The Neuroscience of Armageddon

A cursory study of rudimentary neuroscience makes uncomfortable reading. It suggests, with strong evidence, that the way we think makes us ill-suited to thrive in the modern world. In fact, our thought patterns and mental blind spots imperil us all. We’re not up to the task.

We face an existential crisis, born of our neurological incapacities. It may be that we are too cognitively and intellectually impaired to ever be capable of the task of stewardship of the living world, but there may be societal changes we can make which will take us nearer to the mark. If we’re willing to become aware of our thinking flaws, we might be able to compensate for them.

Democracy is rendered impotent by the ideas we cling to doggedly. Today, many habits and accepted practices, which seemingly don’t matter, are in fact greatly exacerbating our intellectual inadequacies. Being lazy with our thinking makes our thinking worse.

Creativity, it turns out, has a crucial role to play. Far from being a hobby or privileged indulgence, the artist’s perspective holds the key to releasing us from our self-destructive emotional responses and demonstrates amply why truth is so important and manipulation so dangerously corrosive. Our very survival depends on changing our minds and dispensing with our most ingrained prejudices. Unfortunately, one of deepest cognitive flaws is that we don’t recognise the necessity, or our deepest cognitive flaws. We remain blind to our inabilities.

This might come as a shock to you, but we are all flawed, to some degree. As a species and as individuals, we have a poor grasp on complexity, we weigh and understand risks hopelessly badly, and we’re inadequately equipped to fathom science, economics, medicine and technology in sufficient depth or detail. In short, we default to taking people’s word for it and blunder through life, confronting these areas of our incompetence like proud toddlers – clumsily, but trying to style it out, as if we know what we’re doing and what we’re talking about. We don’t.

Even the most learned and well-read grapple hopelessly with information and concepts beyond their comprehension. The wiser we’re assumed to be, the less willing we are to confess our cluelessness on various topics. We think we have to appear to know it all, which is to say we’re all prone to intellectual dishonesty. Saying, “I don’t know”, equates to failure, inadequacy and shame. We have too much ego invested in trying to never look stupid. Unfortunately, stupidity is abundant and universal.

With this mixture of ignorance and denial, we make all our crucial, binding, far-reaching, consequential, collective decisions. That’s right. We are utterly dependent on our flawed thinking and lack of understanding. We’re like helmsmen without navigators.

The Dunning-Kruger effect damningly documents the observation that we lack the competence to be aware of our own incompetence. We think we’re smarter than we are, because we aren’t smart enough to recognise our intellectual limitations.

Recently, several organisations, including the British National Health Service, were subject to a malicious attack, which rendered key computer files into an encrypted state, inaccessible to their owners, unless a ransom was paid. Ransomware is a well known attack vector and engineering solutions already existed, or could be applied, but the people managing the systems that were successfully attacked lacked the will, the funding or the right attitude (or all three) to protect against this threat. Their evaluation of the real risks they faced was hampered by a lack of understanding of the technical issues. Consequently, they got it badly wrong, causing catastrophe.

We like to think that our thoughts are our own, but the facts are that we believe what we’re told. In Daniel Kahneman’s terms, our type one thinking bias leads us to accept information from people we trust, uncritically. We then rationalise what we believe as if we had come to our own conclusions independently. Propagandists, like Edward Bernays, who went on to make a fortune in public relations and advertising, realised early in the twentieth century that, “We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of”. Bernays’ biggest and most notorious success was in recruiting young woman to smoke, thereby greatly increasing the profits of the tobacco companies, while consigning generations of young women to poor health and ultimately, to grisly, painful, early deaths. In short, we’re programmed by other people for their own purposes and we don’t acknowledge the fact.

But that’s not the end of our programming. We’re more than complicit in brainwashing ourselves. Since the 1980s, researchers were aware that there are ten basic personal values that are recognised across all cultures and age groups, in all countries. These are:

1. Self-direction

2. Stimulation

3. Hedonism

4. Achievement

5. Power

6. Security

7. Conformity

8. Tradition

9. Benevolence

10. Universalism

When it comes to nurturing human nature, three things stand out in their findings:

1. All ten basic values are present in us all and each one of us is motivated by their full array, but to widely differing degrees, that vary between cultures and individuals. We weight the ten differently to each other.

2. Each of the values can be engaged in us, if it is triggered. Remind us of security, for example and we’ll likely take fewer risks. When power and achievement are brought to top of mind, we are less likely to care about others’ needs.

3. The relative weights of these different values changes in us not just over the course of a lifetime, but many times a day, as we switch between social roles and contexts (e.g. work, home, in a social setting). Just like muscles, the more any one value is engaged, the stronger it becomes.

We follow social norms, as we perceive them, typically preferring to do what we expect others will do. If we are in fear or filled with doubt, we especially tend to go with the crowd. Thinking about song popularity, as an example, each song’s popularity is due to social influence; popular songs are the songs people know others like. The more prominent information about other people’s song preferences is, the more likely a song will emerge as a smash hit. However, the harder it is to predict which song the hit will turn out to be. It has very little to do with the quality of the music, once it has reached a minimum threshold of acceptability. This kind of social behaviour is both highly contagious and highly uncertain, which explains why predicting the next chart-topping song or this years’ summer fashion trend is so difficult.

With social media and the Internet, we are more aware than ever before of the opinions, decisions, choices and behaviours of other people, which is why social media tends to become a self-reinforcing echo chamber. Who you choose to notice makes all the difference to your own opinions, choices, decisions and behaviours. Yet paradoxically, our ability to understand how it feels to live another person’s life is limited. We have empathy deficit.

The list of cognitive biases to which we are susceptible, yet unaware of, is long. There is availability bias, where we tend to make decisions on the basis or more recent or more accessible information. We suffer from loss aversion, which is the strong preference to avoid loss rather than to make an equivalent gain (we’d rather not lose, than win). We exercise selective cognition, taking on board facts and arguments that fit with our existing frames of understanding and world view. When it comes to risk bias, we underestimate the likelihood of extreme events, while overestimating our ability to cope with them. Wikipedia lists over 160 different cognitive biases that we all labour under.

Inescapably, the only logical conclusion is that what we assume to be true is probably wrong and we lack the cognitive abilities and intellectual honesty to own up to it and correct it. We are all harbouring epidemic pseudodoxy – the widely held belief in various things as true, when they are actually, demonstrably, provably false. Because these are cognitive deficits, they are actually more like tone deafness than ignorance or stupidity. We can be fully aware of these thinking biases, yet find ourselves utterly helpless to resist them.

When others call us out on our evident cognitive deficits, we tend to behave with shame, denial and violence, doubling down on mistaken ideas, rather than confessing our faulty logic and changing our minds. This is called the backfire effect. We double down and dig our heels in on nonsensical beliefs, in the face of unarguable evidence that disproves them. We can’t stand the shame of being wrong, so we become more stubbornly insistent that we’re right. Facts are ignored. We’ll happily argue that black is actually white.

This is not new and it’s old. In 1620, Francis Bacon wrote: “The human understanding, once it has adopted opinions, either because they were already accepted and believed, or because it likes them, draws everything else to support and agree with them. And though it may meet a greater number and weight of contrary instances, it will, with great and harmful prejudice, ignore or condemn or exclude them by introducing some distinction, in order that the authority of those earlier assumptions may remain intact and unharmed.”

When it comes to childhood traumas that we experience, research shows that we tend to perpetuate and propagate them, rather than curtailing them. We conclude that the trauma didn’t harm us, so it’s ok to inflict the same kind of trauma on somebody else. The truth is that our willingness to pass it on is proof that it did, in fact, harm us.

A lot of people place their faith in gut feelings, but research has shown, time after time, that gut feelings tend to run counter to evidence. We might feel satisfaction in jumping to instant conclusions, but they’re rarely reliable. Today, most of humanity’s biological, ecological, economic, social and political challenges are questions of organised complexity, but our capacity to comprehend complexity is perhaps the realm that is least understood. We’re just not very good at handling things that aren’t simple.

There are essentially two ways we can choose to handle new information. These modes of thinking are likened to being a soldier or a scout. If you are a soldier, some things are probably constant. Your adrenaline is elevated and your actions stem from your deeply ingrained reflexes to preserve the current situation and to protect against invasion. You feel a strong need to protect yourself and your side, and to defeat what you perceive to be your enemy. The scout, on the other hand, is not there to attack or defend. They are there to try to understand. They map the terrain, identifying potential obstacles and trying not to miss anything of significance. They are wary of deceptions and things not being as they seem. The scout wants to know what’s really out there, as accurately as possible. Both the soldier and scout bring essential perspectives in any army.

Using these two roles as metaphors for how we all process information and ideas in our daily lives, it turns out that having good judgement and making good decisions depends largely on which mindset you’re in. The scout mindset, furthermore, has little to do with how smart you are or how much you know. Rather, it is about how you feel. We tend to assign truth to whatever we are emotionally attached to. Open mindedness is hard to accomplish. Being open to what really is is a learned and rare skill. People tend to be soldiers, rather than scouts.

Even the most open-minded, however, suffer from a tendency to punish others for their selfishness, even if it costs us to do so. We’d rather not let anybody have any pie, than let somebody else have a bigger piece than we think fair. Foregoing pie, to punish somebody taking too much, runs counter to our short term interests. This is a deeply ingrained instinct, which served the purpose of ensuring the survival of the greatest number, millennia ago. Today, it stands in diametric opposition to the capitalist doctrine. No wonder we feel so conflicted.

Those that are aware of our cognitive foibles have constructed massive data analysis machines to manipulate us. People like Robert Mercer, Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon are thought to have made most use of them. Using big data computing power, public opinion is micro-influenced to cause the outcomes they desire. We don’t understand their desired outcomes, because their narratives are incoherent and self-contradictory, comprised as they are of a series of hot-button sound bites, carefully designed to manipulate your reactions, derived from big data analysis of which issues get under your skin most. For all we know, they might be influencing us for no other reason than to cause chaos and misery, leaving them free to live opulent lives unopposed. That could be all they want.

Playing us all, by preying on our collective intellectual and cognitive blind spots, ought to be a crime. Demagogues who make use of these methods, such as recent presidents and prime ministers are thought to have, are worthy only of our contempt.

When any mad billionaire decides he knows better than all of us, and so begins to enact his private vision for the world, through systematic global manipulation, you have all the proof you need of the veracity of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They have no sense of being inadequate to the task of ruling the world, yet set about doing so anyway. Blundering, blithering and blowing stuff up. Sadly for all tyrannical megalomaniacs bent on installing themselves at the summit of a new world order, the law of unintended consequences always takes precedence. Hubris is always their Achilles heel.

Credit scoring plays on our fear of exclusion to discipline us into compliance with the wishes of finance. It’s a billionaire scheme for mass manipulation. We change our behaviour to ensure we remain credit-worthy, but we are adjudicated against criteria purpose-designed to protect the power and privilege of bankers. We know they have little interest in rebalancing income and opportunity inequality, nor of protecting the living world which sustains us. Consequently, we are coerced into behaving in ways inimical to our best interests, just to make sure we remain candidates for a loan, when circumstances force us to need one. It thoroughly undermines democracy.

Manipulation for concealed ends is nowhere more apparent than in the mainstream media. What they are trying to accomplish, through the mobilisation of the masses by the expedient methods of lying, distortion, omission, obfuscation and deception, always seems to be at odds with what would be good for those masses. Turkeys are, time and again, stampeded by these organs of the media, into voting for Christmas. The real agenda of messers Murdoch, Dacre and Desmond, appears to be the protection of their wealth and influence, while maintaining access to supreme power and privilege. Their readers are mere pawns in their game.

The irony of the unbridled lust for power is that there is growing evidence that it may cause detectable brain damage. Subjects under the influence of power, in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, it was found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, called “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. This gives a neurological basis to what Is termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. While that may seem like the ultimate example of karma in action, are the power-crazed less culpable, if their brains are demonstrably damaged?

The neurologist and parliamentarian, Lord David Owen, writes about an affliction he labels “Hubris Syndrome.” According to Owen and his co-author Jonathan Davidson, hubris syndrome, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader”.

Its 14 clinical features, evident in a person with hubris syndrome, include:

1. Seeing the world as a place from self-glorification, through the use of power

2. A tendency take action primarily to enhance personal image

3. Disproportionate concern for image and presentation

4. Exhibiting messianic zeal and exaltation in speech

5. Conflation of self with nation or organisation

6. Using the royal “we” in conversation

7. Showing excessive self-confidence

8. Holding others in manifest contempt

9. Showing accountability only to a higher court (history or God)

10. Having an unshakeable belief they will be vindicated in that court

11. A loss of contact with reality

12. Resorting to recklessness, restlessness and impulsive actions

13. Allowing moral rectitude to obviate considerations of practicality, cost or outcome

14. Displaying incompetence with disregard for the nuts and bolts of policy making

Hubris has much in common with narcissistic personality disorder. Owen has founded the Daedalus Trust – an organisation for the study and prevention of hubris. However, businesses have shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools are not much better. Consequently, this malady, seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites, is unlikely to find a cure any time soon.

As a consequence, we suffer the reign of the hubristic. The hubristic, according to Chris Hedges (who I paraphrase below), take over in the final days of crumbling civilisations. Hubristic generals wage endless, unwinnable wars that ruin the nation. Hubristic economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programmes for the poor, projecting economic growth on the basis of pure myth. Hubristic bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on the citizens. Hubristic journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Hubristic intelligence operatives and agents orchestrate the overthrow of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. Hubristic professors, so-called experts and faux specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttresses the policies of the hubristic rulers. Hubristic entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore and fantasy.

It’s an out of control death machine.

In their lust for more, the hubristic are unencumbered by common sense, hoarding wealth and resources until workers can no longer make a living and the common infrastructure collapses. They hide away in gated compounds for the privileged, where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. The state is a projection of their vanity. All empires ultimately crumble because the whims and obsessions of the ruling, hubristic class are law.

These rulers become the face of collective hubris. Behind their carefully cultivated masks, professing civility and rationality, there can be found blowhard, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniacs. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignoring the catastrophic human misery caused by their actions, by global warming and by pillages on behalf of global oligarchs.

To quote Chris Hedges directly, “This moment in history marks the end of a long, sad tale of greed and murder by the white races. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting and polluting the earth in the name of human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone and anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources. They believed that this orgy of blood and gold would never end, and they still believe it. They do not understand that the dark ethic of ceaseless capitalist and imperialist expansion is dooming the exploiters as well as the exploited. But even as we stand on the cusp of extinction we lack the intelligence and imagination to break free from our evolutionary past.”

“The more the warning signs are palpable—rising temperatures, global financial meltdowns, mass human migrations, endless wars, poisoned ecosystems, rampant corruption among the ruling class—the more we turn to those who chant, either through idiocy or cynicism, the mantra that what worked in the past will work in the future, that progress is inevitable. Factual evidence, since it is an impediment to what we desire, is banished. The taxes of corporations and the rich, who have deindustrialised the country and turned many of our cities into [investment-starved] wastelands, are cut and regulations are slashed to bring back the supposed golden era of the 1950s for white American workers. Public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry as rising carbon emissions doom our species. Declining crop yields stemming from heat waves and droughts are ignored. War is the principal business of the kleptocratic state.”

“Magical thinking is not limited to the beliefs and practices of pre-modern cultures. It defines the ideology of capitalism. Quotas and projected sales can always be met. Profits can always be raised. Growth is inevitable. The impossible is always possible. Human societies, if they bow before the dictates of the marketplace, will be ushered into capitalist paradise. It is only a question of having the right attitude and the right technique. When capitalism thrives, we are assured, we thrive. The merging of the self with the capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self-reflection and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character but by the material standards set by capitalism—personal wealth, brands, status and career advancement. We are moulded into a compliant and repressed collective. This mass conformity is characteristic of totalitarian and authoritarian states. It is the Disneyfication of America, the land of eternally happy thoughts and positive attitudes. And when magical thinking does not work, we are told, and often accept, that we are the problem. We must have more faith. We must envision what we want. We must try harder. The system is never to blame. We failed it. It did not fail us.”

“All of our systems of information, from self-help gurus and Hollywood to political monstrosities such as Trump, sell us this snake oil. We blind ourselves to impending collapse. Our retreat into self-delusion is a career opportunity for charlatans who tell us what we want to hear. The magical thinking they espouse is a form of infantilism. It discredits facts and realities that defy the glowing cant of slogans such as “Make America great again.” Reality is banished for relentless and baseless optimism.”

“Half the country may live in poverty, our civil liberties may be taken from us, militarised police may murder unarmed citizens in the streets and we may run the world’s largest prison system and murderous war machine, but all these truths are studiously ignored.” Hubristic leaders embody the essence of this decayed, intellectually bankrupt and immoral world. They are its natural expression. They are the kings and queens of the hubristic. We are their victims.

This is the neuroscience of Armageddon.

Given our susceptibility to our various cognitive deficiencies and impairments, surely it must be the case that undermining, manipulating and confusing people, maliciously and deliberately, ought to be treated as a serious crime. After all, our survival depends on it. Cynically calculated, these deceptions have untold consequences, beyond our capacity to absorb and shrug off. Those that push mind-altering drugs onto the populace, in order to fog their judgement and dissuade them from activism, by inducing an addled, irrational lethargy and insouciant apathy toward politics, are similarly committing serious harm. It’s not like messing with our beliefs and brains is a trivial matter. The lies and manipulations are decisive, in the end. They set us on the road to oblivion.

At least 100 different pesticides are known to cause adverse neurological effects in adults, and all of these substances must therefore be suspected of being capable of damaging developing brains as well. Such adverse effects are likely to be lasting and one main outcome is cognitive deficits, often expressed in terms of losses of IQ points. The combined evidence suggests that current exposures to certain pesticides in the EU may cost at least €125 billion per year, as calculated from the loss of lifetime income due to the lower IQs associated with prenatal exposure.

How can we address our cognitive disabilities and armour ourselves against these being used against us? The artistic approach has some answers. Training yourself to be open-minded, to be curious and free-thinking, seeing differently, through artistic practise, can mitigate against the worst effects of cognitive biases. We must take up the habit of healthy scepticism, synthesising ideas, analysing them and challenging what we’re told. It calls for extreme vigilance and exercising of our more cognitively demanding type two thinking processes, rather than lazily relying on type one. To hold onto your empathy and ability to see things from other people’s perspectives, you need to stay grounded, on purpose, valuing and nurturing your humility and experiencing life outside of your own cocoon of privilege. It takes an active commitment and real work to change your thinking.

Trying to counter these biases in our own thinking and encouraging others to follow suit gets very wearing. It’s the aspect of creating and accomplishing things that I like least – overcoming doubters and their objections. If, as a society, we remain fundamentally conservative and stuck in our ways, we aren’t going to make any progress whatsoever and so will succumb, like sitting ducks, to an Armageddon that has its roots in our own rotten modes of thought.

You might wonder how the human mind got itself into this predicament. We have survived and thrived for millennia, not despite our cognitive biases, but because of them. These so-called biases are the underpinnings of our heuristics, the unconscious mental short cuts we take every time we use a “rule of thumb” to make decisions. Over eons, the human brain has evolved to rely on quick decision-making tools in a fast-moving and uncertain world and in many contexts those heuristics lead us to make better decisions than exact calculations would do. When a lion is stalking you and your trusted elder tells you to run, overthinking the instruction will probably get you killed. Fast reactions are necessary. Is this still true as complexity increases, though?

“We live in the 21st century, surrounded by complex technology, and there are things that we will not be able to anticipate,” argues psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. “What we need is not just better technology, bigger bureaucracy and stricter laws … but risk-savvy citizens.”

The consequences of many modern world problems are invisible, delayed, gradual and distant: four characteristics that our heuristic decision tools are infamously bad at handling well. The aim, therefore, should be to enlarge people’s capabilities – such as to be healthy, empowered and creative – so that they can choose to be and do things in life that they value.

We need to change the way we feel — to learn how to feel proud instead of ashamed when we notice we might have been wrong about something, or to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive, when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs.

Good ideas exist, but we need to embrace them instead of resisting them on discredited grounds. Changing our ideas is a key survival skill. Getting good at changing our minds, when we know better, is all that can save us.

As Upton Sinclair famously noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Perhaps it is time to break the link between what we think and a salary. It might be time for employers to butt out and let employees think however they want, free to express ideas that might be in direct contradiction to that of their firm or their boss. Conformity and compliance serves us very poorly indeed.

Of course, there’s no point in me trying to prove any of this to you. You’ll stick to believing what you want to believe, because that’s how you’re wired and how you’ve been conditioned to act. I can’t awaken you. You have to come to this realisation by yourself, like a stumbling toddler learns to walk.

Poet Taylor Mali said that,”changing your mind is one of the best ways of finding out whether or not you still have one.” This, indeed, is the very crux of the matter and the only antidote to the neurological features of our brains that will inevitably lead us toward a horrible Armageddon, unless we change them.

“If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” says activist Noam Chomsky.

True, perhaps, but not for long.

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What Do You Stand For?

So many people are hypocrites. Politicians, for example, pretend to care about and represent the interests of the people that vote for them, but their real allegiance is always to those hat fund their party most handsomely. Their higher calling is to protect their own personal power and privilege. Ultimately, what they stand for most is feathering their own nests.

Product designers claim to want to serve their customers, making products which make customers’ lives easier. Yet, they are compelled, by convention and law, to place corporate profit above that goal. They acquiesce because their real interest is in protecting the comfort and safety of their family, which is entirely contingent on what they can earn, as a product designer.

Journalists tell us they are there to hold the powerful to account, but all too often they serve as mere mouth pieces for their billionaire employers. These billionaire media tycoons claim they represent their advertisers, but they may actually value their access to corridors of power and opulence far more. Both the journalist and media tycoon are ultimately trying to make a good living from writing their ideas and having people read them. As an edifice, it’s a horrible, self-contradictory mess.

Musicians say they stand for being entertaining to their audiences, but so many are really out there to feed their own egos and to behave appallingly without sanction. Some don’t even care about the quality of the music they make. But some musicians do. Some are so committed to the music they make, they only peripherally hope somebody might find it entertaining, or soothing, or exciting, or inspiring.

What you really stand for matters, because at some level, what you claim to stand for and what you truly stand for can be in stark conflict. At that point, your lie is exposed and you will either create intolerable psychological tensions in yourself, trying to claim the opposite (which is corrosive to health and peace of mind), or your fraudulence will be fully exposed and you may be expelled from your practice.

What you stand for and what you say you stand for ought to be the same thing.

As an artist (and as a human being), you ought to be honest about what you truly stand for and take whatever comes, from your pronouncement. The deceit of saying you represent one thing, while really representing another, is a dangerous, unstable game to play, on which you stake everything. People take that gamble because they think the deception can be maintained indefinitely and their true interests are furthered, while others remain ignorant of their duplicity. That ruse rarely works out for them, in the long run.

You may be punished for your honesty and integrity. People often are. However, living dishonestly, without integrity, is a brutal, miserable way to live.

What do you actually stand for? In whose interests do you truthfully act? What is it you really want from your art? Are you pretending otherwise? These are important questions to answer. Your integrity relies upon it. In the end, your integrity is all you’ve got and it’s hard to get it back, once you lose it.

Choose carefully.

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What Kind Of People Do You Want to Work With?

There’s an old adage: people buy from people. It means that the quality of the relationship is the most important thing, in making a sale. The customer has to trust in the seller and buy into their story. The seller’s story needs to be credible and compelling. Artists that share their authentic narrative with their audience tend to sell more of their art than those that do not.

The quality of human relationships extends to working together. People work with people. The tools and processes are secondary. The materials are not even material, in your choice of who you work with. You don’t have to work with anybody offered. You have a choice. Even when you think you have no choice, you actually do. Working together only happens if there is mutual respect and a joint commitment to cooperate and perhaps even compromise. It’s never one-sided. If it is, it never works.

Given that you always have a choice, who do you want to work with? Will you gravitate toward rigid minds, with fixed, unchangeable viewpoints, or will you seek flexible forward-thinkers? Do you enjoy working with straight-jacketted, conservative rule-followers with an unshakeable belief in their own infallibility, or intellectually-agile, open-minded, innovative, curious, experimental, imaginative folk, willing to revise their views as new evidence comes to light? Do you want to march or dance? Both require co-ordination, but the latter is freer.

When you step forward to do your most important and meaningful work, do you want to do that encumbered by the dead weight of somebody else’s archaic, obsolete, discredited mindsets and systems of belief, or is your purpose better served by joining up with people keen on exploring possibilities courageously? Why would you waste your time working with the wrong kind?

Are you looking for a collaborator or a competitor? Both can spur you on to do better, but which one contributes to your success and which one undermines it? Do you want to burn your productive hours away pointlessly, fighting against what another person says you can’t do (or hopes you can’t), or with somebody sincerely committed to seeing you flourish?

It’s not a very difficult choice, is it?

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The Sham Counterculture

It has been a while since I posted. Major life changes, a short illness and a sad loss. Starting again from square one. That sort of thing. Onward and upward. Resilience is a learned skill.

With the Beatles’ Sargeant Pepper album turning fifty, this month, the sixties counterculture is back in the news and the album itself once again at the top of the charts, bathed in a thick layer of rose-tinted nostalgia. While undoubtedly a great work of art, what it presaged may have been a campaign of pure population manipulation, for political and commercial ends, according to the book “Drugs as Weapons Against Us” by the author John L. Potash. Some of the artists may have been unwitting tools in a deeper plan with a darker agenda; caught up in it, rather than the orchestrators of it. Others were evidently knowing accomplices who regarded their fans with pure contempt.

The hippie counterculture meant something to me. It represented hope for a more peaceful, harmonious, inclusive world that respected diversity, rather than tried to eliminate it. The prominent musicians of that period were heroes of mine and I aspired to make music for people, just like they did. It was a guiding light and a goal, in my life. To be confronted with substantial evidence that all may not have been as it seemed is pretty uncomfortable. All the more reason why it should be taken seriously.

The idea of social justice seems so obviously, self-evidently desirable, to most rational human beings, so it’s hard to imagine anybody could actively, tenaciously pursue social injustice, yet that’s precisely what the oligarchs in our society do and they’re serious about it. They’re willing to apply much more violence, to uphold inequality, than any leftist activist group would ever dare contemplate. Their targets? Any activist with leftist, humanist views – the sorts of positions that most would regard as virtuous common sense. The oligarchy’s project is to farm us like domestic animals, for gain, not protect us from harm and allow us to live good lives, to our fullest human potential. Their project is essentially insane and this is the reason most rational people fail to give it its due credence.

According to Potash, the sixties hippie culture was CIA sponsored, organised and funded. Far from being a grass-roots movement of enlightened idealists, it was a covert, purposeful campaign to neuter threats to the reigning, privileged oligarchy, replacing activism with apathy. Because these oligarchs are “old money”, obtained initially from the opium trade of the eighteenth century, they know the power of attacking the collective mind with psychoactive, addictive drugs, they have no qualms about doing so (having gotten away with it for over a century) and they profit from the extended distribution and consumption of the opiates they still control. 

Far from wanting people to eschew drugs, as was the official government line, the counterculture was little more, in truth, than a big marketing campaign, on behalf of the oligarchy, to make mind-altering drugs mainstream, which is what they have become. Consequently, an entire generation has subjected themselves to induced psychoses, rendering them compliant and ineffectual at bringing about genuine social change. Meanwhile, the power and wealth of the oligarchy families has amplified exponentially.

The mainstream media played along, having long been infiltrated by the CIA, almost universally, as evidenced by revelations that have emerged about Project Mockingbird. They played their dutiful part in glamorising drug use, by their adulation of the rock stars that appeared to promote it. It was the advertising wing of the big opiates marketing campaign, all orchestrated by the CIA. Its sole purpose was to get an entire generation hooked and de-politicised.

The implications are staggering and sobering. The music of the counterculture wasn’t offered to you because it represented innovation, fresh ideas, revolution, mind-expansion, imagination, quality or edification of the audience. Those pulling the strings treated rock, jazz and folk musicians of the period and their devoted audiences with sheer contempt, as if they had a legitimate right and licence to do so; smug in their assumed, conservative, opulent, privileged superiority. Here was a class of wealthy and powerful people asserting their sense of their own self-importance over an entire population of ordinary young adults. They’re still doing it.

When you consider the documented degree of influence the CIA exerted over the record companies, radio stations, even the promotion and organisation of music events like Woodstock and Monterrey, you come to understand that successful artists weren’t selected and promoted on the basis of their artistic merit and their ideals. Instead, their designated role was to promote mind-affecting drugs. What was never admitted was that the mind alterations were long-lasting, fast-acting and permanent, leading to life-long cognitive impairment and disability. We were being programmed to eat substances that would turn us insane, by degrees. Why? So we wouldn’t make trouble for the oligarchy, while simultaneously enriching them.

The only reachable conclusion is that the music industry was and is a wholly rigged game. It has nothing whatsoever to do with artistic merit and never was. For those of us aspiring to make exciting, original, contemporary music, unless we could bring audiences closer to drugs, we were never going to get a break. Thinking we might be successful on the strength of our musical output alone, it turns out, was delusional. Art was comprehensively hijacked and subverted.

We were sold a false bill of goods. The marketing campaign promised that mind-altering substances would lead to enlightenment and contentment. Where did all the peace and love go? Where are the fruits of all the LSD-fuelled consciousness expansion? The cupboard is bare. We got nothing. We’re as subject to right-wing, conservative, reactionary ideas of conquest and machismo as we ever were – perhaps even more so. The wars haven’t ended, but the scale of civilian atrocities has markedly increased. The wealthy and powerful are wealthier and more powerful than ever.

The book is full of credible evidence. Take this direct quote from Los Angeles Police Department narcotics detective Michael C. Ruppert, for example: “As a matter of national policy, set at the National Security Council—the White House—elements of the CIA, in concert with elements of the military, and other federal agencies, have dealt drugs to Americans for at least three decades. Major defense contractors have also engaged in such traffic.”

The extent to which psychoactive substances have been used to further political and wealth accumulation agendas has been historically severely underestimated. Best-selling author Norman Ohler has unearthed a little-known element of WWII history: how drugs like cocaine and crystal meth played a crucial role in the successes and failures of the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler was hailed by his admirers as an exemplar of good health – a non-smoking, teetotal vegetarian. In fact, he was receiving regular injections from his doctor, Theo Morell. These injections contained a cocktail of methamphetamines, animal hormones, and opiates. They kept Hitler in a continuous state of chemical euphoria, and his war generals became convinced their Fuhrer had a secret weapon that would win them the war. If this could be done to the ruler of what was supposed to be a thousand year Reich, you have to wonder who really pulled the strings. Is it beyond imagining that the old money dynasties, whose wealth was built on opiates, were somehow implicated? Author Antony C. Sutton has written extensively on the matter.

If drugs have been used as weapons against us, as Potash asserts, then it follows that there is no sincere, well-intentioned war on drugs. That’s a big marketing campaign to bamboozle us too. There is only a war on drugs users. At the top of the drug pushing heirarchy, the oligarchs are to be found, according to the author. 

Another quote from the book, attributed to the late investigative writer and political analyst Carl Oglesby, states: “What we have to contemplate nevertheless is the possibility that the great American acid trip, no matter how distinctive of the rebellion of the 1960s it came to appear, was in fact the result of a despicable government conspiracy.… If U.S. intelligence bodies collaborated in an effort to drug the entire generation of Americans, then the reason they did so was to disorient it, sedate it, and de-politicize it.”

When I was a kid, one of my favourite bands was from Melbourne; a place I barely knew. There was a song on their debut album “Living in the Seventies” about the protests concerning the Vietnam war. The song was “Whatever Happened to the Revolution?” The response to the titular lyric call is, “We all got stoned and it drifted away”. In the context of the Carl Oglesby quote, the lyric has a disturbing ring of truth.

It came to light that the FBI also ran a programme of domestic counter-intelligence against musicians. The following quotation Is taken from a section on the FBI Cointelpro strategy. The memorandum detailed many tactics used against political musicians. It instructed agents: “Show them as scurrilous and depraved. Call attention to their habits and living conditions, explore every possible embarrassment. Send in women and sex, break up marriages. Have members arrested on marijuana charges. Investigate personal conflicts or animosities between them. Send articles to the newspapers showing their depravity. Use narcotics and free sex to entrap. Use misinformation to confuse and disrupt. Get records of their bank accounts. Obtain specimens of their handwriting. Provoke target groups into rivalries that may result in death.”

If that FBI quote doesn’t in some way characterise the story of the vast majority of bands and musicians that have made it big, since the sixties, I don’t know what does. It says something about how the authorities, under instruction from the oligarchs, view both the artists and their audiences. Their contempt is barely concealed. Can you name a single music artist, with activist leanings, that hasn’t been enmeshed in one (or many) of these psycho-drama traps? Are you sure that those disruptive events happened to those musicians’ lives as pure happenstance, or could agents provocateur have had something to do with it?

The middle, heavy section of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody says:

“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye? So you think you can love me and leave me to die?”

Quite.

Perhaps it was an unintended consequence of the brain-damaging CIA drugs marketing campaign, but the result of providing a means for drug-promoting or debauchery-positive musicians to create their music is that they somehow created artistic works of genuine, lasting beauty. Far from being disposable heroes, making ephemeral, worthless art, they instead, against the odds, left us with some monumental works of artistry that have stood the test of time.

What remains, after all the dirty tricks, manipulation, thought control and debilitation, is the love and passion. Their work had integrity and authenticity. Dead rock stars are admired for that. We came together, as a community, in appreciation of that art. The music, against the script and unexpectedly, gave us solidarity, which we have so far failed to use in the service of obtaining social justice. Shame on us.

The faceless, secret agents, on the other hand – losers to a man (or woman); mere tools of wealth and power – are largely forgotten, having left no creative legacy whatsoever. They’re the real nowhere men, who wasted their lives in the service of upholding illegitimate privilege. They have blood on their hands and nothing to show for it. They might as well have never been born, for all they made of their potential.

The trail of dead musicians, whose suspicious deaths, at the prime of their lives, were never thoroughly investigated, because people were only too willing to believe the “hopeless junkie” stereotype promulgated by the mainstream media, is quite chilling. Think of the artists we lost. Imagine the art they might have yet produced. Consider that they may have, in fact, been murdered, to keep us all in line, craving security and protection from people that were actually a mortal threat to us. This never ended. It’s with us still.

Potash has written quite a chilling and disturbing book, which changes forever how we regard popular culture and the music industry. Even if shown to be true, though, few would believe it. Even writing it down makes no difference. It seems too fantastic to believe, despite the weighty evidence presented. Most just don’t want to know. People simply want to be left in peace. The oligarchs, in reality, have won. They’ve achieved what they wanted. It all turned out the way it was planned.

As an artist confronted with an industry whose sole purpose appears to be to create widespread political apathy and cognitive impairment, in order to keep us all under control, living in comparative misery, what should you do? Fight it? Comply with it, for fame? Can you dance with this devil? Many literally died trying.

My advice is to make your art for the joy of sharing an aesthetic experience. Forget stardom. It’s not worth being seen as a threat to entrenched interests. Leave them to it. Make your music, share it and call that your accomplishment. Don’t become a marketing tool for a dark agenda.Young artists ought to have a reasonable expectation of their lives and careers not being interfered with, or ruined, by people determined to protect their wealth and privilege. Sadly, if the book is correct, that’s not an expectation that can be met by the present-day music industry. You’re best off avoiding it altogether.

In response to a question about a particular high-profile groupie, the musician Julian Cope said, “Free us from Nancy Spungen-fixated, heroin A-holes, who cling to our greatest rock groups and suck out their brains.”

Australian historian Carl Trocki, an expert analyst of South East Asian affairs, noted: “Opium created pools of capital and fed the institutions that accumulated it: the banking and financial systems, the insurance systems and the transportation and information infrastructures…. Drug trades destabilized existing societies … they have the power to undercut the existing political economy of any state. They have created new forms of capital; and they have redistributed wealth in radically new ways.” This is the true business of the oligarchs and why they spend a small fraction of that wealth to control popular culture and the mainstream media completely. This is why they need to convince you to both consume their product and leave the entire business edifice they have created alone. This is how and why they farm you.

At some point, the oligarchs will overplay their hand, without anybody else doing anything. Nobody will even need to lift a finger. The revolution will inevitably come because their plan is unsustainable, given its scale. They’re trying their luck. Attempting to quell rebellion against the unacceptable, through violence and subterfuge, only delays the inevitable. Their time is running out and all the rest of us need do is watch and wait. They’re on a path to self-destruction.

Meanwhile, the music they funded to distract and damage us has given us solidarity with each other. Fans are a community. As the fiftieth anniversary re-release of Sgt. Pepper’s so amply demonstrates, we are many and they are few. Share the love. We should take back our art and our popular culture and use it to edify and enlighten, rather than degrade, abuse and prey upon people.

Obsessed as they are with power, control and wealth accumulation, the day will come when the oligarchs will realise they need the rest us to save them. They need to keep us ignorant, entertained, divided and, above all else, subservient. What if we do the opposite and, through music, become aware, engaged, united and, above all else, sovereign and dignified?

We, the ordinary, common people, simply want to live in a peaceful world, where kindness, freedom, integrity and happiness abound, instead of corruption, deceit, scarcity, hatred and greed. We don’t have to take the drugs. We need not accept degradation as inevitable.

The choice is ours.

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Expressing Authentic Emotions Through Art

People are actively shamed, when they show their emotions openly and honestly. Other people shower them with derision and scorn. They often feel intense shame and try to deny or excuse their outward display of feelings. They are ashamed. 

Society generally discourages emotions, through the application of open, cold opprobrium. Even though creative thinking (actually, any creative activity) is undoubtedly and inseparably linked with emotion, it has become an ideal to think and live without emotions. “Emotional” has become a pejorative term, synonymous with being weak, unbalanced, unsound and suspect. In short, when it comes to emotional people, they’re not to be relied upon, or left in charge.

We unquestioningly accept this behavioural gold standard, yet in accepting it, we are greatly weakened; our thinking impoverished and our experience of life flattened and muted. Even so, since emotions cannot be completely killed, they exist in spite of any efforts to intellectualise them away. As a consequence, we are served cheap and insincere sentimentality in its place, by the purveyors of popular culture. Mushy, banal movies and mawkish, clichéd songs feed millions of emotionally starved paying customers. It can be very lucrative and profitable. They get away with producing it because people hungry for feelings will accept any old inauthentic garbage.

As artists, we can do better than this, of course. We should do better. Just as a starving wretch deserves nutritious, delicious food, so too the emotionally hungry deserve nourishing, sustaining, uplifting and edifying emotionally affective art works. They should be touched deeply, rather than merely teased and taunted by ultimately unsatisfying superficial sentimentality. The quality of the emotional experience matters.

The same social disapproval applies to original thinking. As with emotions and feelings, from the very commencement of education and perpetually, thereafter, original thinking is discouraged. Pre-digested, ready-made, glib thoughts and explanations are installed in people’s minds instead. Young children, born with natural insatiable curiosity and wonderment, endowed with unconstrained imagination, want to grasp their world, both intellectually and physically. They want to know why. They seek truths, since that is the safest way to orient themselves in a strange, threatening, overwhelming world. 

Adults respond by not taking children seriously. Either they are treated with open disrespect, or subtle condescension. Indeed, this is how all people who are perceived to have no power (the elderly, infirm, disabled, unwell or poor, for example) are treated. 

Through this treatment, children (and the powerless) are strongly discouraged from thinking independently. Worse still, the often unintentional insincerity is even more damaging. Trust is eroded. Children learn that they cannot take anybody, even those they love and depend on most, at their word or at face value. They begin to see the masks people put on when interacting with them. The insincerity consists, in part, of a fictitious misrepresentation of the world, which is of no use to a child seeking understanding and factual certainties, to provide security and psychological comfort. It’s all rather unsettling and disorienting.

Adults also blatantly lie to children, to conceal facts that, for various personal reasons, they don’t want the children to know. Whether through shame or simply not wishing to confront uncomfortable subjects, fits of temper are rationalised away as justified dissatisfaction with the child’s behaviour. Their parent’s sexual activities and quarrels are hidden. The child is “not supposed to know” and his or her innocent inquiries meet with polite or hostile discouragement. They’re frozen out from their own actuality and observations, taught to distrust what they perceive. Reality is distorted and their thoughts and feelings thereby devalued. It’s a form of psychological sabotage.

Spontaneity, while rare in our culture, hasn’t yet quite become extinct. Everybody knows somebody who is, or has been, spontaneous – whose thoughts, feelings and actions were an unselfconscious, pure expression of their essential humanity and individuality. They stand out because they contrast markedly with people conditioned and resigned to just exist and to live their lives as obedient automatons, content to do as they are told, to meet other people’s expectations of them. These outstanding individuals, despised by those who lack the courage to live their lives with equivalent spontaneity, are mostly known to us as artists.

In fact, an individual who can express himself spontaneously is a pretty good working definition of an artist. Using this definition, all manner of creative people, philosophers and scientists can be classified as artists too. There are other people who, though lacking the ability (or perhaps the training, or application) to express themselves in a tangible medium, like an artist does, nevertheless possess the same quality of spontaneity.

The status of an artist is precarious and vulnerable, though, because only successful artists are respected for their individuality or spontaneity. If an artist fails to sell the art they make, they’re regarded by their contemporaries as neurotic, quixotic cranks. Their failure to find a paying market is taken as proof of their intellectual incompetence. In this respect, the artist is in a similar position to that of the revolutionary, throughout history. A successful revolutionary is a revered statesman, while an unsuccessful one is a criminal terrorist.

What you notice about your own moments of spontaneity is that they invariably coincide precisely with moments of genuine happiness. Whether you experience a spontaneous reaction to a beautiful landscape, the sudden realisation of some deep truth resulting from your thinking, an innovative idea that occurs to you, seeing the solution to a seemingly intractable puzzle, experiencing a sensuous pleasure, or feeling the welling up of love for another person, these ephemeral moments are the most memorable and the ones that give us the most joy. In these moments, we instinctually know what a spontaneous act is. We gain an inkling of what human life could be, if only these spontaneous experiences were not such rare, fleeting and uncultivated occurrences. We form a vision of tangible bliss.

Commonly, we think that art must challenge our ideas and shake us, or shock us, out of our complacent ways of thinking and perceiving. The greater need, arguably, is to have our existing good ideas given greater power and prominence in our lives. If art succeeds in creating spontaneous moments, or gives rise to original, individual thought, or helps somebody feel deeply and genuinely, then it will have fulfilled a noble and worthwhile purpose.

As artists, we must be prepared to express authentic emotions, through our art. Our spontaneity should be the inspiration for others to live spontaneously too.

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Creative National Security

My wife is an original thinker. Stunningly original, actually. One evening, while discussing the growing threat of nuclear war, we were disturbed by the fact that nuclear weapons are only a deterrent if the elected leader is perceived to be unhinged enough for people to believe that they could be plausibly expected to launch a nuclear first strike capriciously, thereby annihilating all life. Any more reasonable, life-loving leader wouldn’t be credible enough in their role as a vindictive, deranged maniac and so the weapons would be stripped of their deterrent effect. 

This is the same leader, mind you, that people expect to be sane and balanced enough to rule for the benefit of the many. The ideal leader has to be both a model of sober benevolence and a crazed, psychopathic killer at one and the same time. People that believe in the existence of such a leader, who support spending trillions on nuclear weapons, are thought to be reasonable, sensible and moderate, while those that call the whole thing out as the insanely dangerous bullshit it really is are branded enemies of the people and risks to national security.

The theory goes that the only way to secure national security is to wield a weapon of such massively destructive potential, controlled by somebody psychologically unstable, that nobody else would dare make a move against us. It’s an argument that holds that only violence of the most extreme kind can keep us all safe. If that were true, kindergartens would train loaded, hair-trigger, automatic weapons at the faces of all children, at all times. (Some American kindergartens evidently do.)

Of course, our enemies (real or imagined) elect their own lunatic psychopaths too, placing their twitching digits on the destruction button, so the rest of us are left crossing our fingers that no single tweet sets them off into a fit of murderous frenzy, late at night. We’re essentially held to ransom collectively, dependent entirely on the impulse control of acknowledged maniacs.

How secure does that situation make us, in reality? These weapons did nothing to deter Syria. All they’ve accomplished is made it more likely that an accidental cock-up will start Armageddon. There are people crazy enough to think that this, too, would be God’s will, if it ever happened. No just and loving God would end all life through a screw up. Give me a break.

My wife’s very original thought is this: spend the money that would have been pissed away on nuclear armaments on finding cancer cures, new antibiotics and treatments to remedy thousands of currently incurable ailments instead. Become indispensable to the health and well-being of the world and not even the most crazed sociopath would bomb your country. Indeed, the necessity of electing such a misanthropic weirdo would disappear entirely.

The beauty of this solution – finding a creative way of securing life – is that invasion can’t captivate it either. You can’t steal ideas and human creativity like you can land or mineral resources. You can’t coerce a populace into producing original, innovative, spontaneous, creative ideas. Invasion would cause the flow of such ideas to end instantly. It’s something that simply doesn’t yield to violence and conquest. If you don’t treat it gently, allowing it true freedom, it vanishes. As a means of securing national security, it’s pretty strong.

People can overcome their basic fears and doubts about themselves and their place in life if they relate to the world by embracing it, in the act of spontaneous living. They gain strength as individuals and security as a society. To quote the psychologist, Erich Fromm, “This security, however, differs from the security that characterizes the pre-individualist (i.e. feudalist) state in the same way in which the new relatedness to the world differs from that of their primary ties. The new security is not rooted in the protection which the individual has from a higher power outside of himself; neither is it a security in which the tragic quality of life is eliminated. The new security is dynamic; it is not based on protection, but on man’s spontaneous activity. It is the security acquired each moment by man’s spontaneous activity. It is the security that only freedom can give, that needs no illusions because it has eliminated those conditions that necessitate illusions.”

To accomplish creative national security, through the arts and industry, a society needs to take full benefit of the uniqueness of each creative person. Quoting Fromm once more:

“The uniqueness of the self in no way contradicts the principle of equality. The thesis that men are born equal implies that they all share the same fundamental human qualities, that they share the basic fate of human beings, that they all have the same inalienable claim on freedom and happiness. It furthermore means that their relationship is one of solidarity, not one of domination-submission. What the concept of equality does not mean is that all men are alike. Such a concept of equality is derived from the role that the individual plays in his economic activities today. In the relation between the man who buys and the one who sells, the concrete differences of personality are eliminated. In this situation only one thing matters, that the one has something to sell and the other has money to buy it. In economic life one man is not different from another; as real persons they are, and the cultivation of their uniqueness is the essence of individuality.”

In other words, if everyone were able to live creative lives, spontaneously pursuing their individual creative inclinations, they’d never feel insecure enough to need a big, bad leader with an insanely destructive weapon. Strength and stability come from unlocking the creative potential of the people. Why would anybody, fully engaged and immersed in their own creative pursuits, interrupt them in order to invade or attack people similarly engaged? What would be the reason and gain? Why would anybody need a psychopathic leader, if you were free to do with your life what you thought best?

Today, studies have amply proven that democracy is dysfunctional. The rich essentially get what they want, through the exercise of their power, wealth and influence. Government can be bought and while it is, the wishes and desires of everybody else don’t count. This is a regrettable fact. That being the case, why do the rich and powerful want the destruction of all living things? It’s pathological. It’s root cause is their own inability to live spontaneously, exercising their creativity in a security-enhancing way. These people are not well, psychologically.

So there you have it: true security comes from creativity. Those that put their faith in violence and destruction are so very wrong and the point we’ve reached in the nuclear arms race – essentially an insane stand off, costing trillions of dollars that would have been better spent enhancing life, with nobody able to back down from the extreme threats they make – is the unarguable proof. Isn’t it time we stopped believing in psychopaths and started believing in the power of our life-affirming creativity?

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Love is All You Need

This article is based on my own speculations, perceptions, insights, opinions and conjectures. It’s based on first-hand observations, historical artefacts and my own life experience. If that’s not for you, stop reading now and go and look at something else. Begone with you! Go on! Be off! For other readers, I’ll share my story.

The Beatles had a big impact on my life and probably on all people my age. We were late baby boomers, growing up in a world in which our older bothers and sisters, the war babies, those quintessential baby boomers, had already begun to exert their influence. Now in their late teens and early twenties, they were already moving and shaking, via rock and roll, staking their claims to growing post-war prosperity and to positions as shapers of modern popular culture – so much so, that it was hard for us younger boomers to get a foothold or a look in. We were elbowed out long before we came of age.

The generations before them had been thinned and cowed by two global wars of such savage, industrial-scale brutality, that humanity could no longer carry on believing in what it had before. The old certainties had been worthless. The devastating aftermath of the protracted conflict was there for all to see. You could hardly avert your gaze and ignore it.

The musician, Ozzy Osbourne, described the arrival of the Beatles into mass popular consciousness as like waking up one morning and finding the world had changed completely. It wasn’t quite like that, for us baby baby-boomers. By the time we were socially conscious, in our early teens, that tumultuous change in culture was already an assumed part of the ambient landscape. All we knew of that former time were the older people, still clinging onto their now-discredited old ideas and ways, like ridiculous buffoons. To us, they represented out of touch fossils, worthy only of pity and contempt. 

One of my contemporaries put it best when he said that the sixties happened in the early seventies, in my home town. We grew up assuming the world was driven by peace and love. Therefore, discovering it still wasn’t, as we learnt during the Thatcher and Reagan eras, was doubly painful. Something precious was destroyed, over the coming decades. It still lies bleeding.

What mystified me, coming as I did from a heavy-industrial, maritime town, a place a bit like Liverpool, but in microcosm, was why the ideals of peace and love should have been so powerfully and persuasively espoused by four musicians from essentially non-descript backgrounds, in that city. What were the circumstances, the cultural and social conditions, that caused it to blossom? Why Liverpool, of all places? What set the stage and allowed it to grow? If you had to choose any epicentre, from which the Hippy counterculture was most likely to originate, would anybody have picked grey, grimy Liverpool.

A closer examination of the history of the people and place actually begins to illuminate why this should have happened here, at the time it did. You can do this by visiting the city and its many cultural and historical attractions. A pattern and picture begins to form, as surprising as it is obvious, once you take everything into consideration. It had to start here, of all places, in retrospect. It was a wholly rational response to the circumstances of place and time.


One of the most enlightening things you can do, to understand Liverpool in the fifties and sixties, is to take the Magical Mystery Tour, from the Albert Docks. It tours the childhood homes of the Beatles, as well as various places that featured in the history of the band and in their lyrics. You begin to get a sense of the world that working class and middle class suburban families inhabited, at the time. The pressures, struggles, disharmonies and sacrifices become tangible. What comes across is the search for an answer and an escape from the mundane and limited horizons that post war conformity promised.  

To that generation, people who fell in with the project and did what they were told had been horrendously betrayed by the authorities. People had literally been killed in doing so. Trust in the stable, conservative, patriarchal project, with all its arrogance and condescension, was exceptionally low, for the right reasons. The elites in power had been unmasked as utterly incompetent, despite narrowly winning the war. People knew how close they had come to losing. Outright rebellion had been averted, but only just. This is the ambient climate of thought that the Beatles absorbed, perhaps unawares, in their formative years.

Other worthwhile glimpses into Liverpool’s history can be found at the Maritime Museum and the excellent Liverpool Museum, both located on the old docks, walking distance from the commercial heart of the city and the famous Cavern Club. One of the standout exhibits was a film entitled, “The Power and the Glory?”, If I recall the title correctly (https://vimeo.com/63156381 ). The question mark in the title is significant.

Liverpool became prosperous because it was a maritime trading hub. A disproportionate share of the wealth of the British Empire flowed through Liverpool. This was wealth obtained by force, violence and conquest, not the least of which was built on the back of the slave trade. All of the city’s fine old buildings and leafy avenues were bought and paid for with human exploitation and suffering. Penny Lane, in fact, was named after one of the city’s more prolific slave traders, commemorating his wealth and influence. The dirty little secret that taints the history of the city is that it was, in the main, enthusiastically complicit in the injustices meted out in the name of commerce.

That’s not to say the city’s inhabitants weren’t honest, up-standing, industrious and hard working. It was a place of exceptional initiative and innovation. The industries attracted to this trading hub exported the genius, design and craftsmanship of ordinary people throughout the world. With the spoils, the city developed a culture of its own, funding vast cathedrals, concert halls, orchestras and theatre. Upper middle class people could live as urban sophisticates, even as their workers eked out precarious existences in icy two-up, two-down terrace houses, with outdoor toilets.

Liverpool was the embodiment of hierarchy, where everyone knew their place. This it has in common with the miniature fiefdoms that exist onboard ships, from the captain down to the firemen. People didn’t dare step out of place, for fear of summary discipline. The whole edifice ran on hierarchy, which was stable and strong; the source of all the prosperity. But hierarchy, even one as strictly observed and maintained as Liverpool’s, failed.  

As the British Empire crumbled, the injustices and conquests were simply too difficult to enforce indefinitely, so the prosperity drained away. By the sixties, Liverpool was poor and getting poorer; bypassed and forgotten. The world moved on and the wealth flowed elsewhere. Mighty industries predicated on the strength of the trading port withered and died, as did the commercial port itself.

Like all faded glory, it never died entirely. Even today, the fine buildings still stand – hollow ghosts of a bygone age. Vigour, in the city’s people, was somewhat replaced by shame and despair, though the sense of dignity and pride in past achievements never disappeared. A strange self-confidence remained, even as people endured straightened circumstances and privations. They knew what they had been capable of producing, but also felt the taint of the suffering inflicted on the nations of the world, in the name of empire.

The die-hards always try to resuscitate a dying empire by doubling down on brutal authoritarianism, bullying the weak and blaming the victims. Indeed, this is what brought politicians such as Margaret Thatcher to power. The others, seeing the bankruptcy of their leaders’ ideas, organised in worker’s collectives, attempting to redress the imbalances, inequalities and injustices. Because Liverpool’s labour force had learnt that authority was illegitimate, duplicitous and powerless to stop the decay, they opposed the privileged and were punished by successive Conservative governments for their lack of compliance and reverence, right up to the present day, but all of this was in the future, relative to the sixties.  

People instinctually knew that when the going got tough, they were left abandoned, despite their previous loyalty and dedication to the cause of wealth accumulation. The wealthy simply betrayed their minions and moved on. Materialist Capitalism and Imperialism were fickle mistresses.

The problem with slavery, plunder, violence, exploitation, authority, brutal repression and conquest is that it’s antithetical to life. It preys on life, rather than enhancing it. The predators may flourish for a while, but life eventually reasserts itself, for sheer survival. This is reflected even in domestic hierarchies. Working people were preyed upon, by the leaders of commerce, almost as much as the so-called “inferior races” were, in far-flung corners of the empire at its height. Plunder leads inevitably to ruination and the taint of moral guilt, for the reprehensible, officially-sanctioned, unconscionable behaviour to other human beings. Calling it what it is, empire was built on theft with menaces, threats and murder.

Even the oppressed, hard-working and honest people of the lower classes were dragged down with the greedy. They shared in the pain of karma and divine retribution. As the prosperity left the city, every man, woman and child felt the effects. Those with no prospect of leaving felt it worst. This is why so many Liverpudlians harboured secret dreams of escape, I think, despite their undoubted pride in their city and their family ties.

They figured it out first here, in Liverpool. Nostalgia for empire is muted. Love is all you need. Despite the worst of circumstances, familial love can sustain you. Violence is a self-evident dead-end, as shown amply by the decay of empire. Authority is not to be trusted and respect for it seldom earned or justified. This is the intellectual undercurrent John, Paul, George and Richie grew up in. These were the ideas in the air.

When looked at in the context of the city’s story, it becomes clearer why peace and love should have found vocal, articulate devotees here. The forces and pressures that could cause such an eruption were all there, perhaps more so than in other similar places, experiencing similar events. Liverpool was perhaps the biggest and so felt the changes most acutely. Unlike London, there were few alternatives open to the city, once trade with empire dried up. It was the city’s raison d’etre.

Though they figured out the universal, unarguable, inevitable answer way back in the sixties, people from other places still haven’t gotten it. Perhaps the people of Liverpool, for all their self-assurance and no-nonsense plain speaking, have begun to lose sight of the answer, too. Peace and love are all you need. Indeed, it’s all that works. Everything else ends in disaster. Denial of these fundamental truths does not change the historical evidence or the facts.

Ultimately, every member of the Beatles just wanted to be left in peace, as do we all, I suppose. You can’t keep making the case for peace and love to people that respond to it with open hostility and even murderous violence. Their art stands the test of time, though, with its potent message, even if those that once made it are gone, or tired of evangelising it.

War is over, if you want it, but apparently not enough want it. We were encouraged to imagine there’s no countries, even as we close the borders to those in genuine need of asylum.

Incidentally, the Penny Lane fire station, so evocatively portrayed in the famous eponymous song, has closed – a victim of savage austerity budgets. There is no clean machine or firemen to keep it clean, any more. Even today, Conservative governments are disciplining the city with unnecessary, ideological punishments, singling it out for the more excessive cuts. There is no peace or love offered.

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