Thursday, March 10, 2016

Oaks And Acorns

     If you’ve been following the campaign news as obsessively as those who are paid to do so, by now you’ve read and heard enough lies, ranting, screaming, and repetition to deafen a herd of elephants. As I normally follow the news, including the political news, that closely, I can testify to the efficacy of its Nauseaction® factor. In consequence, I’ve become unwilling to write about it. Indeed, I try to deny it any space in my thoughts.

     So it evokes a smirk from me when I get email that asks “Why aren’t you writing about the campaign?” In a way, it’s flattering, as it suggests that my insights are of value comparable to those who are writing about the campaign. All the same, mens sana in corpore sano and all that. If I want a clean mind – and I do – I have to keep the campaign garbage out of it.

     That’s not to say the outcome of the campaign won’t matter. It will, at least to some of us. But the campaign itself – the stump speeches; the debates; the mechanics of vote solicitation and turnout manipulation; the constant jockeying for position in the major media; the influence of the earlier primaries on the later ones – is of so little real value to a thinking American that I feel I can justify dismissing it, at least to the extent of leaving the subject to others.


     At this time there are several seemingly small matters scattered about the landscape, any one of which could be the genesis of titanic events. It’s seldom possible to say which of these acorns will acquire the layer of topsoil and dash of water that will allow it to produce an oak. Generally, when someone claims a posteriori that “I foresaw this,” he’s fibbing. (If he claims to have predicted it beforehand, ask him for his next prediction. Then ask him how much he’s willing to bet on it.) That’s one reason it’s worth one’s time to develop a breadth of interests.

     Consider, for example, the recent death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum at the hands of Oregon state police. There’s a federal investigation under way into this incident. Though Oregon state officials have already trumpeted that the shooting was “justified,” there’s no guarantee that the FBI will reach the same conclusion. But either conclusion has the potential to touch off larger events, possibly including a populist insurrection against ongoing land-grab machinations in the Northwest.

     Consider also this Maryland state senator’s drive for ever more stringent gun control. Maryland’s already severe gun-control statutes have done nothing to reduce violent crime. Those states that have relaxed their gun-control efforts, in contrast, have benefited thereby. The disjunction is becoming more and more obvious even to traditionally anti-gun-rights populaces along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Could a sea change be imminent? No one can say.

     As a final example, consider Zimbabwe’s announcement that it might need to cull its lion population. This is a must-read story for anyone who’s ever harbored anti-hunting sentiments. Were the essential importance of Man to maintaining the balance among populations of large predators to be widely accepted, what kind of future would the environmentalist movement face?

     Any of these currently minor stories could germinate into something much larger – potentially earth-shaking. Should that occur, many would scratch their heads and say “I wonder how this got started?”


     Among the reasons we study statistics is that they assist us in getting past the problems presented by micro-causality. Individual minds, dominated by personal and narrowly parochial concerns, wobble and weave; large movements, which respond to “field-like” incentives, exhibit far steadier behavior. Robert A. Heinlein dramatized this difference in his early short story “The Year of the Jackpot.”

     But statistical assays can only tell us so much. They often reveal influences we didn’t see beforehand. Why we didn’t see them is beyond the power of statistical techniques. That has much more to do with our perceptual and cognitive filters: our tendency to emphasize data that conform to our prejudices and to dismiss data that point in nonconforming directions.

     There could be storms brewing right now for which we’ll wish, later on, that we’d been better prepared. The extent to which we want to believe in such possibilities will have a great impact on how many of us are braced for whichever of them breaks upon our shores. Our likelihood of being well prepared will depend, in some measure, on the breadth or narrowness of our attention.

     Needless to say, one can’t prepare for every imaginable development. One’s focus can be too wide, as well as too narrow. Atop that, there are possibilities, such as the collapse of the Cascadia subduction zone, for which the only imaginable preparation is being somewhere else should it happen. Acquiring an appropriate focus is the key.

     And every day, more Americans are finding that focus by means of a simple question:

“What matters most to me and to those I love?”

     That question is the antithesis of political. It asks not for power over others but for a list of one’s own needs and how they might be assured. He who makes use of it has turned away from our clangorous national storm to concentrate on his own proper responsibilities. In doing so, he has performed a pro-social act. Indeed, he has rediscovered Americanism.

     Recently, WRSA put this in the most anti-political of terms:

     America is dead.

     Your country is your community.

     Even those of us who still hope for national correction and renewal must allow that our individual influence on that possibility is minuscule. Rather than strain to arrest the fall of our national oak, we would do far better to concentrate on protecting and fertilizing our personal, familial, and community acorns. Our national politics is wreckage from the past: the conclusion of a collapse of institutions and their premises toppling one into the next like dominoes. If we are to have a future, that which lies in our hands will give it to us.

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