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Perhaps like you, after almost a decade of pandemic, racial violence epitomized in a televised murder; isolation during a pandemic as statues fell; crazed mobs and cultic nonsense, culminating in the horrors of war, and the unnerving continuation of the commercial carnival of distraction, denial, and infotainment that is our culture, I find that I have nothing to add in the way of outrage, brave proposals, or new artistic renderings—whether visual, musical, or textual. Certainly abundant information and analyses are available—like Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, for example. Consider the increasing mortality within the white middle class, a group who feels their dominant status threatened by the changing demographics of the country. Apparently, when you were down on your luck in the past, you could always find comfort in your ethnic superiority, but now even that has disappeared and the woke crowd won’t let you forget it. McWhorter’s new book about the religion of woke is a caution to believers. Neither the religion of woke nor of a dear leader serves the human project.
The human project?
More about that in a moment.
So, I considered what I have to offer after almost 80 years—a trio of books, a few research studies, some operas, decades of teaching, and a few prizes for poems few will read.
Not much to blog or brag about—except for children and grandchildren, but I keep them out of blogs.
I considered self-pity, but it’s a tiring habit.
Better to take some time to reconsider what matters and to clarify thinking. So I offer some thoughts—more like ruminations than essays—entitled Nine Executive Summaries. Each summary is the lead document for a current line of inquiry. Perhaps you too will want to inquire into the human project. Let me know.
Richard L. Rose
THE HUMAN PROJECT: NINE EXECUTIVE SUMMARIES
|Nine Executive Summaries about the Human Project|
|By Richard L. Rose|
|R.L. Rose 4/1/2022|
WHAT IS TRUSTWORTHY INFORMATION?
A Preface to Nine Executive Summaries about the Human Project
Fundamentals are simple and ignored. The ground of being human is to care for each other. Communication directs care. Reliance on information requires trust in the communicator. Sharing identity provides such assurance. Common identity assures communicators of common concerns and authorities. Sharing identity eliminates risk in accepting the information conveyed. Because you trust and rely on the communicator, you accept their information.
This is not an epistemological exercise. Vital interests are at stake. The nine questions addressed by the following executive summaries orbit the human project, which is to care for each other and to keep our long conversation going. The conversation is about caring for each other.
The fundamental ground of being human. The ground of being human is a physiological and behavioral fact. To be alive is to support metabolism, to care for yourself, and to protect yourself from impairments to living. The mothering behavior of reptiles, birds, and mammals shows this life-fostering concern. Infants direct their parents to their needs: they communicate.
My argument is guided by abstractions like Paul Tillich’s ground of being or Elwyn Tilden’s life-fostering concern, but please notice that it is founded on simple observations of humans.
A circle of human relationships has grown around the care for offspring to encompass care for adults, groups, communities, and cultures. Concentric to this, a circle of realms of knowledge has grown from the information needed to care for offspring to that needed to care for adults, groups, communities and cultures. These realms include maths, languages, arts, science, commerce, engineering, and other fields of knowledge.
The ground of being human is not limited to intentional activities. The body’s microbiome and habitat are also under human care, as is the human species and other terrestrial species. A body is a habitat nested in other habitats.
These statements are based on fundamental observations of bodies and how they work and inter-relate. Anatomy, physiology, and ecology extend these observations. Metaphysics and other speculative fields claim to explore the meanings of existence. Whether or not their claims are valid, however, the fundamentals are unchanged: Humans continually care for each other and continually converse about care.
When care is prevented by a natural catastrophe or evil event, the human project is impaired. The Holocaust was an event so evil as to defy explanation or, as Nieman has written, so evil as to defy attention. It is easier to engage in epistemological exercises than to engage with the fact that humans are prepared to destroy each other, as the world witnesses in the current Ukrainian genocide.
Vital interests are at stake. Lies and confusion are armaments. Deception and self-delusion are required to impair life-fostering concern. Evil is based on unreliable information. It is not enough for physicists to agree with other physicists who have published their highly significant findings. It is not enough for biblical literalists to agree with other biblical literalists, patriots with other patriots, employees with their bosses, and legislators with their parties. Trust based on commonly accepted authorities, such as the Qu’ran, Bible, Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, or QAnon website, is not enough. And yet, trust based on shared identity has always been fundamental to communication. This is unlikely to change.
Given that the vital interest of the human project is at stake and that communication usually depends upon misplaced trust, special effort is needed:
- To remind ourselves that the human project is fundamental to decisions across all realms of knowledge,
- To recognize that all humans belong to many identity-groups,
- To recognize that realms of knowledge have different ways of determining the reliability of information,
- To weigh political and policy recommendations by paying more attention to the personal interest and expertise of the communicator than to the identity of the communicator,
- And to lift the general education of the population so that all citizens may have studio-experience and education in all realms of knowledge.
So what is trustworthy information?
The following summary addresses this question and several related issues. It is called an executive summary because it provides information relevant to a decision—not an answer. It is the first of nine summaries of topics related to the human project. Each summary is the lead document for a current line of inquiry. My plan is to make additional information available in an Appendix, currently under very slow development. Although these summaries are simply comments on a thicket of concerns too vast and varied to be bundled together, perhaps by my attempt to clarify my own thinking, I will persuade others to do the same for themselves.
Richard L. Rose, Richmond, Virginia
April 4, 2022 (during the Ukrainian War)
THE NINE TOPICS What is reliable information? Why should the human project be used as a fundamental criterion for decision-making and for these executive summaries?How do cognition and communication maintain the human project?How does white Christian militant corpocracy impair the human project?How do the environmental impacts of humans impair the human project?How does injustice impair the human project?How does aspiration maintain the human project?How do the embodiments of the arts maintain the human project?How have historical events impaired or maintained the human project?
First Executive Summary
What is reliable information? An essay on knowing & knowing for sure.
Relevance is more important than quantity. A visit to the bookstore confirms that abundant information can be collected and generated about anything. The reliability of a source begins with its relevance to the matter at hand. Simply mentioning the matter or giving assurances does not equate to relevance. Persuasion through repetition is the technique of propagandists and salespeople. Assurances are sometimes accompanied by references to the common membership of the source and listener in some group or organization, but affinity is irrelevant to reliability. The fact that such assurances are given is even a reason to distrust the source. Even assurances to the people, humanity, and human welfare are probably irrelevant. The people whose welfare is at issue is usually determined by the personal interest and expertise of the speaker: merchants are concerned with the welfare of merchants, corporations with the welfare of corporations, and tyrants with their own welfare.
Serious concern about the human project may lead one to overlook the irrelevance of affinity to the reliability of information, so this hazard must be anticipated. Another kind of untrustworthy source is irrelevant expertise. The physicist commenting on sociology is making a speculation. It may be an intelligent speculation, but expertise in physics does not make it expert. This doesn’t mean that all information must go through disciplinary sieves before it may be considered at all. Certainly, one need not automatically dismiss a physicist’s observations about the way a sociologist used the statistics of meta-analysis. Such observations would certainly receive more weight than an opinion survey of mall-shoppers on a Saturday afternoon. One also wants to hear from other sociologists and even from allied fields, like anthropology and cultural studies. The reliability of a source is enhanced by relevant information from multiple sources at different distances and angles from the matter at hand, and therefore weighed differently. Before making an important decision, one must be sure about what is already known. Physical and historical facts seem indisputable, but their interpretations vary because the facts may be applied with respect to countless other issues. Here, the nature of the decision must indicate the kind of interpretation that will be acceptable.
A decision about the kind of alloy to use in a solar shield requires metallurgical specifications and empirical findings on appropriate stress tests. A decision about whether to use a solar shield requires an evaluation of the mission and of the anticipated solar exposure of the spacecraft. A decision about whether to allocate limited public funds for a spacecraft rather than a national housing project requires an evaluation of many intersecting realms of information as well as wise assessment of the different proposals with respect to the human project. Choice of an alloy or particular heat-shield requires reliable knowledge about materials, tolerances, and designs, based on empirical findings. Choice of whether to build the spacecraft requires the education of a populace in the studio-knowledge of different fields so that they may understand the proper ways to weigh and apply different realms of knowledge in order to enhance the human project. Reliability depends upon clarity about both the source and the decision to be made.
Second Executive Summary: The Human Project
Why should the human project be the fundamental criterion for decision-making?
Heraclitus wrote, Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar, and he must continually seek to recover it. The human project is to care for each other and to keep our long conversation going. Nothing could be more intimately familiar. This project derives from mammalian history and the human capacity to direct others to meet our needs. It is a fundamental criterion for evaluating human efforts and decisions because without care and communication, humanity will prematurely disappear. Other criteria, such as freedom, scientific achievement, creativity, imagination, human rights, and economic profit, are derivative. The human project is not tribal, national, or ethnic. It is for our species. Care for the human species entails the care for all the other interdependent species and habitats on Earth.
Despite its existential importance, the human project is disregarded as we pursue other projects. When a poet, scientist, economist, or soldier calls attention to the centrality of human welfare they are suspected of ulterior motives. Philip Levine wrote, The only reason to write poems is to change the world. Albert Einstein spoke of the self-delusion central to human thinking: that we think of ourselves as separate from each other. Karl Polanyi argued in 1944 for human beings to realize that business should serve humans, not humans, business. Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the costs of armaments and warfare in terms of resources lost to caring for human beings. These words were spoken in the interest of humanity, not in the interests of the professions of the speakers. The segmentation of humanity into factions, disciplines, parties, and nations augments the self-delusion of our separateness from each other and our disregard of fundamental issues.
When Robert Reich writes about the public good, he is accused of socialism. The label eliminates the need to think about the argument or data presented. In these corpocratic times the needs of the corporate person, aided by marketing, displace the human project as powerfully as it was previously displaced by tyrants, empires, religions, and industry. Humans are repeatedly estranged from their project and repeatedly forced to “seek to recover it.” It is not irrational to be self-interested, but it is folly to ignore the foundation to all interests and existence. Revolutions in agriculture, trade and commerce, science, human rights, and governance have repeatedly re-set human eyes on the fundamental criterion. But then attention fades as property accumulates, power increases, and various populations are designated to be excluded from consideration as human beings—and therefore to be righteously overcome by violence, economic dependence, enslavement, and warfare. Splintering the public good into private advantages has even been elevated by some parties as a societal goal.
Such is the estrangement that we have from our own welfare that we cannot recognize such efforts to restore it to center of human concern as: giving microloans and direct payments to those who need it; giving solar power to villages off the electrical grid; returning land to indigenous people; correcting the consequences of racism and corpocracy; improving the response of legislatures to the citizens they represent, and ending the domination of nation over nation.
Perhaps the most difficult effort is to change language and concepts. McWhorter and others call attention to the distortions that arise when this effort is done with religious enthusiasm. Nonetheless, deadly actions are often preceded by lethal language, just as attention and mutual understanding are evoked by generous language. As Janet Emig has written, we are all here because someone listens to us. To give care properly, you must know how to notice the need for care.
Of course, none of these measures is free of ulterior interests, controversy, or issues of implementation, but they move in the direction of human care. Similarly, other measures move in the direction of improving human communication, such as welcoming immigrants and international exchange students; exchanging of scholars, artists, and working-people with other nations; sharing in efforts across national borders; giving public, studio-based, continuing education in arts, sciences, maths, world history, cultures and languages to all children and adults, and convincing ourselves and others that disarmament is in our common interest. We either move in the direction of the human project or we stop moving.
Second Executive Summary: The Human Project
The entity that is maintained intact, and of which we all form a part, is not the life of any one of us, but in the end the whole of life upon the planet.
–J.Z. Young, Introduction to the Study of Man (1974), p.93
The terms human rights, human dignity, and humanity do not convey the idea that human existence entails a special kind of work. For example, Ruth Nanda Ashen writes in her introduction to The Biology of Ultimate Concern (1967) by Theodosius Dobzhansky, that it is clear that whoever uses the term humanism . . . brings into play at once an entire metaphysic
and Dobzhansky, quoting Paul Tillich, writes, humanism, according to Tillich (1963), asserts that “the aim of culture is the actualization of the potentialities of man as the bearer of spirit.” Without disagreeing with the philosophical inquiry of these writers or with the high aim of self-actualization, as described elsewhere by Maslow, I believe that the urgent and ongoing task of humanity is more concrete and definite than such metaphysical modeling: Humans must simply care for each other like other mammals and extend care through communication to the whole species. Engaged in this project of extended care, humans must come to terms with their relationships:
- With their own minds,
- With each other,
- With aspirations,
- With expressions of their experience in arts, sciences and other forms,
- With achievements and destructions,
- With internal and external habitats,
- And with conduct.
Failure to come to terms with the mind leads to a sense of separation—Einstein’s self-delusion about being separate from other beings. Failure to assess what others are thinking leads to what Todd Rose calls collective illusion. This is the result of conformity bias, the human tendency to match behavior to the perceived ideas of a group rather than to act on the basis of individual judgment. While acting in ways that they believe to conform to ideas held by other members of the group, the individuals privately express disagreement—and don’t realize that other individuals also privately disagree. Independent thought is a greater risk than confirming the current consensus, even when it becomes a fanatical aspiration. Then arts and sciences are disregarded as isolated specialties; and denials, zero-sum ideas, and violence consume human energy to produce warfare, deaths, extinctions, traumas, deserts and uninhabitable places.
Relationships are expressed in stories, so coming to terms refers to getting stories verifiably correct by using the most appropriate and reliable methods; reaching circumspect, reasonable, and wise understandings; and deftly making decisions about the urgent matters that confront humanity. Getting our stories right focuses attention and resources on care for the species. Walt Whitman said that all are part of the procession. The most inclusive of any national poets, he referred to all peoples, genders, ideas, occupations, and ages. This cognitive procession began two million years ago and has always concerned caring for and about each other. It is our human project. This is the central story we must get right. Other stories and philosophical inquiries are derivative: there are no human rights without human beings. Specializations, languages, job-categories, and profit-margins must not distract us. Care for the species cannot be set aside until facts, understandings, financing, or special tools are given. We already have what is needed. We have always had it: We are the gift.
Third Executive Summary: Cognition
How do cognition and communication maintain the human project?
This question comes from arguing with myself. The study of cognition branches into anatomy, anthropology, physiology, psychology, epistemology, computer science, and other realms. Many schemes restrict cognition to their terms: positivism (A.J. Ayer), mathematical logic (W.V. Quine), behaviorism (B.F. Skinner), psychoanalysis (Janet & Freud), physiology (Wundt), clinical observation (Kraepelin), artificial intelligence (Minsky). And, after many years in education, I can affirm that teachers always have models of cognition: filling the vessel, rote-repetition, call-and-response, write-to-learn, mnemonics, graphic organization, authentic assessment, formative assessment, hands-on-learning, and so on.
The working parts of cognition are neural ensembles. Both cerebral and enteric, these ensembles make networks with receptors and effectors throughout the body within the autonomic and central nervous systems, and under the influence of neurohormones. Hierarchical stacks of connections comprise the neocortex to make what Minsky called a society of mind. Storage elements dynamically respond to feedbacks from other elements in a continuous flow of assimilations and mutual accommodations, so that all elements shape and are shaped by their interactions. Reflexes control immediate reactions, but even visceral reflexes can be modified, as shown by the early research of Bykov and Pavlov. Plasticity in the service of readiness is a defining characteristic of cognition. Every human being is a cognitive system. While the interconnections are dense in the brain, cognition is not restricted to the brain. Muscle memories, mirror cells, conditioned and unconditioned reflexes, and complex learning tasks demonstrate that cognition is localized in the whole human being. Elements like the enteric nervous system or atrio-ventricular node perform their decentralized functions even under negligent management by the brain. The mind is a distributed system assembled from elements with both individual initiative and social interdependence. It is single and plural, director and cast. Language is one of the mind’s many decentralized roles.
Humans’ so-called indomitable Will is also one role among countless others. Palace coups may briefly put tyrants in charge of the system, but their power is always undermined by their own tenacity. Drained by endocrinal depletion, fatigue, stressed blood vessels, and underfed cerebral glia, the self-important Chief Executive discovers interdependence through shock, awe, or a last surprise at his demise. Unity of purpose is over-rated. In an interdependent system like the mind or habitat, many tasks must be simultaneously done by the players evolved to do them. It is not a matter of whole and parts but of caring for and tending to interrelationships. Neuroscience is a conversation about how to do this more effectively. Inevitably, its findings are prematurely turned into pharmaceuticals, therapies, or coercive systems, philosophical systems, and commercial uses. As with all human conversations, it wanders into other stories. Even this essay wandered off.
Fourth Executive Summary: WXMC
How does white Christian militant corpocracy impair the human project?
A current impairment to the human project is White Christian Militant Corpocracy, or WXMC. For the security of multinational monopolies, a government by autocrats or even a chaotic governance may be preferable to democratic institutions. Corpocracies guide governments to reduce taxation on wealthy individuals and corporations, to eliminate regulation on business practices, to forbid unionization, diminish the need for employees as much as possible, and to allow citizens to be indoctrinated and managed as a resource-base for consumption, labor, and—if necessary—for violence. Informal instruction in doctrines of religion, economics, and history is incorporated into the infotainment stream to guide citizens to become users, consumers, followers (likers), and believers rather than thinkers.
It is difficult to discuss this without seeming to support conspiracy theories. In fact, although conspiracies doubtless abound, the development of corpocracy has followed a predictable course—evolutionary rather than conspiratorial. Business is about profits, not good works, and profits buy power. Production, commerce, and trade are wonderful servants but tyrannical masters. When a capitalist economy drifts from the human project, it becomes a monopolistic economy. Monopolies control resources. For example, oil companies like Standard Oil even bought railroads, not only to reduce costs to the company but to increase influence. Mergers and acquisitions build more power. Corporations seek the power to control all of the elements affecting profit. This includes resources, storage, shipping, labor, laws, journalism, media, legislatures, and even consumers. A steady program of expanding power results in what I call corpocracy. Business leaders have always sought to direct political decision-making, as when the business of America was business, but in modern times their influence has consolidated in large, multinational blocs who arrange for favorable laws, take advantage of national differences, and rival the political parties and branches of government: corpocracies.
Like warfare, castes and scapegoats have always existed in human cultures. What kept the United States united often seems to have been chattel slavery, decades of segregation, suspicion of women in dominant roles, and the stigmatization of immigrants and others whose appearance or behavior violated denial of permission to be human. The enforcement of denied permission was entrusted to the courts and their officers, militant groups, and customary practices, with rationales supported by churches, politicians, schools, merchants, and the press. Lynchings were often like picnics, reported in the local press. Potato salad and barbecue were served after the sermons, and the guests were given postcards and body parts as mementos. Sometimes a hymn was sung. With scapegoats back in their place, the caste order was restored and the community could go back to business.
It is easier to see the WXMC connections in the description of a righteous, early twentieth-century lynching than in a city’s planning decision to divide a neighborhood by an interstate highway, but violence takes many forms—proprietary, religious, and defensive. In righteous civic action, a white-Christian-militancy, stimulated and funded by transnational corporate interests and dedicated to keeping political and economic power, is a form of violence shaped by fear. The human project of caring for each other has been repeatedly distorted into projects of self-preservation against an imagined inhuman adversary and continual vigilance against traitors.
Fifth Executive Summary
How do the environmental impacts of humans impair the human project?
Humans escaped their original habitats but they have not escaped their need for a habitat, nor can they escape the habitats of their own bodies. Internalization of habitat is an ancient trick of living material. Control of the ecosystem began when cell membranes enclosed a portion of their world. The human body is a habitat of many enclosed cellular ensembles, most of them nonhuman, and it is a habitat nested in other habitats. Major biomes are nested in the terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems of the planet, underlain by the lowest layer, or lithosphere. In fact, the nesting of interdependent habitats is the greater identity of human beings. Other identities—nationality, ethnic group, political party—are insignificant by comparison.
Most indigenous peoples have wise sayings about preserving this identity. With over 200,000 years of experience, from changing the river’s course in Catal Huyuk, to over-farming in Mesopotamia, to overhunting megafauna in the Americas and elsewhere, these peoples slowly gained the wisdom to notice the patterns of interaction between humans and habitats. Pride in progress, conquest, and industrial production, particularly since the eighteenth century, has replaced wisdom with ignorance and denial. To care for the human species, it is more important to nurture habitats than to mass-produce more trucks.
The momentum of damage from industrial production and its consequences will persist for many generations to come. Benign denial and ignorance about the externalities of production has led to the release of plastics, hydrocarbons, heavy metals, radioisotopes, and, of course, greenhouse gases. These and many other substances have entered the environmental and internal bodily habitats of all species. This pollution, together with developmental practices, like building cities on coasts, riverbanks, and deserts, and clear-cutting forests, and casting purse seines to capture fish and sea mammals, is responsible for extinctions of countless species. The remaining fragments of habitats around human settlements are not sufficient to serve as more than temporary depots of biodiversity, as explained years ago by MacArthur and E.O. Wilson in the island hypothesis.
Generations have created the current dilemma, but correction cannot take generations. Dramatic shifts of resources and human energy on an international scale are required. Tribal identities must give way to biotic identity. To protect and care for their own species, humans must care for all the nested habitats of the planet.
Sixth Executive Summary
How does injustice impair the human project?
Friends expect favors. Wisdom literature, such as the Bible and Bhagavad Gita, recommend giving without expecting anything in return. Unrewarded effort goes against generations of merchants’ canny deal-making, but perhaps giving is recommended because of a nagging sense of obligation to unknown predecessors. When spiders or oysters produce an abundance of offspring, their evolutionary calculation is that at least a few will survive. Just as telemarketing goes spear-fishing for a few customers and narrows the pool to a few who will believe that they are likely to be grand winners after only a few more good-faith payments, humans may give profligately on the expectation that in some way this will make a windfall more likely. The ritual meal or offering for the dead is another calculated act of giving: one wards off visits from bad spirits, like the return of a wicked stepmother. Whether the recommendation to give expecting nothing in return is a superstition, magical thinking, a calculation, or a way to assuage guilt or unease, its persistence in religious wisdom literature is another indication that our ancestors had detected many patterns in human interrelationships with each other and the living world. They recognized that caring for each other cannot be metered. Care is not measured out; it is given. This is taught by mothers.
In the caring relationship, the young are always favored. The expectation of favors extends to family relationships and, because economics begins among families, the expectation extends to favors in buying, selling, and justice. What is done for friends and family, however, is not done for outsiders. Yet to give expecting nothing in return, as when a Bedouin hospitably entertains a stranger in his tent, implies that the quid pro quo of relationships with outsiders may be relaxed under certain conditions. Under special conditions, the stranger is to be welcomed into the Jewish camp because the ger may be an angel unawares, who reminds a people that they also were once wandering strangers. And the young Pharisee who asked Jesus the identity of his neighbor received the unwelcome reply that his neighbor might not only be a stranger but a member of a heretical sect. Under special conditions of hospitality, commemoration, giving alms, and meeting moral obligations, it is customary to give care expecting nothing in return.
How curious, therefore, that in the matter of providing legal justice to all citizens of a democracy, it is customary to measure out benefits according to caste and economic class.
Seventh Executive Summary
How does aspiration maintain the human project?
Humans are gifts to each other. Let me put it this way:
You are the gift.
You are the gift—the gift of survivors. The gift outright. The gift of land, of family, of culture. The gift is as diverse as the human family—all trades, and manners of invention, and ways of knowing. The gift is the word—all languages—the languages of music, science, mathematics, and philosophy. The gift is faith—faith in meaning, pattern, structure, relationship—faith in the reliability of reality, trust in rationality, and belief in the inevitable consequences of actions.
Despite your wishes, you are the gift, the gift of survivors—the sacred grass of your ancestors, the parent-grass. What is the response to such a gift? There is no payback, no recompense, no adequacy or sufficiency for the price paid by survivors. There is no way to replace the lives, dreams, conceptions, creations, relationships of those who did not survive—heroes and nameless, wise and innocent, brave and cowardly. There is no payback. Revenge is hollow, retribution is empty, and remembrance finally dies back like grass at first frost. Words often repeated become like dust in the mouth. There is no retrieving those who are gone, no holding, no clinging touch to bring them back—no returning.
How does one repay them— those who fade into leaves, who disappeared like dew, like breath on a mirror? One learns what has been given. One attends. To become aware of what is given is a lifework. What is given is human and inhuman, constructed and chaotic, beautiful and terrible, complete and yearning for completion. What is given is reality. There is no argument with reality. There is only alignment, atonement, unity, acceptance of consequences. There is only reality and attention to reality. The rest is illusion. What is given is reality—terrifying and tender, safe and uncertain, perfect and broken, plain as an invoice and elusive as dreams about the dead. To attend to the extent and quality of reality is a lifework, never completed. To accomplish even a portion of this work, what is needed? All tools and perceptual channels are needed. Both sound judgment and imagination are needed. The full range of human diversity is needed. The full range of understanding and conception is needed, as are the expertise that comes from specialization and the breadth that comes from openness to experience. All are part of the procession. All are needed. You are the gift, the gift of survivors. Now you, too, survive. What can be the response to such a gift? To give as a survivor. To respond with music, and invention, and the full range of human achievement. Not for entertainment, not to pass time, not to fill the hours and days and schedules with events—but to be responsive, responsible, human beings—human beings aligned with reality—blades of grass that confer grace by the colors of their multitude, by the energy they capture and transform, by the music of the wind that makes them instruments. Give with the full exercise of your powers along the lines of excellence. You are the gift
From the Libretto of The Books of Daniel (1995, revised in 2009). Thanks to Aristotle and others.
Eighth Executive Summary
How do the embodiments of the arts maintain the human project?
Both arts and sciences embody human experiences in the forms of expressions and explanations. From these sources, humans make stories about their relationships with each other and the world. Stories are ancient ways to organize information, whether in the form of plot, symphony, or equation. Religious stories, in particular, have persisted even as they were modified from generation to generation and spun off in secular expressions. Sallust said that myths are stories about events that never happened but always are.
Stories, visualizations, music, and scientific findings embody the experiences of others and shift our frame of reference to unfamiliar territory. These forms of communication and communion help humans to grasp the larger concerns of their species.
The arts and sciences are also made into commodities and used for the pursuit of power and influence. Not all stories are about matters that always are. Many stories are lies. The freedom necessary for creative engagement also permits creative distortions, including advertising—in which corporate-sponsored scientific research shares company with commercial messages disguised as literature and entertainment.
The child who draws or play-acts or becomes fascinated by the world shows that learning is a natural pleasure, as Aristotle said. Arts and sciences are invitations to inquiry and communication. Adults who are paid for their acting, drawing, research, and stories are thereby recognized for nurturing imagination. In declining the Pulitzer Prize, William Saroyan said that commerce should not patronize art. This may have nudged his admiring readers to express their gratitude in other ways—perhaps by seeing the world differently and adding something to the long conversation.
Ninth Executive Summary
How have historical events impaired or maintained the human project?
In the telegraphic style of these nine brief summaries, I have sought to redirect your attention to the central matter of caring for the human species and to the stories we tell each other. We do not lack information about this project. A study of history supplies abundant examples of what not to do. In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote, the past is never past, it’s not even past. The events and facts of history continually recycle through human activities. Retaining a lively sense of the mistakes and blind alleys of the past is the first requirement for good decision-making, but human beings disregard it.
Graduation is not an escape hatch from study. Civic and historical education is a lifelong study. One study-practice that I have found useful is to make personal chronologies of key events. This is a mnemonic device for organizing particularly important stories in a memorable framework that can accommodate new information. So, in answer to the above question, I say: Continue to study and find out! Here’s the chronology:
A personal chronology: There’s always something to add. Each of the anchor periods is bracketed by dramatic events but while it is anthropocentric, it does not emphasize wars and monarchs. A chronology is like a huge, twisted seine floating offshore. Hang some sinkers on it and it will stand up in the water. As you inspect it, you may find errors, or even find a fish or two. The ranges of anchor periods are marked by major events, but there is no attempt to make the ranges the same—and there are many holes in the net.
1. 13.5 bya Big Bang 10 bya Milky Way
2. 4.5 bya Solar System 3.5 bya Life
3. 2.3 bya Yarrabubba Impact 1.4 bya Oxygen Revolution
4. 1.1 bya Rodinia 800 mya Multicellulars
5. 600 mya Most major Phyla 550 mya Panotia, Plantae
6. 370 mya Amphibia 252 mya Siberian Traps (PT)
7. 220 mya Placentals 65 mya Chicxulub Impact
8. 40 mya Anthropoidea suborder monkeys 30 mya Hominoidea superfam. A.Apes
9. 17 mya Ponginae subfamily apes 5 mya Hominids
10. 4 mya Australopithecines 2 mya Homo habilis & H.erectus
11. 600 kya Günz Glacial (Eurasia) 300 kya Homo sapiens neanderthalis
12. 200 kya Homo sapiens sapiens 25 kya Pacific-American migrations
13. 14 kya Canis familiaris domesticated 10,000 BCE Mesolithic civilizations
14. 8,000 BCE Agriculture, Near East 6700 BCE Catal Huyuk
15. 5000 BCE Sumerian kingdom 2800 Sumerian Flood
16. 1760 BCE Shang 1720 BCE Hyksos
17. 1500 BCE Thera explodes 1250 BCE Exodus
18. 1193 BCE Trojan War 1000 BCE King David
19. 753 BCE Rome founded 705 BCE Sennacherib
20. 563 BCE b. Buddha, Religious Axis time 460 BCE Athens democracy
21. 323 BCE d. Alexander 196 BCE Rosetta Stone
22. 27 BCE Augustus 4 BCE b. Jesus
23. 300 CE Constantine 622 CE b. Muhammad
24. 962 CE Otto I HRE 1066 CE Hastings
25. 1215 CE Magna Carta 1271 CE Il Milione
26. 1454 CE Gutenberg of Mainz 1492 CE Columbus
27. 1530 CE Luther 1755 CE Lisbon
28. 1833 CE British end slavery 1861 CE Ft. Sumter
29. 1893 CE New Zealand Women Vote 1910 CE d. Edward VII
30. 1914 CE Sarajevo 1929 CE NYSE Crash
31. 1933 CE FDR and Hitler 1945 CE Hiroshima
32. 1954 CE Vietnam 2001 CE Al Qaeda
33. 2019 CE Corona virus-19 2022 CE Russian invasion of Ukraine
A FINAL COMMENT
The human project is to care for each other and to keep our long conversation going.
If I have nudged you, it is enough. Neither evidence, although it is abundant, nor argument, although the case is persuasive, has been presented. Instead, I have sought to invite you to consider and learn more about our fundamental human concern, a concern obscured by distractions and impaired by various determined efforts to push us in the wrong direction; a concern like the pole star hidden by clouds in the night sky searched by shipwrecked seamen floating in a raft—
Like as a ship, that through the Ocean wide
By conduct of some star doth make her way;
Whenas a storm hath dimmed her trusty guide,
Out of her course doth wander far astray!
So I, whose star, that wont with her bright ray
Me to direct with clouds is overcast,
Do wander now, in darkness and dismay,
Through hidden perils round about me plast,
Yet hope I well that, when this storm is past,
My Helice, the lodestar of my life,
Will shine again, and look on me at last,
With lovely light to clear my cloudy grief.
Till then I wander careful, comfortless,
In secret sorrow, and sad pensiveness.
Edmund Spenser, Sonnet 34 (1595)
MAY YOUR INQUIRIES BEGIN.
Perhaps this blog comes as a surprise after months of silence. I must admit to doubting the value of making a blog. So many more important and calamitous matters occupy our attention. “The Poetry of Wonder” is a workshop I recently presented, the purpose being to present the practice of poetry as a way of helping us to pay attention to existence. Perhaps it’s worth breaking the silence to send you this invitation to participate in the workshop and to share it with others. Peace, Richard L. Rose
Today the Poetry Society of Virginia again meets, ably guided by Dr. Joanna Lee, who has kept River City Poets going during the pandemic. It makes me think of another gathering of poets.
Whether the following poems concerned an “Invitation Declined During Pandemic,” as commonly rendered, or related to self-internment during the contentious Sengoko period, is difficult to ascertain—as are most details about this obscure poet.
Streaming stripes, a street
Of new resin from the lips
Of sweet pines: ant lines.
Poets also meet
Like ants, tapping the soft sap:
Sweetness soon hardens.
A message comes.
Gnawing goes on.
Spring air quivering
Between names and steady facts:
General Hu Gnu,
Bovine and semidivine:
“From mud, Abstraction!”
Smoke-rings rise out to propose
Spines of money-tree;
Downed-dead thicket underfoot:
Stanch the runny cut!
Last rose; columnar leaf-cells;
Earth’s Breath; Solemn Dust.
Set to ring at spring,
The heavenly clock is posed;
The pursed word-doors closed.
Here is a guest blog by Richmond artist Monica Lewis about trusting your terrestrial frame of reference.—rr
One Poster’s Insight, One Earth in the Balance
In Richmond’s Fan neighborhood, a resident has commissioned and displayed a series of wheat-pasted posters that are artistic statements on the issues of politics, voting, race, and social change. As new posters are put up every few weeks, pedestrians are treated to ever-changing, serendipitous discoveries. The posters are delightful and many offer thoughtful illustrations of the word “hope.” What, exactly, does that word mean? Like “love,” it is a concept that we hang onto when we desperately need reassurance and goodness. But the word is only helpful when in the context of a story or a real event; it offers nothing as an empty abstraction. Currently on display is a poster by Brenda McManus, who teaches graphic design at Pace University and co-runs BRED, a studio for experiments with typography and printmaking. Her formal, restrained poster deserves close consideration.
McManus’s poster is a sparse composition that plays with the cornerstones of Western image making: Albertian perspective and the Golden Rectangle ratio. (Note its divisions of the main black rectangle into smaller rectangles.) Referencing another Western concept, the white lines on the expanse of blackness are reminiscent of a solar system diagram. Furthering this visual metaphor, the pitch blackness of outer space is pierced by a light source — a sun — at the vanishing point of the perspective lines. The word “hope” emanates from this light source. Our earthly home, depicted as a blue marble of a planet, revolves around and depends upon this cosmic power.
The word “truth” is written on the planes that create a sense of distance, making a diorama box for us to peer into. Across this box, in defiance of the perspective trick, is the word “trust.” In both words, there is the letter “U.” Both “U”s line up at the source of light.
Really, this poster is a poster within a poster. That is to say, this black composition floats upon the poster’s larger composition. This black rectangle dominates its sky-blue background but its off-center placement reveals an additional meaning. Being off-center, the sky-blue segments around it are of varying sizes. They do not function as a frame. Rather, it is as if planes move across this sky-blue space. We see fragments of other edges. Designers call this kind of composition an “open design” because elements run off the page. The effect is of infinity; there is so much more — so many more compositions — that we cannot see.
Our view may be incomplete but the systems of perspective and proportion can be trusted for their reference to reality. As if there were any question, this poster has a handy “you are here” arrow pointing to our Earth. The arrow fittingly resembles the symbol of a house: a simple structure with a pitched roof. Yes, Earth is our home.
There may be other vantage points and other interpretations — other planes that move across the nothingness of space — but we are on Earth and we can trust the truth of our representational systems. There may not be an exact correspondence. There might be moments of irritating conflict (as when the last two letters of “trust” and “truth” do not align perfectly), but the overall effect gels into a reliable vision. Trust is a conscious decision. We know the match is not perfect — there is some slippage — but when we trust we allow light to shine in the darkness. Hope is the promise of good things ahead, as sure as the sunrise at the dawn of a new day.
This message is timely. In recent days, the GOP has solidified Trump’s Big Lie. In recent years, we have lost too many people to Q-Anon’s conspiracy theories. For decades, climate science has been doubted and denied, costing us valuable time in the race to lower emissions. The directive to “trust truth” is needed because, somehow, the acceptance of truth has become optional. When citizens choose to ignore facts and reality, we venture into a dangerous state of affairs. This situation, and all its implications, teeters on hopelessness. Hence, this poster’s imperative, “trust truth.” That is our hope.
—Monica Lewis, Richmond Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby
I am currently working on a musical comedy entitled “Escape Plans.” It is a response to recent events. A particular concern is the behavior of evangelical groups over the last few years. This letter reflects some of my concerns. –rr
FOXES & BEN KING
Like the fox giving advice in the henhouse, the latest tele-apologist for bullydom has recently opined on Disney’s attempt to make human relations training more inclusive. While I readily agree that “staff training” of any kind can be more about covering the topic—whatever it is—than actually changing the institution, I was intrigued by the fault the fox had found. Any overly-earnest instructor who actually tries to challenge students must be careful about who is listening. Even though the point of the training is to make institutional change, such a trainer is expected to deliver the message in such a way that those opposed to change will not be disturbed. Having taught for thirty years helps me to savor the contradiction.
With the glossy sincerity of a televangelist who has already pocketed the collection, the foxy host showed concern (by raising eyebrows) for democracy—a concern serenely suppressed as the insurrection of January 6 has become a season of electoral tomfoolery. He worried so about the trainees being told not to say “all lives matter” and being exposed to dangerous ideas of critical race theory, such as systemic racism. He called to the congregation for an Amen and got it—without even needing an altar-call or having to show animated fervor by mussing his hair or his perfect part.
Later in the day, I passed by one of those mall speakers that’s usually blasting out something I don’t want to hear. I stopped. It was Ben King singing “Stand by Me,” an anthem hymn to all the young men—Isaac Woodward, Emmet Till, Rodney King, Michael Brown, George Floyd—whose black lives did not matter and could be disregarded. Who stood up for them? Certainly their families and some sad, angry protestors—some of them not even black. What about institutions? Walking backwards in molasses: the sweet nostalgia of the way things never were. At the end of his henhouse sermon, the fox invited the congregation to come forward and testify against Cancel Culture. Afterward, Mrs. Fulva Vulpes served her famous casserole.
–Richard L. Rose https://frameshifts.com/ (See the review of Propaganda’s Terraform.)
Short-take Poetry Review: Propaganda’s Terraform (HarperOne, June 8, 2021)
Hip-hop humanism may not be your thing, but in this time of denial, back-biting, and betrayals we could do worse than pay attention to an artist determined to be a full-bodied Earthling who sees the land and its creatures as members of the family and the artifices of culture as something to change. We made culture, he says; then it made us. While we may be thinking about terraforming Mars, why not realize that what we made we can remake? Why not terraform the Earth into a place that invites all creatures to thrive? Or must we be stuck with zero-sum racism and gutter politics? Propaganda is the stage name of Los Angeles poet, musician, and performing artist Jason Petty, whom you may follow online. I particularly like the lyrical poem, “If coffee were a man.” Hear it here:
—Richard L. Rose, reviewing on https://frameshifts.com/
Read latest poems: PushBack Author site: https://formsofresistance.com/
Finding Our Way
The dream always begins in a crowd. Susie and I become separated. She cannot find her way and I cannot find her. I wake up. She died thirteen years ago. The crowd may be in a theatre, department store, airport concourse, or a traffic jam. People rush by on either side of us, looking for seats, bargains, flights, or a way around us. Sometimes our cars are separated in a parking lot or on an interstate highway, where missing an exit is a moment of terror. In these dreams, I relive the terror of knowing that she was lost in a crowd or car and unable to help herself as Alzheimer’s disease was shutting all the doors and windows of her mind.
This dream is also about anyone helpless to find a way through our unforgiving infrastructure. Some of the lost are people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, like Susie, terrified by the flashing lights in the concourse and unable to use cell phones or to make sense of the internet, if it is available. Others do not speak English or are too young or old to find their way. Some may have lived in an area for generations but no longer recognize the highway-sliced community and fragmented habitat. Some rely on wheelchairs or special devices blocked by curbs, steps, narrow passages, or electronic interference. Others are simply visitors to a strange city’s heaped towers, road-mazes, off-and-on-ramps, warning-signs, flashing lights, dead-ends, one-ways, and relentless pushing from all sides.
In a village during the late Neolithic or Medieval periods—or even, in most places, during the nineteenth century—a confused person with dementia would probably have been able to find her way around. Multiple support systems were available to help her—that is, all the other villagers. We like to believe that we are better off than those villagers—who were victims of drought, pestilence, invasions, and famine—but when we dug irrigation ditches, rolled out highways, and strung telegraph wires, we made some compromises.
What dreams do planners have? Do they imagine structures and transportation systems for the confused, blind, nonnative speakers, walkers, native animals, the deaf, the native plants, bikers, children, brightly reflective surfaces, homeless wanderers, legless veterans in wheelchairs and elderly with walkers, absorptive blacktops? Do they imagine the invisible structures of waterways, sewers and storm water conduits, electric and communication cables, cell towers and wireless transmissions, gas lines, and routes and communication needed for emergency services?
Multiple grids overlie our cities and landscape. They do not fit together neatly. Federal, state, and municipal boundaries, jurisdictions, waterways, easements, property rights, zoning restrictions, mitigation areas, farm and pasture land, energy sectors, historic and environmental reserves—all intersect in conflicts and speculative competition. The many grids are not accounted for in the geographic information systems programmed to manage them. In fact, some of the most powerful grids are even more invisible than the streams and rivers re-routed under city streets: grids of racism, commercial speculation, and of the legal structures needed to maintain them.
Whose dreams shall we honor to help each other find our ways through the world?