Against the brain-fog

Published online 19 July 2015.

I suppose in the old days of the 20th century the essay which follows below would count as “ideology critique.”  Today, in the most “developed” portions of world-society, however, ideology appears as a sort of brain-fog, a generalized preference for systems of thought as they might appear in television advertising, or as advertised “specials” in a supermarket or clothing store, to which one might drive on the highway of one’s choice.  You would buy it much as you would buy Diet Coke, so as to poison your body with caffeine, phosphoric acid, and aspartame while pretending to enjoy it.

I thus choose the metaphor of brain-fog — in much the same way in which we are embedded in an industrialized matrix which lights the whole world with the light of electricity produced by fossil-fuel burning, we are also embedded in an ideological fog producing the additional element whereby we can see neither the system as observed from the outside, nor the bad end coming to the whole structure should it be allowed to persist indefinitely.

The light to pierce the generalized brain-fog might start by poking at old sources:

Religion: if there is a God, She (and how do you know that God is a “He”?  Did God tell you?  Can you trust the patriarchy?) created the singularity which created the universe 13.82 billion years ago.  The idea that “God loves you” is something nice to say.  And the idea that “God is on your side” is something Bob Dylan covered way back when he did stuff like that, before his motorcycle accident.

As a use for your brain, religion may bring you mental benefits which you may also have without religion.  (This fact points to an advantage of Buddhism or Taoism, or perhaps to a hippie Christianity or relaxed Judaism or Islam, though not really a bankable one.)  Prayer is a form of meditation, which could just as well be capitalism, although you should hope it isn’t.  As an explanation for the world, the philosophers do better with the Anthropic Principle, though the universe will carry on without us collectively (just as it can do without us individually).

The fact that you’re experiencing something now is less profound than what the philosophers make of it.  We are here because of a number of freak accidents within a universe which freakishly allows for our existence, the most amusing of which is that big rock which hit the Earth 65 million years ago and made the Age of Mammals possible.  All of these freak accidents can be attributed to mundane realities of one sort or another.

NB: the predicted bad end for humanity is NOT “Armageddon.”  There will be no four horsemen, nor a reappearance of Jesus.  Tim LaHaye writes quaint fictions, just as the Venus we may yet see here is just another planet.

Politics: it’s amazing that, after two world wars and in the middle of a global warming crisis which stands a fair chance of wiping us out, we’re still big on that old shibboleth, the nation-state.  There are still national armies, there is still national pride, and people are still required to go around with passports when they move between nation-states.  Nation-states are in many senses still prisons for those without capital.

And then you have this unsavory brain-fog called American “nativism” — white people whose ancestors rounded up the real natives of North America in military operations (and against all treaties) while importing African “slaves” to do their dirty work are complaining about “illegal immigration” as if there were some great philosophical principle out there which excluded recent immigrants that didn’t also exclude them.

So tell me this: when Earth’s methane clathrates are all out there trapping solar heat and Earth itself is on the way to being a second Venus, will the national identity of the next World Cup victor still be important?  At all?  George Carlin does well with the “nationalism” thing here:

The elites don’t believe in nation-states — their world is run by a transnational capitalist class through powerful institutions of global governance.  So why should you?

Economics: Money is like a religion, except that the penalty for disbelief is not that you are supposed to imagine yourself going to some imaginary Hell after you die.  Indeed on an economic level 1/8 of the Earth’s people are sent to Hell anyway, while fully alive, and regardless of their mental states.  So you’d better spend your entire working life praying to money, and hoping that it pays off somehow.  Money, however, is like one of the old, polytheistic, “pagan” gods, publicly perceived as a powerful annoyance rather than praised as an ostensibly kind majesty, because for most of the working class the main purpose of prayer to money is to ward off this living Hell of destitution rather than to bring one entry into the owning classes, which is for the most part impossible for them (and thus for us).  We gave up paganism two millennia ago, yet we still cling to money.

Property is this concept that you own something, whereas in reality the something controls you, and “you” as such are the creation of someone else (most distinctly your parents, but really the society as a whole and specifically the mind-control mechanisms, from your teachers to the TV set).  Isn’t there a better way to live?

Usually a discussion of property in any “serious” treatment of the issue goes through a short demonstration of the “we are vastly unequal in wealth endowment” statement before moving on to something else.  The point of telling you, though, that (for instance) “the Walton family is as rich as the bottom 42% of Americans put together” should have been to demonstrate that there is in fact a class structure in the world, in which some people are owners and others are workers without significant wealth.  It should also be a demonstration of how things can be otherwise, with even a minor revolution in cultural affairs.  It wasn’t to improve your cash totals should you somehow make it onto the televised game show “Jeopardy.”

It’s likely that we do not take this step, to conceive economics as an explanation for social classes, because economics is a pseudo-science (see Chapter 2 here) which starts from the incorrect notion of humanity as “homo economicus” and then proceeds to create alliances in order to impose “homo economicus” upon the rest of us, which is what neoliberal economics is about.  And they’ve done so quite successfully — witness for instance the ferocity with which Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is labeled a “socialist.”

More recently we have:

Human nature: whenever half-baked, conservative thinkers want to defend the status quo against threatening arguments that “another world is possible,” there’s always an invocation of “human nature.”  The invokers of this argument do not usually concern themselves with its credibility — humans, we are told, are naturally greedy, and never mind the vast majorities who aren’t greedy and are thus the economic system’s “losers” as a result.  “Human nature,” you see, is supposed to make capitalism into an eternal expression of what is innately part of us — without much regard for that far greater portion of the 200,000 years of human existence on Earth (all but the last half-millennium more or less) which did not see the advent of the capitalist system.  This sort of argument has been taken up by the pseudo-science of “evolutionary psychology,” and recently inherited from “sociobiology.”

What really defends the world against such concepts is the concept of “epigenesis” as a fundamental aspect of human brain development.  I’ve discussed it here in this diary — human brain development is in fact conditioned by interactions with social and physical environments, and so “human nature” cannot be identified as a specific society-nature bundling.  Human nature is not greed, nor is it competition, nor is it any other particular environmentally-embedded social trait.  And as Kathleen R. Gibson points out, “epigenesis” is also the condition of lifelong learning — whereas other primates lose significant learning abilities when they emerge from their childhoods, we do not.

As we are significantly products of our environments, then, it behooves us to change the world to reflect the sort of “human nature’ we want to see in other people.

I’m sure that much more needs to be said here, for the brain-fog has touched most if not all of our concepts.  But lastly I want to say something about “education.”   Education today follows an old Bruce Cockburn lyric:

What used to pass for education now looks more like ignoration
Take the people’s money and slip it to the corporation

The brain-fog that we see in education is made possible through an exclusive obsession with “mastery” common to mainstream education.  The reigning urban legend about education is that it’s the same thing as mastery, and this is what has produced the system we currently have.  When it really matters, such as with the training of airline pilots or surgeons, we have exquisite educational systems for the delivery of “mastery,” which only go so far as to produce technical experts.

Mainstream education’s ignorance of the conditions of learning is as egregious as the medical profession’s ignorance of nutrition (in which the advantages of a plant-based diet in promoting health in old age receive no publicity).  This is how high-stakes testing is promoted — stammering upon the need for mastery, the high-stakes tests measure, year after year, the income levels and living conditions of those which they test while ostensibly measuring “mastery.”  The high-stakes testing phenomenon measures, in this regard, social class far better than any actual learning performed by the test-takers.

The best gauge of the social class divide created by mainstream education is, and remains, Annette Lareau’s ethnographic study “Unequal Childhoods,” in which it is revealed how, precisely, it is so that the poor cannot keep up in the educational rat race with the rich to produce “mastery,” while the generalized social brain-fog promotes the idea that high-stakes testing and mainstream education form a “meritocracy.”

The most important downside to mainstream education’s obsession with “mastery” is that such an educational system rarely grants the masses a view of their relationship to the whole, or the relationship of the whole with the procession of time through history.  Our experts in history, at the other end of the spectrum, have become for the most part impervious to the placement of the facts they cite into overall theories.  (This is not a new thought: see e.g. Eva Svidler, “Greening History,” in the collection “Greening the Academy.”)

Our educational systems have thus become delivery systems for a perceived future of technological wizardry and ecological ignorance (or cheap labor and poverty, for the less fortunate) which is ostensibly to produce us — ignoring Paulo Freire’s maxim (from Pedagogy of Indignation):

The future does not make us.  We make ourselves in the struggle to make it.

In the era of incipient global warming, then, it is more important than ever that we dispel the brain-fogs which make learning about our universe into a matter of consumer choice or cult-membership.

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