orwell’s Animal Farm, I worried that these mostly older and not at all radical ladies would have a hard time relating. Yet the discussion was the liveliest we’ve had in a while, and it didn’t take long for bubbles of anger at what is happening in America to percolate to the surface. Our oldest and most conservative member actually went into an angry riff sharply informed by Orwell’s insights! I went away that day thinking that the underpinnings of ‘American reality’ have finally shifted; it is the lack of social permission to speak up that holds people back. In our group, Orwell’s book provided a temporary safe space to talk about such “unmentionables.” With each bump on the stairway of the long descent, more people will find their voice. So I’ll go out on a limb and say, when it comes to ‘awareness,’ well done, boyz and grrlz! Well done. Call me a crazy prophet: I say from here on out, awareness will gather into a wave as all exponential processes do.

Path of resilience
I have called it a contagion, because the people who are bit by this bug are altered by it and get in gear to make changes that are far more than skin deep. But I hope it is more of a path than a fortunate kind of popular craze. Everybody understands resilience. Now I am not saying that the majority is willing, as yet, to get off the dependent couch. But my impression is that for those with their native “species’ intelligence” intact, resilience makes a ton of sense. It does not matter one bit if we have huge disasters ahead or not, nor whether all resilience pioneers become dubious about the project of modernity. All folks are pilgrims on the path of resilience who recognize that human life is precarious, and always has been, and that living as pathetic domesticated sheeple who just keep consuming, get fleeced and amused, and have their wastes taken to a pretend-place called “away” is neither a worthy human existence nor one that bodes well in a downturn. And there are always downturns on this planet. Resilience appeals to sensible people of all persuasions and worldviews. It is an idea – and praxis — whose time has come. The last 100 years have been a blip of an exemption for many of us, a dubious opportunity not to have to deal with the nitty-gritty of life and each other. Here is our chance to apply what we have learned from this strange experiment and move on to something saner.

As one commenter responding to a Jensen article recently said about the resilience vanguard: They grow gardens, share the bounty with each other, learn to compost, save and share seeds, share information about the evils of industrial food and offer strategies to counteract that. As they learn about sustainable food production, their interests spread toward other related things. Canning and preserving. Reusing and recycling unwanted items from the home. Buying sustainable products of all kinds. Learning to sew. Making their own music. Raising chickens. Installing solar power. Riding bikes and walking more. Jensen poo-poohs this stuff but it’s the seeds from which the future will grow. Every time I attend the annual seed exchange or visit the local food exchange I feel optimistic. Every time I eat home grown produce, plant seeds my friends saved, and otherwise avoid voting for industrial culture with my wallet, I hope I am making a little bit of a difference. I’d go blow up a dam but then I’d be forced to eat industrial food and wash with industrial soap in prison.

How are we doing on the side of resilience? It appears to me that the needed knowledge is largely in place. All those people who began to build alternative houses from local materials, making their on-site energy, rediscovering subsistence agriculture or foraging or herbal medicines or home birthing or greywater systems, creating pockets of independence from the totality, have done well. Some of the extensive mainstream know-how and gadgets can be adapted to resilient ways of living with relative ease. There is much alternative, appropriate technology out there that can be brought in as needed, and John Michael Greer is apparently sparking a revival and intensification of this work. Appropriate tech even appeals to folks of a cornucopian persuasion who nevertheless recognize the follies of what passes today for “smart” technology and science. It’s a damn shame that so many ingenious inventions of the past that were simple to understand and easy to make, and required little energy to run, have been swept away by the relentless march of modernity. Some can be recovered, and this is a worthy task. Some can be bettered by those among us with the sort of understandings that apply modern magic to a very unmodern task: the day to day practical living of the sort that brings humble creaturely joy, makes deep personal sense, and helps communities (both human and ‘natural’) thrive.

So. We have a large knowledge base to draw on, and great many people in all walks of life are making it their business to reskill and retool. All you appropriate and convivial tool inventors and recreators, all you new agrarians and off-gridders, all you folks daring to leave clueless urbanity behind and jump into a whole new-old way of living, you have done us proud. Working with so little, in your back yards, garages and fields, dedicated to relearn ancestral ways when most of the culture pushed you hard in the opposite direction, you kept going. You kept going through the years when hope flickered small and these very practical tasks seemed like the only thing that a person could do to keep the flame alive! The coming generations are catching the bug anew now, learning food from the ground up, turning suburban backyards into oases of fruit trees and vegetable gardens, and getting reacquainted with the underlying natural patterns of waste, water, living soil webs, sun and wind, and how we humans can flow with the planet, rather than push against. Creating robust and stable local economies is a task that awaits the next wave of daring trailblazers. What a profound sense of relief: resilience is back. Blessings for all on this ancient path!

In each other we trust?
Facing a disturbing and heartbreakingly difficult future, it seems obvious that people of goodwill must come to pull for one another in ways unprecedented since the last ice age. Everything we hope for, everything the future could be, depends on our capacity to recreate the conditions needed for interpersonal trust. Yet so far, this work has remained in the shadow. Efforts of note include experiments with public deliberation, creation of open spaces, compassionate communication, sociocratic governance and open source collaboration. We’ve but scratched the surface. For example, while amazon and ebay have their trust metrics, this craft has not informed our lives yet. Instead, the culture of hate thrives in the words of doomers, leftwingers and rightwingers, scientists and layfolk, the religious and the atheistic; it has infested all public spaces. Just say something unpopular in an impassioned forum and all the rude trolls will come out of the woodwork while most of the participants aid and abet the abuse by doing nothing. A lot of otherwise aware, educated and with-it folks have no idea how to get along with people who disagree with them. Go into a forum like that, and it’s war. The hate culture crosses all boundaries. James Howard Kunstler gets regularly abused by anti-semitic emailers, but he himself lashes out brutally against southerners, rednecks, the tatooed, teabaggers and others who in his view are beyond the pale. How can lefties, who are unable to talk about their rightwing neighbors without spewing fury and contempt, press in good faith for ending American wars abroad? How about ending the wars fought on our front porches first?!

People who do not trust one another end up hiding from each other within lies, hypocrisy and isolation. They will have few inner resources for the radical collaboration at the center of humanity’s livable future, and keep on running away from community despite their deep needs and earnest convictions. I say it’s time to get serious about setting aside the fear and suspicion that have driven us to the anonymity of cities and impersonal institutions. Can we summon the strength to turn away from the absurd political spectacle and toward each other, and grow a culture of trust from the grassroots? From this trust, a new kind of politics can finally emerge.

Once we get excellent at working together, only then can we set our sights on the huge, formidable challenges of whole regions cooperating to reshape large-scale economic and power patterns, and to begin the work of planetary healing. You are urging us all to sweep away the current malignant order of things? My first question would be, when was the last time you called your opponent a douchebag of a fucktard? When was the last time you smothered him or her under 16 tons of condescension? Yesterday? Back to the starting point, I’m afraid. How the heck could we accomplish what we dream about without being able to — in our sleep! — listen with empathy, give and receive honest feedback, gather into groups without posturing and terminal boredom, internalize effective accountability without someone cracking the whip of authority, stop deferring to power-hogs, and make collaborative work so enjoyable people will flock to it rather than run in the opposite direction?! What will it take to learn to listen to people across ideological divides, diffuse long-standing animosities, and begin to work with them on projects of crucial import to us all? We need everyday visionaries in all walks of life pioneering the same sort of alchemy and “green wizardry” that Greer is promoting, but in the fields of trust that have lain fallow too long. Everything else hinges upon this. Intractable human problems become in principle approachable if we get down to getting along.

How do we find the right kind of people with whom to form a band? The first question looming large in my mind is “who.” Who is it that I am searching for? Who is my true kin? I recently realized that I was suffering from believism: the viral meme that insists that beliefs and ideas are what really matters, and “by their beliefs ye shall know them.” When I reflected on where to turn to find my kind of people, I kept coming up with various worldview groups. The desire to be with others of like belief is a powerful thing. How often have we exclaimed in relief – finally I have found people who think like me! What joy. (Until we find they really don’t.)

After another such encounter – hoping to be altered by a face-to-face meeting with someone who was an excellent belief match, and did not pan out in real life – and after seeing how people of like beliefs end up fighting with one another over magnified molehills, I figured it was time to scrap this whole template of searching via beliefs and start over.

It seems to me that people flock together basically in the following ways:

  • because they like the company (e.g. I always get along with cousin Emma, we have good chemistry between us)
  • because they share passions, interests or projects (e.g. beekeepers)
  • because they share beliefs, worldviews (e.g. Catholics)
  • because they share a lifeway, a local culture (e.g. the Highland Scots)
  • because they share value-laden preferences (e.g. participatory, peer-based communication)
  • because they share an inspiring vision (e.g. peace)

Any and all of these reasons are compelling. They do work to bring about mutual enjoyment and a bond. They all provide motivation to spend time in the other person’s company, and explore further. What I am about to argue is that they are not enough. They are not enough to form long-term tight relationships, the kind of bonds that are needed to forge together a viable tribal group that has both cohesiveness and durability.

Any of them alone will likely lead to disappointment in the search for a good band-mate. What is missing? The missing part has to do with integrity. It has to do with the ability to work through conflict. It has to do with a whole slew of phenomena that perhaps can all be lumped into ‘trustworthiness.’ If another person knows how to navigate the perils of a heated discussion without getting nasty, I can trust them. If they know how to give me critical feedback without biting my head off when I screw up, I can trust them. If they are able to offer empathy in response to my grief or anger, I can trust them. If they do their damnedest to be honest and straightforward, I can trust them.

All too often, we offer solidarity on the basis of ideas, and forget to reserve our loyalty based on that other piece of the puzzle: character. On who this person really is in the world. What sort of story are they enacting among their own? How do they behave, how do they treat living beings? For example, if a person shares my beliefs to a tee, yet they are a habitual blamer, take their frustrations out on other people, and are driven by the need to be always right, all the good ideas, shared interests and other similarities are not going to prevent ongoing damage or save the relationship in the long run.

True community must be based on both trust and common outlook. If the trust isn’t there, no shared-belief magic will fill the hole. I am willing to extend this further and claim that when it comes to forging alliances with people, trustworthiness must take precedence over ideas. If the person or group is trustworthy and treats you right, even if some of their ideas are weird or unpalatable, it makes sense to favor them over people whose ideas are right on but who cannot be trusted. Ideally, we want both in a small band community; but when choosing wider allies, I say choose trust over like-mindedness.

Besides, think of a geek with poor social skills who does not know how to treat people well. What is easier for this person to change: behavior, or beliefs? Bingo. People readily learn to adapt their belief systems. But ego trippers or chronic quarrelers usually remain so across worldviews. As Diana Leafe Christian writes in Creating a Life Together, many an intentional community has come to grief over the ill-considered acceptance of the untrustworthy.

Trust is the unifying force we have been looking for. It goes past the games people play with ideas and language. Trust is the ageless glue that used to hold communities together in former days. Ideals and passions unite today and often fragment tomorrow. Shared trust unites us for the long, winding road ahead.