Tear Down Some Dams, Let the River of Information Flow

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“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
Benjamin Franklin

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
– Paul Newman as Luke, in Cool Hand Luke

“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir

The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

LITTLE RIVER CANYON, Ala. – Sitting as quietly and patently as could be expected on such a quick, short trip to the mountain waterfalls around Mentone, Alabama over the weekend, I gazed until I knew the sun would soon disappear from view behind the treetops at one of the Littler River Falls overlooks.

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In this preserved idyllic setting, I thought about my Cherokee ancestors who lived here for hundreds of years before the United States of America was a gleam in Ben Franklin’s eye. I thought of the men who killed the Cherokee too, and connected the dots in my mind to understand the modern descendants of those killers.

Is it possible that a grudge could linger from a human gene, and not just pass down from one generation to another through the culture?

I thought about the social and political problems in the world today, chiefly focusing on this country — and my native state.

There in that muted fall beauty, as muddled as the world has become today, my thoughts also turned to the Scotsman John Muir, an early American botanist, one of the first American naturalists and nature writers to roam from the hills of Scotland to New England, through Appalachia to the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately California by way of South America.

Click on the image for a larger view…

Muir never saw this exact spot, and for that he missed one. But he passed through these mountains on the Georgia side as surely as DeSoto. (See map below).


Now I’m no botanist. My learned science is of the social science variety, in communications, political science, public opinion and environmental sociology. Our interests are in the same arena, the world of nature, but our tools and perspectives are quite different. Nevertheless, since part of me is descended from his nature writing, along with others like Henry David Thoreau, I hope to one day trace some of Muir’s footsteps in California.

Today, however, like a composer combining musical forms to create a new music, or an abstract painter looking at a room full of blank canvases, I hold several discrete thoughts in my head simultaneously.

Looking at how the water falls, I try to merge my individual thoughts into a larger whole like drops of water form larger streams, lakes and eventually oceans.

For the water it comes naturally. When ice and snow melts or rain falls, it flows downhill — following the laws of gravity.

The gravity that holds together human thought, however, tends to be drummed up propaganda by those with tons of capital, then transmitted to the people (at least the one’s who pay attention) through the sometimes muddled messages of the mass media, which is bound by more than a century of flawed dogma about how objective knowledge should work. All this moves public opinion like moving fault-lines build mountains, if sometimes the terrain is suspect. Change is slow but sure.

Sometimes a bad idea, a meme or a thought virus, gets so embedded in human culture that trying to imagine the force large enough to erode it seems daunting. Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. used the non-violent protest. Woodward and Bernstein used the newspaper. Muir used magazines and books.

I suspect to get us out of this thought hole we are in today will require the destruction of a few large dams, just to let the mighty rivers of information flow like a tidal wave over humanity.

Truth Will Set You Free

It is said that truth will set us free. The problem is, whose truth?

The alleged fundamental truth of Jesus from 1500 years before the invention of modern science?

The truth of a political hack like Karl Rove?

How about media personalities such as Glenn Beck? Sean Hannity? Rush Limbaugh? Is that really who people are going to choose to believe in the end?

Muir, like a modern day Jesus, had his run ins with the money men trying to take over the temples of nature.

“These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar,” Muir said in his day.

His words spawned a movement that still flows like a river, but one that seems to be drying up.

Millions of people know about him, but just as he lost the battle for Hetch Hetchy Valley to the dam built by San Francisco in 1913, Muir’s legacy is also at risk by men who want to build a dam of bad thought so high it threatens the central question to our very being. This is not just about our way of life. What is at stake is the very survival of our species and the planet that spawned us. I am not making this up and this is no sensational exaggeration.

Muir said there is “no synonym for God … so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening — still all is Beauty!”

This Beauty IS God, in other words, and that beauty is obscured today by a people so distorted by their evolution and socialization into a corrupt, capitalist and yes organized religious culture that they do not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear the warning signs and calls.

There are millions searching for it on the Internets, however, so that is where hope lies.

The hard part is to figure out how to mesh all these thoughts into one abstract yet coherent narrative to somehow communicate with as diverse an audience as possible what the problem is — and what to do about it.

In my own search for the right river of thought to pass down my ideas on the subject, this morning I ran across some thoughts on our predicament from a man the people of my state seem to at least half-way listen to, retired Auburn University professor Wayne Flynt, who says enacting change here “will involve helping ourselves.”

I found Dr. Flynt’s ideas interesting, if limited in scope, but I called him on the phone to line up an interview (which I will conduct in the next few days on video).

What has he learned after speaking to groups across Alabama for years about what is needed for this place to “realize its potential?”

“I have become convinced of three things,” he said. “Alabamians don’t much like change; our historic statewide leadership patterns are badly flawed; and we need new forms of local leadership. Waiting for the old top-down political leadership to solve our problems is futile. If that were going to happen, it would have occurred long ago. Solutions to the big problems — tax, education and constitutional reform — will probably be solved the way they usually are in Alabama, through intervention by federal courts.”

When talking to Dr. Flynt it didn’t take long to figure out he’s not much up on the Internets. I suspect his knowledge of the state of the courts in Alabama is also a tad behind the times, along with his knowledge of the media today. But those are questions best saved for the followup piece.

For today I want to lay down some of the essential building block questions and an answer or two. That involves quoting a few other pretty smart folks.

Change and Character

One of the problems we have is our resistance to change, and our misunderstanding of what it takes to build character — or even whether that is a worthy goal for which civilized society should even strive anymore. Our schools and our newspapers seemed to abandon that mission in my lifetime, in part because of the economic and political takeover of television.

“Change is the only constant,” Heraclitus of Ephesus once wrote. He was a stoic Greek philosopher known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe, and for establishing the term Logos in Western philosophy as meaning both the source and fundamental order of the Cosmos.

His stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which, he says, will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos. This allows one to rise above faulty perceptions of “good” and “bad.” (Try going without TV for awhile. You might learn something).

“Good character is not formed in a week or a month,” he said. “It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”

IQ and Intelligence

One of our problems is that the masses of people do not have the Intelligence Quotient to think abstractly enough about problems to connect the dots, and the mass media reflecting that for money’s sake have neglected to connect the dots for people. Forget politicians of the left or right. Their job is to boil the world down into little black and white dots to get votes so they can get their share of the pie.

Intelligence, at least according to Dr. C. George Boeree of Shippensburg University, is measured by a person’s capacity to acquire knowledge (to learn and understand), to apply knowledge (solve problems), and to engage in abstract reasoning.

Psychologists have attempted to measure it for well over a century. While IQ tests may ultimately fail to act as an accurate measure of “intelligence” in its broadest sense, failing to account for emotional intelligence and such, it is safe to say those with an average IQ of 100 or less are never going to learn the lessons and make the right decisions without leadership from those who do have the ability to think abstractly. This has always been true for human survival back to the days when our species traveled as hunting and gathering bands across the African savannah.

Abstract Thinking

Abstract thinking lies in contrast to “concrete thinking,” in which thinking is limited to what’s in front of the face, the “here and now,” like what is said about most subjects on TV (except for the better documentaries and movies you may find there).

In writing, as in painting or any other art, there is a difference between an abstract piece of work and a concrete or “explicit” one.

Newspapers are full of explicit public relations information, and so are many blogs. But rarely do they connect the dots in an abstract way, except every now and then in a Sunday feature or on the editorial page of the paper — or on a Web site like this one.

According to one conception, readily at hand, “The abstract thinker can conceptualize or generalize, understanding that each concept can have multiple meanings. Such thinkers might see patterns beyond the obvious and be able to use patterns or a variety of concrete ideas or clues to solve larger problems.”

Abstract thinking is not only of benefit to people. It literally is essential for survival. From the invention of the wheel to the solar panel, without it homo sapiens would have already perished from this earth like Neanderthal Man. Perhaps his brain was too small for abstract thinking, and that’s why he went extinct?

Sometimes thinking abstractly is referred to as “thinking outside the box.” It allows for richer conceptual understanding.

People exhibit a range of abstract thinking ability, according to the research. Younger children can’t think in abstract terms. It takes time, nurturing, the right food and education to develop a concept of time and the ability to think into the future, as in planning ahead (something that often seems to elude society at large, and certainly the business class that now rule our lives in countless ways. Remember, there was no plan for a massive oil rig blowout in the Gulf. Is it possible that structured, corporate culture prohibits some abstract thinking?).

Not all people develop abstract thinking strengths. Some people lose the ability, like those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. People with certain learning disabilities have great difficulty conceptualizing beyond a certain point, or have trouble with words that represent ideas rather than things. Injuries to the frontal lobe of the brain have been shown to affects a person’s ability to think abstractly.

The inability to think abstractly causes difficulties when people go to make conceptual decisions, moral judgments or try solving complex problems.

Where We Are

That’s where we are today. We are in a world in the full throws of going through fastest and most dramatic changes in human history, and a large part of the population does not possess the ability to think through the problem abstractly. That’s perhaps why the black and white world painted by former president George W. Bush was popular for a time, and why the tea party movement picked up some steam in the last election cycle.

People are mad as hell, and they have good reason to be. But there is no trusted leader who can show them the correct path. They don’t trust the media either, also for good reason. And that’s too bad, because there was a time in our history when we had a chance to do it better.

Shaping Public Opinion

One of the original muckraking journalists who went through an academic period and ended up being the mainstream media’s biggest mouthpiece with the largest audience ever, Walter Lippmann, wrote an enlightening and critical assessment of functional democratic government in 1922 in book called Public Opinion.

He wrote about the irrational and often self-serving social perceptions that influence individual behavior, which prevent optimal societal cohesion. He described the cognitive limitations people face in comprehending their socio-political and cultural environments, and proposed that people inevitably apply an evolving catalogue of general stereotypes to simplify a complex reality. In other words, we all live to some extent by the “pictures in our heads.”

Changing that picture is difficult, although propagandists have learned to do it by repeating the same slogan over and over again. Like George Orwell’s slogans in the book 1984, “War is peace; Freedom is slavery; Ignorance is strength,” Republican spinmeisters started a few of their own back in the 1980s that haunt us still. “Tax and spend Democrats,” for example, or “activist (liberal) judges.”

While Lippmann expressed some hope that newspapers could cover science and help educate the people to be good citizens and live together under a democratic republic form of government, he said the function of news is to signal an event, and that signaling, eventually, is a consequence of editorial selection and judgement. That’s how newspaper news, magazines and books in the early 20th century sowed the seeds that established public opinion, he thought. (Don’t forget this was well before widespread use of radio for news, or even the invention of television. The picture is way more complicated now).

In 1925, Lippmann completed a sort of an evolution in his thinking on the subject in another book, The Phantom Public. In it he expresses his lack of faith in the democratic system, arguing that the public exists merely as an illusion, and that the for-profit media could never live up to the task of filling all the gaps in the public’s knowledge.

Picking up on his term “manufacturing consent,” Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky later used the term to criticize the Western Press.

They first started talking about the problems of “corporate-owned mass media” — print, radio and television. They are first businesses subject to commercial competition for advertising revenue and profit, and their distortion (editorial bias) of news reportage — i.e. what types of news, which items, and how they are reported — is a consequence of the profit motive that requires establishing a stable, profitable business, not necessarily an informed electorate.

What did they recommend?

“Access should include ownership, not merely an occasional program or appearance. We have to start from the bottom. Grassroots organizations have to become more media-oriented and more concerned to reach out to similar groups and beyond. We can’t neglect progressive media either.”

Sitting here watching the water fall over the timeless rocks, I’m wondering if people around here will ever figure out in my lifetime what The Locust Fork News-Journal was created to do. It’s not your average conservative “family” newspaper, to be sure. I like to think we are faster and smarter in our approach. Like those who can hear and see, a few people will get it. Most won’t, unfortunately. But all we really have to do is reach those who matter, the opinion leaders, who can tell everybody else that there is a new journalism around, again.

That and maybe eliminate some of the worst evil doers on the planet, like the one’s who came up with the term “evil doer” in American politics. If you’ve read this far, you probably know who I mean. By “eliminate” I mean with market forces, lawsuits, or war by other means, politics. If that doesn’t work, and if this war on the earth continues, then it might come to mean something else.

In the interest of avenging my ancestors, I’m sitting here wondering: Where is Hawkeye, or Le Longue Carabine, when we need him?

Tear down some social dams people, and let the river of information flow. When a drop becomes an ocean, you will know we have won.

© 2010 – 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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