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10 Rules: How Closed Minds Become Closed Borders

It is my intention to provide my readers with a very valuable and unique service.  I am a voracious reader and it is my special talent to distill complex subjects down to their simplest parts and principles (if indeed such principles exist).  Much of what is written, past and present, is intentionally obfuscated for political purposes or dishonest gain, whether of the material, intellectual, or emotional varieties.  It is designed to misinform or mislead.  Even when the ideas are simply muddle-headed rather than intentionally disingenuous, there is rarely an understanding of where those ideas originated, or historical consequences of their application.   These observations are particularly applicable to political discussions, but are not uncommon in virtually any serious discourse.

I am driven to know what is.  I grew up in an intellectually closed society, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I left that religious organization in mid-life only to find a whole smorgasbord of other closed societies, whether religious, philosophical, political, or social.  There is a vehemence and even fierceness of advocacy that inhibits civil conversation and betrays intolerance of different life experiences and conclusions.  What is most remarkable about all of these is that either side in any of these debates would passionately agree with my observations herewith stated, but only find them applicable to the attitudes and behavior of those with an opposing viewpoint!

As the polemicists outshout each other in the vain belief that raising the volume of their cranky bombast is the key to recruiting you to the cause or the sale, regard for evidence, logic, scientific method, clarity, and other calm pursuits are left behind like abandoned children.   Defense of our own position usually trumps all other considerations without any awareness whatsoever of the road by which we arrived at our convictions.  My most important takeaway from my own life-altering experience  is that I am the bouncer and doorman to my own mind, and I have sole discretion over what is permitted to enter.  I am the final arbiter of what I accept, because I become what I ingest intellectually.   This is a personal responsibility that I cannot delegate to any other person, institution, or authority. In my opinion, every one of my readers shares this same responsibility for themselves, for the same reasons and with the same rewards. Bitterness and anger about years wasted in misguided belief and defiance of reality are efforts to transfer responsibility for our own past choices onto others, but in every case it was we who negligently invited strangers, in the form of ideas, into our mind unidentified and unchallenged.  Even when we absorb faulty premises in our age of innocence, responsibility to identify and correct these later in life cannot be avoided with impunity.

I frequently include book reviews on this blog, on a broad range of subjects.  All of these book reviews are at least somewhat positive in nature, because I do not waste my readers time on books that are in my opinion without at least some important redeeming values.  I am neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative, and these days, once you get past the rhetoric, it can be said their distinctions are often without differences.  I have no ideology except the value of the individual human being. Each of us is a minority of one.  Regardless of the comfort we find in each other, there is no collective brain.  Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” What we think determines what we become.

I want to share some rules of the road from my personal experience.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to eat everything on my plate at meal times.  It was axiomatic that to waste food was wrong, even though our young minds rarely grasped the contradiction in the fact that we didn’t overload the plate with all that food, the grown-ups did.  How could we possibly know that for the rest of our lives other BIG PEOPLE would be filling up our intellectual plates with the impassioned ideas, ephemeral notions, and absolute certainties they insisted we must ingest because it is “good for us.”  As in childhood, we trust the source, the same one we associated with survival itself.

Rule #1 :   The purpose of all propaganda is to become your “trusted source.” Read more..

Everyone, it seems, has the strongest notions of what is best for us, beginning with our immediate families and extending to all the institutions of our culture.  What is accepted and practiced in one generation may be repudiated by future generations.  The philosophy that someone else knows what is best for us is nothing more than delegating to strangers what gets put on our plate.  It makes no difference whether this authority figure or expert comes in the guise of clergy, government, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, media talking heads or television and movie script writers; all of them provide us with generous helpings of their opinions and rules and they expect us to eat it, even if it gives us heartburn.  They do not like to be ignored, and most of them are happy, if given the opportunity, to harness the coercive power of the state to enforce what they know is, if not for our own good, at least for the good of the greatest number.  After all, Daddy knows best.

Everything is based on core premises, and unfortunately these are usually absorbed unconsciously from the Influential People of our childhood and adolescence, parents, teachers, news media, friends, and church.

Rule #2:  At a tender age we are neither equipped nor qualified to evaluate  conceptual content, and we know little or nothing about possible  alternatives. 

Content becomes indelibly associated with the persons and institutions of authority that deliver it.  Because of this early childhood association between content and source, we begin to develop class distinctions based on these associations.  We are more inclined to trust and believe those who dress like we do, worship as we do, get educated where we do, and who earn their living as we do.  At the most mundane level it is often said that the best place for a young man to pick up a date is at a church wedding, because he benefits by association with the joy of the occasion and the trust placed in that institution by its members. A “no” response in a different context might become a “yes” at the wedding.

Rule #3:  As children, content becomes truth when it is delivered by those on whom we depend to survive.

Once imbibed, these childhood-acquired core premises become unchallengeable, eternal truths, the template against which all new information is evaluated.  We quickly learn to block dissonance, any new information that makes us uncomfortable.  As we build the rest of our lives around these core premises, our emotional investment in them becomes such that a challenge to their veracity becomes a challenge to our identity.  There is a crushing need to shut down, shut out, and utterly annihilate such threats, and this need is all the more powerful and insidious because it is experienced subconsciously, as in dis-ease.  We experience anxiety without knowing the cause. 

When you experience something that disturbs you, it may or may not mean it is bad for you.  A bad taste in your mouth may mean a poison mushroom, or it may only mean conflict with the taste of the previous mouthful, in which case you need to cleanse your palate before proceeding.  A mouthful of lemon juice may cure you of scurvy, but it could be intensely unpleasant right after eating a sweet.  Likewise you may have been led to believe that very wise people are looking out for your welfare, and this goes down pleasantly, like a sugar cookie.  You might have had great faith in the honest intentions and competence of Bernie Madoff in handling your life savings, or you may currently be planning an extended retirement on Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist, and it tastes sweet.

Rule #4:  What feels safe and tastes good may be the prelude to the financial equivalent of a diabetic coma.

In every case, we always trusted the source.  The doorman to our mind was sound asleep.  There were red flags about what we believed, but we chose to ignore them.

That’s why I write about labels.  I sit down to lunch with people of all stripes and within minutes I can hear, and feel, the palpable hatred as my temporary companions launch into diatribes about those who think differently than they do.  The emotional intensity and intransigence derives from the speaker’s sense of certainty.  A mere label such as the name of a political party, or particular belief or non-belief excites the passions and invites the derision of the group at the table.  To belong is to share in the laughter.  The opposite is equally true and commonplace; the willingness to blithely accept nonsense if it comes from a trusted source.  We will defend what we have already emotionally invested in.

Rule #5:  It is possible to have a lifetime investment in something that is indefensible by any rational standard.  

How long have we known, and has our government refused to acknowledge, that our Social Security is history’s largest Ponzi scheme ever?

I used to finish reading any book I had started.  Like cleaning my plate at dinner, I felt compelled to finish what I had started.  I don’t always do this anymore.  Life is too short.  I always seek to identify as quickly as possible  authors’ basic premises, and even if I disagree with them, I may continue reading if only because I enjoy the writing style or because an author occasionally drops in a redeeming original thought or new twist on something.  I no longer waste my time filling my mind with garbage, but there is a balance between that and closing one’s mind.  Periodically I have to remind myself to re-evaluate my own core premises to see if they still withstand close scrutiny.  The final questions are always, Who says so? Why?  Based on what?  I am always on the alert for the hidden agenda, the sugar-coated dodge.

If some distinguished authority figure makes claims that appear improbable and  unsubstantiated by the facts as you know them, assuming they know more than you is one possibility.  Another possibility is that they have reasons to be less than truthful on this occasion.

If their explanations more accurately resemble circumlocutions, going round and round in circles and making no particular sense, you could assume that their explanation is too deep for your comprehension, given their special training, or you could also entertain the possibility that their non-answer is because they really don’t have an answer but won’t admit it publicly.

How do you spot obfuscations, disinformation, and hidden agendas?    For starters, unless you’ve taken a serious course in statistics, distrust all statistics.  Most are not scientifically sound and are intentionally manipulated for uninformed public consumption.  I could say there are a thousand ways to do this, but that would not be a scientifically sound statistic.  So we’ll move on.  In commercial matters, follow the money.  In political and institutional matters, follow the power.  Look past the easy answers.  Look past the obvious beneficiaries of a particular group action.  The secondary beneficiary is always the real beneficiary.  The primary beneficiaries receive very diffused benefits.  They are the poster children of the much ballyhooed political action; the orphans, the poor, the children, the unemployed, the elderly, the American middle class, the racial minorities.   The secondary beneficiary receives very consolidated power;  the power to bestow or withhold.   Daddy isn’t interested in your growing up.  Daddy needs you to need him.  Daddy needs to be in control of permissions, punishments and perks.

Rule #6:  If someone is selling invisible clothes, let them run around naked.  

It is better to be underwhelmed by the titles and decorations and positions of power of the so-called experts.  Who even remembers yesteryear’s Nobel prize winners and Treasury Secretaries or Fed Chairmen?  If anyone makes claims that to your mind seem like the Emperor’s invisible clothes, let them wear them.  Plan your personal life and make your financial choices around your own perceptions, not theirs.  They will usually have agendas you will never know about, and disincentives to provide full disclosure or tell the unvarnished truth.  Do they really know better than you how to direct your life?  Most American households’ finances are looking better than the governments, perhaps for no other reason than we can’t print money like the government  does.  We have been acting to correct our balance sheets, to start saving and stop borrowing.  Does that sound like what they have been doing?  Do they care about you, or are they far more concerned about polishing their credentials to the largest blocks of voters?  This goes for anyone who is offering you advice on any subject.  Would you look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on improving your sex life, knowing he is a celibate monk?

In the end it’s the same.  Money is power.  But government is money plus guns.  By guns I mean the police power of the state.  With guns you can seize other people’s money.  If you get enough people behind you, even in a democracy you can decide whose money you will take, and how much of it.  This is REAL power, and this is why groups will spend a billion dollars to secure a position of power that pays only half a million.  The most expensive seats are reserved for those who hold court, who trade in favors and gifts, and who choose the winners and the losers.  These people are not producers; they are looters who talk as if they understand production.

All ideas have a history, and if you follow the thread of an idea back far enough, there are always surprises.  Every opinion, belief, and conviction—indeed every certainty, was arrived at in a certain historical and social context, and made perfect sense to those persons in their place and time, and was almost invariably the partial result of emotional turmoil in the author’s personal life.  In other words, intellectuals, philosophers, clergymen, or brick layers, we are all made of the same dirt.  Ideas all began with real people and every single one of them had problems, issues, and emotional dilemmas.  Some of them were morons.

Rule #7:  Many of the world’s greatest thinkers would be in therapy today.

Ideological sparks at the intersection of the right time and the right population periodically ignited the imagination of masses.   New truths became eternal truths that have often reversed themselves, sometimes over and over again, everyone so preoccupied with the minutiae of their daily routines they fail to notice the intellectual roundabout on which they have traveled for decades or centuries.    The grand ideas  have all come and gone, or splintered and evolved in almost unrecognizable ways, becoming innumerable dogmas and orthodoxies,  and today they make compelling narrative for the history or philosophy buff.  Those who take the time to look more closely are sobered by the awareness that in every time period of history there were those who were willing and eager to kill or enslave those who disagreed with them.    Our current democratic society provides some cultural and legal protections against this, but a basic meanness still often lurks beneath the surface of many human believers.  I hear it in conversations at lunch.

Rule #8:  There’s a troll under many a believer’s bridge.

When belief devoid of thought is extolled as a virtue, doubt becomes suspect, opposing opinions are demonized, dissenters are criminalized, and definitions of the enemy are crystalized.  Hatred is born and mob action is galvanized.  Ascendant mobs become the state. Other groups see opportunities to advance their respective causes by hitchhiking on the coattails of the rising group, with the idea that they will address their important differences after they achieve a more favorable situation in the power structure.   The state attempts to co-opt and harness culturally powerful forces (the most powerful of which is religion) and then moves to consolidate its power by weakening, neutering,  and eliminating competing groups.  There are no enduring loyalties, just the shifting sands of temporarily overlapping interests.

This is why I champion individual rights in my writing.  The individual is the smallest group in the world.  Protect individual rights and you protect the world.  Democracies are the competition and conflict between groups, but history is replete with the horrors perpetrated by one group (even elected ones) on other groups.  Great evil has been done repeatedly in the name of God or in the name of Society.  Even in a so-called free society there is nothing more fear-inspiring than observing an impassioned closed mind reflected in the eyes of another human being, so certain of his ideas in fact, that he will gladly sacrifice your life to prove it.  On their own, they are dangerous and capable of atrocities; organized into groups with their hands on the levers of power (duly elected or not), no one is safe.  Not even the members of their group.  Every group has its purges.

There IS a problem with championing individual rights.  It puts responsibility on the individual.  There is uncertainty, and results are neither equal nor guaranteed.  What is guaranteed is that no group can by itself or backed by the power of the state, make you do or be what you do not believe in.  And you can’t do that to anyone else either.  Not everyone is comfortable with that.

Individual rights are inalienable, meaning you were born with them and do not acquire them by permission from others–no one and no group can morally take them from you, even when those others are infused with certainty about their better idea.   They may seize your property and take your life by force, but they can never do so morally.  Individual rights mean the right to pursue your own life and happiness as your highest values, and you are free to seek and perform work that sustains those values.  This includes buying and selling from whomever you choose, to your own benefit.  Individual rights means essentially the separation of church and state and the separation of economic activity and state.

Individual rights mean the government is there to protect  individual rights of all, and no one is there to serve the government.  Individual rights in practice, of necessity mean small government because there just isn’t that much the government needs to do.  No modern state, including western democracies, will ever pay more than lip service to government based on the sovereignty of the individual because all governments derive their power from the purse, which includes both confiscatory taxation and gross interference with free trade of its citizens.  The power of government is in granting permissions.  That’s where the money is.

Rule #9:  The government’s favorite childhood game is “Mother, May I?”

You can recognize individual rights in action when your government fears to transgress against its citizens.  

Group rights, on the other hand, are acquired by permission from a majority of others in society, and those permissions can be revoked.  The herd sometimes gives little or no notice of intent to stampede.  The primacy of group rights derives from the belief that your highest value as an individual  is not yourself but your contribution to society as a whole.  Individuals can  expect to be sacrificed to the group when the group calls for it. Every single favor demanded of  government by a group always implies a request for the police power of the state to be used against someone else  who doesn’t want to do the group’s  bidding.  Otherwise, if the group could achieve its ends on a voluntary basis, arrived at through negotiation, documented and signed by the parties, why would they need to involve the state?  Groups only need the state to club minority interests into submission.   I use the word minority here in the very literal sense of anyone who does not have sufficient votes to protect their interests. Group rights are the inevitable political legacy of those obsessed with the certainty of their beliefs, so much so that in their minds the ends justify their means.  Sooner or later the means include the confiscation of human life and property by the state–for the benefit of the greater good, of course.  Group rights degrade into group warfare and lead to an indefinitely expanding state, with eventually the state dwarfing all other groups.

Group rights lead to totalitarianism, which is sanctioned and even welcomed by the public in the name of efficiency.  When the cacophony of bitterly opposed groups gets too rancorous and the machinery of the state grinds down, someone with the necessary stage presence steps forward and suggests temporary consolidation of power to get through the political impasse.  We all know the rest of that story.

You can tell group rights in action when citizens fear their government.

So what is my point?  Am I advocating political activism in favor of limited government and individual rights?  Not really.  You can, of course, if you want to.  All I am encouraging is to become aware of what is happening around you, and to be aware of the ideas behind the events.  Keep your finger on the pulse of the politics in your community, your state, your nation.  Be more careful what you believe in, and scrutinize documentation with a critical eye.  In almost every location it is possible to exercise a great deal of personal freedom as long as you don’t make too much fanfare about it.  Love your life, keep your mind open and your passport current, and

Rule #10:   Know where the border is.

Closed minds eventually become closed borders.


Where Do I Belong?

I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I left that church many, many years ago, but not before I had learned the power of a label. For anyone outside the church, being a JW was associated with the visual of an unwelcome someone knocking at your door, usually on a Sunday morning. Or an association was made with those JW’s who refused blood transfusions and got a lot of unwanted press about it. But very few people really knew anything else about us. Our label was a form of shorthand for the few things anyone knew about us, or most likely, ever wanted to know. Our label was sufficient for others on occasion to be mean to us, especially as children. We knew we were outsiders.

When I left Jehovah’s Witnesses, I lost my lifetime label.  I was now faced with the onerous task of figuring out who I was.  My label had defined my identity up to that point in my life.  I didn’t know anything else.  (For more of this story, go here.)

When Self-Labeling Becomes Self-Destructive

We also label ourselves, sometimes to our own harm. We may develop a certain self-image and then we will live either up to it or down to it. If we see ourselves as a loser,  poor,  fat, sexy, brainy,  pretty, or superior, we often tend to behave in a way that conforms to our self-label, either owning it or over-compensating for it. Labels have power. When we adopt negative labels, we become co-conspirators in our own destruction.

If you want to try an interesting exercise with self-labeling, try to make a summary statement of your own identity in one or two sentences.  Be generous with yourself, but make sure it will pass the snicker test of your best friend or spouse.  Emphasize your core values, what you stand for, what matters, so that someone who just meets you could quickly evaluate whether they would welcome further interaction with you; your signature statement.  This exercise may be more challenging than you expect yet everyone you meet subconsciously performs this exercise and reaches conclusions about you within minutes.  Try doing it for yourself!  It is very difficult to project who you really are if you are confused about the subject yourself. Read more..

Socio-Economic Radar

When we find ourselves among kindred spirits we tend to feel safe and welcome, and when among strangers we turn up the voltage on our social radar, scanning the group for our probable status, the likelihood of acceptance or rejection should these people learn more about us.

When we meet someone new, we ask them what they do for a living. This may be nothing more than an opening line in an attempted conversation, or we may be looking for a label, a shortcut to identify as quickly as possible where this person will most likely fit in our socio-economic hierarchy, so that we can better judge how to interact with him or her. We size them up: are they powerful or weak, rich or poor, well-educated or dropped out of school in fifth grade, doctor or drug dealer, above us or below us, smarter or dumber than us, incredibly attractive or flawed in some important way, a safe companion or a threat to me or my marriage, a benefactor or a competitor for resources?

Sometimes we create the label, and often we buy into pre-existing labels.  Someone who graduated in the bottom 5% of his Harvard class (5% do!) trumps another who graduated summa cum laude from Podunk Community College.  (The person who graduated in the bottom 5% will conceal this—if s/he is even aware of it; the person who graduated with honors may be sure to mention it.)  Someone who showed up in a late model Mercedes outshines the family in a ten-year-old station wagon.   We all bear price tags.  We buff our price tags on the way to our class reunions.  Without our price tags it is very difficult to make snap judgments about others.  I live in North Dakota where there are a lot of very wealthy landowners who confound the labeling process by living in old farm houses.  In the summer they are easily confused with the rednecks because both groups drive dusty pick-up trucks.

The social meaning of a label changes with context. In most places in America, to state publicly that you are an atheist will elicit some type of social opprobrium, the assumption being that an atheist could not be a moral person and therefore is suspect. An atheist may be shunned, or become the object of extended kindness from those who are sure he can be won back to sanity. An atheist in America could never be elected to high office.  The label would defeat him.  Conversely, in many parts of Europe, confessions of atheism would more likely be met with “. . . and your point is???”

“Acceptance Speech”

We may attempt to acquire a label by parroting certain phrases that we think will accelerate our acceptance into a group. We can say inane things like “I’m all for limited government”, whatever that means. That phrase is devoid of meaning because its currency has been, first hijacked, and second, devalued. It is the sort of politically correct thing that can be said at a any party with a reasonable expectation that there will be knowing nods of assent at the shared wisdom. It is a label valued for its emptiness and safety; something each can put their own spin on. Everyone believes in limited government as long as they don’t touch our own particular cherished benefits.

Labels as Closure

Adopting a label can be a form of closure, so that we don’t have to think about a person or topic anymore. Using a previous example, we could justify our cutting off contact with a former friend by using a label, such as “he’s an atheist anyway” or “I can’t believe he’s become a rabid liberal” or “she’s so selfish” or “I’m done with him—he’s gone conservative “. . . We use these labels in much the same way that we would invoke the label “sexual offender”– to end the conversation or close the book on a possible relationship. Once the label has been pronounced, it becomes a judicial sentence, and no further thought or conflict need be entertained.  Everyone to the barricades!

Labels Evolve

We also use labels in a constant effort to determine if we are “normal”. Much of life occurs in a continuum. We live in a world of gray, and we attempt black and white to clarify our sense of identity.  For most of us life refuses to be so tidy. A silly example is our bizarre effort in this country to find the perfect word to describe black people. When I was growing up, first they were Negroes, which was an all-encompassing term. That term was actually the most scientifically correct label, in the same way that Caucasian is. Then we called them colored, which was rather colloquial but acceptable to everyone it seemed. I don’t know who decided they should be called blacks. I suspect that change came from the militant segment of the colored population, when black became an emblem of rebellion against the white man’s aggression, black power type of thing. Black was adopted as an extreme non-white label.  But that’s just a guess.  Where I grew up the most notable characteristic of some in the neighborhood was not their blackness, any more than my defining characteristic was my whiteness.  In our innocence, we saw each other as individuals with personal names and personalities.

I think the label “black” was the black man’s choice as a statement of pride, not a pejorative foisted on him by whites. Then blacks became African-Americans, although most of them had never been anywhere near Africa and maybe had no desire to go there either, at least not to stay. So they emphasized their ethnicity and roots, and indeed there was a bestselling book by that exact name, Roots, by Alex Haley, published in 1976 and aired on television the next year.

Now we are back to “people of color”. Again I am guessing, but perhaps this is an attempt to be more inclusive of many black people who are not all that black. Once again we are back on one of life’s continuums. I know I would rather be referred to as white than Caucasian only because my phylogenetic nomenclature sounds a little pompous and overdone for ordinary conversation.  I am sure blacks must feel the same about being called Negroes.  “People of color?”  I don’t know, will whites become “People without color?”  There is black and there is white, but what do you do when the majority of the population doesn’t really belong to either extreme end of the racial continuum? What will we call each other when we finally realize that our blood all runs red?  How will be label ourselves? And in some cases, how will we know who to hate? How will I know where I fit, if I belong, if I am accepted, if I am normal?  No one wants to be a loner in search of their lost tribe.

Labels and Xenophobia

We cherish our labels because it helps us figure out who we are, a sense of identity that is largely formed through feedback from our community. That community, and therefore our identity, can come as an accident of our birth, or by adoption. We can live our entire life more or less on auto-pilot by the simple expedient of accepting the heritage, and labels, of our forebears. We can be fiercely loyal to our group or faction, religion or political affiliation, and even give our lives to those who neither know nor particularly care about us, except as a means to their ends. And we could hate our neighbor living across the street, who might be the only guy on our block who would pick us up off the street when we fell down. We can miss a lot by limiting ourselves to labels. That is what xenophobia is all about.

Fear of Assimilation

Some folk’s attachment to labels is so intense that their greatest fear is of potential assimilation of their group into another, perhaps larger group. If enough black and white people intermarry, how will we know who is black and who is white anymore? And then who will we have to hate, or to blame our wretchedness on? That is why everywhere in the world, there are very strong taboos about intermarriage between races and ethnicities. Assimilation is the enemy for many, because it dilutes the sense of group identity. And it is always good to have an opposing group, an enemy, a Great Satan, on whom to blame whatever we don’t like about our life or what we see as being wrong with the world. This is also why people everywhere are encouraged to keep a distance from those outside the group, because we can hate or fear them as a group, but when we meet individuals we often form friendships and bonds. That can weaken the cohesiveness of the tribe. Who could forget the Capulets and Montagues?

Survival Advantages to Tribal Identity

Humans are very tribal, and we all draw strength from being “among our own.” We draw comfort from our brand identity. Some tribes, such as the Jews, have apparently drawn great survival advantages from resisting assimilation. When I dated a Jewish girl and we went to Jewish parties, everyone wanted to know right away if I was Jewish or not. They needed to “place” me on their cultural map. They were very welcoming and kind and I knew that I was accepted–on the margins. To be fully accepted I would have had to convert. Otherwise, a goy is still a goy. Some Jews, especially Reform, do intermarry, but overall the tribal or ethnic integrity is considered very important to them. Many of them fear assimilation as a threat to their identity.

Other tribes quite literally died out, became extinct, because of a failure to assimilate. The Vikings who settled in Greenland died out, probably in the 14th century, but the Eskimos survive to this day. Perhaps if the two ethnic groups had intermarried, there would still be Viking blood in the far North. The opposite of assimilation is often war, so perhaps the Eskimos wiped out the Vikings. We don’t know.

Survival Advantages to Mongrelization

When a cross-bred dog loses some of the distinctive characteristics of its forebears, it becomes harder to identify.  It’s size, coloration, and behavior may be different.  We are no longer sure what to expect.  We either don’t know what to call it, or we invent a new breed.  We have label confusion.  Intensive in-breeding, such as what was done to create chocolate labs sometimes produces unanticipated genetic weaknesses.  The same thing happens with too much inbreeding among humans; hence the near universal taboos on incest. Genetic diversity often brings strength and resilience.

America, the melting pot of the world, went on to empire.

The same can be said of the evolution of language itself.  English is a mongrel language; it has borrowed remorselessly and unconscionably from most other languages it has come in contact with.  It has assimilated.  Partly as a result of this, it has become the dominant global language of business and air travel.  There are more people in China learning English than the entire population of the United Kingdom.

Assimilation can convey survival advantages through genetic diversification and intellectual and cultural cross-pollination.  Mutts can be healthier.  Class distinctions and undue emphasis on pedigrees can lead to extinction.  Labels can weaken us.

The Exceptional Individual

At the end of the day, our labels are our instrument for branding ourselves and everyone else, our accounting for differences and similarities. Our heritage may be of the utmost importance to us, or we may be citizens of the world, finding common cause with humanity everywhere. History seems to suggest that belonging to groups strengthens our survivability, but vast populations of groups have repeatedly been victimized and enslaved by their own group leaders. Group identity comes at a price.  It is not always as safe as it appears.

It also seems the world is moved forward periodically by extraordinary individuals, who dare to step away from the group and challenge the status quo, usually at great personal risk. Their courage and originality does not mean necessarily that they were blessed with happy, fulfilled lives. In many cases they paid an awesome price for their uniqueness. We may be grateful to them for their contributions, but make very different choices for ourselves.  Well, enough rambling for one day. I’ve got to get back to my group . . .


I have decided that we humans are fundamentally lazy, that is, we travel with the herd and we will do what we have to for our own survival, but for the most part we will ride on the efforts of others as much as possible.  It is best and safest to be in the middle of the herd, for those who travel on the periphery are far more likely to be picked off by predators or somehow get separated from the herd, to their destruction.  Basically, all we want is what the members of any herd want, the freedom and safety to graze and reproduce.  Now what, exactly, does this have to do with financial literacy?  Everything, dear Reader, everything.  Read more..

Literacy requires effort, mostly mental effort, and time spent reading and thinking and conceptualizing and comparing new knowledge with old knowledge, accepting some, discarding others, and continually challenging the orthodoxy of the day.  Orthodoxy is what is generally accepted by the herd, and to challenge that orthodoxy is to place ourselves at the fringe of the herd, to be viewed with suspicion, or even to be shunned.  This would mean willingly placing ourselves in a minority of our own choosing, the minority of independent thinkers. 

 I am not speaking of pseudo-free thinkers:  those individuals who seek to differentiate themselves, not  by real thinking, but by faking its supposed trappings, meaning strange dress, odd behavior, loaded language, secret meetings, or anything that will draw attention to themselves as being fringe for the sake of being fringe.  These people are also lazy, seeking to acquire the image of independent thinking without the mental effort of achieving the reality.  They are fakes.  The most obvious example of these folks are the young, who will blindly take to the streets with little information and bold slogans to demonstrate against the status quo.  These are the same people who will adopt the dress and mannerisms of their pop idols and who in their own way become the greatest conformists of all.  For them, to be, is to be AGAINST something.  And the definition of courage is to find something worth dying for, because at that point in their life they haven’t found anything yet worth living for.  They are AGAINST whatever IS, at the moment.  As opposed to conservatives, who are against any CHANGE of what IS, at the moment.  None of this is critical, or independent thinking.  It is all nonsense and herd mentality.  But the herd exists, and it behaves as it must, as a herd.

 I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, the same as the family of the recently deceased Michael Jackson.  There was a lot of good in how I grew up, including a respect for hard work and honesty.  Honesty in some things, deception in other things.  We believed in material honesty, in not cheating or defrauding others.  That honesty did not extend to matters of the mind.  That’s where the fraud began.  One of the first hallmarks of intellectual dishonesty is to label anything that differs from our own beliefs, and to use those labels as a substitute for thinking, as a shortcut around thinking.  Instead of critically evaluating, you simply label a thing and that absolves you from the effort of genuine, honest, open thought.  There was danger in free thinking; one might be seduced by differing ideas.  The belief system must be defended at all costs.  The most efficacious way to achieve this goal is to constantly warn of the dire consequences of opening the lid to Pandora’s box by even a crack, and allowing the seeds of doubt to enter our minds.  To facilitate control of the herd, access to outside, or conflicting information needs to be closed off.  It is absolutely necessary to gain control of what information gets through to the herd.  If truth was what mattered, truth being loosely defined as reality, what IS, there would be no danger from the herd having full access to any information out there.  But truth is not what matters, belief is what matters, and therefore every power broker in the history of mankind has sought control of what information becomes available to the herd.  The politician, dictator, guru, ayatollah, or leadership insists on becoming the only acceptable channel, or conduit, of new information.  The minds of the herd need to be forcibly protected by  seizing or controlling the media.  All news is filtered and given the proper “slant”.  The editing of information and news may be subtly nuanced or flagrantly propagandistic.    Success is finally achieved when the herd polices itself, and takes over the job on behalf of the State, the organization, the enterprise.  Belief has finally taken on a life of its own and requires no further rational defense.  Belief now substitutes for thinking.  Everyone can now get on with the serious business of grazing and reproducing.

 I knew growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness that we were often labeled as a cult, and I used to wonder what that really meant.  In time I learned that it was an elusive term that seemed to take on a different connotation in every different context.  Ultimately it meant any belief system inspiring intense devotion, and that was outside the herd thinking, i.e. outside the orthodoxy of the time and location.  Cults often seemed to attract people who were lost souls to begin with, the disenfranchised, those without purpose or direction, those looking for someone to tell them what to do next with their life, or to tell them what to believe.  Many of these people had no idea what they believed, they simply sought an unearned elitism of being AGAINST something.  They identied their Devil before they acquired their God. Intellectually, they wanted something for nothing.  They were not really independent thinkers, but seeking a new herd with which to identify themselves.  They are more like the very young offspring of a species who become imprinted after prematurely losing their real parent, and who then are brought into close contact with a representative of another species and adopt that one as their lost parent.  This produces charming absurdities, as we see a duckling adopting a cat as its parent and following it dutifully. Humans who get separated from the main herd are vulnerable to becoming imprinted by any stray subgroup or guru that happens along, and strongly identifying themselves with that new group.  They develop a new, and possibly absurd, new identity.

 Jehovah’s Witnesses were no different from anyone else, but they certainly had no corner on the market of intellectual dishonesty, or trying to control the flow of information to their followers.  We knew who the enemy was:  it was the other churches, first and foremost the churches of Christendom, and extended from there to  the full range of all the Moslem and eastern religions of the world.  It became necessary to learn the weaknesses of the competiton, but to assure that the membership of the herd was not influenced by the competition.  Therefore, all higher education, meaning college education, was strongly discouraged.  Our youth were encouraged to find blue collar jobs and vocational school training.  If the children of church elders went to a college, it placed the position of the elder in jeopardy.  Who knows what contaminated ideas the young and impressionable might be exposed to at the altars of higher learning?  The Humanities departments of our universities were the breeding grounds of wrong ideas, and were therefore the enemy.  As in all herds, access to ideas had to be carefully controlled.  The irony of all this is that thought control, or political correctness, is nowhere more prevalent than on the university campuses purportedly dedicated to open inquiry.  Hence the professor who achieves tenure as protection from coercive practices of the school administration, and who then introduces punitive actions towards students who do not subscribe to his own version of orthodoxy.  Each minority, when the tables are turned, proceeds immediately to a repetition of the behaviors of the preceding majority.

 In time I lived at the headquarters of the church and was able to observe the workings of the organization at the very top.  It was disillusioning.  I did not see evil as I would define it.  I saw victims of victims.  I saw closed minds and the power of belief.  I saw true herd mentality, circular logic, propaganda, power struggles, and sex.  I saw the masses happy to be told what to do, what to believe, and how to behave.  I saw the viciousness towards any who broke from the herd; I saw the pack turn on them with a ferocity never quite directed towards those who had never belonged to the herd to begin with.  I saw the confusion of the herd when they occasionally perceived glimpses of internal power struggles and ideological conflict.  It was necessary for the herd to believe all was harmony, that there was still a final authority, and that God forbid, no one had to do any thinking of their own.  Everyone wanted something for nothing.

 When we would go from door to door, canvassing for new converts, I was amazed at finding the same phenomenon everywhere.  Someone would say, as a defense to engaging us in unnecessary or prolonged conversation, that they were sorry, they were not interested, because they were, say for instance, . . . Catholic.  I would ask them what it meant to them to be a Catholic.  I never once, in years of proselytizing received an intelligible answer to my sincere question.  As a matter of fact, the question was usually received as an absurdity, as if it was unaskable and unanswerable.  No one knew why they were a Catholic, instead of, say, a Methodist or Presbyterian, or God forbid, a Buddhist or Hindu.  They just were what they were.  It was unchallengeable, unassailable, and accepted as axiomatic, something that required no defense or thought.  Belief had become a short cut for thinking.  Something for nothing.  No mental effort required.

 Belief in God was accepted without thinking; belief in the Bible was accepted without the necessity of reading it; belief in the Koran was accepted without the necessity, not only of reading it, but of reading anything at all; belief in Communism and the triumph of the proletariat was defended and died for, without  ever reading its Manifesto; belief in economic Central Planning was accepted without any comprehension of money, production, the creation and preservation of wealth; belief in every boondoggle imaginable was accepted by virtue of its constant repetition in the media, as if anything that received enough Twitters could turn nothing into something.  The billions of parents of the world sent their own children into the furnaces of armed conflict to die for causes they never understood, but accepted and believed because they had heard the holy mantras repeated so often they must be true.  Slogans were substituted for thinking.

 Now let’s get back to financial literacy and the purpose of this blog.  Why do I write, dear Reader?  Because I have unanswered questions, and you should too, if you do any thinking at all.  And the answers matter.  In the last ten years hundreds of thousands became millionaires on paper, only to lose it and become paupers.  What was going on?  Was it the failure of capitalism, or the forceful intervention of governments into free enterprise?  Is the solution more intervention of governments, or a return to free enterprise?   What is capitalism anyway?    What are inflation and deflation?  They say we should buy gold.  Should we?  If we do, what do we do with it?  It won’t earn interest in our closet.  Who do we sell it to if paper money becomes worthless?  Will we be able to buy a loaf of bread with a bar of gold?  If the government wants our gold, what is to prevent them from knocking on our door and confiscating it?  If they do that, what recourse do we have?  They have the guns and we don’t.  What about the national debt?  They say we are mortgaging the futures of our children.  What does that mean, anyway?  Are our children all going to get an invoice in the mail, like a credit card bill, but from the government, saying they will have to make onerous monthly payments to Uncle Sam?  And if not, exactly HOW are our children saddled with our debt?  This doesn’t seem real, and so we don’t really care about it, and why should we?  None of us want to become accountants or economists, and how much do we really need to know?  Why isn’t it enough to just believe?  Like being a Catholic or a Democrat or a Scientologist or a Kenynesian or a Liberal or a Libertarian?  Why can’t we just accept a label of our choosing and go on grazing and reproducing, which is all we really want to do?

 When I was a Jehovah’s Witnesses, the herd organized lots of meetings, assemblies, conventions.  We were often regaled with lengthy dissertations so dense and obscure that no one really had any idea what had just been said.  Happily, however, it never occurred to us that the obscurantism was intentional obfuscation; that the problem was not our failure to comprehend, but that the message was incomprehensible.  After such a program, we often said to each other, in discussing the recent content, how intellectually “deep” it was.  Little did we realize that we had long ago given up the sovereignty of our own minds, and now accepted any imposter’s substitute.  Now I listen to the same intellectual sleight-of-hand in the form of endless economic and political sermonettes disseminated on the 6 o-clock news as divine truths, using jargon and slogans that gain credibility with their endless repetition.

 I have already been accused on this blog site of writing too many words.  Can’t I reduce concepts to Twitter-size feeds, or sound bytes, that tell us what to do and what to believe?  And actually, as a card-carrying member of my herd, I really don’t want to be disturbed with new information, or the introduction of conflict and mental discomfort into my carefully fabricated perception of reality.  As a philosopher said long ago, I have never seen a subjugated people that didn’t deserve it.  As I would say, if we have not the will to impose our own terms on life, we must be prepared to accept the terms life imposes on us.  And when that happens, we will have no comprehension of how we got there, but will we really care, as long as we can go on grazing and reproducing?

 Why can’t we have something for nothing?

As always, thank you for stopping in.  Leave a comment if you wish, and come again.  John Bechtel


(That’s not incorrect grammar in the title of this article; it’s literary license!)

Michael Jackson and his siblings grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses, at least sort of.  So did I.  So I started comparing my life with his.  We started at the same place, and ended up in very different places.  Who did better?  I decided to keep score:

 Tough, authoritarian parenting was the norm.  Michael, one; John, one.

 Michael grew up on music; I grew up without music.  My father was protecting me from people like Michael.  No telling what I might do under their influence:  grow my hair longer??  Michael, 1000; John, zero.

Read more..

We had to perform to win approval.  Michael, one; John, one.

 We both went on stage, Michael to earn fame and fortune, me to win approval of the church authorities.  Michael, 10,000; John, one.

 We both needed to win the approval of our parents.  Michael, one; John, one.

 We had no clue how to manage our money.  We either didn’t have financial statements, or didn’t know how to read them.  Probably not enough interest to learn either.  .  In my family, we didn’t even know what a financial statement looked like.  Michael, one; John, one. 

 I knew when I was broke.  Michael didn’t.  Michael, zero; John, one.

 With regard to our sexual development, I would guess Michael lost his virginity before I did.  Hell, everybody lost their virginity before I did!  At the age of 23, I married the only girl I had ever kissed.  We were both virgins.  I don’t know why she got married, but I got married because I just thought that’s what you should do when you were 23.  If you waited much longer, people might start to wonder about you.  Wonder what?  I didn’t know.  It was just time.  It wasn’t even about sex.  I was so sexually repressed, I didn’t even know what I was missing.  Michael, 2500; John, one.

 Michael lost the favor of the church; I went to the church headquarters and rose in the church hierarchy.  Michael, 2500; John, one.

 We both left the church.  Michael, one; John, one.

 Michael got involved in sex scandals; nobody cared what I did.  Michael, -2500, John, one.

 Michael was extremely handsome when very young, and then got weirder looking as he aged.  I was weird looking as a nerd before that was chic, and the wrinkles now camouflage the nerdiness satisfactorily.  Nobody could be a nerd at my age.  Michael, one; John, one.

 Michael went to a plastic surgeon more often than I did.   Michael, -2500; John, one.

 Michael had more “friends” than I did.  In the end, we probably had about the same number of real friends.  Michael, one; John, one.

 We both have known money problems.  Michael’s money problems had more zeros on them.  Michael, one; John, one.

 We both had unsuccessful marriages.  Michael, one; John, one.

 Tens of millions grieve Michael’s premature death, but far more than that don’t even know that I am alive and grateful for every minute of it!  Michael, 5,000; John, Priceless.

 Moral of the Story:  Better a live dog than a dead lion.  Better yet, become financially literate, and turn your  dog days into a lion’s pride.  Having too little money has some things in common with having too much money; either way, if your money is bigger than you are, you will lose it.  We all need financial literacy!

Thanks for listening in.  Come back again! John Bechtel

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