Jingoistic Populism: A New Fiction

Identity Anchors

Reading The Guardian today, I saw a review of Harari’s 2015 best-selling book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“. The reviewer states that the center of the book’s contention is that “what made Homo sapiens the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, Harari argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organization on a massive scale.”

In 2013 I wrote a post about how we create reifications (the packaging of abstractions).  Perhaps Harari would agree that these reifications are our “shared fictions”.

One of the greatest fictions our minds is always desperately creating is “Identity”, a sense of self.  Identity is an inevitable cognitive illusion. We use various anchors to secure our identity in our tumultuous world (thus the waves in my above diagram). Our minds use these anchors as manipulative signals to both ourselves and others that we have good-status, are trustworthy, have power, are committed, know true meaning,  have hope and more.

This takes me to a recent Peter Beinart article in The Atlantic: “Breaking Faith: The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.

Beinart states the fact that participation in organized religion has hugely declined in the USA.  He contends that as people see through [my words] the fictions of religion, they need something else to serve the purposes of religion. They need some other anchor in reality – another method to signaling to themselves and others.


As the allure of religions fades, people experience an emptiness.  To replace the “God” reification, other reifications such as jingoistic nationalism or materialistic secularism come to fill the gap. Is this a “God Gap”? — no, it is a mental gap — a craving for a new fiction — an attempt to anchor down one’s identity.


Note: Also see my post on “Your Modular God” to see how the spackle used to fill the God Gap really plays a minimal role in most modern religion due to the various functions of religion.



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Clocks: Impeach or Boom!

Time til Doomsday

Remembering the nuclear doomsday clock clouding my youth, I decided to make this graphic today. What do you think?

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Turkish Oil & JC Superstar

mary-anoints-jesusJesus Christ Superstar is a 1970’s rock opera about the last days of Jesus. I listened to the record album over and over when I was in my last year of High School. The Opera is interpretive, but then so are the gospels, and thus controversial. Yet it is hugely accurate to much of the orthodox gospels. Thanks to Spotify, I recently downloaded the album to take a trip down memory lane. My sweetheart and myself listen to the album this weekend in a car trip but her background in the Bible is rather weak, so we would stop the songs occasionally so I could explain to her the various stories of Jesus.

In the Opera’s catchy tune “Everything’s Alright“, Judas chastises Mary Magdalene (and Jesus) when Mary anoints Jesus in oil.  Wiki quotes the various Gospel versions here.

In the opera, Judas’s chastisement goes as follows:

Woman your fine ointment – brand new and expensive
could have been saved for the poor
Why has it been wasted, we could have raise maybe
three hundred silver pieces or more.
People who are hungry, people who are starving,
matter more than your feet and hair.

My sweetheart wanted to know what this “oil” thing was all about, so to help explain, I told this story from my Asian travels in the mid-seventies:

When I was 19 years-old I hitchhiked from Europe to India. My first long stop was in Istanbul Turkey where I looked up the family of a Turkish friend I made in German. My friend had told me that if I ever made it to Turkey (as he’d stayed in Germany), I should look up his family. The father was a taxi driver and no English was spoken in the house, but the 14 year-old younger son of my friend did speak fair German, so we could communicate.

Soon after arriving in their house, I had to go to the bathroom where I was shocked to find there was no toilet paper.  I opened the door and asked the boy what I should do and he instructed me how they wiped with their hands using a pot of water.  Well, that would be the method I used for the rest of that year as I crossed Asia.  But it was clean, I washed my hands well and then again joined the family.  In the living room, on meeting the rest of the family the mother came up to me and told me to put my cupped hands out to receive something  from a jar.  The son looked at my puzzled face and nodded to signal it was OK. The mother then poured an oil into my hands and told me to wipe it all over my face and hair.  Again the son coached me that it was OK.  I was then drenched in a heavy perfumed oil.  It was actually rather pleasant.  And apparently such a habit of treating honored guests this way has existed for millennia in the MidEast.

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shaytanIn the 1990’s I was the Medical Officer for the Peace Corps in China.  During the orientation of a new batch of volunteers, I was teaching about vaccine requirements when one nervous volunteer asked me if the vaccines would hurt.  In a mischievous joking way I said, “I think so.”  The rest of the volunteers laughed, but apparently that volunteer wrote his mother that evening saying, “I think our doctor is Satan.”  Thereafter, the other volunteers jokingly nicknamed me “Shaytan” (Arabic for “Satan”) — a name I enthusiastically embraced with good humor as a counter strategy for the ways we take ourselves too seriously.

My son just turned me on to Spotify where I looked up a childhood favorite: Cat Stevens.  There I found his Islamic record with the song “Shaytan”.  In light of the above story, perhaps this should be my new theme song?  I imagine many of my detractors would agree.


Pic credit:  Logo for French death metal band here

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An Idiot I will Remain

sumo_matchToday, in the YMCA locker room, a man tried to strike up conversation with me with the universal male subject of sports.  Our city’s football team had won and he happily wanted to share this saying “We won!”  I asked, “Who won what?”  And the man looked at me like I had a third head.

I remember one night 30 years ago in Japan when I met a similar surprised face.  It was late at night and I stopped in a pub-restaurant and ordered my favorite combo of Skiokara (squid guts) and Karaguchi Onigoroshi (demon-killer dry sake) and Natto (fermented soybeans).  These are bitter, strong foods usually prefered by old Japanese men or yakuza (Mafia) types.

My Japanese was very good and I was talking to the cook and the other late night diners sitting at the counter around me.  We talked about several topics for a half-an-hour when the pub’s TV started showing Sumo review clips for the day.  One of the customers asked me what I thought about a certain Sumo player but when I said I didn’t know who he was, he looked at me with shocked and asked why I don’t know.

Geez, fluent in food, culture, language and more was not enough — I had to know their sports?  Men are often like this when it comes to sports (and heck, women can be too).  In Pakistan, I met astonished faces when I did not know cricket player’s names.  I guess that I will always remain an idiot!  Smile.


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Underestimate the Negative

seattletrafficSeattle is a beautiful city, or it was when I lived there back in the 1990s. So when I moved there, I was determined to enjoy Seattle’s glory by getting an apartment with a fantastic view.  The problem was, views cost money. But with some compromise, a good view was possible. My compromise was that my apartment was very close to a major road. 

I was sure I could get use to the traffic noise in exchange for the scenic window panoramas and the convenience of shopping and parks. But within a year, that traffic noise appeared to get louder and louder and my nerves were really on edge.  I underestimated the downsides of my compromise. I overestimate my ability to overlook things that irritated me from the beginning.  So within 3 months of realizing my mistake, I moved.

Unfortunately not all mistakes are as easy to cut and leave.  Readers, do you have any to share?  I have several others – obviously.


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God: Latent Variable vs Network Illusion


Does a thing called “depression” cause the various symptoms of change in sleep, fatigue, guilt, diminished concentration, irritability and or sadness?  In one school of psychiatry, the answer is “Yes”.  “Depression” is called the “latent variable” — the cause behind all the symptoms.  In a different view in Psychiatry, one getting more press, the answer is “No, depression is a network illusion.”  In that view, it is the complex interaction of concrete problems themselves, such a lack of sleep or poor self-view (from loss of job, loss of partner etc) feed on each other to make a presentation we label as “depression”.

This second view has been with us for a while, but with the application of the branch of mathematics called network analysis to psychological data, the latter view seems to be showing itself to be true.  Network analysis has also allowed us improved understanding of various fields including internet vulnerabilities, defense issues and now biological issues.

These two fine articles are what inspired today’s post:

Those articles have great diagrams to help illustrate how network analysis works.

But how will the network analysis perspective change our approach to depression?  Well, the old view is that a condition called “depression” (a word we created) causes all its symptoms and further, they think “depression” is simply due to a decrease in certain neurotransmitters.  So by this view, all we need to do is give an antidepressant or anti-anxiety pill (or both) to supplement the patients neurotransmitter deficiency and bang!, their depression is cured.  But data to support this approach is very poorly.  Why?  Because there is no such thing as “depression” as a cause.  Depression is a network illusion.

I have long been sympathetic to the network view, valuing the therapist that address the causes: poor social connections, exercise, sleep hygiene, cognitive habits etc, rather the psychiatrist view of giving a pill to fix the problem (though at times helpful).  But even understanding the cause does not make the cure any more easier.  The problem is, the real cure is very difficult — changing ourselves, yet alone others, is not easy.  Changing our social habits, our movement habits, our thinking habits and such is tough.  So a pill seems to offer much greater hope.


“God” offers us great hope too. Even though “God” is a network illusion, the view of a single causative agent is often much easier view than the complex network view.  In this post I discuss “God” as a modular network phenomena and an abstraction as result of packaging complex interactions.  It shows “God” as a network illusion and not an actual “latent variable“.  Above I illustrate two different gods.  Imagine the two Protestants, both talking to each other about “God”, but looking behind the word reveals two very different gods with two different functions

When speaking to people about their “God” or their “Patriotism” or their “Depression”, we can reach a much deeper understand of that person by looking for the deep networks of complex concrete connections that generate their abstractions, rather than falling for their network illusion. Does “God” as a thing exist, certainly not, but it is the word people use to describe the complex network of real important things in their lives.

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