Saving Spaceship Earth

Buckminster Fuller was a great admirer of Leonardo di Vinci, calling him “The outstanding example of the comprehensively anticipatory design scientist.” That’s also a good way of describing Bucky. He was a visionary, who saw things not only as they are, but the way they could be. He wrote Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969, and was one of the first to warn of our current climate crisis. Citing our over-reliance on fossil fuels, he described our current industrial path as “lethally ignorant and utterly irresponsible.”

At the end of my last post, I wrote about how Fuller challenged the whole modern concept of wealth. Such wealth, we wrote, was “a worthless pile of chips of an arbitrary game which we are playing, and does not correspond to the accounting process of our real universe’s evolutionary transaction.” In other words, our current conception of wealth is arbitrary, contrived and unnatural. Fuller saw constant competition between economies/nation states as a global problem that has to be solved, if Spaceship Earth is to remain sustainable. He called nation states “blood clots” in the global metabolism.

Although he saw us on a lethal trajectory, Fuller believed that mankind could re-design the way the world is run, and that the lives of our descendants depend on doing just that. He believed “(that)  humanity can afford to do anything it needs and wishes to do, and that it cannot afford to do anything else.” He believed that we’re in an era of over-specialization, and that we have to learn to think comprehensively. “All other living creatures are designed for highly specialized tasks. Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and coordinator of local universe affairs.”

Observing that the Earth didn’t come with an operating manual, Fuller did his best to remedy that. Actually, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is more like a roadmap than a manual. Bucky first provides an explanation of how we got to where we are. He shows how the Great Pirates secretly ruled the world (from the Renaissance  until WWI) and shaped the modern world order. He then proceeds to show us how we  can “make the world for 100% of humanity,” if we have the will to do it.

A world divided into nation states just seems to be the natural order of things; it’s all we know. But Fuller tells us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Constant economic competition between nation states creates myriad local and national zero-sum games (i.e. in order for someone to win, someone has to lose), all over the world. This is the opposite of synergy. One of Fuller’s long-term goals for our spaceship was “complete world de-sovereignization.” We’re a long way from creating a world without borders and competing sovereign leaders. Will we ever get there? Fuller said that we must, if we want to preserve life on Spaceship Earth.

Even back in 1969, Fuller could see how the use of computers would transform our lives. He characterized the computer as “the evolutionary antibody to the extinction of humanity.” He wad an optimist, and believed that computers had a tremendous potential to unite people. He wrote,”. . . we can make all of humanity successful through science’s world-engulfing industrial evolution. . .” Fuller observed that as societies become more industrialized, birth rates inevitably fall. He concluded that world-wide industrialization would result in a significant slowing of population growth.

A world made up of competing economies isn’t conducive to world economic synergy (i.e. doing more with less). “The synergistic effectiveness of a world-around integrated industrial process is inherently vastly greater than the confined synergistic effect of sovereignly operating separate systems.” As an example of synergy within a society, Fuller writes about the synergistic effect of the GI Bill, after WWII. There were too few jobs for the returning soldiers. Both as a reward for their service and as an economic stimulant. the GI Bill enabled thousands of servicemen and servicewomen to attend college. The consequent explosion of knowledge, as well as the increased availability of professional services, enriched our society economically and culturally. The ripple effect is still being felt.

Fuller concludes, “We can no longer wait to see whose biased political system should prevail over the world.” The task we should be about is “making humanity comprehensively and sustainably successful.” If we don’t come up with comprehensive, synergistic solutions to our most pressing contemporary problems, we face extinction as a species and, possibly, the death of the biosphere. We’re all astronauts on Spaceship Earth.

If you want to find out more about Bucky, the World Game, or the “comprehensive, anticipatory design science” approach to solving world problems, check out the Buckminster Fuller Institute’s website.

Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller was surely one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. He was an architect, author, designer, systems theorist  and futurist,  best known for popularizing the geodesic dome and coining the term Spaceship Earth. He obtained over 28 U.S. patents and published more than 30 books. Some of his writing is nearly incomprehensible in its density of thought, but his best writing is brilliant. Acknowledging his unconventionality, he sometimes referred to himself as Guinea Pig B – an intellectual rebel who thought outside the box and encouraged others to do the same. Along with many others, I consider him a genius, who thought and wrote comprehensively about how mankind could unite and innovate, to prevent “man’s spin-dive toward oblivion.”

Fuller’s geodesic dome had intrinsic design flaws that kept them from being widely-used as permanent structures, but captured the world’s attention, as did “Bucky’s” conception of our planet as a self-sustaining “spaceship” on which we all depend for survival. He wrote about the comprehensive propensities of whole systems and synergetics within systems. He also wrote about ephemeralization – doing more with less, or as he put it, “maximum gain. . .from minimal energy input.” He envisioned a world with practical, inexpensive housing and transportation for all.

Bucky was big on neologisms, among them “dymaxion,” which was cobbled together from dynamic/maximum/tension. He used it as a descriptor for a number of his inventions, which included a dymaxion car, a dymaxion house, and a dymaxion toilet. He also designed a dymaxion map of the globe, which eliminated the distortions of the commonly-used Mercator projection. He envisioned a single, world-wide electrical power grid. He also came up with the World Game (really a learning tool), in which players attempt to solve world problems by cooperating and thinking comprehensively.

Of himself, he wrote “I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” Fuller was self-employed for most of his life, but amassing wealth was never a goal. He made money from some of his patents and from lecturing, all over the world; but few of his inventions made it past the design or prototype phase. His dymaxion car, house and toilet never went into mass production. It was his ideas that made him an influential designer, systems theorist, and writer.

Of the several books by Fuller that I’ve read, my favorite is Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, which is just over 100 pages in length. Although short, it’s very dense with ideas. It’s a briefly-comprehensive analysis of how capitalism and communism came to be the dominant economic systems on the planet, and what need to be done to keep life on Spaceship Earth sustainable.

Fuller contends that we’re clinging to outdated notions, in trying to solve contemporary problems. “Society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking.” Universities, he points out, have been organized around specialization. But then he gives examples of how over-specialization, in tribes and in animal species, leads to extinction. He argues that we need to think comprehensively, in terms of whole systems, if we are to keep life on Spaceship Earth sustainable. We are all astronauts, he writes, who rely on Earth’s life support system; but we have been “mis-using, abusing and polluting this extraordinary chemical energy-interchanging system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship.”

Our current world political/economic system, Fuller writes, is the legacy of men he calls the Great Pirates. “The Great Pirates came into mortal battle with one another, to see who was going to control the vast sea routes and eventually the world.” The Great Pirates were fabulously wealthy men who developed a comprehensive view of the disparity of wealth around the world, and used their knowledge to further enrich themselves. “Knowledge of the world and its resources was enjoyed exclusively by the Great Pirates, as were the arts of navigation, shipbuilding and handling, and of grand logistical strategies.”

The Great Pirates propped-up monarchs to advance their agendas. (For instance, the British East India Company was chartered by the Crown to trade, to plunder, and to build the British Empire.) They recruited the best and brightest as specialists, to keep them informed and in power. Universities were endowed, to turn out specialists to serve the Great Pirates. They developed a model of wealth – and competition for wealth – that persists to this day, in both capitalistic and communistic societies.

Fuller challenges the whole modern concept of wealth as something to be accrued by the rich at the expense of the poor, and re-imagines it as a commonwealth on which our planetary survival depends. He indicts both capitalism and communism as outdated models for the distribution of wealth, defining wealth as what benefits all of mankind and preserves our spaceship for future generations. Bucky’s life goal was to set the wheels in motion to “make the world for 100% of humanity.”

More about Bucky in my next post.

The Peace Corps experience

Have you ever considered serving in the Peace Corps? Even before we got married in 1990, both Maria and I had, and we’d both lived abroad (Maria in Korea and me in Austria and Germany). Within weeks after our wedding we applied to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). At that time only one-in-three applicants was selected to serve. Would-be PCVs don’t typically choose where they’ll serve, although fluency in the language spoken is a given host country can be a determining factor. The more open you are to serving wherever your skill set is needed, the better your chances of selection. We were approved for service after a lengthy application process, and were selected by Jamaica. We had two weeks to decide if we’d accept Jamaica’s invitation, but it didn’t take us an hour after reading about our assignment to call Peace Corps headquarters in D.C. and accept. We put all of our belongings in storage, and sold our cars around the time we got our plane tickets in the mail.

The Peace Corps is an independent government agency, not a branch of the State Department. It currently has volunteers in over sixty developing countries around the world. PCVs aren’t sent to these countries to advance or influence American foreign policy, but rather to share their skills with host country nationals, in the service of sustainable development. Each volunteer serves within one of six sectors: education, health, agriculture, community economic development, youth in development, or environment. The host country, not the Peace Corps, decides how many volunteers in each sector they need, and where they will serve. Most PCVs serve for two years, after training.

In order to qualify for Peace Corps service, you have to be at least eighteen and in good general health. Most volunteers have at least a bachelor’s degree, but exceptions are made for people with experience in certain areas, including construction, business and forestry. To be accepted, you have to pass a physical (which the Peace Corps pays for) and establish that you’re not fleeing indebtedness or legal charges. People who’ve served in intelligence agencies like the CIA need not apply. You have to have a skill set (and in some cases, appropriate certification or licensure) that people in host countries need to support development projects. The largest sectors are education and health.

Some personal qualities that make for a good PCV are good people skills, self-confidence, autonomy, flexibility, and persistence in the face of obstacles. Peace Corps service is always an adventure, and sometimes an uphill struggle. As I wrote in my book, Two Years in Kingston Town: A Peace Corps Memoir, Peace Corps service can be likened to climbing a mountain; you wind up knowing more about yourself than about the mountain.

In most host countries, accepted applicants have to have three months of in-country training, including language lessons, before they’re sworn-in as PCVs and start their assignments. But since English is Jamaica’s official language, Maria and I only had six weeks of in-country training before we were sworn in (the same oath as when I joined the Army) and started working. Two things stand out from our training as development workers in Jamaica. The Peace Corps Country Director said something to the effect of, “If you think of Peace Corps service as ‘giving up’ two years of your life, Jamaica doesn’t need you that badly. You’re here to live in Jamaica for two years, and to learn as well as to teach.” A Swedish guest lecturer with years of experience in international development work said something like this: “For at least the first six months, keep your mouth shut, and your ears and mind open. Nobody needs to hear you telling them the right way to do things. You need to establish trust and credibility before you start offering advice.”

Maria taught psychiatric nursing, but had to get licensed as a Jamaican nurse before she could join the faculty at the School of Nursing. When we applied, having no idea where we’d serve, I thought I’d end up teaching English somewhere, as I have a B.A. in English. I never dreamed that I’d serve as a psychologist. But the University Hospital of the West Indies had just opened a detox/rehab ward for Jamaican addicts, and my skill set was just what they needed. So I served as the ward psychologist, and helped to develop a relapse prevention model for the ward.

As a PCV you don’t get paid a salary, but you get a living allowance that allows you to get by on the local economy. Every month you serve, a modest amount of money ($200 when we served) is set aside for your readjustment allowance, after you complete your service. Not all PCVs fulfill their two-year obligation. Some volunteers leave behind a lasting accomplishment,  however small, in terms of sustainable development in their sector; others don’t. But I still think that the Peace Corps gives more “bang for the buck” in terms of winning friends for the U.S. in developing countries than aid agencies like U.S.A.I.D., because Peace Corps service is all about developing helping relationships within host country agencies and Non-government Organizations (NGOs).

PCVs are citizen “goodwill ambassadors,” because they work at ground level with host country counterparts. After I was robbed on a bus in downtown Kingston, I heard a fellow commuter sympathetically refer to me as “jost a workin’ mahn” because – although white – I rode the bus to work, just like them. It was one of the best compliments I received while working in Jamaica.

Maria and I didn’t serve simply out of altruism or idealism. Peace Corps service was an opportunity for cultural enrichment and personal growth. We got to know the beautiful island of Jamaica, it’s people and culture. Not all PCVs leave behind an identifiable accomplishment in terms of sustainable development in their host countries; but Maria helped Jamaican nursing students to view mentally ill people as human beings first, and not as “mental patients.” I recently learned that the relapse prevention model I introduced on the detox/rehab ward is still being used at the University Hospital of the West Indies. Maria and I still echo what’s been called the “Peace Corps mantra”: we got more than we gave.

 

What is obscene?

My Webster’s Dictionary uses the following adjectives (among others) to characterize the essence of “obscenity”: foul, filthy, repulsive and disgusting. As a philosopher, I have to ask, “offensive/repulsive/disgusting to whom? Walt Kelly – creator of the Pogo comic strip – wrote, “One man’s obscenity might be another man’s lunch.”

What is obscene to you depends on your values, and perhaps the cultural norms you were raised under. It depends on what offends you as an individual or, some would say, what excites you in a way that makes you feel guilty. It’s been said that obscenity is whatever gives the judge an erection. Traditionally in our culture, obscenity refers to depictions (or descriptions) of sexual acts, but not to violent acts such as beatings, torture, murder, or explosions. This is due to the sexual repression that is deeply-rooted in our society, as exemplified by our collective fetish with  women’s breasts – as long as the nipples are covered. It isn’t like that in Europe. “Reality TV” shows that feature naked people with their “naughty bits” digitally blurred are especially obscene, to me.

Some Americans consider full frontal nudity (aside, perhaps, from the fine arts) to be obscene in itself, and many more consider any explicit depiction of sexual activity to be obscene, or pornographic. This is often rooted in repressive religious traditions that venerate birth, but characterize sexual pleasure as inherently sinful. And the aftermath of female ovulation, to which we all owe our lives, is regarded as “unclean” and/or shameful in many cultures. Clearly, things that are regarded as obscene are things that elicit visceral responses, whether lust or disgust.

When I was a young man, I introduced my parents to the concept of “obscene wealth.” It had never occurred to them that being extremely wealthy, while those around you are starving, could be regarded as an obscenity; but they eventually understood my reasoning. They had a harder time grasping the notion that violence, not sex, should be regarded as obscene. No consensual sexual act is obscene in the way rape and sexual molestation (a subset of rape, not a different thing) are obscene.

The concept of  a “right to privacy” is a fairly recent social innovation. For most of human history, privacy only existed for the privileged few. Most people who have ever lived grew up witnessing sexual acts as a part of daily life. The concept of sexual acts as intrinsically obscene is a culture-bound convention, rooted in patriarchal religious dogma.

Although I honor the soldier’s profession and served in the Army, I consider war to be an obscenity. I consider torture, rape and sexual exploitation obscene. I consider slavery, extreme economic exploitation, race hatred, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing obscene. And I consider some pornography to be obscene, if it normalizes sexual exploitation or degradation. Depictions of sexual and/or violent activity may arouse or disgust us. We don’t have to apologize to anyone for our reflexive visceral responses, only for bad behavior. (As a therapist, I encountered quite a few people who felt frightened or guilty about having felt aroused by something unexpectedly, or by something their religion told them it was sinful to be aroused by.) It’s been said that ugliness is as compelling as beauty; and ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

It was Lenny Bruce who educated me about obscenity. He took standup comedy in new directions, exposing sexual hypocrisy in ways  that no other comedian had ever done. He once tried to  explain his act to his trial judge, who then found him guilty of the crime of obscenity. When I was home, on furlough from the military academy I attended, my mother and I would have late night discussions on a variety of topics – even sex. (Mom was always more comfortable than Dad, talking to her kids about sex.) During one discussion, I made an observation about our society’s sexual repression. Mom said that she thought our society was obsessed with sex, to which I replied that obsession and repression are opposite sides of the same coin. We’re obsessed with breasts, but a woman can be arrested for “indecent exposure” if she exposes her nipples in public.

Then I made the point that there’s no “respectable” action verb in English for the sex act. We use circumlocutions such as “have sexual intercourse with.” She got my point, and we both knew we were talking around “the f-word.” I had recently read The Essential Lenny Bruce, and I talked about how he’d gotten arrested for using the word “fuck” onstage. Having just made the point that there’s no acceptable  word for the sex act, I thought I could actually use the word, in this context. I was wrong. Mom was shocked. End of conversation.

Although my father could be quite profane, he never cursed in front of Mom, and profanity was forbidden in the house. The next morning, I got a stern lecture from Dad, and he made it perfectly clear that I was never to use the f-word in front of my mother again. And I never did.

Flash forward twenty years. The whole family were avid SCRABBLE players, and after we three siblings were on our own, Mom and Dad played even more frequently. Dad joked that SCRABBLE had replaced sex in their marriage. “We do it every Wednesday, and sometimes twice on Saturday!” On one visit to their home, I was sitting at the table with both of them, and Dad asked me if I remembered the night I’d said the f-word in front of Mom. I told him that I did, and assured him that I’d never done it again. He grinned and said, “She used “fuck” playing SCRABBLE recently.” Mom looked sheepish and said, “It was the only way I could get my “k” on a double-letter score!”

Motivation affects perception, and obscenity is in the eye of the beholder.

Who decides what your labor is worth?

The means of the distribution of wealth is an important factor in any society, and the “redistribution” of wealth isn’t just a socialist or communist agenda, as some would have you believe. Redistribution of wealth works both ways – downward and upward. We have a finite pie (wealth) to distribute. What portion goes to the rich, and how much is left for the rest of us to distribute? Who decides?

When the rich get richer relative to the rest of us, that’s a redistribution of wealth. In the past thirty years , we’ve seen the most massive redistribution of wealth in our history. Upward. The rich have taken more and more of the pie, leaving less for the middle- and lower-class to share. Executive pay continues to rise, while the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised in ten years. Some very wealthy people advocate a flat tax on income as the fairest way to tax. That may seem logical – if you’re rich – but the flat tax is a regressive tax that would result in even more of a redistribution of wealth to the rich. Progressive taxation (i.e. the more you make, the higher your tax bracket) shares the wealth more fairly. It can be used to create economic democracy in America.

The free market, we’re told, determines salaries. But the deck is stacked by the dealer in the casino of the American economy. In the private sector, the relative worth of a person’s labor is decided by the very people who stand to benefit most from having that power. They’ve created and sustained an inflationary spiral of executive salaries with the aid of an army of corporate lawyers and lobbyists, whose job it is to shape fiscal policy to the benefit of their employers.

It’s no accident that the rich in our country continue to prosper at the expense of the lower- and middle-classes, and top executives are frequently given bonuses on top of their exorbitant salaries. In 1978, CEOs might earn 38x more than their average employee’s salary. Today, CEOs have been estimated to “earn” over 300x the salary of their average employee. Even CEOs who have to resign in disgrace often get “golden parachutes” of millions of dollars – a reward for incompetence or malfeasance.

The perception managers of the Right have found that labeling someone with the L-word -liberal – doesn’t have the punch it once did. So now they use the S-word – socialist – to describe all people who don’t unquestioningly worship at the altar of laissez faire capitalism. It’s a continuation of their politics of fear, where liberal equals socialist equals closet communist.

In my opinion, Soviet communism inevitably collapsed because it was an unworkable system. It operated on the idealistic but false assumption that the one-party State, owning the means of production, would distribute the wealth fairly, because it’s an embodiment of the collective will of the people. It didn’t work out that way. Laissez faire capitalists, on the other hand, contend that the free market shouldn’t be regulated at all by the State, as supply-and-demand is an economic Law of Nature that shouldn’t be tampered with by governments. Socialists believe that the people should have a say in determining the relative worth of labor. Sure, some people should get more than others for their labor; but how much more? We needn’t leave it to the plutocrats to decide what is fair. We’re supposed to be a democracy.

A fairer distribution of wealth can be achieved within a democracy by a combination of effective government regulation of the market, and fair progressive taxation. Our current crisis came about because politicians – many of whom are themselves rich – decided that they could trust the richest capitalists to regulate themselves. Congress is a partially-owned subsidiary of the corporate state.

If we raise the highest tax brackets sufficiently, there would no longer be an incentive for a CEO to make hundreds of times more than the salary of his average employee, because most of the excessive remuneration would only generate revenue for the IRS. The capitalists who benefit most from being American citizens should be required to pay their fair share.

I believe than an important part of true democracy is economic democracy, which means that all workers get fair wages for their labor – a living wage. This means increasing the minimum wage substantially, and indexing it to inflation (i.e. it goes up automatically to keep up with inflation). Every full-time American worker deserves a living wage. Without a living wage, many workers are virtual wage slaves, sometimes forced to work two or more jobs to support their families, often one paycheck from homelessness. We can’t afford to let the rich get ever richer.

Why I’m a socialist

Not that kind of socialist! I don’t believe in the abolition of private property or in state ownership of the means of production. Like most American socialists (or social democrats, or democratic socialists) that I know, I believe in democracy, and believe that the people should have some say in how wealth is distributed in our society. Economic democracy means fair compensation for work: a living wage for all. The growing income gap between the rich and the poor can be brought under democratic control simply by establishing a fairer system of progressive taxation. (The more money you make, the higher your tax bracket.) In the fifties – a time of thriving prosperity for our economy – the top tax bracket for the very wealthy was over 90%. Now it’s 37%, but many of our richest citizens complain that even that is an unfair tax burden.

Like most European nations, the U.S. is already semi-socialist, and that’s the way most Americans seem to like it. If it weren’t for American socialists and labor unions, we wouldn’t have many things we take for granted these days: the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, paid vacations and sick leave, overtime pay and the minimum wage, as well as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t have universal health care. Every attempt to establish a system of affordable health care, from Franklin D. Roosevelt on, has been attacked by those who profit from the current system as “socialized medicine.” The great majority of family bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to medical emergencies. It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody should have to go broke in order to keep a family member alive.

I grew up knowing what it’s like to live in a socialist society, because I was an Army brat, and later a soldier. Being in the American military means guaranteed employment and salary. It means that you and your dependents get free medical care. (I was treated for kidney disease, my brother had an appendectomy, and my mother was treated for breast cancer, at no cost to our family.) Your military branch either provides housing or a housing allowance. It either provides you with food or gives you a food allowance. Occupational training (and graduate school, if you’re a qualified officer) is free, and if you serve for twenty years or more you get a pension, whether or not you ever serve in a combat zone. When you serve in the military, all of your basic needs are met by the State.

I’ve seen socialism demonized by rich conservatives all of my life. I doubt that the average American could tell you the difference between socialism and communism; but we’ve all been told, over and over, that they’re both BAD, and that they inevitably lead to tyranny. Tell that to the members of the European Union. Right-wing pundits and propagandists have pushed the notion that “liberal” is actually code for “progressive,” progressive is code for “socialist,” and socialist is code for “closet Commie.”

I’ve lived in other semi-socialist democracies for a total of nine years. Austria (where I lived for four years) has multiple political parties, one of the most popular being the Social Democratic Party. One of the most popular parties in Germany (where I lived for three years) is also a Social Democratic Party. Jamaica (where I lived for two years)  doesn’t have a Social Democratic Party; but one of the two parties, the Jamaican Labour Party, is socialistic. The citizens of all these countries have the same basic freedoms that we enjoy.

Austria and Germany both have progressive taxation. The highest tax bracket in Austria is 50%, in Germany 45%. Some citizens of these countries might pay higher taxes than American counterparts, but most find this acceptable because of the benefits, which include affordable health care and housing, fair wages, and free college and university education for students who get passing grades.

Despite decades of smear campaigns by capitalist propagandists, more Americans are coming to realize that socialism is nothing to fear, compared to unregulated laissez faire capitalism. Given the popularity of the Affordable Care Act, it appears that more and more people are realizing that “socialized medicine” isn’t so bad, after all. Recent polls indicate that a growing number of millennials favor democratic socialism over the current dominant model of capitalistic rule. Those who try to conflate socialism with tyranny and economic ruin are blowing smoke. Most socialistic nations are democracies, and tyrants are as likely to come from the Right as from the Left.

It seems to me that democratic socialism is a marriage of the best parts of laissez faire capitalism, with its incentives for innovation and productivity, and socialism, which gives the people a say in what each person’s labor is worth. Most rich capitalists hate progressive taxation and government regulation. Under-regulated corporations often care more about short-term profitability than about people. Under democratic socialism the people have more control over the excesses of greedy plutocrats.

Most (all?) democracies hold that certain things belong, not to any individual or corporate entity, but to all citizens. In the U.S. “the Commons” include public schools, libraries, roads and other infrastructure, public lands and national parks, as well as the air we breathe and the water we need to sustain life. Unlike the other democracies, the Commons in this country does not include medical care or higher education. It’s time to de-stigmatize “the S-word” and educate the electorate about the benefits of democratic socialism.

 

Non-suicidal self-injury

I think that one of the most baffling phenomena in the repertory of human behavior, to people outside the mental health field, is self-mutilation. Most of us fear and avoid physical pain and disfigurement, and it’s hard for us to understand why anyone would intentionally hurt themselves of self-mutilate. Over the course of my career as a psychologist, I discovered that there are a variety of motivations and explanations for self-harm.

Some people harm themselves because they are in a psychotic state of mind. It may be that voices nobody else can hear tell people to hurt themselves, or that self-harm is the result of delusional beliefs. I’ve known a man who gnawed off several fingers and another who gouged out his eyes for incomprehensible reasons, while psychotic. Other people injure themselves impulsively, because their distress impairs their judgment and they don’t know what else to do; so they bang their heads against the wall, or punch through a pane of glass.

Yet others learn from experience that cutting, or otherwise hurting, themselves provides immediate relief from overwhelming emotional pain; and it becomes a habit. The brain often responds to pain by releasing endorphins, whose molecules resemble morphine. (I recently learned that one reason some people enjoy eating really hot peppers is that the pain gives them an endorphin high.) This substitution of physical pain for emotional pain is hard for many of us to understand, but it reliably meets a need for some people. It can be viewed as a kind of masochism, with the distinction that it’s not done for pleasure, but rather for relief from pain.

What I would say to a client when I learned that they were self-mutilating was something like, “I believe that if you knew better ways to cope with your emotional distress, you’d use them, instead of hurting yourself. So let’s work on finding better ways.” Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is a pathological behavior for many people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and its elimination is one of the first goals of the most effective treatment available for people with that diagnosis – Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

DBT is the creation of Dr. Marsha Linehan. She designed it to help people who feel like they’re living in Hell, as a way out. Each patient in a DBT program is assigned an individual therapist, and is required to attend skills training groups twice a week. Two of the skills modules that are geared to the elimination of  NSSIs – or parasuicidal behaviors – are distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Borderline traits and symptoms are characterized by emotional imbalance. In learning to tolerate distress and regulate emotions, the clients learn how to achieve emotional balance. They no longer have to rely on the endorphin rush they get from cutting or burning themselves, once they’ve found better ways to cope with emotional distress.

The most extreme instance of self-mutilation I ever encountered in my career, not involving psychosis, was a long-considered and carefully executed self-castration. I speculate that the man’s motivation was related to either or both fear of a strong sex drive and/or disturbing sexual fantasies and urges. A fundamentalist Christian, he believed himself to be tempted by demonic “powers and principalities,” in a battle over his soul. He was quite intelligent and had a rationale for his agenda.

When he’d asked a surgeon to castrate him, he’d been told that no doctor could ethically accommodate his request, as there was no medical reason for the surgery. So he studied books on surgery until he felt confident that he could operate on himself. He decided to castrate himself in two  separate surgeries, coached his wife to serve as his surgical assistant, and set up a surgical suite in their home. The first surgery went off without a hitch. I never would have encountered the man if he hadn’t botched the second surgery. When he and his wife couldn’t stop the bleeding after he’d severed his remaining testicle, they had to call 911.

The local hospital contacted me to evaluate him. He was medically stable and ready for discharge, but his doctor wanted me to make a recommendation regarding any possible suicide risk. The man showed no signs of either depression or psychosis. He was pleasant and cooperative, explaining his rationale for castrating himself and answering all of my questions. He seemed somewhat embarrassed by having been found out, but seemed to have no other regrets about his actions. He persuasively denied any suicidal thinking, and he didn’t meet the criteria for involuntary psychiatric commitment. So I recommended that he be discharged. I gave him my card and told him that I was available if he wanted to follow up, but he never contacted me.

As an adult, I’ve never referred to mentally ill people as “crazy” – only behaviors. This was an example of how a legally sane person can do a carefully-considered, but crazy, thing.