The Evolutionary Roots of Autocracy

We humans have two equally close primate cousins: chimpanzees and bonobos. Both of these great apes share 98.7% of their DNA with human beings. The two species look similar to the untrained eye but are very different in terms of lifestyles. Along with other primates, both can tell us much about our own values and those of our politicians. I think they’re especially instructive in helping us understand the evolutionary roots of autocracy, which seems to be proliferating both within and outside the United States.

Chimp and Bonobo Politics

Despite the fact they are often mistaken for one another, the chimp and the bonobo species have very different characters and politics. Ethologist Frans de Waal writes, “We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study, and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff looking, ambitious character with anger management issues, the other is an egalitarian proponent of a free spirited lifestyle.”

Male-dominated and Forceful

Chimp societies tend to be male-dominated and hierarchical. They deal with politics largely through force and aggression.

But that doesn’t mean that one lone, strong and assertive chimp can lead by shear force. He needs allies to overcome potential threats from enemy groups who wish to overthrow him. As de Waal writes,  “Staying on top is a balancing act between between forcefully asserting dominance, keeping supporters happy and avoiding mass revolt.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because human politics works exactly the same.”

de Waal goes on to explain, “Power is the prime mover of the male chimpanzee. It’s a constant obsession, offering great benefits if obtained and intense bitterness if lost.”

Female-dominated and More Peaceful

Bonobo politics are starkly different. They are based less on aggression and more on relationships in which sexual behaviors play a key role in conflict resolution, bonding, and social interaction.

Compared to chimps, bonobos have a more egalitarian social structure, though one in which females take leadership roles. Bonobo relationships tend to be cooperative and empathic. Force and aggression do occur but they are much less common than among chimps.

Some of the sex among bonobos would be labeled as “homosexual” among humans but the term has less relevance among bonobos because sex is the common coinage among all relationships. Same-sex activities are especially common among females.

“Perhaps the bonobos most typical sexual pattern, undocumented in any other primate, is genito-genital rubbing (or GG rubbing) between adult females,” reports Scientific American. “One female facing another clings with arms and legs to a partner that, standing on both hands and feet, lifts her off the ground. The two females then rub their genital swellings laterally together, emitting grins and squeals that probably reflect orgasmic experiences.”

Sexual behavior has become a mechanism for overcoming aggression: “[T]he art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations…”

Embracing Chimp Politics

Today we humans have a growing slate of politicians who are autocratic and power-focused. Their advocates would call them “strong leaders” and their critics would call some of them autocrats, tyrants or sometimes even (depending on their brand of autocracy) fascists. They are eager to use the sanctioned force of government to achieve their ends, rewarding allies and punishing political enemies.

When their authority is challenged, their first impulse is to strike out rather than try to find common ground. They much prefer political battle to forging peace, even when waging that battle clearly goes against democratic values.

What they want above all is power and control, including the power to ban speech with which they disagree. Sometimes they use violent rhetoric that’s designed to be divisive and threatening. Other times, they just use violence itself.

They especially embrace the art of scapegoating. Referring to primates, de Waal writes, “What makes scapegoating so effective is that it’s a double-edged sword. First, it releases tension among the dominants. Attacking an innocent harmless bystander is obviously less risky than attacking each other. Second, it rallies the higher-ups around a common cause. While threatening the scapegoat, they bond with each other, sometimes mounting and embracing, indicate they stand united…. Humanity’s most horrific scapegoating was the Holocaust…”

In the case of many of today’s leaders, they target politically much weaker and far smaller outgroups. In the U.S., this often include members of the LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. That is, they picks on groups who are already discriminated against and then intensify that discrimination to create a sense of grievance and solidarity among the majority of their supporters. It’s a dynamic that has played out throughout human history again and again.

We All Share Primate Values

When I argue that such leaders share specific primate values and behaviors, this is not to imply that the rest of humanity does not. Human beings are in the scientific family classification Hominidae, which include chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutangs. We all share commonalities with our Hominidae cousins. But the behaviors of such leaders tend to bear the closest resemblance to those of our chimpanzee cousins.

My guess is that the ability to be aggressive continues to be important to human survival, but that trait must be tempered as never before. After all, the growing power of our weapons means aggression can have species-ending consequences. Therefore, we increasingly need to temper those traits with more relationship-oriented values and behaviors.

Such autocrats might make for good chimpanzee alphas in a world of small communities wielding sticks, stones and fangs. In a complex, global world with proliferating nuclear stockpiles, powerful biotechnologies, and technology-enabled police states, they are exactly the wrong types of leaders.

We don’t all need to adopt the sexualized behaviors of bonobos (not that there’s anything wrong with that among consenting adults), but their example does point us to social models of more give-and-take, more relationship-building, and more empathy with one other.

We have a choice. All primate behaviors are part of our genetic repertoire. The question is which ones we need to leverage if we’re going to survive the 21st century.

The Rapid Erosion of Free Speech in Florida

The Florida legislature, led by Gov. DeSantis, seems intent on chilling freedom of expression in the Sunshine state. This rapid erosion of free speech in Florida has dark portents for the rest of the United States.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that it protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Well, in our increasingly unfree Florida, we have a few grievances.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Exhibit Number One: Punishing a Business for Voicing an Opinion

Whatever you think about Disney, it has a right to free speech, as was famously reinforced in the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. So when Florida dissolved the company’s debt-issuing district in retaliation for speaking up against the popularly termed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, it was clearly, even blatantly, infringing on the company’s right to free speech.

Here’s what happened

When Gov. DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits teachers from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, employees at the the Walt Disney corporation urged their employer to speak up against the new law.

The company put out this statement on March 28:

“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law. Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LBGTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”

Less than a month later, on April 22, 2022,  DeSantis signed a law passed by the Florida legislature that revokes the self-governing status that Disney has held in Florida for over half a century. Many people saw it as a direct violation of the corporation’s First Amendment right.

The Free Speech Center Weighs In

The Free Speech Center, a nonpartisan public policy center at Middle Tennessee State University, notes that this all originated with politics, not with schools. There was no massive effort to teach matters related to sexual orientation to young grade schoolers. What’s more, local school boards have control over what’s taught in their districts, so the state has no business interfering with these boards. This was big government encroaching on local control.

The Free Speech Center notes:

The cause and effect was clear. Disney expressed its opinion and the state used its power to punish Disney and discourage other corporations from taking a stand – about anything…This is a full-blown assault on the First Amendment rights of business leaders – and by extension their employees. Its clear intent is to chill free speech in the Sunshine State.

For other points of view on this, see “Ron DeSantis and the Charade of Free Speech in America” and “Ron DeSantis’s attack on Disney obviously violates the First Amendment.”

Exhibit Two: Book Bannings in Florida

In July 2022, the Florida legislature enacted a law, House Bill 1467, that says “each district school board must adopt a policy regarding an objection by a parent or a resident of the county to the use of a specific instructional material…” The idea, as I understand it, it to ensure that materials are removed if they are “not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which the material is used.”

The problem, of course, is that there’s so much subjectivity built into the law that almost any book could be objected to and then, temporarily or permanently, removed from book shelves.

Even ChatGPT Gets It

Just for fun, I put the first hundred lines of the law into ChatGPT and asked it questions pertaining to the law. One of my questions was, “What might be an unintended negative impact from this law?”

It responded as follows: One unintended negative impact of this law could be censorship of important and relevant information from students. Books and other materials that may provide valuable knowledge and promote critical thinking could potentially be removed from school libraries, limiting students’ access to diverse perspectives and ideas. Additionally, this law could create an environment where authors and publishers may self-censor their work to avoid potential objections, limiting the scope of literature available to students. This could also have a chilling effect on academic freedom and intellectual inquiry.


Take Them All Down!

In Duval County, Florida, one parent who was interviewed by The New Yorker discovered that a school had papered over bookshelves to hide school books and another school had removed books so that bookshelves were bare. Why? An abundance of caution, apparently.

Communications officials in Duval County stated that the Florida Department of Education “has trained all Florida schools districts to ‘err on the side of caution’ in determining if a book is developmentally appropriate for student use” and that Duval schools are working “to ensure compliance with all recent legislation regarding books and materials available to children through school media centers and classroom libraries.”

In other words, they made books inaccessible because they were afraid someone would take offense at something. Books were essentially banned, or at least removed, due to fear of the state.

So, Which Books Have Been Taken Away?

PEN America, an organization with the mission of defending the liberties of free expression, has put together a list of book ban instances occurring from July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022, “where students’ access to books in school libraries and classrooms in the United States was restricted or diminished, for either limited or indefinite periods of time.” Many of these bans have occurred in Florida, of course. Pen America has also put together a fact sheet to challenge the claims made by Gov. DeSantis.

This has turned out to be a very creepy way of getting books pulled off school library shelves, not relying on the state itself to ban books but on whatever “parent or resident” (as the law says) takes a dislike to some book, however much of a classic it is. Vonnegut’s great novel Slaughterhouse-Five, for example, makes Florida’s Brevard County schools banned list.

But, really, the system ultimately hinges on self-censorship by schools “erring on the side of caution.”

In every society where censorship thrives, it thrives because people are so frightened (I’m not saying without reason, by the way) that they self-censor for fear of the state.

Exhibit Three: Attacks on Academic Freedoms

Florida’s government has already tightened its already white-knuckled grip on the state university system. This is not illegal. Our duly elected legislators have the right to weaken or even destroy that system

But can the politicans completely muzzle university as well as K-12 teachers? The Washington Post describes it like this:

[T]he gravest threat to academic freedom comes from a legal argument Florida has advanced in defense of the Stop WOKE Act. The legislation is part of a wave of “educational gag orders” banning the teaching of “divisive concepts.” Violations can trigger disciplinary action against faculty and enormous fines for their universities. In a brief filed in federal court, Florida’s lawyers contend that faculty at public universities are government employees, in-classroom speech is “government speech” and the state “has simply chosen to regulate its own speech with the Stop WOKE Act.

So far, the courts aren’t buying the Florida argument. Last November, a federal district judge issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the law, and this month three judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

“Professors must be able to discuss subjects like race and gender without hesitation or fear of state reprisal,” a spokesperson for the  the advocacy organization Foundation for Individual Expression told Law&Crime in an email. “Any law that limits the free exchange of ideas in university classrooms should lose in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.”

Despite Growing Teacher Shortages, Florida Keeps Scaring Its Teachers

Florida laws on teacher speech are so vaguely worded, many teachers are simply afraid to teach. Indeed, a poll by the nonprofit Stand for Children “found that a third of the 2,000 K-12 educators surveyed cited new state laws restricting classroom discussions on race, gender and sexuality as a reason for leaving the profession.”

Market Realist reports, “The FEA estimated in May that the state would have a shortage of 9,000 educators going into the 2022–2023 school year. The organization stated, ‘For far too long, certain politicians have underfunded students while restricting educators’ freedom to teach.'”

And the Hits Just Keep Coming

An opinion piece in The Palm Beach Post helps sum up the problems faced by Florida teachers:

[In addition to laws pushed by DeSantis], there are other bills that may not have the priority of the governor’s initiatives, but nevertheless send a troubling signal to Florida educators. HB 1055, for example, would have school districts place video cameras in classrooms and require certain teachers to wear microphones. While the bill might have good intentions of curbing abuse and crime in the classroom, it would only add hardship to an already difficult job.   

The Republican push to gain greater influence on local school boards includes HJR 35 and SJR 244, which would change the Florida Constitution to make nonpartisan school board races partisan. HB 1467 would make school board membership an unpaid position. Both bills would weaken the one part of school district operations that is directly accountable to the public, by either tethering local school boards to hardline partisan political agendas or by turning over the oversight of a complex, multi-faceted government operations like school districts to unpaid volunteers.

Exhibit Four: Trying to Silence the Press, Including Bloggers

Another opinion piece, this time in The Guardian, notes that attempts to prohibit free speech are not solely directed at teachers and businesses:

Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, and his cronies, not content with destroying free speech in public schools, have set for themselves a new target: destroying press freedom and every Floridian’s right to criticize public officials. Along the way, they aim to overturn the most important first amendment US supreme court decision of the 20th century.

The latest bill to raise eyebrows sounds like it’s made up by the opponents of Florida Republicans to make them sound ridiculous. Unfortunately, it’s real. The proposed law, authored by state legislator Jason Brodeur, would – I kid you not – compel “bloggers” who criticize the governor, other officers of the executive branch, or members of the legislature to register with the state of Florida. Under the bill, anyone paid to write on the internet would have to file monthly reports every time they utter a government official’s name in a critical manner. If not, they’d face potentially thousands of dollars in fines.

This law would, of course, apply to conservative, moderate and liberal bloggers alike. Senate Bill 1316: Information Dissemination would mandate that any blogger writing about government officials to register with the Florida Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics.

Given our First Amendment rights, this kind of thing would be laughable if it weren’t, given Florida’s current status, so weirdly plausible.

The Real-Deal Threat to Free Speech

But even if that blogger bill never becomes law, there are other ways to attack the free press. More plausible ones. One of the most important stems from a DeSantis verbal attack on New York Times v Sullivan, the crucial Supreme Court decision that gave journalists as well as citizens wide latitude to investigate and criticize politicians.

As often seems to happen these days, the governor’s many allies in the Florida legislature went to work on the issue not long afterward. A bill was introduced in February 2023 by Florida state legislator Alex Andrade.

The Tampa Bay Times reports:

Now, Florida lawmakers — with the support of the governor — are taking aim at the media, pushing legislation that would dramatically weaken legal standards in place for more than a half-century that protect the freedom of the press to report on politicians and other powerful public figures.

The bill would make it easier to sue media outlets for allegations of defamation and make it harder for journalists to do their jobs by undermining the use of unnamed sources, an important reporting tool — particularly for media trying to pull back the curtain on the dealings of elected officials. Many First Amendment advocates and legal experts say it is clearly intended to muzzle reporters who serve as watchdogs for the public.

The objective of the Florida legislation (HB 991) is to challenge New York Times v. Sullivan, which requires that a plaintiff prove “actual malice” in defamation disputes, a high bar to clear.

Closing Statement

This post is already long, even though it only covers the proverbial tip of the iceberg in regard to Florida’s attempts to erode and, arguably, end free speech. I’ve spent a lot of time citing sources and instances because it’d be easy to blow off these claims as hyperbole.

But they’re not. Gov. DeSantis learned from Mr. Trump that if what you try to do is outrageous enough, many people won’t take your actions seriously. But we’ve discovered the hard way that just because something sounds crazy doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Not anymore. This the U.S. circa 2023. Anything seems possible.

Featured image: Eleanor Roosevelt reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949; FDR Presidential Library & Museum 64-165; 20 December 2016; Source 64-165; Author FDR Presidential Library & Museum

On Pat Schroeder, Whom We May Not Have Deserved

In the U.S., we are focused on things like stubborn inflation rates, bank failures, narcissistic billionaires, and our often ridiculous but alarmingly divisive culture wars. This leaves little time to mourn the passing of giants, so I just wanted to pay a quick tribute to one of them, a person who actually made our lives better instead of just more acrimonious: Pat Schroeder.

What Did Patricia Schroeder Accomplish?

Even if you didn’t always agree with former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (assuming you knew who she was) on all the issues, it’s hard to deny that our lives wouldn’t be considerably worse without her. Here’s a list of some of her major accomplishments:

  • championed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was approved by Congress in 1993 and provides job protection for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a newborn, sick child or parent (and for up to 26 weeks to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness)
  • was a major driver behind The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), a law that prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions
  • was a primary sponsor of the National Child Protection Act of 1993, which established procedures for national criminal background checks for child-care providers and encouraged states to improve the quality and accessibility of their criminal history and child abuse records
  • introduced the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), a law aiming to prevent and respond to violence against women, such as domestic violence; it provides:
    * funding for investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women
    * legal protection and services for victims of violence
    * education and prevention programs to raise awareness and reduce violence
  • was a strong advocate for the Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act of 1990, which provided lower-income women with breast and cervical cancer screening and post-screening diagnostic services in an effort to enhance early detection

But Wait, There’s More!

Most obituaries of her are bound to focus on trivial cultural crap that sticks in people’s memories, such as the fact that she coined the term “Teflon president” for Ronald Reagan and cried (how dare she!) when she dropped out of her presidential bid in 1987.

But she was a legislator and I think that’s what we should focus on. Schroeder fought hard and accomplished much for her country. Much more than most of us ever will. She tried to do what was right, such as when, as chairwoman of a Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee, she advocated for federal employee whistleblower legislation.

She served 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, where she advocated for arms control.

We should devote more space in our minds to heroic public servants like Pat Schroeder, but instead we tend to focus on the exhausting, petty, misinformation-laden outrages of our age. Sometimes I think that, as a nation, we don’t deserve the people who serve us best. But I’m so very glad they’ve lived their lives anyway.

The Absurdity of the Wokeness Wars

In 21st century America, we’re addicted to our political outrage. We’ve got to have it first thing in the morning to stir it into our coffee. Makes it so sweetly bitter, you know?

This season our outrage-laden coffee topping of choice is “wokeness.” In fact, every morning our electronic media seems to be humming with updates from the latest skirmishes in the “wokeness wars.”

Now keep in mind we live in the age of rising seas, dying oceans, and impending nuclear doom. There’s deadly drought, apocalyptic wildfire and sudden spates of superstorms. Our democracies are disappearing, global inflation is still rampaging, and…well, you get the idea.

And there’s amazing stuff, too, that we need focus on, such as the fast emerging age of fantastically powerful AIs.

So, why do we focus on wokeness of all things?

The Tar of the Demagogues

Look, I get it as a political tool. Wokeness is damned convenient if you’re a demagogue without much of a moral compass. You can harp on it all day long without saying anything of substance.

You grab the headlines and juice up your supporters with shots of outrage each morning. What’s more, it’s not just addictive to your supporters, you can boil it down to a tarry substance used to paint your “lib” enemies as hopelessly out of touch and dangerously radical.

That Sense of Threat

Some folks on the right eat it up, thriving on the thrill of outrage. Others recognize it as partisan rhetoric that nonetheless has an element of truth. They really are annoyed if not downright threatened by talk of “defunding the police” even as crime grows or of kids considering gender change before they’re old enough to drive. It all looks weird and radical and sometimes menacing.

Come On, Grow a Conscience

Meanwhile, the left thinks being woke mostly means having some semblance of a social conscience. It means staying aware of appalling injustices and acknowledging our systems are often used to maintain age-old inequities. It means sticking up for the little people. There’s nothing especially radical or controversial there.

Of course, some on the left actually do hold more radical views but they are nothing like the majority. When coming from the right, however, the term woke is intended to paint all non-rightwing views as radical.

A Word to Divide and Unite

So, the word woke is meant to divide Americans. But it’s also used to unite partisans. If I use the word woke as you do, then I’m in your group. You and I are buddies, friends, comrades in arms. We speak the same language, even if that language is so amorphous as to be meaningless when you try to pin down its meaning.

Ironically, though, it’s a also sign of fearful insecurity on both sides of the political aisle. On the right, those who fear change in values see wokeness as a threat to their more traditional mores and power structures. On the left, those who fear being marginalized and oppressed see wokeness as a way gain greater representation and recognition. In both cases, the fear of the other side is what drives the conflict. There’s typically little genuine desire to listen and understand.

A Bridge Too Far

So the wokeness wars represent an absurd and largely manufactured conflict that distract us from the important issues we should be focusing on. Instead of engaging in unproductive culture wars, we should be working to address the systemic problems in our society and find common ground where we can. This means moving beyond fear and insecurity and engaging in genuine dialogue with those who hold different views.

But that’s bloody hard and humane work. It’s so much easier to get our morning jolt of outrage and move on, our sense of insecure superiority intact. Don’t make us actually think and listen! Bridges to the other side are just bridges too far!

American Turkeys: Identify U.S. Politicians Dressed as Pilgrims

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why identify U.S. politicians on Thanksgiving? Let me explain.

I actually had an ancestor on that cold little ship packed with the quasi-lost and often clueless immigrants who had to have their pasty white behinds saved by the merciful, generous and hospitable natives of the land.

Given the way things turned out for the natives, I get that this is not a day everybody wants to celebrate.

On the other hand, the idea of two groups of incredibly different people peaceably sitting down to share a common meal is a good lesson for our rabidly partisan age.

Who could be more divided than our politicians these days? I put in images below so you can identify U.S. politicians as they stand today. (Some will, of course, soon be swapped out.)

Please take them in the spirit in which they are intended, with humor and goodwill to all people (even the ones we consider fantastically dumb and/or cruel) for at least this one day.


You can make it a game if you like.

  • One point for every politician you can identify by name
  • Another point for if you can remember their actual title

Answers supplied below

From top left moving right and then back down to the left:

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House

Kevin McCarthy, Republican Leader

Steny Hoyer, Majority Leader

Steve Scalise, Republican Whip

James Clyburn, Majority Whip

Elise Stefanik, Republican Conference Chairman

Katherine Clark, Assistant Speaker

Gary Palmer, Republican Policy Committee Chairman

Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Caucus Chairman

Kamala Harris, Vice President

Patrick J. Leahy, President Pro Tempore

Charles E. Schumer, Democratic Leader Chairman of the Conference

Richard J. Durbin, Majority Whip

Mitch McConnell, Republican Leader

John Thune, Republican Whip

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States

Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice

Joe Biden, President of the United States

Adrian Tchaikovsky: Quotes for Our Era of Leadership

This is just a quick post about “Adrian Tchaikovsky on leadership.”

Occasionally, though not often enough, I connect with an author: the way they write, think, imagine. Their prose style.

Over the last year or so, one of the writers I’ve connected with is British science fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s prolific, brilliant and always entertaining, and his education in zoology often shines through in fascinating ways.

In one of his books, Bear Head, he was riffing on our current unsavory age of political demagoguery.

I should say this isn’t his usual style. I got the feeling that he was venting about recent political trends in Great Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, the news is filled with the election of Giorgia Meloni, who has come to power in Italy. That made me think of Tchaikovsky’s riffs, which I had highlighted in my Kindle. Here are some categories I’ve applied to them.

On hate, fear and politics

  • [H]ate was not just a fire to destroy, not just an excuse to panhandle donations. Hate was an attractive force.
  • [T]he generation that held those chains are yesterday’s men, trying to hold on to power by whipping up fear of the other, just like always.

On authority, virtue and the metagame

  • [T]here’s a metagame…[Y]our worker who ‘kisses ass’ is seen as management material not because they give their all to the company, but because they spend that effort they would otherwise give to the company on looking like they give it all to the company. They spend it on all the little social games instead, and because effort spent on the metagame is focused entirely about the appearance of virtue, it overshadows those who are actually performing the primary task, it overshadows actual virtue.
  • [T]he people who end up in authority are generally not those focused on whatever the purpose of the community is, but are focused on achieving positions of authority.
  • [T]hat meant the people who achieved status and power were by definition the least qualified to have it
  • [M]etagamers could hack organisational structures and procedures to promote themselves without needing to be good at the primary task of the organisation

On leader parasites

  • He was an ingeniously evolved parasite, the scion of a strain honed over generations to fool wider humanity into following his orders and tending to his needs.
  • [My] mind kept coming back to that insect in the ant’s nest that convinces the ants it’s more ant than they are, so that they serve up their own larvae for its delectation.
  • There was nothing to engage behind those eyes, barely anything more than a voracious id, a sense that was all me me me….a pattern of behavior that could be as mindless as some insect’s mimicry of an ant, that let it into the nest to eat the young.
  • [T]here’s a predatory bug that releases the pheromones of its prey more strongly than ever the females do, so that the witless wooers come from miles around to be devoured. …And yet there’s nothing true within it, nothing at all.
  • A parasite that prospers because it presents an exaggerated performance of its host species’ salient characteristics. Not just passing for human, but passing for superhuman: putting out all the tells so that you think they’re super-confident, super-dynamic, super-inspiring, exactly the man to follow to the end of the earth. Far more so than anyone who actually has reason to be confident, or to be worth following….more human than human, a colossus, possessing all the virtues the viewer might want to see.
  • [He] wasn’t about being loyal to underlings, he was about taking their loyalty and wringing every last drop of use from it before discarding them.

There’s clearly more to be said about the role that parasites play in ecosystems–and that demagogues play within the complex reticula of political economies and human limbic systems–but we’ll leave it here for now.

Featured image by José Clemente Orozco:The Demagogue

The Karst Bridge: Darkness and Light in Florida Spring Country

I owe my love of Florida spring country to living there once upon a time. My family and I lived in Lake County, FL for years, and it was generally a happy time. Lots of hikes in the Ocala Forest, lots of visits to local springs such as Alexander, Juniper and Silver Glenn.

I didn’t worry much about politics back then. So what if I lived in a more conservative Florida county? No biggie. In local elections, I often voted for incumbents who’d reportedly (according to the local press, anyway) been doing a good job. These tended to be Republicans. Fine.

My Gulag

Times have changed. Today, partisanship has reached extraordinarily toxic levels, with some Americans espousing violence as a way to settle political differences. This is a kind of mass madness. When I expressed concern about what was happening on Jan. 6th, an old schoolmate of mine, now an avid Trump supporter,  wouldn’t condemn the violence. Instead, he told me he refused to be imprisoned in “my gulag.”

My gulag? I assured him I have no gulag on my modest estate. What would I do with one? I have a hard enough time tending to our unruly little stand of bamboo trees.

Gulag? Such a strange word, a Soviet word that I assume had been ringing in the tirades of certain social media posters or cable news personalities. A word that shapes and warps the realities of the people hearing and using the term.

Black Flags in a Green Country

I was reminded of this weird exchange when we were driving the country roads of the Big Bend region of Florida. It was not a surprise to see Trump flags and political posters dotting the country landscape. People do not give up their political allegiances very easily these days. Trump, enmeshed in many scandals that would have sunk earlier politicians, has proven this beyond any doubt.

What was less expected was the number of black American flags. Sometimes they’d fly on people’s front porches, or we’d see them lined up at the end of long rural driveways, or even waving in the backs of pickup trucks roaring by. I had never heard of, much less seen, these flags before. My first impression was of something ominous and surreal, something intentionally harkening back to the black shirts of Mussolini’s Italy.

Later on, I googled it to see what those flags portend. I saw some left-leaning media interpreting these flags in very grim ways. For example, on Salon I found the following explanation:

In one troubling new development, Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, “socialist liberals,” Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be “enemies” of “real America.” As media critic Eric Boehlert recently noted, the liberal opinion site Living Blue in Texas is sounding the alarm about the specific meaning of the black flag and the Republican-fascists support for terrorism and other political violence.

If I had been able to ask the drivers of these black-flag-sporting trucks what it meant to them, would they say something similar? Or, would they talk about standing up for their freedoms in a land ruled by “socialists” who wanted to put them in “gulags”? (Just by the way, we now have a total of just four democratic socialists among the 435 congresspeople in the U.S. House of Representatives, not exactly a tsunami of any type of socialism.)

Trying to Interpret Symbols in Florida Spring Country

As far as I can tell, black flags harken back to pirate flags. Black flags were flown to show that the pirates would provide no quarter to those on the ships they attacked. This means that they would fight to the death and take no prisoners, killing everyone in their path.

Some say that black flags (though probably not black American flags) were sometimes flown by the Confederacy. The Sun reports, “Confederate army soldiers flew the black flag to symbolize the opposite of the white flag of surrender. The black flag meant that the unit would not give in nor surrender and that enemy combatants would be killed.”

So, who are the perceived “enemy combatants” of today’s black flag wavers? I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, those enemies are largely imaginary caricatures of other Americans, which makes the sight of such flags especially troubling.

We Floridians probably interpret American black flags in different ways. Still, I believe that those who display the flags generally express a willingness to violently resist or attack whatever forces they perceive as aligned against them.

Spurious Divisions

The vast majority of Americans generally want the same things. That is, we want to live in a safe and secure environment. We want an economy in which we can find work. We want to feed our families, afford decent shelter, and enjoy some of goods things in life.

We want individual liberty balanced by enough collectivism to ensure things like good roads and bridges, a reasonably strong military, and enough social systems to help people who have fallen on hard times (as when they get sick or lose their jobs). In short, we still want–as Jefferson first put it–life, liberty and ability to pursue our own forms of happiness.

If we agree on all this, why is there so much outrage, animosity and division in our country today? Why do some people feel the need to fly black flags amid beautiful countryside?

Our Divisive Leaders

Much of it boils down to leaders and media personalities intent on gaining power, influence and money by making Americans believe we are far more divided than we truly are. After all, demonization works. It works to keep to the powerful emotions of fear and loathing engaged, emotions that override our reason. 

Suddenly, we see threats everywhere. People who cross the border because they are desperate for work and a better life are viewed as dangerous “invaders.” The anxious parents of kids confused about their sexual identity are demonized as “groomers.” And people who simply disagree on political issues from tax burdens to energy policy are viewed as “enemies” rather than fellow Americans.

These grotesque exaggerations are used to keep our emotions charged so that cable channels can sell more advertisements and politicians can convince us that they are “fighting for us” rather than just cynically appealing to our darker selves so they can gain ever greater power.

Gorgeous Light

In many respects, the Florida Big Bend area is an Arcadia. The people (at least the ones we met) are friendly and good natured. The countryside is expansive fields–some farmland combined with lots pastures populated by horses, cows, goats and chickens.

But we were specifically there for the freshwater springs, which are often fantastic places of cool, crystalline waters set like jewels in the primeval greenery of old Florida cypress and oaks, maples, sweet gum and honey locusts.

Peacock Spring, by Cynthia Vickers

Springs are places of light. In the largest springs, there is a boil of water that can be seen from the surface, a boil that makes the light shimmer all around. Because the water is typically crystal clear, the light doesn’t just reflect off the surface, however, but fills the entire spring down to the very bottom. The best springs are living windows into sacred worlds from which flow, in tremendous volumes, that water so essential to our lives.

Glades of Shadow

But springs are also places of shadow and power. For every first magnitude spring, there are powerful pulses of water surging upwards from limestone caves. That’s why you will sometimes see intrepid cave diver types at the springs and sinks of Florida. They are, essentially, underwater spelunkers, a dazzling but dangerous hobby that has too often resulted in tragedy.

And then there are the spring denizens, not least of which are snakes and gators. Indeed, the caretakers of today’s Florida springs are not shy about informing visitors about the potential dangers via their signage.

So, it’s little wonder we were a tad nervous when we arrived at our first spring of the trip: Lafayette Blue. It was a weekday and, despite the fine weather, we had the entire spring to ourselves. That made the scene spookier than it would otherwise have been.

Lafayette Blue is unique in that the two parts of the spring are divided by a natural bridge made up of karst. It’s a remarkable sight. On the day we were there, the lighter part of the spring flowed out into the Suwanee River, frequented by schools of mullet and some larger fish that I took for bass. There were also smaller specimen such as sunfish and chubb. On the surface were thousands of waterbugs, moving dimples of light

On the other side of karst bridge is the deeper, darker part of the spring where I snorkled with less confidence, intimidated by shadows and rocky ledges. Even the two large turtles over whom I swam looked wary, unaccustomed to visitors in their dimly lit lair.

America Undivided

As we drove miles through rural Florida on our way to various springs, I thought about the ways in which Lafayette Blue reflects America itself: a mix of dark and light, a clearly divided yet ultimately connected and singular entity, an inspiring, beautiful yet intimidating and sometimes dangerous place.

I know it’s a strange and somewhat strained metaphor, but like the karst bridge over Lafayette Blue, the divisions between red and blue America appear rock hard. And, in fact, these perceived divisions could lead to the end of democracy itself in the U.S. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion. Lafayette is a single spring just as we are a single state in a still-united nation, no matter how much certain “leaders” want to turn us against one another.

The green and rural parts of Florida will always feel like home to me. Despite our rural/urban divides, all Floridians reside in the same fantastical, surreal landscape: a rainforest growing atop porous limestone through which flows cold, clear waters that burst and bubble up from these incredible, life-giving springs. Our divisions are mostly illusory, manufactured by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. The sooner we realize this, the better we’ll be able to savor the light and dark gifts of this preposterously beautiful state.

On Why Gen Z May Have a Great Future After All

Poor Gen Z. In the United States, the oldest members this generation (born between 1997 and 2012, give or take a few years) have only recently entered adulthood, and it’s been a pretty rough ride so far.

Let’s say the eldest are 25. That means that since their 18th birthdays, they’ve seen the divisive Trump years, the turmoil of the pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a sudden surge in inflation, record global warming, a couple of recessions (yeah, I’m calling this one even if the NBER isn’t), an invasion in Europe, the greatest amount of political polarization since the U.S. Civil war, and the descent of the U.S. political system into the category of flawed democracy.

It’s little wonder that they’re turning out to pessimistic about the future. The world in general and the U.S. in particular has looked like a real shit show in recent years, and the immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, either.

But will Gen Z really be the generation that comes to adulthood just in time to see economies collapse, the world burn up, nation states fall apart, and Orwellian authoritarian states become the norm?

Sure, it could happen, especially if they (and the rest of us) don’t fight against those dystopian futures. But here’s the thing. If you squint a bit, you can detect signs that the Gen Zers might have a pretty great future after all.

Here are just a few of the trends we can point to:

  • The emergence of a go-go green world: Few have commented on the trend so far, but renewable energy is growing at exponential rates. If we only confine ourselves to solar and wind globally, the rate of growth is doubling every 3.75 years. Even if we round this up to 4, these two energies alone will provide more power in 2034 than was generated globally in 2021. The future will be renewable, and soon. That’s not a bad way to spend your early adulthood.
  • The rise of the smart (and hopefully super helpful) machines: Artificial intelligence is advancing at remarkable rates, which may have massive implications for productivity, innovation and more. Recently DeepMind announced it had successfully used AI to predict the 3D structures of nearly every catalogued protein known to science: over 200 million proteins found in plants, bacteria, animals, and humans! Sure, it was hard to hear that astonishing news amid all the hubbub about the end of the Chaco Taco, but history will judge this a major historic event (DeepMind, not the Taco). If AI can so quickly be productive in this one extremely challenging area of science, then imagine the impact it can have on worker productivity in general. As productivity rates rise over the next decade or more, so will income per capita (in theory). Of course, those gains need to be properly redistributed throughout the workforce, but that’s a different challenge. Yes, powerful AI could potentially have a number of truly terrible repercussions as well, but let’s focus on the bright side here.
  • The dazzling advances in microbiology. The protein-folding achievement just noted is one part of a much larger set of advances in microbiology. CRISPR, for example, is an astonishing technology. The rapid creation of the Covid-19 vaccination was just one the modern miracles brought to you by microbiology. These advances will continue and, in fact, speed up due to aforementioned machine learning techniques. If we can avoid the specter of bioterrorism, these advances might well mean that Gen Z will be the healthiest and longest-living generation in history. Death? Hah. That was so 2020s!
  • The renaissance in reformed political systems. Yes, the U.S. as well as various other nations are in danger of turning away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Based on the popularity of scary-ass demagogues like my governor Ron DeSantis, we might well see the Orban-ization of America in the near future. However, at the same time, there are various grassroots movements (e.g., RepresentUS) that are seeking to reform the more corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of government. Perhaps if the U.S. can build up its immunity to demagoguery and neo-fascism quickly enough, there could be a flowering of pro-democracy movements here and abroad. This could eventually lead not just to more democracy globally but to more functional forms of democracy than have ever existed.
  • The rise in environmental protections and the strengthening of Earth’s ecosystems. Humanity has done an enormous amount of harm to the global ecosystem, but, along with the advancement in renewables, there will also be more programs such as 30×30, which is is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. Now it even looks as if the U.S. might be able to pass the The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would put about $385 billion into combating climate change and bolstering U.S. energy production through changes that would encourage cuts in carbon emissions. So, Gen Z may be the first generation to spend its early adulthood in a global culture that finally takes serious steps to heal much of the environmental damage humanity has already wrought

Sure, there are lots of things that could go disastrously wrong. Some of them surely will. But there are also a lot of things that could go very right. Since the Gen Zers can’t tell for sure, they can join one of the many movements to make things better.

At the very least, they’ll be able to enjoy the comradery of people trying to improve things. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to help create a way better world than the one they’ve inherited so far.

Featured image: By Dian Dong, Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future's earlier climate strikes, 15 March 2019

What Kind of Political Animal Are You?

Political Identity Crisis

I sometimes participate on politics-oriented social media forums and wind up wondering what kind of political animal I truly am.

I find that self-described conservatives often think I’m a liberal because I believe in empirically proven collectivist legislation such as universal healthcare.

Self-described liberals often think I’m a moderate or conservative because I think free markets work well in many instances–and because I argue against the ills of wrong-headed, governmental restrictions in various areas such as housing regulations.

So people judge my overall political belief system based on my take on specific political issues. But every issue is different, so I tend to believe legislation should not be based on ideology but on empirical evidence about a specific issue.

The problem, of course, is that you often just wind up with just two choices in an election no matter your take on various specific issues. This is a reflection of our increasingly polarized and, I think, broken two-party system, but we’ll put that aside for now.

The Small “d” Democrat

I think of myself as a small “d” democrat who believes our governmental legislative systems are largely dysfunctional because they have been, according to certain studies, captured by moneyed interests. As a result, they do little to serve the “will of the people,” as measured by polls and research. I’ve got nothing against the ultra-wealthy per se, but they are neither qualified nor elected to make decisions for the rest of the nation.

So what does that make me? Radical? Populist? Moderate? Socialist Libertarian?

Beats me. “Small ‘d’ democrat” is the best I can think of. Because I do believe that a representative democracy (yes, and I know we live in a federal republic, as millions of online cranks will insist on) is a good, self-correcting system if it typically reflects the will of the overall population rather than the will of the powerful plutocratic class. And, if it protects minority rights even while reflecting majority opinion.

I suspect that there are many people who, like me, do not fit neatly in today’s political stereotypes and conventional classifications. (It never did make much sense to plot the complex plethora of political ideas along the absurd paucity of a single horizontal spectrum.)

If we ever banded together, maybe we could call ourselves “The Empirical Party” to indicate we base most of our political opinions on the best facts and theories available, undergirded by a few basic values such as liberty and fairness.

Of course, I’m well aware that our two-party system means that any third-party has almost no hope of gaining a foothold. But it’s nice to have a dream, and one never knows.

Featured image: 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast; Credit Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images