My Dad, in 1984

by Danny Showalter

I remember the presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. My Pop hated Mondale. That was 1984, and I was seven. I’ll come back to that after a brief digression.

I grew up in rural Indiana. Shortly before I was born, my father, my mother, my aunt and my uncle, went in together on 120 acres of land, mostly woods, on a little jelly-bean shaped lake called Fish Lake. It had all the small mouth bass, bluegill and catfish you could eat, if you knew where they were biting. We gardened for sustenance and from August to November we canned, canned and canned some more. My father was and is a conservative, a Viet Nam veteran, a gun collector and somewhat of a survivalist type. We always had a freezer full of venison, we ate fresh rabbit, and raised chickens and had our yearly hog (a snorting compost pile all spring and summer) that we butchered in the early winter. You get the idea. Once we even raised a few calves for beef.

My mother raised me in a liberal Brethren/Mennonite tradition, that is, pacifism, community involvement and simplicity, but my father never went to church. He stayed home, cut and ranked wood for the woodstove.

And so it was 1984. When I asked my father why he was so rabidly anti-Mondale (in seven year-old terms), he replied, “Well, boy… . the Democrats want to take our guns away.” I nodded, and went off into the woods or to the barn to play. As I recalled and obsessed on my father’s words that day (they were and still are very important to me, despite the fact that I can see his worldview being manipulated now by a presumptive media and a neo-conservative narrative), I almost went into a panic… . take our rifles? I had had no introduction to gun violence at all. Firearms were tools with which we hunted and acquired food, and on rare occasion, used to convince people who hunted on our land without permission that this was not where they wanted to be. So there I was, in the woods, whittling a stick or something, in a panic that if Mondale got elected, we would be confronted by police that requested my father give them his guns. Knowing my father well, and his response to this hypothetical(all too real in seven-year-old terms) was also what threw me into this panic. So I went back to him for a bit of clarification.

“Pop? What if Mondale gets elected, and guns are outlawed and some people come to take them?”

My dad tensed his lips, then decided to grin, looking up at me with a sparkle in his eye, the little creases around his eyes telling me he loved my question. In a response I wonder if I would give a seven-year-old, he said:

“Open fire, boy.”

Okay, so this response makes tears come to my eyes. Not then, but now.

Open fire.

If I thought I, at seven, was nervous before, this made me downright upset. I knew my dad was right, and I still know he was right, even though now we disagree quite a bit on exactly which institutions are most oppressive and their intentions. I have spoken to him at length on institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the Council on Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission and so on. I have had discussions with him at length concerning the Federal Reserve, and how money is expanded and contracted and the game of economic musical chairs we are forced to play, and who is usually left standing in poverty with no place to sit. I have discussed with him his own views, and what that would mean if he were not in rural Indiana raising berries, grapes and goats now, but in the occupied territories of Palestine, even though he sees only “radical Islam” in that resistance instead of a proud tradition of anti-colonialism and self-determination.

My father taught me self-reliance, and the importance of personal sovereignty. He taught me how to grow things and my mother taught me how to preserve them. I was taught how to raise animals well and consciously, and with respect for their natures and gifts. But he also taught me fear. “They” hate our way of life. America has “enemies”.” Liberals” want to take your firearms. You know, the typical tea party shit. To be fair, I find him to be much more conscious and critical thinking than that movement, but he still buys into a neo-conservative narrative with earnest at times (he believes Fox News is liberal, which to me, shows the mastery of propaganda behind NewsCorp!). But he taught me how to fear very well. Outsiders were not to be trusted. They can gain your trust, sure … but make sure they think like you … er, like us.

Our family was insular. My dad and uncle married my mother and her sister. All of our cousins on the 120 acres had only two sets of grandparents, who lived a quarter mile in either direction and farmed, too. My grandpa was a WW2 veteran, despite being a Mennonite. He was a farmer and factory worker. My other grandpa drove a school bus and farmed. My grandmothers were craftspeople. One, an extraordinary chef and gardener. She taught me that arrowroot, instead of cornstarch, is the only way to bake a pie. The other grandmother was a florist. She raised and arranged flowers, and eventually bought a store that my mother now owns, since Grandma died.

As should be clear, I have always been raised in a radical tradition, of sorts. My father raised me with the fear I mentioned, but also left me to play in the woods, to tend to the chickens, and to fish the lake and observe its patterns. My mother taught me community involvement, pacifism and forgiveness at all costs. My grandparents taught me that the Great Depression was only the beginning, and that the way “town people” lived was going to make it very hard on those of us who wanted to use land sustainably (not their words). But it was all within a conservative — and later, neo-conservative — framework.

I was taught this framework and lived it, much like the lines you learn for a play your parents come to see, and you perform it to the best of your abilities and you make your parents, who undoubtedly love you, proud. You make them understand why they love you. Don’t be an outsider, Daniel. Outsiders are not to be trusted.

Years later, after one of our heated conversations that begin with a passing comment about the West Bank, or Bill Clinton or some such, it became obvious to my father that I wasn’t — and couldn’t — think through the narrow window of dualism. Politics were growing increasingly irrelevant, economically speaking, the American Dream was not panning out, and it confounded him that while I spat at the neo-conservative ideas that the Republicans were spewing, I could not align myself with Democrats, either. I began using the term Corporatist in place of both, thinking it more accurate. My speaking about the evils of our sugar-coated imperialism (globalization) didn’t fit in with what he had learned. Using American, conservative, and self-determinate ideas to apply to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza really gummed up his gears. He knew, after all, if he were a Palestinian, he would be a leader of Hamas. If he were a Colombian farmer, or a Basque separatist, or a factory worker in Sarajevo, he would act only in solidarity against Western influence. Were he Afghan, he would be growing poppies with an AK-47 over his shoulder to protect his crop and selling his opium resins for the highest price to feed his family, not be welcoming occupiers as bringing freedom and globally-produced goods, and he wouldn’t smile up at the predator drones. But to any of these things he couldn’t and still cannot bring himself to admittance.

One time, exasperated and angry with me after one of these conversation, he asked, “Who taught you this shit? Why do you think the way you do?”

I remember I felt really sad, depressed, for a moment. My father was not proud of me. He did not approve what I stood for or what I would continue to stand for and it felt like an ultimatum that could never be satisfied. Like a heart-wrenching breakup you see coming right at you, but can do nothing to stop. It felt like our last conversation. I was in silent tears at this point and almost sobbed aloud, into the phone. But I didn’t. I didn’t because I remembered that I had the answer to his question. I could answer him when he asked “who taught you this shit?” I took a deep breath and said, “Pop, you did. You made sure we had acres of untouched forest to hunt in and creeks to splash in, a lake to fish out of, an apple orchard and a plot of garden to love and watch grow. You taught me seasons, and appropriate ways to prepare for them. You gave me a chance to connect with the dirt and the sky and the water. And you also impressed upon me the need to defend those things.”

I held my breath and waited for his response. He was sure to be angered, as you never used my Patriarch’s own words against him. Totally taboo. I braced.

“Boy, I sure don’t know where you learned this stuff, but I love you. Boy, I love you.” I could see the creases at the corners of his eyes and his twinkle through the phone, on his voice.

Open fire, boy. Open fire.


Danny Showalter is a writer/student/activist living in Portland, Oregon. He is currently working to bring ideas of true sustainability to academia, where they are not yet wanted, and to the streets of Portland, where they are not yet heard. He can be found on his days off muttering Blake and Milton passages to himself in his garden and greenhouse. This essay first appeared at the Danny’s blog.

Comments 39

  • How lucid,how honest…..thanks man.
    I could have a beer with you,I don’t say that about many.
    How the trick of politic infects.

    Peace and health to ya my friend.

  • Not long after I finished my masters at Melb Uni I remember arguing with my father about the flaws in his logic – his response – ‘you think you are so good with your high falutin education!’ I was flawed, now I
    politely say my hellos and good byes and compliment him on the
    beautiful food he prepares each christmas. My dad too taught me to hunt, fish and camp rough in the bush. Although somewhat contrary to the authors father, my dad has been a unreconstructed gun toting, tattoo wearing ex-serviceman leftie all of his life.

    His 40 year old son brings an air of french post modernity to every dinner table. :)

  • labels are for tins of soup,drop the fear.

  • Dan,
    as a liberal New Englander who married into a rural Hoosier family, I get this in an acute way; but due to the ties of family, it was always hard to see why I was looked on so suspiciously by some of my brothers-in-law. Reading your essay has made it clear. And, reminded me why my ideas of sustainability weren’t welcome on my inlaws 100 acres….thanks,

  • Very interesting mixture of wisdom and confusion about the way the world works. Xenophobia is eternal and I suspect will become even more acute as hardships mount. Neoconservative politics are perhaps understandable within that context. Still, I lack confidence that my idea of how the world can or ought to work is any better when tested against the many varied (mis)interpretations of reality.

  • Danny, your story shows great insight – how the values your father taught formed you if somewhat differently from your father. What is sad is how the shapers of public opinion have managed to get people to align with politicians who do not represent their interests. We see it all the time and are at a loss in how to counteract it.

    Apparently on Easter Island for a while the people agreed with the rulers that building lots of power statutes was in their best interest. And then when it turned out otherwise they toppled the statutes – just not soon enough. I wish I could see a way to open eyes to how the corporatists are leading us down that same path.

    You are lucky to have learned so many useful skills from your parents. Mine taught me nothing useful. What I have gained in gardening and preserving skills I had to learn all on my own. In my case there is nothing I gained from my father that would offset his right wing views (my mother is long gone). I suppose they gave me one thing. They were so immersed in their own problems that by my early teens I mostly raised myself and was able to explore alternate views of the world without them ever knowing. Sometimes being left alone is the best of available alternatives.

  • A wonderful essay shedding light on the eternal struggle of imperfect sons to win the approval of their flawed fathers.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • A beautiful essay, thanks.
    Musings about Republicans & Democrats being outside my space (having never voted for either) are amusing. Having missed out on country living, being a city slicker my entire life (a week or two on field exercises with the uS Army don’t count), the idea of living “sustainably” on the country is quite remarkable.

  • New years day humor
    World Collapse Explained in 3 Minutes

  • Can we give to our children so that they know who taught them this ‘shit’ … the young lives among us need to see our courage

  • Well, I’m easily old enough to be your dad, and have learned at least a couple of things over the years.

    1 – It’s possible to get along with most anyone, as long as we don’t bother to argue over politics or religion.

    2 – It’s what they do that counts, rather than what they say.

    Your story confirms both observations.

  • “It’s possible to get along with most anyone, as long as we don’t bother to argue over politics or religion.”

    Even I know that when there are…


    …empty stomaches, all forces of reason vanish, and…


    …then, violence is inevitable.


  • Now, seriously: great article.

  • Jean, hope you are keeping your donkey well fed.
    Don’t let him see this video – Cows with guns….

  • “1 – It’s possible to get along with most anyone, as long as we don’t bother to argue over politics or religion.

    2 – It’s what they do that counts, rather than what they say.

    Even I know that when there are……empty stomaches, all forces of reason vanish, and……then, violence is inevitable.”


    “To the millions who have to go without two meals a day the only acceptable form in which God dare appear is food.”
    M.K. Gandhi


    “An empty stomach is not a good political adviser”
    Nobel prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) told this to an Associated Press reporter in November 1930:

    “Reduced to a formula,” he replied after a moment’s reflection, “one might say simply that an empty stomach is not a good political adviser. Unfortunately, the corollary also is true—namely, that better political insight has a hard time winning its way as long as there is little prospect of filling the stomach.”

  • “namely, that better political insight has a hard time winning its way as long as there is little prospect of filling the stomach.”

    The whole point of government is to serve the people. Given that the primary needs other than air are food, water, and shelter, any government that doesn’t fill the stomach is a government that has abdicated on its reason for existing. Political insight then becomes just sound waves not worth anyone’s attention. Such governments eventually fail. Those in the heights of power begin to think that the government is about them and that the people serve the government. That may hold for a while as they use more and more force to keep the people in line. But when people have nothing left to loose governments fall. The privatization of water in Bolivia is an example. The idiots thought they could charge people not only for the water in taps but for the water in wells the people themselves had dug and even the water collected off their roofs. Thus the Cochabamba protests that led to the fall of the government in power.

    TPTB can only control people when they feel they have something to loose by protesting control. When they feel they have nothing less to loose then anything is possible.

  • Kathy.

    ‘The whole point of government is to serve the people.’

    In theory. But in practise governments that serve the people have been extremely rare throughout history and few exist today. Arguably Cuba and Bhuttan come closer than most. My observation is that most governments primarily concern themselves with transferring wealth from the people to those who already have far too much.

    If we take into consideration environmental factors, then no government anywhere on this planet is serving the best interests of the people. I doubt any government could ever do so, since unrealistic expectations and inapporpriate notions of entitlement are now far too widepread.

  • Kevin, I know that the ideal of the government serving the people is not met. But the whole purpose of humans organizing in anything larger than a tribe is to gain some benefit or why would they do it?

    Meanwhile, I do drive on roads paved by my government. I do eat food that is tested somewhat for chemicals and disease. My husband does get Medicare and we both now draw Social Security. Police do sometimes jail the correct dangerous people and enforce traffic laws. It is when the cost of government to the people becomes heavier than the benefits that the rumblings start and the greater the rift between the two the more likely the people will bring the government down. While no government serves all the best interests of all the people (how could they) most provide some little bone.

  • As the author of this piece, I want to thank Guy for posting it and encouraging me, everyone who weighed in with their feelings, reactions, and comments, and of course, my Dad. Let it be known that remembering this day is nostalgic for me, but it is not a nostalgia piece; it is a call to action.

    Thanks, and best wishes,


  • Kathy.

    I don’t think humans naturally organise themselves into groups larger than tribes. It seems to me that by and large governments are top-down organisations, imposed on populations by people who gain benefits for themselves, rather than delivering benefits to the people.

    Do you not think that governments (or more properly TPTB who comtrol governments) regard populations as livestock; they therefore provide a degree of care of their livestock, as a any good farmer would, in order to maximise the return on investment. In other words, if there was too much illness the profitability of the ‘farm’ would decline; if people were ‘too healthy’ the profitability of medical intervention and especially big pharma would decline and the overall profitability of the ‘farm’ would decline; if there was too much crime or social fragmentation, the ‘farm’ would not function well; if there was not enough crime, the security industry would suffer; a very poorly educated populace would generate a low profit, whereas a highly educated populace would revolt.

    The matter of cigarette smoking exemplifies this for me: decades after the link between smoking and serious ill-health had been firmly established governmetns had done nothing of significance to reduce, let alone eradicate, smoking because the profitability of teh ‘farm’ was not being severely impacted by smoking-related illness and death. Alcohol, drugs, petrol-driven cars, global wamring (climate instability)it’s all the same.

    It was only a few years ago that I learned that the best kind of slave is the kind that believes he/she is free. A slave who thinks he/she is free generates the best profit [within the present economic system].


    Your article was very thought provoking; for personal reasons, too painful for me to respond to, but nevertheless appreciated.

  • Kevin, I understand how bad governments are and especially how bad they are in this current age of industrial civilization. But governments and civilization are linked – you don’t ever have one without the other. And agriculture and civilization are linked. As some hunter-gatherers began to do more than a slash and burn agriculture, as humans settled on one piece of land and owned it then civilizations arose and with them governments that became increasingly oppressive. I do not believe that within hunter-gatherer tribes there was a subgroup of incipient PTB just waiting to dominate their fellows and enforce a government. Even if there were their would be no incentive to let such person have their way as long as they kept their lifestyle. Once governments got going strong there has been selective breeding among the elite and perhaps therefore they are moving towards becoming a separate species, but at any rate something perhaps like a different race, with less empathy and more ruthlessness. I don’t know if they are sociopaths because of breeding or education but they are by and large sociopaths.

    I hope you know Kevin that I am totally aware of the malicious control that is exercised by TPTB and that they throw steaks to the corporations while only little meatless bones to the masses. We are not in disagreement. I just don’t think that this type of person lurks in every hunter-gatherer tribe just waiting for an opportunity to establish a government that serves them more than the tribe. It was the change in how we got food IMO that generated this behavior and it is possible that you cannot have an agricultural society without government and that the desire for government came because it was seen by all as necessary in this new lifestyle. But once you form governments they breed the behavior that we both detest. Still they have to throw out the bones or they fall. When they can no longer repair the roads, when they can’t control internal anarchy, when the water makes you sick or doesn’t flow all the time, it becomes harder to govern. But the choice for the people I believe is accept government or go back to hunter-gathering so they accept a lot of manure from government before they give it up. They can try smaller government, and less complex the civilization but some of the abuses will still be there.

    Probably the first need to be met was defense – if you become immobile due to being tied to an owned property for farming, you become a sitting duck. You cannot defend and farm very well at the same time. The more property you accumulate due to not having to be highly mobile, the more there is to defend. If this is the first rational, well then you immediately begin setting up classes of people and the first class that is part of your government just happens to be ones skilled in weaponry and killing so at the outset the government becomes something both useful and dangerous for the people.

  • Ps. Kevin. Our little town here over the years had 3 charters. In each case at some point they stopped having a mayor and council and just let themselves be an unincorporated part of the county. Most did not know we had ever had a charter much less 3. However recently the county went to probate and had our charter forfeited. Suddenly the people wanted a town governance. Was it just some latent PTB suddenly wanting power. No, it was because development was moving this way and having an incorporated charter would give us the ability to zone out anything we didn’t like and preclude some forms of development entirely. It was viewed that the county wanted to forfeit our charter to prevent us from realizing we had one and reinstating it for that purpose. We are suing and in negotiations with the county commissioners. In this case at least the purpose to have this additional layer of government is seen by all as protection from development. If we get it no doubt we will have some who want to become mini powers that be for just the feel of control or for some other purposes. But the likely candidates for that knew we had a charter and did not act until a threat was perceived. I do not believe that any in our group intend to be PTB even though some may become so if we become an incorporated town again. That is ever the danger.

    Personally since the development is stalled and I see it as permanently stalled, I dread the burden of government given that the purpose has disappeared. Others think the recession is temporary so still think we need the protection.

  • Kathy/Kevin

    Agree. Commercial farming opened up the possibility of specialisation, which in turn led to social complexity which in turn led to greater specialisation and thus to greater complexity. Inevitable. Could not be avoided as long as the energy was there to fuel growth. And all that complexity requires proper governance. Further, when you have a complex social structure, whether is be a nation, a city, or a business, you introduce a sharper focus upon power. The larger the organisation the greater the need for the power to focus decision-making on behalf of the whole in a few individuals. Exercise of this power is a specialty in itself. It is here at this point of separation from the general population that power assumes a life of its own, and those who are chosen to wield it are subject to corruption, for whilst the need for such power exists more and more in a complex organisation, those who wield it are first and foremost….well…..human. The moral character and integrity of a human are what determines how that person will react to real power, regardless of their initial intentions. Unfortunately, most in power today have got there by unsavoury means, or they wouldn’t be there.

    In a tribe, you have far less specialisation and complexity. The tribe is usually ruled by one or more councils of sorts. And the business of governance is carried on in open view of the people. In such an environment, there is much less opportunity for corruption.

    I think it is safe to say that no government is a friend of its people in a modern society. There is simply too much at stake.

    Personally, I have no preference for hunter/gatherer societies v modern societies. Both have their advantages. But I will say with some personal commitment, that the choice is not ours to make, nor will it ever be. We were driven by our corrupt nature to where we are today on the wings of cheap and available and versatile energy. We will eventually return to our hunter/gatherer roots as that energy is withdrawn, civilisation falls and the population dies off. It might take a while to get there, but that is indeed our ultimate destination as a species. No one has yet provided me with a strong enough argument otherwise.

  • Danny,

    Excellent and, as Kevin indicated, a very thought provoking article. A call to arms indeed. Open fire. Indeed. I have only one question. Open fire on what? Defend what?

    Your land and your way of life against the “occupiers”? The connection to Nature which your father instilled in you, but which likely 90% of humanity has lost long ago? As a people, we can’t defend something we don’t have and haven’t had for many generations now.

    Modern civilisation and life as we know it? By the sound of it, I wouldn’t think that is what you advocate, though one could make the interpretation that you want to defend our connection to Nature (that you have and I don’t) and our current way of life – clean it up, and live peacefully in harmony with nature at relatively the same level of social complexity. To which I would respond that only TPTB can defend life as we know it as they are the ones holding the power. And they are certainly not connected to nature.

    Perhaps you are calling us to defend what is left of the environment so that at the end there will be something habitable by at least some creatures? Perhaps you are calling us to re-connect ourselves to nature? If so, then this might well mean to open fire on that which is destroying Nature as we know it – modern industrial civilisation. To which I would reply, do so through disconnection as you can from the co-dependent relationship we have with civilisation, acts of non-cooperation and social disobedience.

    In short, if you wish to open fire, pick the target carefully….

  • [victor] “I think it is safe to say that no government is a friend of its people in a modern society. There is simply too much at stake.”

    Too true yet they do make stabs at doing something for the people – they have to show some benefit. The bones they throw us just keep getting smaller and have less meat on them. In fact now the biggest bone justifying the US Government is a lie – they are protecting us from a man on dialysis in a cave in Afghanistan and that is so worthy and costly a bone that they have little less for the other bones such as public health and transportation. Gonna have to have austerity, but hey we are protecting you from the man in the cave….. ;)

  • Kathy

    If your town is small enough, perhaps you should suggest that the town adopt a Town Council form of government where the council is composed of all of voting age? If the town is small enough, there can’t be that many important decisions to make, so it would seem feasible to call a town meeting when a decision was to argued and made. At those meetings, the council can choose a spokesperson who is authorised to communicate that decision to TPTB.

  • [kathy]: “they are protecting us from a man on dialysis in a cave in Afghanistan and that is so worthy and costly a bone that they have little less for the other bones such as public health and transportation. Gonna have to have austerity, but hey we are protecting you from the man in the cave”

    2011 should see the American people pushed ever deeper into their own caved surrounded by impenetrable walls of totalitarianism. Sad to see that, but it is inevitable as the economy continues to break apart and peak oil looms ever larger.

  • Victor, our town is quite small enough for direct democracy (about 150). My husband made a proposal that he hoped the group would adopt as a guiding principle before they might win their charter back. It would have allowed a majority of the residents of the town to call a meeting and vote down any action the board took that they didn’t like. He thought people would like that. It would leave the board to handle business as long as they were acting in the interests of the town, but let the towns folk override if they felt strongly about something. They refused to consider it at that time and only one person saw the good of it as a guiding principle. Oh well…. maybe later. He just wanted it to go into any founding documents so a board couldn’t block it. :(

  • One of the signs I think we can follow for the collapse of a governance (which like dominoes will collapse the world civilization) is infrastructure collapse and the ensuing anger of the populations that expect at least a minimum of services from the various governmental bodies. So here is one that looks worse than your usual infrastructure problem.

    “The 17,000 residents of Highland Park, a city surrounded by Detroit, lost running water over the New Year’s weekend. This was the second metro Detroit city within a week forced to institute a state of emergency due to infrastructure degeneration, following the massive natural gas explosion that killed two people December 30 in the city of Wayne….Spontaneous protests erupted in front of the city hall Friday afternoon, as residents became aware of the lack of water. ”
    More to come no doubt

  • Kathy.

    ‘I do not believe that within hunter-gatherer tribes there was a subgroup of incipient PTB just waiting to dominate their fellows and enforce a government.’

    Perhaps not a group of incipient PTP as such, but undoubtedly a subgroup who had the genetic makeup necessary to act ruthlessly against others once the opportuntiy arose, a strategy which tends to increase the incidence of such genetic makeup within the group. However, since others with the same genetic makeup would pose the greatest threat, the biological strategy would be self-limiting, i.e. they would fight amongst themselves for control over the general populace -as has been the case thoughout all of civilised history.

    According to a recently published article (Independent UK) ‘right-wingers’ -those who have less inclination towards empathy for others- have more reptilian brains than ‘left-wingers’.

    I have suspected for a long time that the vast majority of those in government were not the same species as me, but were ‘reptiles’ covered in human-looking skin. The research kind of confirms it. :)

    Right-wing brains ‘different’

    By Joe Churcher

    Wednesday, 29 December 2010

    Neuroscientists are examining if political allegiances are hard-wired into people, after finding evidence that the brains of conservatives are a different shape to those of left-wingers.

    Brain scans of 90 students at University College London (UCL) uncovered a “strong correlation” between the thickness of two areas of grey matter and an individual’s politics.

    Right-wingers had a more pronounced amygdala – a primitive part of the brain associated with emotion – while those from the opposite end of the spectrum had thicker anterior cingulates. The research was carried out by Geraint Rees, director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, who admitted he was “very surprised” by the results.

    The study was commissioned as a light-hearted experiment by actor Colin Firth as part of his turn guest-editing Radio 4’s Today, but has now developed into a serious effort to discover whether we are programmed with our political views.

  • Kevin, I suggest the book “Blindsight” by Peter Watts. In it he proposes (tongue in cheek?) the theory that the elites might be evolving through selective breeding to becoming intelligent but not conscious and therefore without empathy – perfect sociopaths. available through the creative commons at Not sure if I have mentioned the book before. Quite an interesting trip through the brain.

    I will have to think how this study relates but I always knew right wingers had a whole different way of looking at the world. Thanks for the heads up on the study. I googled for a link and found one at

    So did this change (if verified by further experimentation) happen in the last 10,000 years. That is a short time frame and gives support to your view that TPTB have always been there in the genetic mix and whatever those traits were good for in Hunter-Gatherer society, they took a new route once civilizations started. I tentatively yield.

  • Yes, it has to be tongue in cheek.

    I’m not a geneticist, but my understanding evolution is that errors in copying or environmentally induced damage lead to mutations, most of which are detrimental. However, occasionally a mutation will provide an ‘improvement’ on the base model and have the opportunity to proliferate.

    The other aspect to consider is the dominanance or recessiveness of geenes. We are all walking round with what might be regarded as defective genes, but because they are recessive (and therefore not active) we are unaware.

    For a true subspecies to form there needs to be a fairly long (depending on the lifespan of the organism) period of isolation of a population. Though the elites have tended to intermarry within their group, they have not had the time or isolation necessary to truly diverge from the rest of humanity. I suppose what we are witnessing is something akin to selective breeding ….. and we know where that can lead in the case of dogs. Weren’t half the Hapsbergs half mad, defective specimens as a consequence of excessive interbreedinbg?

    The other aspect to think about is that only a certain type of person, i.e. one having the required sociopathological traits, can make it to the top in the present system, thereby concentrating those traits in TPTB gene pool, while at the same time providing sufficient gene diversity to prevent repetition of the Hapsberg syndrome.

    I ramble too much.

  • Well from my perspective most of you folks are far too optimistic. After all, the human species will eventually go extinct like every other, our biosphere will perish, our sun will burn out, our galaxy will collide with another one, the universe will end in heat death, and there are no gods to save any of it. Given this, I see no reason to do anything at all, or to care one way or the other what happens to anyone, ever. If I had a doomsday bomb I would set it off in a heartbeat, just to save future generations the horror of this realization. Consciousness is not a gift, but the most terrible affliction, and extinction is the only cure. Nature bats last, indeed.

  • Kevin, yep the Hapsburgs were mad and had a malformed jaw as well that sometimes became so serious as to inhibit talking and eating
    Saved somewhat by the next subset of humans “Well served by an efficient bureaucracy, the Habsburgs long endured despite increasing inattention to duty and only disappeared in Spain due to the king’s failure to produce an heir.” The Tsar didn’t fare as well with the hemophilia in their line. Rasputin was able apparently to ease the condition for the son of the last tsar, an thus became a factor in the events that unfolded at the end of tsardom.

  • Speaking of malformed jaws, we now have the likes of Jamie Dimond and Lloyd Blankstein as our role models for the elite. They can speak, but their impairment seems to be inbred sociopathy.

    Wall Street bankers are the new aristocracy. Devoid of conscience. Innate belief in their superiority over the masses. Doers of God’s work (what blasphemy!). Protectors of “free” markets. And they just keep winning….and now a J P Morgan executive, William Daley, might be appointed White House Chief of Staff. Obama continues to show his true colours…

  • Sean, consciousness is for sure a great burden. In the book I mentioned (which I should emphasize is a novel) the author addresses various thinking about consciousness. One question that is seldom asked, is what is sentience good for. Given that it uses a lot of calories to feed our big brains, it must have been selected for in the course of evolution for some benefit that outweighed the costs. Clearly to date humans have been a rather successful species, but many traits can make a species successful and environment is everything. Being a large dinosaur worked in one environment and suddenly being a small mammal worked better. So even when a trait is successful its usefulness can disappear. In our case we seem to being using at least our intelligence, facility at language and tool use to change our environment, unfortunately now it looks like we are doing so to our own disadvantage despite those three traits and our sentience.

    But the author also posits that perhaps one can have great intelligence without being self aware. In fact he posits that while intelligence may have evolved in other parts of the universe, sentience may be the exception rather than the rule. This is pure speculation of course unlike other parts of the book that are grounded in the work of neuroscientists. I find it hard to even think of a highly intelligent being that isn’t self aware, but that can well be a limit in my brain. In fact it seems like there is no point in being without self awareness – yet clearly most species exist quite well without it and not having it don’t ponder their existence. While most humans would assert sentience to be a good thing, it can be quite a burden and it seems it may not be able to help our species as a whole avoid self extinction. Nice try nature, but back to non-sentient species since sentience? Would non-sentient high intelligence do better?

  • This conversation with David Abram at The Dark Mountain Project seems to mirror the conversation here … it is an hour long … I enjoyed every word exchanged … the 45 to 55 minute section was beautiful.

  • sean, u strike me as manic depressive. on one hand, u espouse the triumph of technology and a ‘singularity’ which should make us masters of the universe. now u’re ready to blow up the world because sooner or later it’s fated for destruction, like everything in surreality. can u not appreciate the moment? we’re all going to die, but while alive we can enjoy ourselves sometimes, can’t we?

    kathy, i’m still puzzled by your definition of sentience, or awareness, or self awareness. why must it be characterized by or limited to our species peculiar brand of intelligence? is it an anthrocentric way of saying humans are uniquely special in a way that makes our lives more valuable than those of our non-human relatives?

    sentience is indeed a burden when it includes knowledge of impending disaster/tragedy. also, when philosophizing leads to despair. forget it! get some exercise, get laid if possible or desirable. recall the old pagan law: do what ye will, so long as it harms none. whatever leads to pleasure and especially ultimately to fulfillment of some sort makes this temporal existence worthwhile, if not meaningful.

  • Terry I am using sentience in the way that many neuroscientists use it – not to know, but to know we know. I am using it in the way that it has been tested on animals – the mirror test is one way “The mirror test is a measure of self-awareness, as animals either possess or lack the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror…The mirror test is a measure of self-awareness, as animals either possess or lack the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror.”

    We are animals. We are however animals that do things that no other animals do in such extended ways. We discuss sentience and test for it in other creatures for example. We don’t just use sounds to converse, we use language to discuss the possible futures of mankind and the latest Survivor show on TV. We don’t just use tools to get termites out of the ground, we design tools such as nuclear weapons that might cause our own extinction.

    What term would you like for me to use for these special mind abilities that we have that are unique in their extent? In fact we are so unique that we can suggest to each other using pleasurable experiences to hide unpleasant thoughts. Do any other mammals to our knowledge do that? They do what brings them pleasure, for the reward, not to push away uncomfortable knowledge.

    In a host of ways we are unique. I in no way intend to suggest that that makes us “better” and more than the qualities of some animals to change color makes them better than those who can’t. In the course of evolution that trait worked for the for the time they lived in. Extended self awareness tied to higher intelligence,tools and language, assisted in our extending our existence out of Africa to the whole globe. Now those traits look like they are working against us. That happens to traits you know when the environs change. Just in this case we are both the cause and the result. We are animals with a clear difference. I don’t think that saying that implies that I have the belief that we are better. You are attributing to me beliefs that I don’t hold. I am arguing with you that that is an incorrect understanding of what I have written. Which other creature is capable of those actions?