I heard a social commentator opine that the Democratic Party’s obsession with the homosexual agenda is mischievous and was a misappropriation of effort given the many crises looming on the horizon. Although I’m sympathetic to the idea that peak energy and global climate change are more important issues, in the same way that avoiding global thermonuclear destruction could have been viewed as more important than civil rights legislation during the fifties and sixties, I find the idea that the effort to ensure equal rights for homosexuals is “mischievous” baffling.
Exactly how this relates to urban issues, at least in my mind, will require some explaining.
In the wake of the election and all that it portends relative to the direction which our nation will take in terms of policy I must admit that I spent a great deal of time seeking out opportunities to experience schadenfreude and in so doing returned to my Mormon roots (I’m a thoroughgoing atheist now) on social media to read the dire predictions of doom and gloom given that America had rejected (cut, if you will, the thread to) its last best hope for salvation in these, “the latter days”. What I knew I would see, and I was not disappointed, were comparisons being made to the fall of Rome and the supposed connection to that process of Rome’s turn “gayward” along with connections to “prophecy” ancient and modern.
I’m not going to claim more knowledge than I have of the history of Rome but I do know that the Spaniard Hadrian was arguably Rome’s greatest emperor and he was powerful gay! His policies are credited with strengthening Rome and consolidating its power. Obviously this had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. That’s the point. Whether or not Rome became more accepting of homosexuality late in its history is pretty obviously immaterial. In history and the social sciences there aren’t opportunities for double blinding or for isolating elements to ensure that the outcomes which are manifest are actually the product of the potential causes which proceeded them. What that leaves us with then, is the obligation to make rational reasonable connections between events.
Instead we get a great deal of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning as a manifestation of confirmation bias. And what the hell does this have to do with conspiracy theory and living in a city? It’s all about being rational. What I have in common with many Latter Day Saints, perhaps not coincidentally given my upbringing, is that I believe that human civilization is headed for enormous, potentially convulsive change. Unlike many Mormons and other religiously apocalyptic believers, I’m willing to admit: 1, I could be wrong (and in my case it COULD be that I believe this due to an apocalyptic mindset nurtured by my upbringing). 2, if these changes occur it will be due to a direct causal relationship to other circumstances, not due to the wrath of a vengeful God or predestination by a similar deity.
I understand that establishing a causal effect between events in an enormous and complex world is difficult. My prior musings on counterintuitive connections between events, and the examples in the book “Freakonomics” may only scratch the surface when it comes to delving into just how complex these connections may be, but mature, responsible, open minded thinkers will approach conclusions regarding cause and effect with some humility. If there is one thing we do not need in what could be a world in which systems begin to break down it is a mindset which gives itself permission to engage in magical thinking or which convinces itself that it knows the unknowable.
I briefly mentioned the anthropic principle in a podcast I recorded a few weeks ago. I often see corollaries to the anthropic principle as responses to a certain type of flawed reasoning I’ve been unable to identify by name so far. Some examples of this somewhat circular tautological reasoning are as follows:
Soccer commentators often say that a team is only having trouble with “the last pass”. Of course, it’s always the “last pass” because it is poorly played, had it not been poorly played it would not have been the last pass. Every team’s problem is almost always with the last pass…that’s why it’s the last pass.
“It’s always in the last place you look”. Of course IT is always in the last place you look, once you find IT you stop looking. Every thing is in the last place you look, even if it is also the first place you look.
I heard an election official ask rhetorically about a mini crisis: ” How do you run out of ballots on Election Day?” My question is, on what other day could you run out of a thing that is only consumed on that day? It may be inconvenient, but the only day on which someone is likely to run out of ballots is Election Day.
You see, I’ve heard it said that in many cases civilizations create their grandest monuments right before they crash and burn. This doesn’t mean that great monuments destroy civilizations necessarily, and as a matter of fact that is exactly the point I am taking a long time to get to. There is a connection though. The decline of civilizations, like the weight loss of my least favorite ex brother in law, is always measured from the peak. And the peak is the peak, the pinnacle, the top, the extreme “we done good” upper limit. Viewed from that perspective, it not only makes sense, it borders on tautology: Civilizations do their biggest stuff when they’re like, you know, biggest and stuff. How insightful.
Peak oil is not the experience of running out of oil, it’s the point at which production growth ceases. It also represents the top of the curve, the peak, it shouldn’t surprise that our greatest oil “monuments” have been built (see the Big Dig) only recently.
I worry that any downturn in our economic well being will be judged to be the result of expanded human freedom. To me it makes sense to see the connection between expanded human rights and “peak prosperity” in the same way we might understand the connection between “peak monuments” and peak prosperity. We get to “the top” last. That’s why it is the top. It makes perfect sense to me that societies would get to the protecting of, the valuing of, the total enfranchising of, some of the smallest groups and most vulnerable individuals only at the end of its development because, in the sense of diminishing marginal returns, they come last in a sort of cost benefit analysis. Most societies never get to that point of prosperity, but it seems clear that almost none have ever been so prosperous for so long that they could begin to engage in, or even conclude, the process of bringing full human rights to all.
To restate, social progress in a society likely occurs as stability and prosperity become more pervasive. All civilizations end their runs of prosperity and stability at some point, their high point of stability and prosperity is likely to coincide with their moment of greatest societal progress (Think Maslow), this would imply that the greatest social progress ever seen would be in the greatest civilizations at their apex. This would connect the greatest social progress with the trigger moments of decline NOT causally, but anthropically.
Since we can’t be certain in a scientific sense through the isolation of potential causes, what we must do is actually connect logically cause and effect. How would a sexual practice becoming more accepted directly link to societal disintegration unless you define social disintegration by that practice? That’s simply silly circular reasoning and doesn’t expand understanding. Is it because it might lead to lower birth rates(for example)? Can it be shown that Rome’s decline was connected to decreased birth rates? Give me some plausible connection and an example of exactly how it plays out in some sort of model.
Having a conclusion, some sort of cardinal belief which not only precedes your conclusion, but which determines it, is obvious in those who reject out of hand what they call “conspiracy theory” as well. In the same interview which included the comment that the quest for gay rights is mischievous, the same commentator repeated endlessly, echoed by the interviewer, that he gave no weight to conspiracy. What was interesting here is that he was, at one specific point, clearly talking about suburbanization.
I have no doubt that we have suburbs because, at some level, people want them. The status of the United States as the first great petroleum producer, the development of the internal combustion engine, and the great expanse of uninhabited land in North America would logically be seen as circumstances likely to produce an increase in horizontal development. This does not mean, however, that this process did not involve conspiracy. It is in fact part of the historical record that Firestone, General Motors, and Standard Oil were adjudged in a court of law to have been guilty of conspiring to wantonly destroy America’s street railways in order to obligate people to use their products. To claim that no person ever would have made the decision to live in a more urbanized area because of proximity to an efficient, inexpensive, and broadly developed system of urban light rail is idiotic, imbecilic, and obviously ridiculous. That this proven conspiracy was clearly not the only reason for increased suburbanization is no reason not to see that it played some role. We can never know exactly how great an impact it had, of course, just as we can’t know to what extent the conspiring of other powerful entities in the automotive, petroleum, and construction industries has distorted the choices people have made over the last 50-75 years in relationship to the way they inhabit the land.
People are social animals. To dismiss conspiracies when life is a conspiracy is irrational. We “breathe together”. We work together to achieve common ends. Sometimes people do it in ways which promote their own interests in ways that no one would see as inappropriate, but clearly people also work together for common ends which are sometimes detrimental to others. Part of our analytical tool box must be the awareness of conspiracy. To dismiss conspiracy out of hand is just as irrational as seeing everything as a conspiracy.