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In a perfect world, people everywhere would recognize the limits of their knowledge while taking heart in their ability to learn, and would therefore be fascinated and challenged by the unknown, rather than shrinking from it. Life, death, and consciousness, after all, are inherently mysterious; understanding the fact of existence itself would entail a grasp of things like eternity and cause-less effects. And given that your dog has as much chance of understanding quadratic equations, it's fair to say that for as long as humans walk the earth, mystery will be their constant companion.

But in our less-than perfect world, there are millions who can't live with the idea that some questions are essentially unanswerable. So rather than focusing constructively on the pressing questions of the day---which, in principle at least, can be resolved---they salve themselves with such maladaptive beliefs that there's a good chance humans won't be walking the earth much longer.

Consider the recent news that the biosphere---ravaged by warming, overpopulation, and ecological destruction---appears to be on the verge of throwing in the towel ("Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere," Nature, June 7, 2012). The living part of this rock we call Earth, it seems, can swiftly and irreversibly become hostile to our particular form of life if thrown out of balance---a balance that appears to be approaching a tipping point. This is good news for misanthropes, and bad news for everyone else---especially for our kids and their own children. We know what needs to be done, of course: curb population growth, and transition from the oil-fired growth paradigm of capitalism to some form of eco-friendly, steady-state economics---and fast. But in all likelihood, humanity won't do anything more transcendent than mold on cheese (which just keeps doing what it's doing till the cheese is gone).

One obvious reason for this is that staving off environmental collapse would require concerted action among the world's governments---including that of an immensely powerful rogue nation inhabited by zealous multitudes who persist in believing there's a Supreme Being commanding them to "fill the earth and subdue it," who believe that global warming is a left wing hoax (and that even if it isn't, they'll be saved in the end if they toe the theological line), and who are easily manipulated by a handful of sociopaths bent on having it all (i.e., theirs and everyone else's). All in all, it's a tall order.

According to Gallup, 30% of Americans believe the Bible is factual---a collection of old news stories, essentially. That's 100-million 21st century Americans who believe there was a carpenter who actually walked on water, and a shepherd who literally parted the Red Sea with a wave of his staff---and that all of humanity's problems had begun long before, when a talking snake persuaded the first woman to feed her husband from the tree of knowledge (and we know how these folks feel about knowledge). For fundamentalists, believing is fundamental---it's their default M.O. Consequently, they not only believe in Jesus and talking snakes, they believe in Ronald Reagan, and in The Market, and in the unalloyed goodness of the U.S. of A. (to paint with a broad brush). They enjoy critical thinking about as much as some of us enjoy going to the gym---so they can't tolerate any loose ends in their world view. It's one of the things you can't fail to notice about true believers: they always have all the answers---and they can quote scripture to prove it.

And if their number is sobering, their passion is unsettling. As history amply demonstrates, true believers will literally kill for their beliefs. At various times and places, they have tortured each other to death, burnt each other at the stake, and waged ungodly holy wars---all in the name of a deity that can only be found in the pages of a medieval text. So it's hardly surprising that our current crop of god-warriors turns out in force on Election Day to vote against its own best interests---and everyone else's---at the behest of Bible-thumping shills for the banksters and oil pigs.

But the problem isn't even religion per se, it's the perpetual brain-freeze of belief itself. For those of us who lived through the Cuban missile crisis, it's impossible to forget that it was the belief in capitalism, on the one hand, and in communism, on the other, that brought humanity to the brink of extinction a half-century ago. It's ironic: a disagreement over how to organize society nearly ended all society for ever. (Not surprisingly, the authoritarian strain so common to true believers is the same one that defines the warrior class.)

Yet for all its destructive power, it's easy to forget that belief---of either the religious or secular variety---is nothing more than what substitutes for facts when the facts are unavailable, unclear, debatable, or too painful to bear. When the facts are evident and non-threatening, they require no devotion to appreciate: snowflakes, autumn leaves, and bird droppings all invariable fall to the ground, yet no one believes in gravity---it's just a fact of life. Most people do have their beliefs, of course, but they tend to be provisional in nature---subject as they are to revision as new facts emerge and fresh conclusions are drawn. But for the hardcore believer, who often has a hardwired need for cognitive closure, the self-contained nature of a medieval world view---or of classical economic theory---is just the ticket, and not subject to much revision; for these folks, belief is fact.

But in the real world of the 21st century, the facts are these: as scientists raise the alarm over the drasticallay truncated timeframe we have in which to bring the runaway train of industrial-strength capitalism to a screeching halt, the clowns in DC are huffing and puffing about bullshit calamities like the "fiscal cliff" in the apparent belief that if Goldman Sachs is too big to fail, certainly the biosphere is too---so why sweat it? We could be on the threshold of a poisonous new age of methane-breathing extremophiles---no more bunny rabbits, panda bears, or people---yet fundamentalists who believe hurricanes are caused by angry homophobic gods are voting on issues affecting global warming.

Back when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was all this talk about "The End of History"---Francis Fukuyama's much-cited essay---which posited that the Cold War's end was nothing less than the climax of human history, and we could all look forward to living happily ever after in a global capitalist village. In the hard sciences, of course---where discipline trumps ideology---it was understood that humanity was already outstripping its resource base, and could not long sustain a voracious system like capitalism. So despite the mainstream delusion, it seemed clear even then that capitalism was going down too---it'd just take a bit longer, and do a lot more damage in the process. What was less clear at the time was that it'll probably take the entire biosphere with it---at least the one we're built for---and that really will be the end of history.

But if Homo sapiens does go over the biospheric cliff (taking untold millions of species with it), it'll be because too many were to blinded by their beliefs---in Jesus, in Ayn Rand, in markets, growth, capitalism, globalism, American exceptionalism, and Greed---to even see what was coming at them.

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Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 01:51 PM PST

IS HAPPINESS A COLD PIECE?

by Kevin Wolf Caldwell

They flagged me down around 2:00 AM---a couple of grungy-looking characters standing in front of the Daily Pint in Santa Monica. The bar was closed, and they were looking to go to McArthur Park, round trip---which meant they were looking to score. This was back when McArthur Park was a teeming, open-air bazaar fueled by the early 'nineties floodtide of crack on the streets of L.A.

So I got my money up front, and headed for the freeway. A lot of cab drivers wouldn't mess with crack runs---but in the midst of that cold winter of 1990-'91, I couldn't pass it up.

When we got downtown, I took them to Alvarado and 7th and followed the procedure experience had taught me: I parked the car in a legal space---leaving enough room in front for an unobstructed getaway---then took it out of gear, rolled up the windows, turned off the lights, and kept my foot away from the brake pedal. (The idea was to be invisible to any units of the LAPD circulating in the area.)

I told them they had five minutes, and they got out of the car.

The harsh glow of halogen street lights threw everything into maximum contrast; I watched for black-and-whites as the two white kids in my rearview mirror crossed the street to where a posse of tall black street warriors had staked out a prominent piece of ground. The pair were like sheep begging to be fleeced---seemingly oblivious to the reality that McArthur Park was that freest of free markets: a place where the powerful were free to prey upon the weak.

Then I remembered the milkshake in the console's cup holder. It'd been an undrinkable mass of ice cream when I picked it up in Santa Monica---but that'd been forty minutes before. So I popped off the lid and took a swig. Ahh, Cappuccino Blast....

Then I looked in my rearview mirror, and here's these two fools hauling-ass back to the car with a gang of those thugs hot on their tails. They must've whipped out a wad of chash like they were buying a couple 6-packs at 7-Eleven. I put the car in gear, turned on the lights, and cranked the wheel over. The faster of the two jumped in the back seat and shut the door; the second one---finding the back door locked,---jumped in front with me. But he was just a shade slow, and before he could slam the door, a couple of these bruisers were all over him. I stepped on the gas---but they had a hold of him, and he began to slide out the door. So I hit the brake and sat there---with the wheel in one hand and my Cappuccino Blast in the other---and watched for a moment as they began bludgeoning the poor bastard and going through his pockets as he thrashed around on the seat beside me. I felt oddly detached---until it occurred to me that I had a couple hundred in my T-shirt pocket, and was, after all, only inches away....

Luckily, I've always had a head for mechanical principles, and I saw a way to apply a little leverage to the situation. With the wheels turned just enough to get the car's nose around the van in front, I eased off the brake and let the cab creep forward---slowly enough that the ongoing assault could move along with it; then, as the open door came in contact with the van's bumper, it began squashing the assailants like trash in a compactor---forcing them to hastily extract themselves from the doorway or suffer grievous injury. My besieged passenger pulled his legs in a thin moment before the door slammed shut---thus averting any inadvertent amputations---and we made good our escape in a blast of toxic fumes.

But having lost one of his shoes, all of his money, and maybe a few teeth besides, that pitiful, beaten crackhead could only sit there weeping and bleeding as we hauled-ass up 7th Street. The trade mission had obviously concluded, so I took the bloodied delegation back to Santa Monica.

The universe, of course, had been kinder to me: I'd covered the lease on the taxi, gotten a couple of hapless characters out of a bad situation, and even managed to do it without denting the car's door---or spilling my Cappuccino Blast.

And if that weren't enough, I had another taxi story to tell.

But my point in telling it here is this: at no time during the incident---or during any of the hairy situations I got into back in my cab driving days---did I find myself wishing I had a gun. And I'm a big pussy, take my word. It's true, of course, that driving taxi is routinely rated among the nation's ten most dangerous occupations---but it's also true that it's mainly the driving that makes it dangerous. (It's a reality you internalize after you've wrecked a couple of cars.)

Also, it's not exactly like I was unarmed. As a lifer told me early on, the most effective weapon a cab driver has is the car itself---and that certainly proved to be the case in that McArthur Park situation. I was also packing a little something called imagination; it'd saved my ass more than once, and I never left home without it. And then there was the Maglite I always kept wedged between the driver's seat and the console; it had no application on that particular occasion, but that hefty little club came in real handy on another night, when a head-case who'd apparently neglected to take his Thorazine wrapped an arm around my neck from behind and made a determined effort to choke me---while we were rolling. (Most of the taxis I drove had no partitions.) In short, things like preperation, experience, and imagination all count; you're almost never helpless.

But what got me revisiting my cab driving days in the wake of the Newtown massacre was the surprising number of commentators, interviewees, and callers to talk radio who claimed to own guns for reasons of "personal safety." It struck me that most of these people probably never have to deal with the spectrum of unsavory characters an unarmed cabby deals with routinely on the streets of L.A.---nor resided in the sort of war zone I called home for many years: the Oakwood section of Venice, where the Venice Shoreline Crips and the V13 kept the rents affordable through much of the 'nineties with continual shootouts and drive-bys in the "Ghost Town" turf wars. I'll admit to being part crazy, but anyone who believes a loaded gun is the ultimate security needs to get rid of the widescreen and join the fact-based community. I personally know of at least three people who were shot to death with their own guns---but not one who got out of a tight spot because he or she was armed. (And I know for sure that if cab drivers started packing, they'd all be shooting each other over airport trips.)

In his Christmas Eve blog post, Michael Moore suggested that most of the guns sold in America are purchased in the suburbs and country by white folks fearful of blacks. Whites have reason to fear blacks, of course---the same reason the one-percent fears the rest of us: by their very crimes, victimizers doom themselves to fearing their victims. Yet whatever the threat of lingering black resentment, you almost have to be a scriptwriter to dream up a situation in which a gun would actually save your white ass. (Or mine; even if I'd been packing that night at McArthur Park, it would've been beyond stupid to get into a shootout with a bunch of gangbangers.)

So if it's security all those fearful white folks are longing for, they might want to rid themselves of the artillery and start working toward a more egalitarian world---a world, that is, without so many anxiety-inducing victims.

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