Humans Acting

Life always conspires to test and challenge our beliefs. There are several beliefs I hold that are compatible with libertarian philosophy. That’s not a political declaration. There’s never been a political party with a platform I agreed with 100 percent. Much of what is presented as democrat, republican and libertarian, I find arbitrary and insincere, and socialism is cute and terrifying like the evil doll in a horror movie.

Where I think the libertarians get it right, not 100 percent right, of course, but mostly right, is in their live and let live approach to government and economic issues. Ludwig von Mises wrote a book called Human Action in which he makes the case that human beings, possessed of minds with a logical structure that is similar for everyone, make purposeful decisions to maximize value. Thus, when people are able to exercise free will, over time the aggregate effect tends to produce the greatest value for all.

Human Action is a masterful defense of human freedom and free markets, and since its publication in 1942, no nation has fully embraced its principles in practice, possibly because the book is longer than War and Peace and not nearly as exciting. In the United States, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have always contended with the coercive powers of government and business in their attempts to maximize their own value.

Libertarians and republicans share a fierce attachment to individual property rights. Democrats and socialists are generally more supportive of public lands. It’s difficult, not impossible, but difficult, to be both an environmentalist and a republican or a libertarian, although some say that Theodore Roosevelt managed it to some degree.

Even a hard core libertarian, however, would draw the line at dumping toxic waste in the creek that runs through their property on it’s way to the lake downstream. Most of us who believe in even the most limited forms of government would acknowledge the legitimate role of a government here in defending the public good, but decades of scientific advancement have not extinguished the conflict between polluters and public health or between property rights and ecological health.

When it comes to property rights, personal choice and free markets, I’m as libertarian as F. A. Hayek himself, but I’m also an environmentalist because I’m aware that we are all members of the same community. My creek runs downstream. The silt from the illegal road on the mountain runs into my creek. The acid rain from the coal plant falls on my timber, and every mountain in the Southern Appalachians.

Nevertheless, there was little conflict between belief and action while I was home on the farm. But when I became a landlord, some of those beliefs were soon to be tested.

“Do what you will but do no harm” was my initial philosophy with our renters in another county. They seemed like reasonable, hard working people, and I had little concern for how they would care for the house.

But the large, wooded back yard was another matter. The neighborhood sits in an area that was formerly known as “Sandy Flats.” There are beaches that would feel lucky to have the sand in that yard. The soil does not hold water well, and during the long, hot summers it takes a hardy ground cover to survive.

To complicate matters, my elderly father, during the last years he lived at the house, loved to feed his birds so much that they had stripped away most of the ground cover, and the sand was beginning to erode during heavy rains.

When my dad left the house and we began to care for the yard ourselves, we took an ecological approach to restoring the soil. We encouraged native plants and grasses to grow, selected for hardiness and drought tolerance. When the leaves fell, we let them remain in place during the winter, which added organic material and improved the tilth of the soil. In just a few years the butterfly population multiplied and we began to see fireflies on the property at night. The heaviest rain had little effect on the stability of the ground. It was a well balanced ecosystem again, and an oasis in a neighborhood of traditional lawns.

Last July in the heat of the summer, our tenants enthusiastically removed most of the ground cover in the back yard and spread some grass seed on top of the sand in the hopes of making the yard look like a ChemLawn commercial. They raked all the leaves in the wooded area, exposing the soil to the hot sunshine. Like so many Americans, they were blind to the ecology of the land under their feet, and fixated on the heavily marketed images that we are programmed to recognize as symbols of prosperity and the good life.

Of course every bit of their grass seed died, and the ground began to erode again during the next downpour.

In an instant I felt more like a big government democrat or a law and order republican than I did a libertarian. I had to take a day or two to cool down and consider my response. Was I willing to lose good tenants who pay their rent on time and fix things around the house? Did I want to curb their enthusiasm for taking on projects at their own expense? How could I respond in a way that would maximize value for myself, and my tenants?

In the end, like a libertarian, I left them to their own devices. Like a democrat, I explained the science of soil management with a short course on ecology. And like a big government democrat or republican, I reminded myself that I still control their security deposit.

In Real Time

We wish a safe journey home to our visitors from the coast who came here seeking refuge from the path of Dorian. No one in the world is more hospitable than our neighbors from the low country, and I’m confident that you found our mountain folk no less welcoming. Our hearts go out to everyone who suffered a loss in the storm.

Who didn’t spent at least some time watching the weather over the holiday weekend, or clicking on the spaghetti models on their computer, or checking the weather app on their phone? Big storms are big media events.

There’s no denying that technology has given us tools for providing life saving information like storm warnings and evacuation notices. That’s not what we’re here to discuss this week.

What troubles us is the ability of media through technology to tap into our voyeuristic instincts. Whenever an event provides sufficient drama, millions of people now watch it unfold in “real time.” If the event requires a bit of extra dramatization to capture more viewers, our information providers are adept at providing that as well.

Drama is addictive, and like any drug, it requires higher and higher doses to provide the same buzz. Witness the constant local, regional and national real time crime and misfortune reports that we barely notice unless the level of drama is high enough. To the normal challenges of daily life we now add a constant exposure to stress hormones injected by our habitual consumption of media.

For tens of thousands of years humans experienced the passage of time much differently than we do today, or perhaps more accurately, we passed through time in a different manner. Time was reckoned by seasons, the phases of the moon or the gradual movement of celestial bodies long before the calendar was invented.

The invention of clocks began the divorce proceedings between humanity and the natural world. The second hand was a tiny but powerful sword slicing away bits of time from our lives with death by a thousand cuts.

For all our ability to measure time in ever smaller increments, however, we seem to have lost time rather than gained it. The general consensus is that life is short and time moves ever more swiftly, and I’ll wager you that twelve moons of our ancestor’s time was considerably longer than our year divided into nanoseconds.

The problem with our obsession with “real time” events is that for everyone watching, those events aren’t real at all. Every advance in communication technology enables us to spend more time in virtual reality, and every advance in the science of marketing ensures that we do so. Our awareness of here and now is surrendered to outside influences, and we gradually lose the ability to host that awareness ourselves.

So let’s look back at the holiday weekend we enjoyed here in the mountains. Did you notice the clear blue skies? Did you enjoy the cool nights? Did you spend your time in the sunshine or in the virtual reality of tropical force winds and rain while you tweeted your thoughts and prayers and posted your concern online? Did your weekend pass by too quickly? I’ll bet you that the weekend was much longer for the people sitting in traffic on an evacuation route.

Civilization in the developed world bathes in stress hormones with a consciousness focused on real time events in virtual reality. We perceive time much differently than our ancestors. How this will change us is as unpredictable as the computer generated spaghetti models of a hurricane.

It’s Everywhere, It’s Safe, And It’s On Sale

Hang on, my good neighbors. It’s going to be a bumpy ride today with some sharp turns. Some of you may get angry, but that’s OK. It’s good for the circulation.

I don’t know your names, but I’ll wager I know a thing or two about you. If you’re like me and the tailgate of your truck is the workbench you use most often; if you have more pairs of boots than dress shoes; if there is a sharp knife in your pocket, a worn out pair of White Mule gloves on your bench and a fishing pole or a shotgun or both in the corner of your shop, then you might need to hear this.

My unscientific survey of anecdotal evidence and years of observation tells me that you are the ones most likely to buy a jug of weed killer at the Low Depot and apply it generously.

There’s that sharp turn I warned you about, and yes, we’re going there again.

If you’re about to stop reading, please hang on for a little bit longer. Chances are that that no one you know and love has fought a battle with cancer. Yet. If you do know someone who has fought that battle, you may be more likely to take a look at the mounting evidence that glyphosate and a number of other herbicides (and pesticides for that matter) can make you sick.

If you want science, there are scores of epidemiological studies available which point to the hazards of certain chemicals. You don’t even have to go that far. Just read the MSDS or Manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheet that is (supposed to be) available in every workplace that uses chemicals.

No, the problem is not science. The problem is one of marketing and “tobacco science.” How many years did Big Tobacco tell us that smoking was safe? They had the studies to “prove” it too. And the marketing. “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette.”

Who would have guessed that baby powder could have caused ovarian cancer? Johnson and Johnson didn’t lose a multi billion dollar lawsuit because they were simply mistaken. Like Big Tobacco and Bayer/Monsanto, they lost because they knew better and covered up that knowledge.

Successful marketing by huge corporations works because it impacts us at a cultural level, and that kind of manipulation has been making hard working people sick for decades. We walk into the Low Depot in the early summer and the first thing we see is stack after stack of Roundup. It’s everywhere. It’s commonplace. It’s on sale.

Organizations we trust tell us that it’s safe. We love the BRMEMC here. We trust them to keep the lights on and we admire the heroes who climb a pole or go up in a bucket in the wind and rain and lightning. It must be safe if the power company is spraying mile after mile of right of way. They’ve got the scientific studies that tell us it’s safe, provided by the TVA, and the TVA is part of the government, which we all trust.

The DOT and the GDOT believe that widespread spraying of thousands of miles of road right of way is safe too. And the EPA, which is entirely trustworthy and knows better than the courts, hundreds of studies and dozens of nations which have banned glyphosate, also says it is safe.

It’s everywhere. It’s safe and it’s on sale. But just to make sure that those of us who are most likely to be concerned with weeds in the lawn or along the fence line will not hesitate to pick up an extra jug of spray, we are influenced on a psychological level as well. Only a wimp would be afraid of a little spray. It’s always the tree huggers, the hippies, the communists, or the liberals who are concerned about the environment.

Marketing of certain products has long relied on subtle manipulation of our male egos, and sometimes we are easy marks. I’m reminded of the good natured ribbing I took as a young wildland firefighter when I used my safety gear. It was hot. It was uncomfortable. It was wimpy to use it. But today I don’t have emphysema or bronchial asthma or heart disease like some of my former co workers.

The problem with weed killer goes even deeper. My great grandmother “brush broomed” her yard. With a bundle of sticks or a rake, she would scour away any blade of grass or living thing. There was a practical reason for this. The snakes had nowhere to hide.

But for generations now, marketing has convinced us that our lawns have to look like golf courses. Look at the happy children playing on the ChemLawn. One squirt of spray on the evil dandelion and next thing you know, the puppy is chasing the ball. You’ve got clover in your lawn? Aren’t you afraid of the bees that will come? You know there’s a spray for that, right?

We do things a little differently at home. We encourage native plants to grow. Native plants build and stabilize soil. When it rains, our creek runs clear, but a couple of miles down the valley it turns brown with sediment. We let most of the leaves lay where they fall in October. The leaves add organic material to the soil and we have many times the number of butterflies every summer than can be found on the golf course. Thousands of lightning bugs light up our cove in the summer. Hummingbirds patrol the jewel weed, the joe pye weed, the larkspur, the ironweed and the succession of native blooms that cover the meadow.

Keep spraying that creek bank and you may not need the fishing pole in the corner of your shop. Even corporate science admits the danger to fish posed by certain weed killers. Now we’re hearing that the honeybees are threatened too. Glyphosate impacts their gut bacteria and lowers their immune systems, but corporate science has a good corn syrup to replace the honey on your biscuit.

We live in, arguably, a free society. We still have the right to smoke, but not the right to blow it in someone’s face. We can still buy Roundup and any number of lawn and agricultural chemicals, but the battle lines are drawn and the tactics are similar to the tobacco battle our parents fought. Is it possible hundreds of scientists, dozens of nations and several juries are wrong, and the chemicals in question are safe, or less dangerous than some people think? Sure it is. But how much are you willing to gamble on that possibility?

Tears in the Rain

The final scene of the iconic 1982 science fiction thriller, Blade Runner, is given to Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer who passed away in July. Hauer’s character says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” 

Last week we were working on the gate at the end of our driveway, and the sweat glittered on our brows while we were distracted by the task at hand. A car slowed down and a neighbor spoke to us from the window. We had not seen her for months, and she brought the sad news that her husband had passed away recently.

Our neighbor and her husband were relatively new to the valley, and we had been “meaning to” visit them again, had spoken of it several times, had driven by without knocking when the house looked empty, and had utterly failed to follow up on our good intentions.

I remember how happy he was to have made it to the North Georgia mountains and how interesting his stories were in our brief visit. I’m sure his family will preserve and cherish his memory, but to us, the opportunity to better know our neighbor and share in his life experience is gone forever.

Opportunities are abundant in our lives, but they are ephemeral, and often invisible. When they do appear, they tend to manifest as a “cubic centimeter of chance,” and if we are not alert and agile enough to grasp them, they are lost to us.

I keep with me a few “talismans” of thought to remind me to stay alert. One of these is the memory of an opportunity lost. When my ailing mother asked me to stay another night in the family home at Christmastime, I did not know that it was her last Christmas. I don’t remember what was more important at the time. I don’t remember much of the previous night, which was in fact the last holiday night we spent together, but I’ll always remember the loss of the opportunity to spend one more night.

There is an arrowhead on my dresser that teaches and sometimes lectures me. It was crafted with great skill and attention to detail. The concentration necessary to create a tool of such beauty and efficiency must have been remarkable.

I know nothing of the hand that created it; will never see the face of the person who wielded it or know the stories he could have told. The adventures, the triumphs, the failures, the loves and the fears, the wisdom of the life he lived, all of these are gone and forgotten, like tears in the rain.

But I do remember the day I found that arrowhead. I remember the trip across the mountain to our grandparents house. I remember my grandparents singing in the kitchen and the sweetbread my grandmother made. I remember the whole family spread out across the freshly plowed field, hunting happily for the opportunity of an arrowhead to appear. I remember the joyful shouts whenever we found one.

Sometimes the most valuable opportunity is the chance to make a memory. My arrowhead reminds me to continue the hunt as time plows on, ever alert for the opportunities that may be unearthed.

What Is Important?

Last week there was tragedy in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the communities shaken by senseless acts of violence.

There are patterns we follow in our response to tragedy. I’m speaking now about the vast majority of people who are not directly involved, whose experience is vicarious, secondhand or derivative.

First, there is empathy. Many of us, and an optimist would say most, are sincerely moved by human suffering, and we reach out in thought and in prayer where our hands cannot reach. Some of us upgrade those efforts with something more tangible. We volunteer our time or donate to a cause.

But for an ever growing number of us engaged in the pixel matrix, there are patterns of behavior of questionable benefit to our peace of mind and, in the long term, to our freedom itself.

We have grown accustomed now to the entities which seek to monetize tragedy. News talkers, celebrities, bloggers, and “influencers” posture sympathy and outrage. A news talker tears up while reading a politically charged presentation and it becomes a headline. Politicians seek to bend events to political advantage. There are accusations and recriminations and more headlines.

Meanwhile on social media a similar process unfolds, though our efforts are geared more toward signalling our virtue. Look how upset I am. I changed my profile picture because I care so much. We tweet and post other tweets and posts of outrage, accusation and recrimination. Social media encourages our participation, and profits from it.

The process echoes throughout our various forms of communication until we are distracted by the next event or the next tragedy, or until we are told that it’s time to care about something else.

We assume so readily now that what is presented to us for our consumption is the most important thing there is, simply because it is presented to us. Let’s take a look at some of the “side items,” not considered important enough to be on the main menu:

As Neal de Grasse Tyson pointed out recently, in any given 48 hour period there are 500 deaths due to medical errors. Three hundred people die from the flu; 250 from suicide; 200 from car accidents and 40 from homicide by hand gun.

Between February and March this year, 280 Christians were killed in targeted attacks in Nigeria. Last year, 87,000 women were killed by domestic violence, which remains the number one killer of women around the world. This year 36 million people will starve to death.

We can’t change our profile pictures fast enough to keep up.

There is no fault to be found in empathy, or in any of the emotions we feel in response to a tragedy. However, it would benefit us to remember how much more easily we respond to emotion than to fact, and what a small percentage of fact there is in the information presented to us for our consumption. When we become habituated to a handful of companies and a roomful of politicians deciding for us what is important, we give up a power that we may find difficult to retrieve.

Two Views

“Are you going to the (Georgia Mountain) Fair this year?” I asked a woman at a local restaurant. She shook her head and said, “No. I haven’t been in four or five years. It’s too hot; I don’t like the traffic, and I don’t need another gourd with a flag painted on it.”

“Did you enjoy the Fair this year?” I asked a couple from out of town. “Oh, the kids had a wonderful time! They loved the rides, the “Old Ways” display and the Pioneer Village. My wife enjoyed the photography exhibit, and we got to see Ricky Skaggs. We ended up going back again the next day, and we’re planning to come back next year. You’ve got a really nice little town here. We wish we lived in the mountains!”

“The mountains have been really green this year,” I said to a neighbor. “And miserable,” he replied. “Rains all the time, or just enough to make it steamy when the sun comes out. Can’t go from the house to the car without breaking into a sweat, and the grass grows faster than I can mow it.”

“You’ve got a short memory,” said another neighbor. “Don’t you remember this time of year about three years ago when the ground was so dry it was cracking open? And a few months later we were between those two big fires and the air was full of smoke? Remember the ashes falling out of the sky and getting all over everything? I had a friend who had to leave his house when they evacuated the neighborhood when the fire got too close. You should be thankful for the rain.”

“I really hate the traffic this time of year,” said a local resident in the grocery checkout line. “It takes ten minutes just to get from one side of town to the other, and the restaurant was so busy we had to wait twenty minutes to get our food.”

“Come on down to Atlanta if you think that’s bad,” said a visitor to town.” “It can take ten minutes just to go a block and a half, and every day the Interstate is just like a parking lot. I live only ten miles from work, but I’m in my car an hour each way and sometimes a lot more. And twenty minutes to get served is fast food! Try waiting an hour just to get a table!”

An old man sat outside a country store and gazed at the mountains across the valley. A young visitor pulled up and got out of his car. “What a miserable hot day this is! ” He said to the old man.

“Not too bad in the shade,” the old gentleman replied. “Where you from, young man?”

“From the city,” the young man replied. “We’re planning on leaving soon, though, and finding a small town somewhere to settle in. This seems like a nice little town. What kind of people live around here?”

“What kind of people live where you come from?” Asked the old man.

“Not very nice. In fact, not nice at all. They’re arrogant, judgmental and downright mean. That’s the main reason we’re leaving.”

“That’s a shame,” said the old man, “but you’ll find that folks are just the same around here. I guess you’ll have to keep looking. Good luck to you, young man.”

Later on another visitor pulled up next to the store. A young man got out of the car and said, “Good afternoon sir. Nice sunny day today, isn’t it!”

“I was just thinking the same thing myself,” said the old man. “Where you from, young fellow?”

“We live in the city, but we’re thinking about moving here. What kind of people live around here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“What kind of people live where you come from?”

“Oh, people are very nice for the most part. They’re friendly and very supportive of each other. We’re really going to miss our neighbors.”

“Well that’s exactly the kind of people you’ll find around here,” said the old man. Welcome to the community, young fellow. We’ll be proud to have you as a neighbor!

Back to School

It appears that our culture, or at least the part of it we have surrendered to a bizarre matrix of electronic communication driven by marketing and politics, has returned to the playground of grammar school days.

That playground could be a cruel place, where facts were irrelevant and bullies sought to gain advantage through taunts and insults. The same is true on our playground today, though the action takes place primarily in the pixel world.

Nevertheless, in our efforts to hurl the most damaging pejoratives, signal the most virtue and collect the most votes, we’ve lost track of the meaning of some important words. Let’s leave the playground for a moment and go back to school where we can review some important definitions.

Racism: Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another. Xenophobia: Having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries. Jingoism: Extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy. Dumb: Tweeting live ammunition to political rivals and uniting their squabbling factions in outrage. Ignorant: Believing that the word “racist” is a universal adhesive that will stick on anyone to whom it is applied. 

When you or I, or a president, tells someone to “go back where they came from,” at face value this is an example, not of racism, but of xenophobia. However, history always bats last in that determination. For example, no one would accuse the American colonists of being racist because they wanted the British to go back where they came from, but if the British had won, the Rebels would have been labeled xenophobic and the Tories would be the “patriots.” This is an example of politics altering language.

There is another definition that is pertinent to our discussion this week: natural. In this case we refer to one of Merriam Webster’s alternate definitions of the word, “occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature not marvelous or supernatural.” In a healthy society, social trends and cultural changes begin with individuals and propagate outwards through families and groups to become regional and national. Business and government accommodate the needs and wants of society and support change when it is warranted. This happens “naturally” over the course of time.

In our own time the process has been largely reversed. Thanks to technology, trends and cultural changes are dictated from the top down, disseminated by marketing and mutated by politics; given to a people who too often set aside the ability to steer their own course in exchange for anything that gratifies the senses. They are the pushers, and we are the junkies. Witness the eager, hungry efforts of media to fan the flames of outrage and then monetize it.

I don’t know whether the president is a “racist” or not, and neither do you. For either of us to make that determination about anyone, we would have to be able to discern the contents of their heart and mind. By the time we leave the playground, we should know the difference between judging a person’s behavior and judging the person. We can challenge a person’s behavior and still have a chance for a dialogue, but when we label that person, communication ceases as all parties become positional. This truth seems lost in the collective amnesia of our time.

As for the president’s behavior, the view from the cheap seats leads me to believe that the media and the democrats are still playing Trump’s game, which remains blunt but effective. All he has to do to be re elected is to goad the mainstream democrats into appearing left of center. They may be temporarily united in outrage, but nothing turns out the republican vote like tossing around the kind of pejoratives that are being directed at the president’s supporters with the implication that republicans and conservatives are (insert your insult of choice) because of how they choose to vote. “Basket of deplorables,” anyone? Have the democrats learned anything from the 2016 election?

We need to have a conversation in this country about immigration and about race, but “racist” is not a useful description for anyone we don’t like. The misuse of the word clouds the issue, and it makes people who might one day achieve understanding, defensive and positional when they feel they are being attacked.

I’ll leave you with a couple of “thought experiments” which might be useful for expanding our perspective on the issues. First, let’s consider the Native Americans in the early stages of the exploration of North America by Europeans:

The Native Americans were possessed of unique, sophisticated cultures and languages with many generations of shared history and cultural heritage. As the Europeans came in greater numbers over time, and since most of those settlers were “white,” the Indians wanted very badly for those white folks to go back where they came from, and some were willing to go to war to accomplish that. Were they “racist?” Should they have accepted the disintegration of their heritage and way of life for “diversity” and “inclusiveness?” Some did. They tried to welcome the settlers and later to assimilate to their culture. In the end they fared no better than the ones who resisted.

Second, consider the Obama Administration. Obama’s election was an accomplishment that many of us celebrate as evidence of how far we have progressed as a nation in overcoming racism and prejudice. The Obama Administration deported far more people over the same period of time than the Trump Administration has been able to deport, in spite of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on the subject. Is this evidence that Obama was actually a racist or a xenophobe?

Finally, does the United States, like the Native Americans, have a unique, sophisticated culture and language? Do we have shared values and generations of shared history and cultural heritage? Or are we just an “idea” and our citizens merely place holders?

We are undoubtedly a nation of immigrants, and that is part of our strength, but we also have a culture that is uniquely our own, and we have a right to maintain it and pass it on to our descendants. We need to find a healthy balance going forward, and that will require a national conversation, understanding, and patience. Conversation is difficult on a playground overrun by bullies.