CNN’s The Sixties and a Firestorm of Hope

Watching a bit of CNN’s The Sixties, I’m glad that it isn’t the smearpiece I was worried it might be. It seems to be a fairly objective recounting, at least from my understanding of the period.

Today, a lot of hippie, hipster, and arthouse culture is viewed as fairly insipid. And, to be fair, I’ve heard some pretty trivial and banal bullshit around Cafe Mekka in Nevada City and in hippie groups in Davis.

I’m not a big Grateful Dead fan. I love Cat Stevens, but in recent years I’ve started to see that Cat (now Yusuf Islam) was pretty lost and angry and confused.

So I was quite surprised when I hear Jerry Garcia say something that could have come out of my mouth:

“What we’re thinking about is a peaceful planet. We’re not thinking about anything else. We’re not thinking about any kind of power. We’re not thinking about any kind of struggles. We’re not thinking about revolution or war or any of that. That’s not what we want. Nobody wants to get hurt. Nobody wants to hurt anybody. We would all like to be able to live an uncluttered life. A simple life, a good life. And think about moving the whole human race ahead a step, or a few steps.”

Now, I disagree with Jerry here slightly in practical terms (but not in spirit). There will need to be revolutionary struggles that will change the way that we live if we want things to improve. Transhumanism, anarchism, socialism, post-Silicon Valley capitalism, and the philosophical traditions of the whole planet are going to be needed to accomplish those changes and create innovative solutions. But I do agree that we need to not be “thinking about revolution or war”. We need to be thinking about “moving the whole human race ahead a step, or a few steps”.

The sixties culture obviously had a lot of excesses. The fetishism of psychedelics, for example, is something that I think can directly be traced to some of the addiction problems we’re seeing today. People want to change their mind, but when people want to change their mind because they hate where they’re at, all drugs become is ritualistic self-extermination.

But we need a renewed period of optimism like that. Luckily, I think that all of the evidence shows that millennials are primed to explode into a firestorm of creativity and problem-solving.

Let’s try to start throwing some matches.

economy, hope, media

Al Jazeera and Honest Media

Amidst depressing news in France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there’s been a bright light (at least for me): Al Jazeera.

I’ve always like Al Jazeera America’s reporting. Back before the invasion of Iraq, no major American news outlets were talking about the fact that the US supported Saddam with any regularity. The only people who were? The Daily Show. Our honest reporting in this country was on a comedy show.

Al Jazeera, alongside LINK, has been a leading vanguard of that change. Stemming from great reporting in the Middle East, they have been having really great reporting here as well.

Real Money with Ali Velshi would normally be the kind of show I avoid like the plague. I hate business news. It’s self-congratulating capitalists operating from a myopic worldview where the poor, people of color and non-Americans barely exist.

But Velshi is a great journalist and a great interviewer. And even though it is certainly an economy watch program, it spends plenty of time talking about labor.

Today, he interviewed Tom Perez, the Secretary of the Department of Labor. It was like a dose of oxygen in a room full of carbon monoxide. Their discussion was incredibly reasonable and, if we were honest, would be viewed as centrist.

They discussed the recent employment figures which show some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we’re seeing both growth and some improvement for laborers. (There’s also good news on the worker confidence front). The bad news is that wages are barely budging (though they are higher than inflation) and many people are leaving the labor market because they have lost hope for employment. That’s on top of the depressingly high unemployment rates for non-whites and millennials.

The reasons this discussion was such a breath of fresh air in a toxic environment were manifold.

First: Al Jazeera is a daily reminder that there are people in the Middle East who are eager to report honestly, to embrace freedom, and to criticize imperialism. Velshi in particular is a Muslim, born in Kenya, raised in Toronto, who is erudite and moderate.

Second: Even in the White House, there are people who are willing to have honest discussions. The Obama administration has its problems (from a left perspective), but Perez was talking about long-term unemployment, the problem we’ve been having with a stagnating workforce for decades, etc. His analysis of why he believes that low wages are a choice and not a destiny was impressive, and while I’m perhaps more pessimistic than he is about the nightmarish prospects for a permanent working under-class developing in this country, his discussion was well-reasoned. And both Velshi and Perez were willing to broach the topic of race and class inequality, normally taboo in the United States.

The only way we’re going to get out of this mess is if we can have an honest conversation. That begins with our media no longer lying to us, no longer presenting things in a nice neat bow where our responsibility is never implicated.

happiness, hope, psychology

A New Metric for Happiness

The ways we measure success and happiness are fundamentally broken.

We measure individual success by looking at someone’s salary or the number of books they’ve written and speeches they’ve given, not days with their family and smiles they brought to the people they cared about. We measure collective economic success by looking at missiles and guns produced, not by seeing if every year people are seeing less stress and experiencing more prosperity. We measure the success of our police departments by how much they reduce crime, not how much they make people feel safe or how much they are getting at the root problems of violence and dissatisfaction that cause crime to begin with.

It’s time that we as a society measure not the amount of stuff we can produce (that ends up in landfills) but start measuring happiness. We need to start thinking about happiness as a metric, as an output that we want to measure in a more granular way. Our national goal should be to see people fulfilled, satisfied, happy, and healthy.

So far, nothing I’m saying is really that controversial conceptually. In practice, though, it’s really hard to measure happiness.

How do you measure how satisfied someone’s soul is? Do you use an MRI and see how their brain reacts? Do you ask them to fill out a survey and trust them not to lie? Do you look at their smiles, the way that they are eager and happy?

When you start measuring productivity, you realize that some people produce a lot more than others.

As a professional writer, I can do projects in an hour with no difficulty that others would stress about completing within a day. In other words, I’m at least twenty-four times as efficient as some other people, people who may in fact be perfectly talented and intelligent. But if I were to try to fix my car, I’d probably find that if I could even do it I’d take ten times as long as a professional mechanic and would end up cursing quite a lot more. Nor am I alone in this regard. From the software industry to visual arts, the best people have quantifiable output that’s just faster than everyone else’s by a huge margin.

I used to think that happiness was different. Sure, some people were depressed or had serious psychological issues. But I thought most people reacted to the world the way that I did: Waking up most days eager to face the day, eager to explore and create and share.

I have since found that I was utterly wrong.

So, let me introduce what I call the Abd-ar Rahman Metric. Named after Abd-ar Rahman the III, Emir and Caliph of Cordoba who was a king at the same age that I was still bumbling through college, this metric asks you, “How many days of pure and genuine happiness have you had?”

Really think about that question for a second.

Abd-ar Rahman the III was one of the most powerful people in the world. During his life, he became one of the heads of a major world religion, Islam. He ruled a whole nation for more than thirty years, from 929 to 961 CE. Many people dream of having a fraction of the kind of power and influence that this man had.

But at the end of his life, this is what he had to say:

“I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace…. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call… I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to Fourteen: – O man! place not thy confidence in this present world!”

His number on the Abd-ar Rahman the III Metric is fourteen. In his entire life, he had fourteen days where he felt pure and genuine happiness.

I’m twenty-eight years old as I write this article. Even removing years in my childhood that my memory is incomplete for and being quite conservative, my score on this metric is in the thousands. Let’s say that my score 3650, roughly every other day of the twenty years I can recall being blessed with pure and genuine happiness.

I can’t speak for any of you reading this, but I suspect most of you have had more than fourteen days of genuine happiness. One friend of mine, a person who has had an extremely difficult life in many respects, reported that she at least had a day of pure and genuine happiness on every Christmas, putting her score at least at 25.

My average month contains more days of pure and genuine happiness than the entire life of a man whose worldly power and wealth beggars mine.

I may have to worry about making rent sometimes or dealing with student loans, but I will experience days where the beauty in the world makes me weep for joy. I love the world so much, I want to holler it from the mountaintops.

The secret to my happiness is my belief. I have convictions. I believe this world matters, I believe action in it matters. I believe heroic struggles to improve our world are in and of themselves noble, no matter if they fail or succeed.

I do have some advantages Abd-ar Rahman the III didn’t have. Even with all of his money and power, I have a car while he had horses. I have better medical care. I have better entertainment: Movies, video games, television shows, and music on demand. I have the ability to communicate with people across the globe instantly. Many, maybe even most, people today enjoy a level of material safety and prosperity that no one in Abd-ar Rahman’s time could imagine.

So it is possible that some of the advantages that you and I have over this king have been because we’ve seen a thousand years of technological, social and economic development. Even people who are struggling to get by in the industrialized world still have marvels that kings couldn’t own a century ago, because those marvels didn’t exist.

But I think we can all see that the difference between you, me and Rahman cannot be just a matter of the fact that we can watch Arrow on Blu-Ray and he couldn’t.

The Buddha and Socrates, two men from massively different cultures, both came at the same realization: The way to happiness, to what Socrates called eudaemonia and what the Buddha called nirvana, is the cultivation of the spirit.

Every single person’s path toward that cultivation is different. In my opinion, that path can include the usage of modern techniques such as psychotropic medication.

I think that the secret is invulnerable belief. Invulnerable belief is my artistic calling card.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe even Socrates and the Buddha were wrong about the specific mechanisms for happiness.

But what’s clear is that Abd-ar Rahman the III did have wisdom when he told us to not look for happiness in the things of this world.

Cars, houses, fame, the approbation of millions, occupying a high position in society, the respect of peers… these don’t lead to days of pure and genuine happiness.

We as a society have to start figuring out what does.

hope, psychology

Frankl and Me: Suffering and Meaning

There are definitely times where my work, even as it currently is, is incredibly rewarding. I am able to research a host of topics and learn all sorts of new pieces of information.

One of the best events that will occur to me is when I see someone who vindicates and at the same time rounds out my approach.

To wit:

In my manifesto, “Invulnerable Belief”, I stated,

“No one resents pain that they endured for their family or their country. We don’t look back on those moments where we suffered for the people we love and think, ‘What a waste’. Maybe those pains will haunt us, but put in the same situation, we’d do it again.”

Frankl, a psychologist who survived the Holocaust, searched for meaning and answers as a result of the apocalyptic visions he saw. He concluded the following in his seminal Man’s Search For Meaning:

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of a

In the New Year, I hope eagerly that more people find the meaning that will liberate them from suffering.


Banishing Cynicism

Cynicism needs to be banished from humanity’s collective thought process.

I don’t mean the classical Greek concept of the Cynic with a capital C. Diogenes  had many great traits and his philosophy had wonderful components to it. The legend of him telling Alexander the Great to “Stand out of my sunlight” is a fantastic example of a man speaking truth to power with courage. Diogenes rejected property, challenged    Plato’s interpretation of Socrates, and violated social rules. Though often unpleasant, his personality and his philosophy battled social hypocrisy.

No, I mean modern cynicism, with a little “c”.

You know the kind of cynicism I’m talking about. The reaction to an atrocity that states, “That’s just what human beings do”. The idea that “those people”, whoever they are, just can’t possibly change. We see it everywhere: On Facebook walls, from the mouths of pundits, from our elected officials.

It’s the reaction that expected that the Egyptian revolution would end with them returning to a dictatorship, and that that therefore meant that the whole enterprise was worthless.

It’s the reaction to police brutality that states that people with power just tend to beat others.

I’ve had people insist to me that they shouldn’t bother telling others how they feel because every person, without exception, would react by telling them to shove it. I’ve had people insist to me that there’s no point in talking to anyone in the Middle East about trying to improve their gender relations or work with them to develop a better way of living because they’re just like that. If I suggest anything, from the idea that we could improve the foster care system to the idea that we might be able to have better economic and political institutions, one of the major reactions is, “It’s all fucked, there’s no point in trying”.

Okay, I’m picking some of the most extreme examples. But I invite everyone reading this to consider: Was there something that they’ve heard from others or even said themselves in the last week that simply assumed that something couldn’t be accomplished, with no real research or evidence to back it up? Did they hear someone just assume that another person was irredeemably stupid or angry or flawed?

We can all recognize, as individuals, that we can’t do anything to advance ourselves unless we believe in ourselves. Though it is a cliché, Henry Ford’s statement, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right”, still points to powerful wisdom. No matter how hard people believe in themselves, they can never flap their wings and fly into the sky. But if humanity had therefore given up on the dream of flight, we wouldn’t have helicopters and airplanes.

In educational theory, it’s often said that students rise to the level of our expectations. If a teacher thinks that a student is stupid, that student will absorb that concept, that self-image. Meanwhile, if a teacher insists that a student has potential, that student will be able to find it. Sure, not every student will be a budding Mozart in music. They may not be a young Picasso. But those students will surely do better if they are given the tools to succeed.

Cynics are like bad and hopeless teachers, but for the whole human race.

Every single time someone says, “People are just like that”, without having exhausted every way of perhaps making it so people aren’t like that, a ceiling is being built on all of our aspirations.

Think about it. The cynic saying, “People just suck, they just commit violence, rob, steal and rape” has just lowered their hurdle to a simple step. As long as the cynic doesn’t do any of those things, they’re fine.

Whenever people I know discuss ethics, I almost always hear about what ethicists call “negative duties”: What we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t kill, we shouldn’t steal, we shouldn’t lie.

What should we do?

How many people have honestly looked inside and asked, “What do I owe this world? What should I do to improve my community? What are my values, not in the sense of what I think is wrong but what I know is right?”

We need the answer to that question to be, “Everyone”.

Every time we make some snarky comment on Twitter that racists will always be racists, we let those racists off the hook for losing the battle against their own ignorance and hatred.

Every time we respond to some problem that someone is expressing by noting that there’s a lot of other problems, we’re impeding the ability to solve every single one of the problems we mention. No one says, “There’s no point in doing the dishes because we also have to take out the trash”.

I’ve been guilty of this cynicism too. Cynicism is so warm and safe. It justifies our cocoon of inaction. It leaves us free from having to be hurt if we try to fix things and fail. It lets us distantly comment from a place of safety instead of having to admit that we care about something and then having to defend that passion from those who disagree.

I’m not saying that every person should become an inveterate optimist. I’m not even suggesting that every person must adopt the maxim of “Optimism of the spirit, pessimism of the intellect”.

Nor am I saying that every solution that someone suggests should be adopted. Some solutions are just harebrained. Others are plausible on their face but are unworkable or not possible to achieve within a reasonable timeframe.

I would never accept anyone telling me, my friends, or anyone I love, “You can’t achieve your dreams”. No good parent would ever sit by while an authority figure told their child, “You’re just not good enough to do what you believe you should”.

We should stop accepting that for everyone’s children.