January, 2011

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Attention, Liberals: You can’t reason with a Reptile, the abridged version

by request, here’s the 750, more or less, words version.

By Morgaine Swann

The human brain evolved in 4 layers. First came the brain stem which controls breathing, metabolism, all the functions that don’t require conscious thought. Scientist Carl Sagan called the next layer the Reptilian brain, or R-complex. A reptile has only fight or flight responses. It goes forward to food, flees from an enemy or fights to the death. Its only emotion is rage. Its only function is survival. When threatened, it bites.

Next is the Limbic, or mammalian, brain. It contains instinct (feeding, fighting, fleeing, fu*king) and emotion. It’s social – mammals raise their young, unlike reptiles abandoning their eggs, and they live in groups to increase their chances of survival.

Paul D. MacLean, creator of the Triune Brain model, said that everything in the limbic system is either “agreeable” or “disagreeable.” It isn’t capable of higher functions like logical reasoning, it only feels and reacts.

The newest part of the human brain is the Neo-Cortex. This part of the brain that has nuance – logic, creativity, speech, reading, spatial concepts, sensory perception, conscious thought. These functions create art, culture, literature and it’s the part we train with formal education.

Remember that the R-Complex can override all higher brain functions. A normal human will revert to Reptilian response when threatened. There’s no logic at this level – there’s just the innate urge to survive.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’m over-simplifying the complex subject of moral and ethical reasoning, defined by Lawrence Kohlberg as 6 stages of Moral and Ethical development that I’m dividing into 3 levels of 2 each.

Level 1 is the Approach/Avoidance, Fight-or-Flight instinctual response of the R-Complex, found in small children and reward/punishment obsessed adults.

Level 2 follows an external moral code – the bible, the law, family, cultural or social expectations – without question. This embodies the Limbic System’s ability to be social for survival. Everything here is either agreeable or disagreeable – good or bad, black or white, familiar or foreign. This level is often described as Fundamentalism, and groups at Level 2 demand conformity to the code and enforce the code with violence – spanking, hatred, excommunication/abandonment, rape, oppression/inequality, prison, hate crimes, war.

At Level 3 the Neo-Corte approaches problems with logic, questions authority, uses reason. Level 3 may disagree with its social group, reach its own conclusions, can comprehend complex ideas and positions.

Most Americans get to Level 2 around the age of 8 and stay there. They never explore a religion/belief system/culture beyond the one they are born into, they follow local laws, conform to their peer group. Higher functions – abstract thought, critical thinking – become possible at around age 16 but only develop in certain environments that encourage questioning moral codes.

Any belief system can manifest at any level. You can be a Fundamentalist atheist as well as Christian or Muslim, or be a very religious person with an open mind who loves new ideas and other cultures. The Difference between Level 2 and Level 3 is the level of certainty. Level 2 thinks their way is the one true way and questioning their beliefs gets a violent response. It takes absolute certainty to disown a child, throw a bomb, torture or wage war.

Level 3 knows logically that there is no objective right or wrong in matters of religion or culture. It allows for consensus, but leaves room for doubt. The Religious Right in America, a fundamentalist movement, despises the “moral relativity” of the Left, calling Liberals “elitist” because they associate Liberal tolerance with higher education. (Ironically, Republican leaders are the actual wealthy elites, tied to the corporate military industrial complex.) It’s not just a difference in ideology – it’s a different level of intellectual development. Level 2 doesn’t speak logic because it has no language – it only feels. When Level 2′s sense of absolute certainty is challenged they regress so the Reptilian Brain overrides the higher brain functions. Remember the only emotion at Level 1 is rage. The reptilian brain has no capacity for critical thought, so trying to reason with it just creates frustration on both sides.

The challenge for Progressives is: How do you pull a majority of the population into a higher level of moral and ethical development? Level 2 doesn’t have logic and its beliefs are static and often circular.

Republican elites have financial interests in keeping the status quo, and they understand limbic/reptilian response. They are extremely adept at manipulating people with good intentions but poor educations. If we want change, we have to speak their feelings and morality.

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Friday, January 21st, 2011

Attention Liberals: There’s No Reasoning with Reptile

This is a re-print of a post in my old blog, originally published May 2009. It’s becoming more relevant as the Right Wing is becoming more violent.

No, I’m not talking about actual snakes and lizards, and I’m not saying our opponents on the Right are snakes or lizards anymore than all of us are. I’m talking about the development of the human brain. I’m about to over-simplify some complex concepts, so bear with me, because I think understanding this model is vital to creating a more functional society. Most complex animals have a central nervous system that handles all the automatic functions of the body – the beating of the heart, breathing, anything your body does without having to think about it. Above this system developed a brain called the Reptilian Complex (R-Complex,) so named because it’s the part of our brain we have in common with snakes and lizards. This part of the brain holds our survival instincts. It governs the “fight or flight” or “approach-avoidance” reactions. Its only emotion is rage. Its only function is survival. When threatened, it tends to bite.

In humans, we have two more brain structures on top of the R.-Complex – the Limbic system and the Neo-Cortex. The Limbic Brain is the first thing to differentiate us from lower life forms like reptiles. It contains instinct (feeding, fighting, fleeing, fu*king) and emotion. It is social – mammals with this structure raise their young, unlike reptiles, who lay eggs and abandon their young, and will tend to live in groups to increase their chances of survival. If this area of the brain is stimulated by an electrical charge, it produces emotion. The man who first described the Triune Brain model, Paul D. MacLean, said that everything in the limbic system is either “agreeable” or “disagreeable.” It isn’t capable of higher functions like logical reasoning, it simply feels and reacts. This part of the brain forms part of the individual identity and has some capacity for memory.

The newest part of the human brain is the Neo-Cortex. This is the part of the brain that has nuance – logic, creativity, language and speech, spatial reasoning, sensory perception, conscious thought. These are the functions that allow us to create art, culture, literature and it’s the part we try to train with formal education. Unfortunately, we only occasionally have professional direction in learning to work with the Reptilian and Limbic brain, the training of which usually falls to parents with no knowledge of this level of operation. Our society pays dearly for this mistake, and we all deal with the logical results of frustration, anger, and lack of empathy produced in children by parents with perfectly good intentions. Brain development should be taught to kids in Junior High before they have a chance to reproduce, but that’s not the subject of this article. At this point we need to keep in mind that when active, the R-Complex can override all higher brain functions. In other words, a normal human will revert to Reptilian response when threatened or enraged.

Now, let’s look at the psychology involved in the development of ethical reasoning. Different cultures have different standards of what is good and what is bad, but humans tend to go through a certain process in learning to apply their ethics and cultural mores to their own behavior. Lawrence Kohlberg defined 6 stages of Moral and Ethical development, which I’m going to divide into 3 levels for the purpose of this discussion. Let’s look at a little chart:
Kohlberg's Stages of Moral and Ethical Development w/notes by M Swann

Now, if you look at that chart, there are three basic levels of Moral and Ethical Development. The Level 1 (Stage I) corresponds to the Approach/Avoidance, Fight-or-Flight instinctual response of the R-Complex. We see this level in small children and occasionally, college students.

Level 2 (Stage II) functions according to an external source of rules – the bible, the law, cultural or social expectations of family, friends, or neighbors, without question. This corresponds to the Limbic System’s ability to be social in order to survive. Everything at this level is either agreeable or disagreeable. In other words, everything at this level is good or bad, black or white, familiar or foreign. This level is best described as Fundamentalism when taken to an extreme, and groups that function here can demand conformity to the ascribed code to the extent that they will enforce the code with violence – prison, hate crimes, war.

Level 3 (Stage III) is the level where you start to apply logic to problems, to ask questions and make comparisons. You don’t necessarily agree with the people around you and you reach your own conclusions. This level corresponds, albeit imperfectly, to the Neo-Cortex.

The problem is, in our culture at least, most people get to Level 2 around the age of 8 years old and stay there. The majority of people never seriously explore a religion or belief system beyond the one they are born into. Most people follow their local customs and laws, or conform to their primary peer group. The higher functions, like abstract thought and critical thinking, are usually possible at around age 16, but development of those skills is often dependent upon one’s environment or educational opportunities.

What you believe doesn’t determine where you fall in the continuum. It’s how and why you believe what you believe that matters. You can be a Fundamentalist atheist as well as Christian or Muslim. You can be a very religious person with an open mind who loves new ideas and other cultures. The important difference between Level 2 and Level 3 is the level of certainty. Level 2 tends to think that their way is the only way or the best way, without question, and they can be threatened to the point of violence by anything that differs from the familiar for them. It takes absolute certainty that you are right to discriminate against, let alone attack, someone for an arbitrary reason or accident of birth.

Level 3 understands that logically, no one can really know who is right or wrong in matters or religion, society or culture. It’s all relative and at Level 3 there is room for doubt. Notice that the Religious Right in America, a fundamentalist movement, despises the “moral relativity” of the Liberal Left, calls the Left “elitist” and associates Liberal tolerance with higher education. It’s not just a difference in belief or ideology – it’s a differing level of moral and ethical development. No amount of reason will persuade a person functioning at Level 2, which is all emotion. When Level 2′s sense of absolute certainty is challenged, it is perceived as a threat to their survival, and they regress to the point where the Reptilian Brain overrides the higher brain functions and the only emotion at that level is rage. No amount of logic can cut through that.

America at its inception was a Level 3 society specifically designed to be the most liberal and equal country on earth, created by the advanced reasoning skills of the minds of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams and Ben Franklin, among others. The structure of the new government had to be compromised to get the cooperation from reactionary economic forces that relied on the legal practice of slavery, and the original design was altered to allow them to begin. Ultimately, Jefferson and the others had faith in future generations that we would move our government toward their reason-based ideal, and we’ve managed to move somewhat in that direction, though we experience conservative backlash at regular intervals. We’re fighting a conservative backlash now that began with Ronald Reagan and went to it’s most outrageous extreme during the Bush Administration. Now we’re faced with the aftermath of a government that funneled billions of dollars to private interests at the expense of the taxpayers, and all but destroyed the civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. As much as our new President Obama is an improvement, he may still be too conservative to prosecute war crimes committed by his predecessors.

We need to move Left in this country. We need single payer health insurance, but its proponents are not even allowed a seat at the table. We have evidence of war crimes but it looks as if this administration won’t pursue legal redress even though failing to do so violates national and international law. Billions of dollars are still being funneled to private interests with no benefit to the taxpayer. People are still denying the right to marry to an entire segment of the population based on the incorrect assumption that marriage has anything to do with monotheist religion. Women’s bodies are still subject to control by the state. It’s time for us to live up to the Jeffersonian ideal.

Now, the problem we face is this: How do you pull a majority of the population into a higher level of moral and ethical development? Reason won’t work with someone stuck at Level 2. They don’t have critical thinking skills and they aren’t open concepts or cultures in conflict with the one they’re born into. Now that the Republican party is facing its own loss of power and prestige, a threat to its survival, they have completely regressed to Level 1 functioning. Reptiles lack empathy, logic, and are based in rage and fear. It’s no coincidence that I just described Dick Cheney’s recent media blitz, telling us all we’re going to die if we don’t torture people in violation of international law even though torture doesn’t work.

There is also the additional problem that the leaders of the Right have financial interests in keeping the status quo, and they understand these levels of functioning. They are extremely adept at manipulating people with good intentions but poor educations. The only solution I see to moving us Leftward is education, but we know our schools aren’t up to the task right now and we can’t wait several generations for change. The only way to reach most people is through the popular media. Short of strapping everyone down and making them watch Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, I don’t know how we reach them. I only know that it has to be done.

Any ideas? I’d love to hear them.

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Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Blog for Choice 2011, Here we are again.

I’m sick of writing about Choice in a country that guarantees it’s citizens the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You’d think that by this point in the 21st century, people would understand what that means, but they don’t because we are becoming the most ignorant developed nation in the world.

A little education would go a long, long way in this culture. There is ZERO scriptural basis to oppose abortion. In the Old Testament, the death of a baby over one month old was worth 5 shekels for a boy, 3 for a girl. Abortion and infanticide were common. And then we have passages in the bible like Psalm 137 where people wax rhapsodic about dashing the babies of their enemies against the stones. That “god” was never concerned with the disposition of fetuses, except when encouraging genocide.

Moving forward, Jesus, if he ever lived, never said a word about abortion. He talked about slavery and war and giving your wealth to the poor and caring for the sick, but not one word attributed to him was about abortion. Such glaring omission leads me to believe he wasn’t overly concerned with it.

The Christian hierarchy changed their minds about abortion every hundred years or so, and their lurid imaginations varied from group to group,  but when you get right down to it, the opposition to abortion on religious grounds is a fiction perpetuated by priests who know full well that there’s power and profit in numbers. Zero. religious. grounds.

Until it has a fully functioning brain, in about the 5th month of gestation, a fetus is only potential life. It may theoretically become a living being, but it isn’t one yet. That’s why you get a birth certificate when you are born – that’s when you become an actual person.

Now, a young, fertile, sexually active woman is ACTUAL life. She’s a person. She has dreams and memories, feelings and ideas, and a kind of value that is not limited to the function of her genitalia. She lives, she breathes, she probably works and owns things, she might even practice a religion, or none, as she so chooses.

Now here’s where we run into that disconnect created by the sorry state of sex education in this country. ACTUAL life trumps theoretical life. An adult woman with a functioning brain and uterus has 100% discretion as to what she does and does not do with her own fucking uterus. She may choose to lend it to the cause of creating life, or she may not. That’s her choice because that’s her uterus. We call that “autonomy” and adult humans everywhere are assumed to have a right to it.

Now, sometimes, things around a birth go wrong. That’s Nature, and destiny and it’s sad and tragic, but should terminating a pregnancy be required to sustain that woman’s ACTUAL life, that is NOT a choice, because as human beings, we have a social contract to keep each other alive if we can. Survival is not a choice. It’s a given.

I know I’m being exceptionally nasty in my tone, because I have this image in my mind that won’t go away. It’s a photograph of a nude woman who bled to death after a botched abortion in unsafe conditions, and you know what? I want us to raise generation after generation of free, autonomous daughters who never have to see that horrific image again, and it is completely possible for us to do it.

You can believe ANYTHING you want and I’ll defend your right to do it. You have NO RIGHT, however, to make law based on anything but reason, compassion and common sense because that’s the way the United States of America is deliberately, thoughtfully, designed.  You believe what you want, I’ll believe what I want, and we’ll make sound medical decisions and personal life choices privately and according to our own consciences, just as free, autonomous adults in an industrialized nation do.

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Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

White boys and guns

Psalm 137

7 Remember , OLORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said , Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed ; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.


At the basis of Western culture is the biblical concept that it is alright to destroy other civilizations to take their gold and silver. One group after another took upon itself the right to destroy the “infidel” and enjoy the spoils of war. Which came first, the religion that legitimizes the government, or the government that enforces the religion and wages the wars that in turn enrich the priests? No one probably knows.

What we do know is that wars on a massive scale were unknown before 4,000 b.c.e. Up until then, religion was a way of life centered on the Great Goddess, women, and birth.  Suddenly, probably as a result of an earthquake, flood or famine, somebody decided that instead of all starving together, the strongest tribe would take what they wanted from their neighbors and leave the rest to die. This was the advent of patriarchy and it sprouted up at about the same time a fanatical group of people who worshiped a minor Semitic war deity decided they needed a patrilineal system of inheritance. You can’t, after all, have a patriarchy if you don’t know who the daddies are. So now, it became essential to control women, who’d been free, respected and prosperous in the old days. Suddenly physical proof of virginity became a commodity and men started to treat their women as chattel to be bought and traded.

These warrior groups moved through the Middle East, up through Europe, into Scandinavia and back in waves of invaders willing to steal, rape and commit genocide on other civilizations in order to enrich themselves. They mixed their blood, their new father centered religions, and their cultures and gradually consolidated into a few large powerful countries with armies instead of many little peaceful ones that didn’t wage war. Goddesses were debased, or became gods. The gods of old religions became the devils of the new. There were Crusades, and Inquisitions and Reformations, to name a few waves of greed, piety and cruelty, and a few major players remained when the dust began to settle just a bit. The Abrahamites had split into Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Mormons, each newer group formed as they accepted the teachings of a new prophet, but they all continued to agree on their one father god, though people seem to forget that. (The Goddess worshipers were still around, driven off into the wilderness, but never completely gone. More about them another time.)

As the groups moved gradually north and west through Europe, the people, and their new religion, became whiter, more homogenized, but splintered into many smaller groups that agreed on the high points of the one story. Eventually, some of the whitest, most pious, and genocidal people Europe ever produced colonized and appropriated an entire new continent, killing the vast majority of the people already living here with war, starvation and disease.

Through all this time, and all this movement, and cultural mixing, the original Entitlement these people felt moved forward with them. The richest of the countries gradually became more cooperative and civilized through a progression of various revolutions and uprisings, and they became rich enough to care about things like civil rights, privacy, unreasonable searches and quartering troops, and now the whitest, most entitled country of them all, the United States of America, has more guns and more gun murders and more wars than almost anybody because at the foundation of this country is that idea that America, or an individual American, assumes the right to kill anyone with whom they do not agree.

Nobody, but nobody, nurtures that white boy sense of entitlement that says “I’m a white man in America, with my god, and my guns, and I’ll kill you if I damned well please” like America does. If you’re of African descent, if you’re gay, if you’re Jewish, non-Christian, poor, an immigrant, but most of all, if you’re female, I’ll kill you if I damned well please. It’s not my fault – “god” wants it this way, or I wouldn’t have been born here! I’m an American!

Until we get deep down under that sense of entitlement and tear it out by the roots, an occasional disturbed white man/boy will buy one of those guns we love so much (or call up the most powerful army in history) and kill women and old people and children because he believes that everything in Western culture has conspired to give him that divine right to kill.

We’re fighting at least two wars right now – Michael Moore says it’s more like six and I believe him – for no discernible reason except profit.

We do not have the right to kill.

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

January 8th, 2011 did something change?

I can’t think of a clever title for this post, except to say that I feel as if everything stopped for a while on January 8th when a 22 year old mass murderer in Tucson, Arizona killed 6 and injured 13. I feel as if things have been happening in slow motion since then, everyone holding their breath and praying that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords will retain some part of her former abilities and personality. After nursing my mom through two subdural hematomas in her brain, I can tell you that she has a long way to go in her recovery, though her progress so far is miraculous. The brain heals very slowly.
Here’s what bothers me. This was the first attempted assassination of an American woman politician. Why did I feel as if I had to say “politician?”  It becomes an assassination because she’s in Congress, right? The narrative seems to be that we’re supposed to see Loughner as vaguely anti-government and Gabby was just his local representative, as if it wouldn’t matter if she were male or female. I don’t think that’s a correct reading of the situation. This doesn’t look to me like a strike against a government official. It looks more like a stalking. If it’s politically driven, is it an entirely different creature than if he imagined a relationship with the congresswoman? I think what set Loughner off was the idea of woman in power, with a position of real authority.
I was looking for statistics on how often women are killed by violence, but I can’t find anything that doesn’t refer to domestic violence. Women killed in this country are usually harmed by someone with whom they have a personal relationship. Violence against women is so common, we don’t think of its source as gender bias. I haven’t heard anyone on TV talk about this as the first attempted assassination of an American woman. Shouldn’t that be a big deal?

A few women bloggers who called attention to Loughner’s misogyny had to deal with the predictable knee-jerk reactions from guys who want to pretend their day-to-day misogyny isn’t, really, it’s just guys being guys and the women bloggers are being inflexible again. Misogyny is the elephant in the room that the liberal guys want us to overlook because they don’t think it has anything to do with politics. In this case, it seems to have everything to do with politics.
Loughner had paranoid delusions which tend to manifest in patterns with recurring themes. His were currency, language, lucid dreams, and he spoke of rape as the necessary result of solitude. Loughner told a female bank teller that she had no right to be in a position of authority. He scared one of his female professors to the point that she reported she feared he’d become violent because she told him he was getting a B in her class.  The subject of abortion came up in one of his classes and he asked “why don’t we just strap bombs to babies?”

A Slate article asks

Maybe the accumulated evidence is contradictory if you’re trying to classify Loughner as an orthodox left-wing nut or an orthodox right-wing nut. But his membership in the anti-woman wing seems clear. Or is misogyny—even homicidal misogyny—too unremarkable for anyone to dwell on it?

Homicidal misogyny is not a term we see every day. We don’t keep records of it. We aren’t talking about it. We’ll talk about animosity against one political view or another but we aren’t concerned with violent hatred against 54% of the population? Are we supposed to assume this is a normal, and therefore unremarkable, attitude? Does pointing out Loughner’s misogyny make the incident “less” in some way? You know, like if he was just stalking “a woman” it’s not as important as if he was attacking “the government?”

One of the last things Loughner did was make pictures of himself wearing a red g-string posing with his Glock. That kind of fetishization of guns is a basic element of the patriarchal/militaristic mindset that sees women as a problem to be controlled. It’s no accident that the darling of the Right, the half-term governor whose name I refuse to use anymore, practices this same fetishization of weapons and violence. Real women love guns, hate abortion, and do what their men tell them, right? And money should be backed by gold or silver, you can control people with neurolinguistics… who does that sound like?

The misogyny element is important here because it’s an integral element of a larger problem that I’ll describe in my next post.

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Monday, January 17th, 2011

Hey, Remember me? I’m back.

Meet the new blog, same as the old blog…

A couple of things happened in 2008 that stopped me from writing. First, my mom passed away after an extended illness. Then, we managed to elect Barack Obama. And I was tired, so I stopped. Everything.

Now that we’re half-way through Barack’s first term, I’m starting to feel like I’ve got some more things to say. Sister, have I got things to say…


Monday, January 17th, 2011

Hello world!

A new blog, new design, a fresh start. Ahhhhh!

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