Outside the Asylum

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Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things

Once upon a time, there was a species of moth that lived in northern England. The moths lived on the trunks of white birch trees. Most of the moths were white, and only a few of them were brown. The white moths survived more easily because their bodies blended in with the white trunks, making them harder for predators to see. Then northern England industrialized, the air filled with soot, the white birch trunks turned dark, and suddenly the bodies of the white moths stood out, while the brown moths blended in. A few years later, most of the moths were brown, and only a few were white.

This is a famous example of natural selection, the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I will paraphrase his theory here. And I am not a scientist, and it’s been a while since I studied evolutionary biology, so please, if I get anything wrong, let me know:

Struggle is the universal truth of life. Individuals struggle to survive, and those who succeed get to reproduce and pass on their genetic code, which includes the characteristics that helped them survive. The species thus moves in the direction of those successes. When the environment changes, so will the definition of successful characteristics; characteristics that helped individuals survive can suddenly become unhelpful, and vice versa. You can tell who the “fittest” individuals are by how many there are of them and how easily they survive and reproduce.

Now, there are critiques that can be made of that vision of the world. For instance, I could look at the world and, instead of describing it as a gladiatorial arena of constant competition, describe it rather as an interdependent web in which most things depend on one another to stay alive. I could just as easily talk about the ways in which mushrooms enable trees to grow, or how we and the flowering plants evolved together interdependently, as talk about the ways in which two different species of bird compete for the same insects to eat—or two different colors of moth try to evade the same predators. The truth is probably a synthesis of those two ideas, a larger notion that encompasses and transcends both competition and cooperation.

I don’t have a problem with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, per se. But his emphasis on competition allowed for a very unfortunate appropriation of his work—one which persists to this day. Unfortunately, some people noticed that Darwin’s theory of natural selection could be applied to human society, to the great benefit of wealthy people, powerful people, capitalists, eugenicists, and authoritarians of all stripes. The idea that violent competition for resources results in certain individuals and species achieving dominance because they are “fittest” proved to be extremely helpful in justifying social hierarchies and inequalities of all kinds.

Here is my paraphrase of the doctrine of social Darwinism:

Individuals struggle to succeed, and those who do get more money and more power and get to pass on their genetic code more often than those who fail. Society moves in the direction of those successes; if capitalists succeed better than socialists, the socialists will become rarer and society will become more and more capitalist. You can tell who the “fittest” individuals are by how much money and power they have—in the terms of this belief system, how “superior” they are--and how easily they get their way.

They not only applied Darwinism to the competition within human societies, but also to the competition among them. Different nations, tribes and cultures were evaluated and ideas passed around about which ones were more adaptive, or “the fittest.” Or, in other words:

Societies struggle to succeed, and those who do get more money and more power and get to extend their cultural influence farther and for longer than those who fail. The world moves in the direction of those successes; if white European colonists survive better than indigenous North Americans, indigenous people will become rarer and the world will become more and more white, European and colonial. You can tell which the “fittest” societies are by how much global power and territory they have, and how easily they get their way.

In short, social Darwinism reifies power. That is, whoever dominates does so because there is something inherently better about them; their success merely reveals these adaptive qualities. Therefore, you can never say that an individual or group has unfairly seized power. It is the environment itself that has selected them, because their characteristics are best fitted to it; you might as well complain about gravity. Or, as my conservative friend Tim told me in high school, “Certain people have leadership qualities, and they just naturally rise to the top.” (To which my friend Kathy replied, “Yes, certain people are assholes.”)

Not since the divine right of kings has there been a more authoritarian belief system than this one. It underlies most of the right-wing thought in this country. If the successful succeed because there is a magic “fit” between their characteristics and the environment which makes their dominance inevitable, then power and choice both disappear from view. No one chooses what society should look like, what its customs or policies should be, or who should be in charge and get the best of everything. The social status quo arises as almost a side effect of dominance, which in its turn is an inevitable result of inherent adaptive superiority. Once dominance is conceived as natural and inevitable, the concept of revolution becomes an almost comical, and certainly doomed, misunderstanding of the nature of things; and social reform becomes nothing but a misguided effort to promote and protect inferiority.

This idea has thousands of applications in our society, and we’ve heard them all:

Government shouldn’t pick winners and losers.

You fix education by giving resources to schools that promote excellence, not to schools that fail.

[From a Wall St broker] If people lost their houses in the market crash, that just means I’m smarter than they are.

Climate change? People will adapt.

Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the marketplace, the forces of evolution sort out the superior from the inferior, the adaptive from the non-adaptive, preserving the one and eventually eradicating the other. It’s a bit like the doctrine of the elect in Calvinism: the successful were always going to be successful, the powerful were always going to be powerful. It’s predetermined—as long as the environment stays the same.

And there’s the rub. When you’re talking Darwinism, changes in the environment are beyond the control of those subjected to those environmental conditions. When England industrialized and tree trunks became black with soot, moths weren’t responsible for it, nor were they able to react to it with any agency. All they could do was occupy their suddenly redefined position: white moths were no longer adaptive; dark moths were. The dinosaurs had nothing to say about a meteor hitting the earth and altering the climate—those who could adjust and survive did (like the ancestors of modern birds), and those who couldn’t adjust died.

Even when you’re talking about man-made conditions, such as soot in the air from factories, manipulation of one’s environment does not fall within the purview of Darwinism as I understand it. The model is of some large, impersonal force choosing one species, or one kind of individual within a species, over another, driven apparently by little but chance. The general message is, if you lost the biological roulette, too bad for you. It’s nothing personal.

When you apply these principles to human history and culture, as does the narrator of The Signature of All Things, the result is, to say the least, disingenuous.

The struggle for existence, she was certain, had also shaped human biology and human destiny. There was no better example, Alma thought, than Tomorrow Morning, whose entire family had been annihilated by unfamiliar diseases brought upon them by the Europeans’ arrival in Tahiti. His bloodline had nearly been rendered extinct, but for some reason Tomorrow Morning had not died. Something in his constitution had enabled him to survive…Tomorrow Morning had endured…and had lived to produce heirs, who may even have inherited his strengths and his extraordinary resistance to illness. This is the sort of event that shapes a species. SOAT 512-513

You’ll notice that in this passage European colonization=natural selection. This equation puts the invasion of other cultures and the seizing of their land on the same moral footing as the Giant Meteor hitting the earth. It’s just a thing that happened; an expression of the force of inevitable change. It’s not like colonialism was a series of evil choices made, most of the time, for the sake of profiting a comparative few who were in no danger of losing either their lives or their chance at passing on their genes: who were seeking, not survival, but wealth. It's particularly disingenuous coming from Alma, who wouldn't be in Tahiti at all had her father not established a vanilla plantation there--one of the many botanical enterprises on which he based his wealth.

In fact, the question: Why were Europeans or North Americans in Tahiti? is never asked, and neither is the question whether, once Europeans and North Americans reached the South Seas, they might have behaved differently toward the people there. Indeed, if you adopt the social Darwinist viewpoint, the question itself becomes irrelevant to the point of invisibility.

I also just noticed--in my last read-through of this essay before publication--that Alma considers Tomorrow Morning, and all the Tahitians, to be another species.

I can't believe my eye slid over that about fifty times before I realized what she was really saying.

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What’s more, Alma thought, the struggle for existence also defined the inner life of a human being. Tomorrow Morning was a pagan who had transmuted into a devout Christian—for he was cunning and self-preserving, and had seen the direction the world was taking. He had chosen the future over the past. As a result of his foresight, Tomorrow Morning’s children would thrive in a new world, where their father was revered and powerful. (Or, at least, his children would thrive until another wave of challenge arrived to confront them. Then they would have to make their own way. That would be their battle, and nobody could spare them.) SOAT 512-513

What’s fascinating about this passage is that the Europeans who decided to colonize, dominate, and Christianize Tahiti are nowhere in it. They aren’t people making choices in history. They only appear in the abstract: “the struggle for existence,” “the direction the world was taking,” “the future over the past.” Further, Europeans and North Americans who have not yet arrived constitute “another wave of challenge” that Alma imagines might later confront the children of Tomorrow Morning. It’s important that that “wave of challenge” be included in Alma’s musings because otherwise, someone might point out that Tomorrow Morning’s choice to adopt European customs and religion in no way guarantees that his children will “thrive in a new world” due to their father’s foresight.

In fact, if one consults actual history, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Tomorrow Morning’s children would probably live, at best, in a world of racism and thinly-veiled condescension, like everyone from servants in the American South to sepoys in British India. At worst, they would be destroyed by the economic and military power of one or another faction of invaders. But whatever problems they might have with racism and colonialism, it’s “their battle” to face, and “nobody could spare them.” Spare them from what? Why, the struggle to survive while facing the challenge of the future. Not, you’ll notice, the struggle to endure and overcome a racist conquest of their land, and the destruction of their culture for profit.

It’s just the inevitable progress of nature, baby. Nothing personal.

I’m reminded of when Barack Obama told the graduating class at Howard University that “no one cares if you’ve experienced some racism.”

Later, we get confirmation that when Alma talks about “the future” she means white Europeans and North Americans:

She had dearly missed the northern world during her time in the South Seas…She had missed the rigors of a cold climate, and the rigors of the mind, as well. She was simply not made for the tropics—neither in complexion nor in disposition. There were those who loved Tahiti because it felt to them like Eden—like the beginning of history—but Alma did not wish to live at the beginning of history; she wished to live within humanity’s most recent moment, at the cusp of invention and progress. She did not wish to inhabit a land of spirits and ghosts; she desired a world of telegraphs, trains, improvements, theories, and science, where things changed by the day. She longed to work again in a productive and serious environment, surrounded by productive and serious people. SOAT 530

The identification of cold places with intellectual rigor, progress, and “productive and serious people,” while the tropics are identified with Eden, prehistory, and irrational superstition—“spirits and ghosts” rather than “telegraphs [and] trains”--reveals an almost eugenicist, and certainly racist, notion of who is adaptive, who constitutes the future, and who is headed for extinction. You get the feeling that the rigorous mind arises from the rigorous cold, and, as it struggles with a harsh climate, becomes serious and productive enough to invent telegraphs, trains, improvements, theories and science.

While reading this, I couldn’t help remembering a speech Hillary Clinton gave in Pennsylvania in 2004, when she was running against Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary. Clinton said, “Hard-working Americans, white Americans, will not vote for Barack Obama.” Being hard-working, like being an actual American, was clearly contingent on being white. I guess even in 2008, black people hadn’t lived long enough yet in the cold climates of Detroit or Chicago or New York or Philadelphia to overcome their slothful tropical origins.

Capitalism, of course, is another invention of the rigorous mind in its rigorous, cold clime, but, as usual, it’s difficult to see the capitalist system or philosophy because it hides, as is its habit, behind other concepts like “human industriousness” and “human intelligence:”

All around her—even at this late hour—she sensed the hum of commerce. Amsterdam—built on silt and stilts, protected and maintained by pumps, sluices, valves, dredging machines, and dikes—struck Alma not so much as a city, but as an engine, a triumph of human industriousness. It was the most contrived place one could ever imagine. It was the sum of human intelligence. It was perfect. She never wanted to leave. SOAT 532-533

I end with the question I began with last week. This book was published in 2013. Around that time, I was being accused of racism on the grounds that I didn’t like mass warrantless surveillance and drone strikes (later, I would be accused of racism on the grounds that I did like Social Security and Bernie Sanders). So why did this book become a best-seller, complete with book groups and tours of the Woodlands (an eighteenth-century Pennsylvania mansion on which Alma’s home is based), without encountering accusations of racism, which, quite frankly, could be justified? Why is it touted instead as an inspirational, feminist novel of development? To quote Ursula Le Guin, “I think we’re supposed to be sort of misty-eyed; but what about?” Alma’s journey of discovery--feminist because she’s a nineteenth-century woman and a scientist, I guess-- seems like an inspirational candy shell around something truly noxious. As such, her narrative fits right in to the identity politics of our current moment.

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QMS's picture

closer to the truth, at least in my way of thinking, those that rise to power and authority are there because the system is rigged in their favor -- not because the oligarchs possess superior skills,.
to get ahead in this race for dominance, all that is needed is greed, sociopathy and connections.

this doesn't seem like natural selection to me

thanks for the asylum escape!

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@QMS

And I appreciate your support, as always.

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

So why did this book become a best-seller, complete with book groups and tours of the Woodlands (an eighteenth-century Pennsylvania mansion on which Alma’s home is based), without encountering accusations of racism, which, quite frankly, could be justified?

Here's my projection:
whathappenedhim.jpg

So here's the deal. It's not whether you win or lose, man. It's how you play the game. Trust me, just an hour ago I was reading the biography of Joseph Goebbels online so I've been through it. It's a BFD.
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Goebbels
I know I can do more push-ups than that loser with the club foot. Get real. And while we're talking about getting real, I have no sympathy for them, just swallow.
---
Inside, outside, I have no idea where to reside. Don't call it art, call it therapy. Art is for artists, therapy is for... darn I'm drawing blanks. pew pew pew

Lord Acton meets Saagar Enjeti
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cowthinkenjeti.jpg

That was dead cowsay and youthful cowthink in case anyone was wondering. Bueller?

Thank You Lord - Original

PEACE

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@eyo

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@eyo

It's nice.

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8 users have voted.

"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

I know I went on at some length but I really had to get this out of my system.
If there's anything nastier than revolting ideas wrapped up in sentimentality, I don't know what it is.

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

QMS's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

sentimental ideas wrapped up in revolt
the old switcheroo Wink

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@QMS

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Anja Geitz's picture

Of our adaptive qualities to the environment where the “fittest” succeed, is that the environment is now artificially manipulated. No longer representing a natural flow where those of us who position ourselves to meet the needs of the marketplace with our ideas are rewarded, the environment now merely represents a large protected club where those who are already successful dictate who will be rewarded, not by merit or by the creativity of our ideas, but simply because they’ve selected one of us to be part of their club.

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Anja Geitz

The other might be, "What's success?"

It seems like the most successful individuals lately are succeeding in putting our species in great danger of extinction, which means that their success is not species-wide, so...at that point, how does one conceive success?

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

Anja Geitz's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

Is certainly limiting. But I was using that specific definition to counter how it is being used by those who measure success by that particular yardstick. Widening the criteria of what constitutes “success” would be a welcome conversation exactly because the definition itself is rarely questioned. There is a lot to be said for including the idea of living a ‘successful’ life for those of us who have figured out away to make peace with angry relatives, who have overcome our own destructive tendencies, and who have built loving, genuine, and supportive networks of friends and family. Which frankly are the only commodities that truly feed and nurture the human soul.

But for the sake of this discussion, it is clear that the grotesquely wealthy cartels of powerful men and women who define success as power, influence, and money, have been psychologically damaged by the their own definition of “success”, turning the very idea on its ear and destroying everything in its wake in the pursuit of it. So, let them snigger at those of us who don’t define success in their way. I’d much rather find a way where I can nurture my soul while still being financially secure.

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

earthling1's picture

@Anja Geitz
successful in building Amsterdam there or not smart enough to build on solid ground?

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After six years, still getting robo-calls from Marriot Hotels.
They're like herpes.

Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Anja Geitz

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

lotlizard's picture

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/tahiti-in-shock-after-12-hours-...

It began when supporters of Oscar Temaru, leader of Tavini Huiraatira, the main anti-nuclear, pro-independence party, staged a peaceful protest at the airport. They occupied the runway, blocking it with canoes, rocks and coconuts. Within an hour, the coconuts were being met by stun grenades. About 3,000 Polynesians gathered along the road outside the airport, watching and chanting support as a hard core of around 500 attacked the terminal building, smashing video monitors and glass walls and setting fire to the restaurant. More than 300 riot police confronted them.

Can’t talk about colonialism and its theories re superior ethnicities being destined to rule over others without talking about France, which is still holding on to various vestiges of its empire: not just Tahiti and tiny islands off the coast of Canada and elsewhere, but also French Guiana in South America and New Caledonia off the coast of Australia.

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Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@lotlizard

I forgot that France emerged from the colonial fray in possession of Tahiti. I would have guessed Japan or the U.S.--or maybe Britain.

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"More for Gore or the son of a drug lord--None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord."
--Zack de la Rocha

"I tell you I'll have nothing to do with the place...The roof of that hall is made of bones."
-- Fiver

lotlizard's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal  
but when Queen Victoria’s government found out about it, they disavowed his actions and sent Admiral Thomas to give it back!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulet_affair

That’s why a British union jack is part of the Hawaiian flag — out of respect for Britain for having done the right thing! That history is also where the “state” motto came from, which was taught to us as children in American-run schools with the deliberately obscure translation, “The life (or sovereignty) of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” (The actual historical circumstances suggest that the intent of the utterance was more along the lines of, “The independence of the country has been restored, as is just.”)

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enhydra lutris's picture

darwinism/natural selection is one of the better one's I have seen. Too often they are infected (as is social darwinism) with humankind's natural propensity to think in terms of teleology, which is, for what it's worth, a fallacy. Thus natural selection == improvement, the trip upward from bug to ape to (ta daa) man. And among humans, toward "success" measured in terms of wealth and power and even smarts to culminate in Plato's Philosopher King. Unspoken in there is that the reality always shows said PK to actually be a cabal of oligarchs, cooperatively supporting and enabling each other so as to ensure to each their own fiefdom but also on the lookout for the weak who can be brought down enabling the victors to share the spoils. (These oligarchs are, of course, the evolved form of brigands and raiders) It can be tiring to always watch one's back and be munificent, and so religion was invented in order that priesthoods can gull all into accepting the divine right of rulers.

The teleological taint is especially strong in social darwinism and eugenics, where the goal is clearly Me or Folks Like Me, but perhaps a bit above my station, requiring that I struggle and labor more assiduously, while currying favor, in order to become truly evolved. What your definition of "evolution" alludes to without too explicitly saying it is both the underlying cooperation and randomness in the universe inherent in success. The dusky moths that survived and reproduced reproduced; they found mates and bred with them, an essentially cooperative endeavor. Which ones fell prey to predators was in part coloration, but in part directed by where the predators happened to be foraging on any given day at any given time. Natural selection is a species level phenomenon, not an individual one. Great numbers of individuals possessing beneficial mutations never passed them on due to mischance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or otherwise being unable to find a mate because of freak circumstances or occurrences . Meanwhile vast numbers of others less well suited to survive and/or breed got lucky. That is the tale on the individual level. And nothing is a single trait, a species might survive despite negative survival traits because of an abundance of positive ones, and then shifting circumstances may find them the survivors even though some of those who didn't make it were actually better suited for the new circumstances than they are.

One problem with the competition model is that it emphasizes competition instead of adaptation. Darwin and Wallace didn't fully grok the then non-existent idea of ecological niches. Generally no two species share the exact same ecological niche. Two individuals, however, might. Darwin's finches "adapted" not by act of will or intention, but by chance. Each variant finch species was one that "mutated" or was epigenetically driven to occupy a different ecological niche. (Epigenetics, a weirdly Lamarkian discovery, was similarly unknown to them.) In the presence of sufficient scarcity of seeds relative to the number of birds, various factors, including cooperation and luck, will propel some seed eaters to survive, and the long-term tendency, all things considered, will be a bird highly adapted to finding and eating seeds, including an enhancement of the classic seed eater's beak. BUT, also surviving will be the freaks who adapted to/by eating crawling insects and who, among other things developed a more appropriate beak for that, and those who became adapted for eating flying insects and "evolved" the appropriate characteristics for that endeavor. However, none of that matters, except in those rare cases where parthenogenesis of some form exists, if the "best bird" cannot find a suitable mate. (and the offspring mustn't be wiped out by a random event.)

There is a driver of sociopathy in the "cold climate" environment, it is harder to eke out a living there than in some overabundant tropical paradise. Where there is plenty, competition isn't so much of a factor in survival. There are two solutions, cooperation and division of labor, which can work well for a group, and predation upon the group, which can work well for an individual, but not for many individuals simultaneously. The sociopath-predator who succeeds, however, can accumulate such an overabundance that they can bestow "largess" upon the group or selected individuals therein and become an inspirations, goal embodiment or role model. That seems to clearly be at work in the book, to the extent that predation and exploitation are seen as normal behavioral modes and neither questioned nor illuminated. Thus, those preyed upon simply become "other", deserving of their fate because they didn't "evolve" into what the protagonist views as "Christians" but who, as we now see clearly, are really Shiva.

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Dawn's Meta's picture

@enhydra lutris CSTMS really nice series. This last piece is really excellent. Spotting the fallacy when rapped up in the sentimentality isn't easy. You've acquitted yourself well.

Thank you so much.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

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enhydra lutris's picture

@Dawn's Meta
you might alert her to its whereabouts

be well and have a good one,

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

Dawn's Meta's picture

@enhydra lutris

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

Consider helping by donating using the button in the upper left hand corner. Thank you.

Dawn's Meta's picture

CSTMS really nice series. This last piece is really excellent. Spotting the fallacy when rapped up in the sentimentality isn't easy. You've acquitted yourself well.

Thank you so much.

Put in the wrong place.

Be careful out there.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

Consider helping by donating using the button in the upper left hand corner. Thank you.