08 November 2012

Cracking The Mirrored Marble

One of my favorite songs, by one of my favorite bands, on the topic of expanding one's mind.  
Completely off topic, Doug's guitar is exactly the same color and model as mine, except he seems to have nicer pickups.  I'd never noticed before.

Yesterday, Barack Obama was re-elected President.  From an electoral vote perspective, it wasn't really close.  I had been telling anyone who asked (and many who didn't) for weeks that Obama had a comfortably wide path to victory, even losing several key swing states.  Romney's path to victory was much narrower, needing to win most of the large swing states to have a chance of reaching the 270 EV threshold.  This seemed pretty elementary, being that Obama had scored 365 EV in 2008, so he could afford to lose 95 EVs from that map and still win, even if that would not be a strong way to win politically.  Needless to say, I wasn't sweating the final result too much.

My confidence also came from the fact that I'm a poll junkie, so I try to catch as much information about the polling as I can from as early on in the cycle as I can.  I watch the trends, within the different polling outfits, within the individual states, not so much on a national level, because that is not how we decide the Presidential election, but I watch those too.  Most importantly, I pay attention to the polling aggregators such as Nate Silver (aka "poblano") at FiveThirtyEight.com and Sam Wang at Princeton Election Consortium.  These guys, and others like them, take a wide sampling of the polls done by all of the dozens of pollsters in the field and crunch all of those numbers to come up with odds for certain election outcomes.  Nate Silver's background before doing this professionally was in baseball statistics (think Moneyball) where he was also quite successful in modelling predictions of future performance.

Silver gained great notoriety (and his New York Times gig) by his great accuracy in predicting the 2008 Democratic primaries and general election, where he called 49 of 50 states correctly (missing only Missouri, which was the closest race in the nation, taking several days to finally call for McCain).  Wang quietly predicted all 50 states correctly in 2008.  They have continued to tweak their models over the years so that they would be even more accurate predictors, and with not quite all of the returns in this year, they appear to have done just about as well (Silver got 50 of 50, Wang 49 missing only Florida, which is again the last state to call).

Of course, there were dozens of pundits on TV and with other media outlets who made predictions on the election outcome in the days prior to the vote.  Some did much better than others.  If you look at the linked predictions, you'll see that the right-wing pundits tended to give the race to Romney by varying margins (many of them laughable, especially in light of the 126 EV margin Obama ended up winning by).  Now, one could say that this was done somewhat cynically, in order to not depress Republican turnout and to give their guy a chance to win, but based on some of the WILD predictions, and some of the reactions when Obama ended up winning, I think that most of these people were genuinely shocked that Romney was not victorious.  How did the once mighty right-wing message machine come to ultimately believe their own bullshit?  

The successful Republican electoral majority of the last generation has always depended on the votes of large numbers of people whose economic interests were in direct conflict with the policies devised and espoused by the leadership of the party.  These "social conservatives" were never going to benefit from tax cuts for the rich or elimination of the estate tax or capital gains taxes, or truly any other tax shelter devised to benefit the wealthy, and would in fact lose out on the societal infrastructure benefits that would be cut to pay for those tax cuts.  But these social conservatives do love America, and they love freedom, and they love God, and they love unborn babies, and they hate Communists, and they hate liberals, and they hate homosexuals, and they're scared of black people and foreigners, and they distrust scientists and intellectuals and anyone who thinks or acts differently from them, and they respect and trust authority, and they stick together, and their religious faith makes them ready programmed to believe unbelievable stories and contradictory explanations for complex things.  They were the perfect foot soldiers for the conservative movement of the late 20th Century, and they were the greatest political force in America for over 20 years.

The problem was, they were a Frankenstein's Monster creation of the conservative economic and intellectual elite, and eventually the Monster was going to demand a part in the direction of the movement.  It began with the old guard of the Republican Party simply using them to get elected in the 1980s by promising social action that was either impossible to achieve or which they had no intention of acting upon.  Then in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich found that  if he could get a bunch of yes-men elected to Congress who would be 100% loyal to the Party, the Party would be much more unified and powerful, so his GOPAC trained recruits not to think about policy (Newt had that all taken care of himself), but simply to follow orders, vote as told, and repeat prescribed talking points.  FoxNews brought the orders and talking points to the masses, expanding the message beyond just the evangelical churches to a much wider conservative audience who could also now all be on the same page.  Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio icons brought the emotion to the message and taught the listeners not just what to think but how to feel about the issues.

By the 2000s, practically all dissension in the conservative movement had been eliminated, with policies coming from the White House, passed uniformly by the Republicans in Congress, and accepted as right and good by the Republican rank and file, regardless of contradictions from supposed principles of conservatism.  But like all centralized authoritarian movements, there is a short lifespan because it is not dynamic and alive with new leaders rising to replace the old.  What ended up happening was that the old puppet masters like Gingrich and Cheney and Bush Sr. started to be replaced by their yes-men like Dennis Hastert and John Boehner and Tom DeLay, men with no ideas, only the ability to keep other lesser minds in line.  

The final step in the demise of the modern conservative movement is the Tea Party, a group of credulous ignoramuses with reserves of anger that only needed to be focused by someone at something.  Like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the GOPAC kids, now the nominal leaders of the Republican Party and conservative movement, thought they could control the minions like they had seen their masters do in the past.  But their kung fu was not strong enough, and the Teabaggers got themselves elected to Congress and would not be told what to do by these old, corrupted career politicians.  Now the Republican Party has not a great mind among them in elected office, and no real prospect of any coming up in the ranks.

Throughout all of this time though, outsiders always had this ominous sense that there were brains behind the scenes who knew the truth of the world and simply drew up the devious plans and lies and deceptions and fed them out into the world, laughing menacingly to themselves as the dupes of America unwittingly dug their own graves while bequeathing their meager fortunes to the men in the smoke-filled rooms.  What we appear to have witnessed in the past two years however is that there is no one left, even behind the scenes of the GOP, who has any idea what they are doing anymore, and they may in fact not even be aware of the truths of the world in order to fashion effective lies.  The Republican primaries of 2012 were a clown car of complete jokes of candidates, including the intelligent but morally repulsive Mr. Gingrich, none of whom should ever have been considered by anyone to be qualified for the highest office in the land.  Mitt Romney was winner of the nomination by default, due in large part to his good looks, great wealth (and wealthy backers), and his willingness to say absolutely anything to win votes and to destroy his opponents.  But when he finally had to face a real opponent in President Obama and his campaign organization, Romney and his campaign looked every bit the crew of amateurs and fuck-ups that they were.  If it weren't for Obama's unwillingness to call out Romney on his heavy stream of bullshit in the first televised debate, Romney would probably have never come within 5 points of Obama in the national polls, and the electoral blowout would have been even worse than it was, because even the slanted and deluded pollsters wouldn't have been able to keep it appearing close enough to keep hope alive among the Party rank and file.

Which brings me to the Republican information bubble.  It has gone by many names over the past ten years including "echo-chamber", "feedback loop" and "cone of silence".  The basic idea is that conservatives, with the advent of FoxNews and of right-wing radio and websites and newspapers, can happily go through their lives now without ever hearing any opposing viewpoints from the media, if they choose.  If any opposing or conflicting ideas do manage to creep in, the sources of that information are derided as the "liberal media", or some other ad hominem slur designed to deligitimize anything that source says or does.  Lies are created and repeated, thus reinforcing them because when you hear even false information from multiple sources it has the patina of truth, and attempts to correct the falsehoods are blocked out as being lies themselves, from conspiracies of liars outside the bubble.  It is such a strong analogy because the information originates in the bubble, bounces around, and the bubble effectively prevents any outside information from penetrating.  The thing is, life inside the bubble becomes a severe distortion of reality, often bearing no resemblance at all to reality outside the bubble, which is damaging to the people inside, but when those people choose to act upon the world outside based on their distorted worldview, it becomes dangerous to everyone.

Once upon a time, I became very interested in the nature of the mind and consciousness, especially the idea that one could expand one's consciousness through directed thoughts and actions.  I was engaged by the idea that people use only a small percentage of the powers of our brains and minds.  I was fascinated by the abilities of some people to be aware of things around them that most people did not ever notice.  I saw patterns in apparently random natural phenomena that some mathematicians were able to explain and approximate through computer models.  I did a lot of research, both academic and practical, on the subject of consciousness and developed numerous theories and metaphors for the relationships between the elements of the body, mind, and spirit with the rest of the physical world.

Critical in any discussion of mind and consciousness is the idea of perception, or how we experience ourselves and our surroundings.  I came to conceive of consciousness as an "I" (or "eye") inside the mind, through which all is experienced.  It experiences simultaneously the physical senses of sight, sound, touch and taste/smell, it experiences emotions, and it experiences memories through recall and remembrance.  I tended to view the I as a pair of poles, like the poles of a magnet, with a field passing between them, a field of experience, of perception, the passing of which we understand as the passage of time.  

(If you wish, you may think of the I as the "soul", that part of you that is most centrally you, but also most purely universal and like every other living thing.  A little drop of Godstuff connected by an infinitely thin thread to a tree of similar threads from other people, animals, plants, and all things, possibly to the great oversoul of the earth and the universe.  Your religious conceptions may vary...)

Our experience, our consciousness of this experiential field limited by two factors.  The first is the energy of the field, which I would illustrate by the distance between the two poles of the I (it's coincidental, but useful, that in my illustration the "I" is shaped like a capital letter I , with the top and bottom being the poles, and the field passing through between).  The more energy in the magnet of the I, the further apart the poles can be, and the more "experience" can pass between the poles.  This is an expansion of consciousness, greater awareness of yourself, your surroundings, your thoughts and senses.

The second limitation is the ego, and I illustrate the idea of the ego as a hollow, spherical glass that is darkened much like mirrored sunglasses.  All experience from the mind (the triangle of the senses, emotions and memory) first passes through the filter of the ego before it can pass through the I.  Over a lifetime, the ego sphere is burned and stained by the experiences of the individual, affecting and coloring all subsequent experience in ways that make your experience uniquely "yours".  In fact, most people are so colored by the ego filter that they identify themselves as the ego itself.  But as the Buddha and others of great expanded consciousness have told us throughout time, the ego is only an illusion of self, and a limitation on our experience of the truth of the universe.

In most people, in times of normal consciousness, the I is very small in relation to the ego in which it resides.  It floats around in what can seem like a massive sea of the experiential field, moving from sensation to sensation, thought to thought, feeling to feeling, grasping only small slices of the total experience of life at any given moment, and this can lead to the false perception of disintegration and isolation from the universe and other I's.  Many I's may have the perception that the inside of the ego sphere is the whole of the universe, not even conceiving of the fact that the field of experience about which they float is merely a filtered version of reality, colored by the ego and reflecting this false self.

But the great teachers have taught throughout history, and prehistory, that we can expand our consciousness to crack through the mirrored glass of the ego, to experience reality without the filter, and to be able to look back at the falsehood, the smallness, and the insignificance of the ego-self.  Yogis, shamans, prophets, and other spiritual adepts have devised techniques, exercises, meditations, concoctions, and other methods to enable expansion of consciousness as a way to be more in touch with the reality of the universe.  The experience of breaking through the ego filter is akin to having spent your entire life wearing sunglasses (scratched and dirty sunglasses at that) and then for the first time taking them off.  All experience is suddenly more immediate, more integrated, more clear, and more TRUE.

The wonderful thing about successfully achieving an extra-egotistical experience is that even if you cannot permanently hold on to that state of expanded consciousness (the way the great prophets attempt to achieve nirvana through the ultimate dissolution of the ego), it is an experience that you can take with you back to a more "normal" conscious state, allowing you to subsequently perceive life differently.  You remain aware of the existence of your ego, of its relatively insignificant place within yourself, and you remain aware of its flaws and stains and how those imperfections affect your perception of truth.  You have new perspective, because you have experienced life from the outside looking in, and the outside looking out, and you know that the tiny space you generally inhabit deep inside of your mind and ego is very small, and significant only to you.  It is merely your own personal distortion of reality.

Something quite remarkable occurred yesterday regarding all of those election predictions.  While the whole world was watching, Nate Silver and Sam Wang and those who tried as hard as they could to extract themselves from their predictions of the election, relying as much as humanly possible on numbers and data and mathematics and objective reality, proved that they were superior in their predictions of reality than so-called "experts" and "insiders" and "experienced political professionals" who had made careers of analyzing political contests through the filters of their egos.  They proved that, even in the world of politics, there is an objective reality, it is measurable, and it can produce predictable results.  And while I would be hopelessly optimistic to think that the reality of the lies and distortions of the FoxNews bubble will become evident to large numbers of those who willingly have placed themselves in that information cocoon, I do hope that there will be large numbers of people, especially in the non-Fox political media, who will finally come to recognize that the FoxNews bubble is not only insular, but it is distorted and perverted to the point where no information emanating from it can ever be trusted to be anything but hopelessly distorted and perverted.  Maybe, we'll get just a little more truth.