Cultural Psychology

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Written by John Uebersax

December 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

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Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries. It is also the crisis of a contractual (capitalistic) society associated with it. In this sense we are experiencing one of the sharpest turns in the historical road…. The diagnosis of the crisis of our age which is given in this chapter was written in 1934. Gigantic catastrophes that have occurred since that year…strikingly confirm and develop the diagnosis…. Not a single compartment of our culture, or of the mind of contemporary man, shows itself to be free from the unmistakable symptoms….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)


Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There exist two fundamental, alternative cultural patterns, broadly characterized as materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Characteristics of the two primary cultural patterns and one important mixed pattern are outlined below.

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of imminent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love

While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Cultivate the Intellect: study philosophy; read books and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 25 August 2013

Decision Support Systems for Just War Deliberations

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Unless one is a pure pacifist, the general assumption is that some wars are justified. For centuries a body of literature called just war theory has developed concerning what distinguishes a just from an unjust war.  The criteria come under several headings, like (1) just cause, (2) right intention, (3) last resort, (4) legal authority, (5) probability of success, and (6) that the war not produce greater harms than it intends to solve.

If these criteria, which conform to common sense and moral philosophy alike, were applied scrupulously, most wars would be avoided. The problem comes in practice:  governments, if they consider these criteria at all, typically pay mere lip service to them. For example, to satisfy the just cause criteria, threats posed by foreign powers are greatly exaggerated; and the predicted costs of a war, both economically and in terms of human life and suffering, are greatly minimized. Further, as happened in the case of the 2001 Afghan War and the 2003 Iraq War, intellectuals spend more time arguing tedious fine points about the precise technical meanings of just war criteria than in applying them in a practical and sensible way.

Considering this, it struck me how there is a close similarity between the decision to make war and a medical decision to perform some drastic and risky procedure  say, a dangerous operation. In the latter case, because of the complexity of the choices involved and the fallibility of human decision-makers, expert systems and artificial intelligence have been used as decision support tools. In fact, I’ve developed one or two such systems myself.


Computerized medical decision-support systems offer several benefits. First, they can help a physician decide how to treat a particular patient. For example, based on such variables as the patient’s age, health, genes, and physiology, the system might supply the physician with the estimated probabilities of success for several treatment options (e.g., surgery, medication, naturalistic treatment, or perhaps no treatment at all). The physician isn’t required to follow the recommendation but he or she can take it into account. Usually it is found that, in the long run, incorporating such a system into medical practice reduces the number of unnecessary procedures and improves practice overall.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the process of developing of a medical decision support system is itself very valuable. It requires physicians and medical scientists to focus attention on how actual treatment decisions are made. Ordinarily, diagnosis and treatment selection can be a very subjective and ad hoc thing  something physicians do based on habit, wrong practices, or anecdotal evidence. Developing an expert system forces physicians to explicitly state how and why they make various decisions  and this process not infrequently reveals procedural errors and forces people to re-think and improve their practices.

Both of these advantages might accrue were we to similarly develop a computerized support system to decide whether a war is just. From the technical standpoint, it would not be difficult to do this; a functional prototype could easily be developed in, say, 6 weeks or less. Off-the-shelf software packages enable the rapid development of such a system.

Another advantage of such systems is that they do not produce yes/no results, but rather a probability of success. That is, they are inherently probabilistic in nature. All inputs  for example, whether a foreign power has weapons of mass destruction  would be supplied as probabilities, not definite facts. Probabilities can be estimated based on mathematical models, or expert consensus (e.g., the Delphi method).

A decision support system helps one see how uncertainties accumulate in a complex chain of inferences. For example, if the success of choice C depends on facts A and B both being true, and if A and B are only known as probabilities, then a system accordingly takes uncertainty concerning A and B into account in estimating the probability of C’s success. In a medical decision based on a dozen or more variables, none known with complete certainty, the net uncertainty concerning success or failure of a particular treatment option can be considerable. In that case, a physician may elect not to perform a risky procedure for a particular patient. The same principle would apply for a just war decision support system.

Such, then, is my proposal. From experience, I’ve learned that it is better to start with a simpler decision support system, and then to gradually increase its complexity. Accordingly, I suggest that we could begin with a system to model only one part of just war theory  say, just cause, or ‘no greater harms produced.’ I further propose that we could take the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as guiding example. My guess is that were such a model produced, it would show that the likelihood of success, the immediate necessity, and the range of possible harms were all so uncertain in 2003 that we should have not intervened as we did.

A final advantage of such a system is that it would connect moral philosophy with science. Science is cumulative: one scientific or mathematical advance builds on another. The same is not true of moral philosophy. Philosophers can go back and forth for centuries, even millennia, rehashing the same issues over and over, and never making progress.

Perhaps this is a project I should pursue myself. Or it might be an excellent opportunity for a young researcher. In any case,  I’m throwing it out into cyber-space for general consideration. If anyone reads this and finds it interesting, please let me know.

Incidentally, military analysts have developed many such computerized systems to aid combat decisions.  (When working at the RAND Corporation, I worked on a system to help US forces avoid accidentally shooting at their own aircraft  something called fratricide.) Since it is clearly in the interests of the military to avoid pursuing unwinnable wars, possibly it is they who could take a lead in developing the line of research proposed here.  US Naval War College and West Point are you listening?

Ending Drone Attacks by Appeals to Conscience

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A news story today reports how activists in the Pakistan tribal areas have constructed a huge photograph of a child casualty visible to US attack drone operators.  The action is described at notabugsplat  [the meaning of 'notabugsplat' is that drone strikes are killing real human beings, made in God's image and likeness; yet US policy dehumanizes them so thoroughly as to treat them as no more than insects.]

I would like to commend those responsible for this idea.  They have rediscovered an important truth: that when one meets aggression with anger and accusations, the climate merely continues to be aggressive: the aggression not only continues, but the aggressor feels vindicated.

The most effective response, therefore, is to take the high road.  Change the rules of the game, the narrative, the context.  Appeal to conscience, and in so doing, force the aggressor to come to his or her senses.

This approach dovetails with a judicial response to drone strikes to produce maximum results.  Like the appeal to conscience, the judicial approach is a peaceful means that pleads the principles of the case in court.  This again places the entire problem in the light of higher reason, where solutions may be found.

Yet a third approach, based on similar principles and which complements the preceding two, is prayer for ones oppressors.

If Pakistanis in the affected areas were to hold public prayer meetings, asking God to forgive drone operators and commanding officers and to help them see their error, and then publicize this activity, it may well, in addition to meeting with God’s favor, mobilize considerable world public opinion against the illegal and immoral US drone attacks.

We can be certain that the consciences of drone operators and their superiors are devastated by their participation in drone attacks.  They genuinely deserve our sympathy.  These unfortunate men and women are the unwitting tools of the US political system.  Many will have mental difficulties later in life, and then their government will turn its back on them.

Written by John Uebersax

April 8, 2014 at 12:00 am

What’s Wrong with ‘The Hunger Games’

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Hunger Games

I saw The Hunger Games for the first time last night.  In honor of April 1, I thought it only fitting to make a list of What’s Wrong With the Hunger Games.

1. This is taking place several centuries in the future.  Why are they still using 1920′s-era human coal miners?  Forget about social injustice – it’s completely inefficient.  If they are clever enough create genetically modified wasps (see below), why can’t they manage the comparatively simpler task of using conveyor belts, robots, and various other forms of automated coal mining?

2. How does Katniss just prance through the high-security electric fence at the boundary of District 12?  If it’s that easy to bypass, it’s not doing much good and they should just take it down.

3. What the heck is a mockingjay.  This species isn’t in any ornithology text I’ve consulted.  Anyways, jays don’t sing; the screech.

4. Why is everyone in the age range of 12 to 18 eligible to be drafted as a Tribute?  What good is a 12-year-old in a death fight?  Why not just draft 16- to 18-year-olds for an interesting fight?

5. For that matter, since volunteering is evidently permitted, why do the districts wait for the rulers to come and pick names out of a fish-bowl?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to get together beforehand, and have your own draft, and include only  fit, athletic 18-year-olds?   Then have the ‘winner’ volunteer.  Yeah, it stinks if you’re the ‘winner’, but at least you’d have the satisfaction of knowing you gave your life to save a helpless 12 year old.

6. Why is the salute of good will in the future the Boy Scout sign?

Hunger Games salute (1)


boy scout sign

7. Why do they take a train to the capital?  Don’t they have planes?  And why does the train take like a week to arrive?  At 200 mph, you could travel the entire width of North America in less than 12 hours.

8. Anyone else notice that, except for a little more facial hair, Wes Bentley looks basically the same as he did as the devil in Ghost Rider?  He needs to diversify his film persona a little!

wes bentley hunger games


His Hunger Games character also looks like its channeling Kenneth’s Branagh’s Dr. Loveless in The Wild Wild West:


10. Let’s get to fundamentals.  This whole trope of ‘selected individuals fight proxy battle for their overlords’ amusement to save a community’ was old even when William Shatner fought Gorn, the lizard spaceship commander.  Deduct points for lack of originality!


11. The whole world has watched the hunger games for like the last 74 years.  Isn’t it obvious that if you run for the supplies right off you’ll get butchered?  So why are people still doing it?

12.  Back to the wasps.  First, why would anyone want to genetically modify wasps?  Don’t they have anything better to do (like genetically engineering crops to feed the starving masses)?  Is this just something they did for the Hunger Games?  Given that people are already hacking each other to pieces, does the game need this added excitement?

And if you’re going to genetically engineer wasps, what is the point of making their venom cause hallucinations?  Isn’t ‘searing pain’ and death enough?  Or why not make the wasps super huge?  But hallucinogenic wasps?  I just don’t get it.

13.  Why pad the plot with the pointless detail of Peeta (there’s a name for you) making himself look like tree bark and rock moss.  Yeah, he knows how to do it because he decorated cakes in his parent’s bakery — I got that part.  But where does he get the special paint or makeup or whatever he needs to make such realistic disguises?  It must take a ton of time.  Why not just jump under a pile of leaves?

Peeta rock

And who in District 12, which makes Appalachia look like a country club, is buying fancy decorated cakes?

14. The bad guys sleep like babies beneath the tree Katniss has climbed, and don’t notice her sawing the limb with the wasps nest.  Wouldn’t someone be staying awake to be on the lookout for the remaining Tributes out to kill them?

For that matter, why don’t these other Tributes sneak up and kill them?  Why doesn’t Rue do it?  Or tell her co-Tribute – he looks more than able.  Instead, she climbs the tree next to Katniss so she can tell her about the wasps.

15. You’d think Katniss would be a little more careful to recover her arrows after shooting them.  She only had a few to begin with.

16. Come on, what are the odds that an arrow will tear a mesh bag just enough to let a few apples out, which then just happen to bounce conveniently on a couple of land mines?

17. The wasps didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as the weird hyena-dogs from hell.  At first I thought the designers, after showing the ‘concept sketch’ to the director, were going to manufacture them by some conventional means.  But they just press a button, and shazaam! – there they are.  That simply defies the laws of physics.  They can’t be real – they’d have to be more like images on a holodeck.  So is the whole thing just virtual reality?  The movie writers really got their genres confused on this one.

hungergames dog

18. And now the really unbelievable fact:  this silly film grossed $700 million, and that’s just for the first of four installments!










Written by John Uebersax

April 2, 2014 at 1:16 am

Selections from Emerson’s Essay ‘Intellect’ (1841)

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sage of concord

A careful reading of his essay ‘Intellect’ supplies a clearer understanding of what made Emerson ‘tick’.  He is better seen not as an essayist, poet, or philosopher, but as a sage.  Yes, even in modern times the world supplies sages and bards – men and women able to communicate exceptional, even supernatural wisdom and insight.  Emerson’s appeal is universal because what he wrote was inspired by a source higher than the logical mind.  He was one of those rare individuals who not only  heard and recognized the voice of his Muse or Genius, but was able to write down what it told him without censoring, editorializing, or distorting the message.  Emerson’s essay on Intellect is especially valuable because here we have an inspired genius writing about inspiration and genius.

Much speculation has been raised about Emerson’s method of composition. One common view is that he recorded inspired thoughts that came to him more or less spontaneously – during walks, reading, or reflection – in his voluminous journals.  When it came time to write an essay, he simply culled relevant passages from his journals.  This often gives his essays the appearance of a series of disconnected but provocative sayings.

If so, then more so than with most authors, the essence of Emerson’s thought can be presented as individual aphorisms.  Here are examples from ‘Intellect’.

Source:  Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  Intellect (1841). In: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. 2. Essays: First Series.  New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903-1904. (pp. 324–347).

The first questions are always to be asked, and the wisest doctor is graveled by the inquisitiveness of a child.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:325)

In the fog of good and evil affections, it is hard for man to walk forward in a straight line.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:326)

What am I? What has my will done to make me that I am? Nothing. I have been floated into this thought, this hour, this connection of events, by secret currents of might and mind, and my ingenuity and wilfulness have not thwarted, have not aided to an appreciable degree.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328)

Our spontaneous action is always the best. You cannot, with your best deliberation and heed, come so close to any question as your spontaneous glance shall bring you, whilst you rise from your bed, or walk abroad in the morning after meditating the matter before sleep on the previous night. Our thinking is a pious reception. Our truth of thought is therefore vitiated as much by too violent direction given by our will, as by too great negligence.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328)

We do not determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear away, as we can, all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners of ideas. They catch us up for moments into their heaven, and so fully engage us, that we take no thought for the morrow, gaze like children, without an effort to make them our own. By and by we fall out of that rapture, bethink us where we have been, what we have seen, and repeat, as truly as we can, what we have beheld. As far as we can recall these ecstasies, we carry away in the ineffaceable memory the result, and all men and all the ages confirm it. It is called Truth. But the moment we cease to report, and attempt to correct and contrive, it is not truth.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:328–9)

Logic is the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition; but its virtue is as silent method; the moment it would appear as propositions, and have a separate value, it is worthless.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:329)

All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:330)

The differences between men in natural endowment are insignificant in comparison with their common wealth. Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the savant.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:330)

All men have some access to primary truth.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:336)

In common hours, we have the same facts as in the uncommon or inspired, but they do not sit for their portrait.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:336)

The intellect is a whole, and demands integrity in every work. This is resisted equally by a man’s devotion to a single thought, and by his ambition to combine too many.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:338–9)

Truth is our element of life, yet if a man fasten his attention on a single aspect of truth, and apply himself to that alone for a long time, the truth becomes distorted and not itself, but falsehood.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:339)

The world refuses to be analyzed by addition and subtraction.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:339)

Neither by detachment, neither by aggregation, is the integrity of the intellect transmitted to its works, but by a vigilance which brings the intellect in its greatness and best state to operate every moment.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:340)

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:341–2)

Happy is the hearing man; unhappy the speaking man. As long as I hear truth, I am bathed by a beautiful element, and am not conscious of any limits to my nature. The suggestions are thousandfold that I hear and see. The waters of the great deep have ingress and egress to the soul. But if I speak, I define, I confine, and am less.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:342)

One soul is a counterpoise of all souls, as a capillary column of water is a balance for the sea.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344)

If Aeschylus be that man he is taken for, he has not yet done his office, when he has educated the learned of Europe for a thousand years. He is now to approve himself a master of delight to me also
.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344)

The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling, Kant, or whosoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind, is only a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness, which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating. Say, then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Intellect (CW 1:344–5)

Pitirim Sorokin and the Transformation of Society by the Power of Love

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Each year on Martin Luther King Day I try to write something related to the principles Dr. King stood for.  This year the topic concerns the work of the sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin.  Sorokin devoted much of the latter part of his career to what he called amitology, that is, a science of love — work which he pursued at the Harvard Center for Creative Altruism. This work was dismissed by the social science establishment as eccentric and unimportant.  But perhaps the time has come to re-examine Sorokin’s contributions and to consider whether he may have been ahead of his time.

The best literary production of this phase of Sorokin’s career is a book titled, The Ways and Power of Love.  The book has many important features, several of which I’d like to mention here.

The first is Sorokin’s theory that love can be understood and studied as a real force or energy.  This notion may seem like a silly or simple-minded idea – one  more fit for a pop song than for scientific discussion. But in Sorokin’s hands the concept is substantial and credible.  As to whether love is a cosmic, metaphysical force, perhaps we cannot know or determine with certainty scientifically.  But we can at least say with some confidence that  in many important and objective ways love functions in the same way that forces and energies act.  Love motivates activity.  Love can be transmitted.  Love is cumulative.  All of these concepts can be operationally defined and demonstrated in objective, observable ways.  We can remain fully scientific and still assert that love is, at the very least, something like a force or energy.

Transformation From a Hate Culture To a Love Culture

A second noteworthy principle of Sorokin’s amitology follows from the first: if love is something like an energy, then we can meaningfully consider the ways in which this energy may be (1) produced, (2) accumulated, and (3) distributed.  These considerations have very practical implications for the kind of cultural transformation needed  in the world today.  We clearly must do something (or at least try) to change the present cultural orientation away from hatred, anger, fear, and conflict as organizing principles.  Much as we might want this transformation to occur, merely wishing for it is not enough.  Something tangible must happen to produce the change.  There must be actual sources of the opposite energy — that is, love — creating and placing this positive energy into the social and cultural milieu.

Clearly the most  obvious way for this to happen is for individuals to become emitters of love energy in their immediate surroundings.  Such an idea is scarcely new.  This was talked about in the 60′s, but without much lasting success. However, if, following Sorokin’s lead, we allow ourselves to see this as a scientific issue, new possibilities emerge.  One example is to see the problem in terms of mathematical chaos theory. We could quite plausibly suppose that the rate of positive cultural change in relation to the number of love emitters is something like exponential.  Imagine certain individuals who see it as their task to go out into their communities spreading love – through their own actions, by setting positive examples, and by teaching others about love.  One or two people alone can accomplish only so much.  But at some point, as the number of love emitters increases, a critical mass is reached, and suddenly the entirely social fabric of the community changes direction — no longer being conflict-, competition-, and fear-based, but love based.

Because such a transformation process is non-linear, the benefits of each additional love-emitter are that much more important.  That is, if you choose to become a love emitter, your added contribution might make the crucial difference; there might already be nine love emitters in your community, but if you become the tenth, the total number may achieve critical mass at which a transformative revolution takes off.

Love and Social Media

It also occurs to me how this principle could be applied to such social media as Facebook.  Unfortunately, the networking potential offered new social media has, thus far, all-to-often been directed negatively. People of every political stripe use Facebook and email for hate campaigns.  Someone will post a derogatory picture and comment about President Obama or Sarah Palin.  Then others will forward it to a dozen of their contacts.  Within a day thousands of copies are circulating — the negative energies of hate, anger, resentment spreading exponentially across the web and around the country.  This scenario is being played out perhaps hundreds of times every day.

But now consider an opposite scenario.  What if people began spreading love and positive energies in precisely the same way?  What if it became our ‘custom’ not to send a hate email to five or ten contacts, but some article concerning love, compassion, generosity, and optimism?

A third noteworthy aspect of Sorokin’s science of love is the importance, and perhaps the central role, of groups and organizations. As a sociologist, Sorokin had a keen awareness of the interplay between society and the personality of the individual.  In place of Freud’s primitive tripartite model of human personality (id, ego, superego), Sorokin understood human personality as a dynamic interplay between a large number of alternative egos or sub-egos within the same person.  Among these egos, Sorokin gave prominent place to those associated with our social roles.  Each group we belong to, and each stratum or role we occupy within that group, has associated with it in our psyche a separate ego.  Thus, for example, as members of a religion, say the Catholic Church, one may have a “Catholic ego.”  And as American citizens, we have a “US citizen ego”, and so on.  To the extent that our social institutions themselves conflict (as when Catholic moral principles teach that war is wrong, but national pride or competitiveness urges a war), then this conflict necessarily manifests itself within our own personalities.  Until such time as our social institutions are themselves harmonized with each other, we will be individually conflicted; and because of these conflicts, we will continually be a cross-purposes within ourselves, never being able to rally all our mental, emotional, and physical resources to accomplish anything productive.

There is much more to this part of Sorokin’s theories, but the main point is that if we wish to increase the number of love emitters in our society, we should give some thought as to how we might develop new social institutions, or adapt old ones, to organize this effort.

Fourth and finally, Sorokin explained how love and altruism should be understood as creative activities — in just the same way that we understand art, literature, and (to some extent at least) scientific activity to be creative.  True creativity comes from a source other than our individual egos and rationalistic minds.  It comes, rather, Sorokin insisted, from a higher source — what he called the supraconscious.  Whether we understand the supraconscious in a religious sense of a grace or inspiring energy from God, or as coming from some kind of collective unconscious, or something else entirely is unimportant.  The mere fact that we have such works as those of Shakespeare, Plato, Beethoven, Mozart, and Michelangelo proves without doubt there is such a thing as creative genius.  And just as there are creative geniuses in art and literature, there are creative geniuses in morality and ethics — people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.

Moreover, each one of us can creatively assist in the growth and spread of love. Our best ethical contributions, however, come not from our egoistic strivings and rationalistic schemes.  No.  If we are to be agents of a ‘love revolution’, then it is essential that we surrender our egoistic plans to a higher source of inspiration.  Great accomplishments require great humility.

Such then, are several if the key points of Sorokin’s science of love and social transformation.  Does it sound unrealistic?  If so, maybe that’s due to heavy conditioning by our cynical and materialistic culture.  Nobody can be happy in a hate- and conflict-dominated culture.  A change is necessary.  And how else could a cultural transformation occur except by the means outlined by Sorokin?

Quotes from Martin Luther King, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”

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Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968.

“One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

“No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution.  The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.”

“For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

“We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. “

“Something within me cried out, ‘Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?’ And an answer came: ‘Oh no!’ Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.”

“We must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.”

“God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it. “

On the Responsible Use of Cannabis

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With recent events in Colorado, it seems likely that the trend to liberalization of cannabis laws will continue, and perhaps at a rapid pace.

Advocates of cannabis decriminalization have, understandably, tended to minimize the genuine danger of cannabis abuse.  While not physically addictive, clearly cannabis has the potential to create psychological dependence — that is, for people to use it excessively as a crutch or escape, etc.

When I visited the Dutch ‘coffeeshops’, one thing that impressed me is that with each sale of cannabis they distributed a small brochure containing Tips for Sensible Use of marijuana and hashish.  The idea of getting vendors involved in preventing abuse or misuse of cannabis seems particularly sound: the more the cannabis community regulates itself, the less need there is for laws and external regulation.

These brochures were produced by the Dutch Trimbos Institute. The following are 10 rules for sensible based on these brochures.


Tips:  Marijuana and Hashish

What You Know | What You Don’t Know!

For centuries, throughout the world people from various cultures have used marijuana and hashish. But just like other substances, usage is not without risk. Here are some tips for sensible use.

Both marijuana and hashish are derived from the cannabis plant. The main active substance is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Its effects last for from 2 to 4 hours. Cannabis usually makes people feel relaxed. Some people become talkative under its influence, others more withdrawn. Some become more active, others calmer. Cannabis also contains cannabidiol (CBD), which  is experienced as producing relaxation, and many other cannabinoids.  Effects of cannabis vary from one strain to another.

1. Different kinds of marijuana and hashish can vary considerably in potency. Make sure you are well informed about this by cannabis shop staff.

2. Never sell the cannabis you buy, and especially not to minors under the age of 18. Among other things, this could lead to the closure of “your” cannabis shop.

3. Recreational cannabis is meant to be enjoyed and not to remove stress or make you feel more sure of yourself. You won’t solve problems by smoking a joint.

4. Cannabis and hashish can negatively affect your memory and powers of concentration. Don’t use them before school or going to work.

5. Cannabis can affect your reaction speed, so you should not drive. You will have a greater risk of accident and pose a potential hazard to yourself and others.

6. Alcohol in combination with cannabis or hashish is a poor choice.

7. When a joint is smoked, harmful substances are released, such as tar and carbon monoxide. It is therefore not a good idea to inhale deeply or for long periods. In fact, you won’t need to, because the active substances in cannabis are rapidly absorbed by the lungs.

8. Don’t smoke cannabis during pregnancy or if you have mental health problems. If you use other medications, consult your physician.

9. Cannabis can sometimes make you feel bad. You might feel nauseous, anxious, or paranoid. If this happens, don’t panic: find a quiet spot and eat or drink something sweet. The worst will be over in an hour.

10. There’s more to life than pot!  It’s better not to use recreational cannabis every day.  To avoid psychological dependence, don’t use for seven days in a row.

Written by John Uebersax

January 14, 2014 at 4:26 pm


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