Monday, December 28, 2015

What if There is No Collapse?

When things get really bad, some people worry about an imminent collapse of civilization. Other people become hopeful that the collapse will be upon them soon, freeing them from their captivity and servitude. When I was a teenager in the SF community, I ran into some of these people, who called themselves Survivalists. Today, the same sorts of people are called "Preppers", I am not sure why the name of a thing has to change every few decades, although I suspect that the idea falls into disrepute, and then it is revived under a new word that does not bear the stigma.

I have a lot of sympathy for the motives of the Survivalists and the Preppers, and the Shruggers, in that all of them are hoping to get the yoke of the Federal government off their backs and to rebuild anew under circumstances that are at once more difficult, but at the same time offer much more hope for the future. If only we could get out from under the current mess, scrap the present non-functional system, and start from scratch! Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to happen. Things don't tend to collapse. No matter how bad it gets, it could always be worse.

Here is a blog post by Sarah A. Hoyt that explains the widespread historical evidence that civilization does not tend to collapse, even under extreme pressure:

In Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way, we see an example of how collapse does not happen in a small, microcosmic illustration. You would think, for instance, that when the Japanese lost World War II, their internment camps in China would just fall apart and the inmates would wander away into freedom. This would seem to be a very reasonable model of collapse.

However, that's not what happened. What happened was this: the American government sent seven men in parachutes to take over the camp. The Japanese Commandant surrendered to the head of this party, and then the Japanese continued to run the internment camp on behalf of the American government, until an Army unit could take over. And the Army unit set up an entire indoctrination program to help the internees reenter American or Allied society, before eventually shipping them home. Meanwhile, the Communists were shelling outside the camp, because as far as they were concerned, the war was not over. It would not be over till they won complete control over China.

At no time did the internment camp just collapse. At no point did anarchy reign at the Courtyard of the Happy Way. At no point were the bad policies of either the government of Japan or the government of the United States the cause of a loss of order in the world of the internees. There was always somebody in charge! The prisoners took orders till the very end. We can argue about which jailer was more humane, but at no point was there freedom in that camp.

I don't write science fiction to illustrate these points. Why should I, when actual historical facts bear me out? Is there anything stranger than the truth?

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Lately, there has been a lot of misuse of the term "forgiveness." People say things like "I am forgiving for my own sake, so that I can know peace. But I want nothing to do with the person I forgive, and no benefit need come to the wrongdoer from my forgiveness."

While it is true that a catharsis can occur when we forgive, forgiveness is not something we can do without focusing on the other person. By its very nature, forgiveness cannot be all about us. It has to involve our true feelings for and about another.

Just as revenge is different from karma, forgiveness, the most extreme  alternative to revenge, is different from writing someone off and shunning them. Yet today, people conflate all the non-revenge reactions together, as if to fail to take revenge is the same as forgiveness.

All of these are legitimate reactions to being wronged:

  • Revenge
  • Retribution
  • Payment and release
  • A lawsuit
  • Shunning
  • The Cold Shoulder
  • The Silent Treatment
  • Forgiveness

There are degrees of anger that we feel for a wrong committed against us. There are degrees of reaction that are possible. All of these are acceptable. Just because you have been wronged, that does not mean you must seek revenge. Just because you have been wronged, that does not mean you must forgive. 

While both revenge and forgiveness are the most extreme reactions possible -- and each of them offers a greater emotional catharsis and release than the less extreme possibilities in the middle -- they are certainly not the only choices available, 

Most of the time we will choose neither revenge nor forgiveness for serious wrongs committed against us. Revenge can be too costly. We might be too entangled with a person in  our business or family life to be able to take full retribution, a lawsuit drags on forever, but still we cannot forgive. So most times, we just have to let it go. We move on. We stop feeling angry, we lose the need to act on the feeling, but still we do not forgive. Letting it go does not mean forgiveness. And we are fooling no one if we call it that.

In the video embedded below, I discuss what forgiveness is and why people try to fake it. 

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Nature of Happiness

In our current culture, we have two main views on happiness, which are diametrically opposed;

1. You must stay in the present moment, forgetting all about the past and the future, in order to enjoy true happiness. A representative article belonging to this school can be found here, in a review of  a book by Alan Watts:

2. A meaningful life, one based on working in the present to secure future rewards, not necessarily for oneself, but for others or for abstract ideals such as knowledge, love or civilization, is more sustaining than the momentary happiness that comes from focusing on the present.

Both views are widely accepted, so much so that I see the same people posting memes sometimes in favor of the one view and sometimes in favor of the other, seemingly unaware that they contradict each other. And for those of them who really live in the present moment, with no concern for consistency, maybe it really does work that way!

As a believer in the "pursuit of happiness" rather than its immediate possession, I may seem to fall into the second school, that of Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor, but I really don't buy into his embracing suffering for its own sake. For instance, if you believe in the future, why would you sacrifice your young pregnant wife to your elderly parents? Even without the holocaust, the parents eventually would have died. Living for the future means saving the young, so they can transmit your  culture and your genes on into a possibly limitless future.  None of my grandparents stayed behind to take care of their parents. All of them made sure that their children survived, which is why I and my  daughter even exist. This to me seems to be the productive way of living for the future.

But on the other hand, it is very difficult to simply give way to sensual pleasure -- eating, procreation, taking care of young -- without thinking what those things mean for the future. The emptiness of drug induced pleasure comes precisely from the fact that this natural signal that one is on the right path to a sustainable future has been hijacked out of its biological context. A drug high, unlike a natural high, is lulling one into a sense of happiness in the present moment without any positive implications for the future.

In nature, every sensual pleasure is a stimulus created to guide the living being onto a productive path.

Often religious highs are made to mimic drug highs and to create in the mind an elation that is at variance with natural stimulus. So a person meditating or praying can cause the depression and pain of being in a hopeless situation in the present to dissipate and be replaced by a pleasure that comes not so much from anticipating a future reward, but from experiencing that reward in the present moment. That is the true danger of religion as an opiate for the masses -- not the promise of reward after death, but the granting of a reward now that prevents people from taking positive action to change the present.

In Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way the Camp Commandant wanted everyone in the camp to be happy, so that they could not only survive their internment but also thrive under his direction. In order to make this dream of his come true, he gave people flower seeds and encouraged them to put on plays and concerts, to sweeten their captivity.

Marah Fallowfield, on the other hand, did not want everyone to be lulled into a present happiness. She wanted them to fully experience their momentary suffering, so that they would rise up and rebel. She found happiness from being truly present to the evils of the moment, while plotting a brighter future.

Sometimes we are deluded when we plan for a future that never comes. Sometimes we are deluded by momentary pleasure that is ultimately meaningless. But actual happiness does not come from pretty flowers or pleasant odors or soft caresses. It comes from a past, present and future that are integrated together as a whole. Happiness does not require us to  bypass death.  Death is inevitable. Happiness  means making sure that what we value outlives us, whether that is our children, our handiwork or our ideas.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Trailer for Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way

I recently finished writing Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way. It is now undergoing the usual editing process, and it will not be available for sale until next year.

The issues in this novel are intertwined between personal and global concerns. But one question that we try to resolve is: what makes someplace a concentration camp? Is it it just that you're not allowed to leave? What other characteristics do concentration camps tend to have?

The following trailer deals with this question.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor Day

Yesterday, I finished the manuscript for the second half of Our Lady of Kaifeng. And today marks the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There are many things that people don't agree about concerning World War II. But you would think that a seemingly objective fact, like when Pearl Harbor happened, would be incontrovertible. For someone like Marah, talking to her mother after the war, however, even the date was a point of disagreement.

Everything depends on your point of view. Even the date when something happened. Maybe if more people were able to shift their perspective, then we would have a lot fewer disagreements.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Authenticating the Journal of Jean Laffite

Today, on Historia Obscura, there is a groundbeaking new article about the authenticity of the Journal of Jean Laffite.

In this article, the Gros portrait which was part of the Laffite collection is authenticated as being by the famous Napoleonic artist, Antoine-Jean Gros. What this means, among other things, is that John A. Laffite, whatever his demerits, could not have forged that painting.

Of course he could not have forged the Journal, either.

For one thing, John A. Laffite did not speak French. For another, the particular dialect of French used would be unavailable even to a literate American forger, as it was a creole with a peculiar mixture of Spanish and Haitian influences. But there are other ways we can tell that the document is not a forgery.

The Journal of Jean Laffite  surfaced in 1948, when a man calling himself John Andrechyne Laflin presented it to the Missouri Historical Society. At first it was believed to be genuine, but later doubts began to surface. Laflin's own past was shady, he was accused of being a forger, and people began to doubt that this was the true journal of the famous privateer whose actions in the Battle of New Orleans turned the tide in the War of 1812.

An examination of the paper and ink confirmed that they were the 19th century and belonged to the same time period which it purported to have come from. The journal is not a day by day diary. It is more like the reminiscing of an older man about his past life. It is written in French and contains many newspaper clippings, rather like a scrapbook.

You would think, however, that an examination of the handwriting, and especially the signature of Jean Laffite, might be dispositive of the issue. If the manuscript was genuine, then surely the signature would match the signature in other documents from reputable sources.

As it happens, the national archives contain a letter written by Jean Laffite to President James Madison. The signature on that letter looks like this:

I have copied this signature from the letter written by Jean Laffite to James Madison which is found in the Library of Congress in the James Madison Collection. (It is not protected by copyright).

We can take a very good looks at this signature and get some idea if the signature in the Journal of Jean Laffite is the same or different.

I have a copy of the journal which was sent to me from the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Centter. It, too, is not protected by copyright, and the librarian was happy to make me this copy. The signature in the Journal of Jean Laffite looks like this:

The signatures do look quite different. You would think this would be dispositive of the issue. The letter to President Madison is genuine and is kept by the government. The journal must be a hoax.

But when I consulted with a genuine Jean Laffite researcher, here is what I found out: the experts all agree that the signature in the letter by Jean Laffite is not in the privateer's hand, whereas the signature in the Journal is very much the privateer's signature on his ship's manifest.

Picture provided by Pam Keyes

Now what do you make of that?