Statement of Purpose: My application for the Transformative Studies program at CIIS

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David Benfell

September 26, 2008


What will I do with a PhD from California Institute for Integral Studies?

Allan Combs sees as a starting place that “the world needs saving,” citing “unsustainable growth, ecological depletion, rampant consumerism and market instability, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, diseases, water shortages, . . . [and] global terrorism.”1  Sociologists point to endemic social inequality and the terrible prices paid in so many ways by the poor.2  Political scientists question the value of the state, seeing it as an obstruction to world peace.3  At this writing, there are grave uncertainties affecting the world economy, some of which stem from environmental concerns such as global warming and the depletion of oil reserves, but many of which stem from a sheer greed in the financial sector that appear destined to drive countless homeowners into foreclosure and countless debtors into bankruptcy while the mainstream media has focuses largely on institutions that fail or are bailed out.

It seems almost trite to write that.  And it almost seems trite to point to what I have called a myth of unlimited opportunity, that anyone who works hard and has talent can succeed and prosper,4 and an idea of the United States is a “shining city on the hill,” entitled if not obligated to exercise hegemony over the entire world.5  And yet the fact of these myths, deeply ingrained in the thinking of U.S. citizens, deeply embedded in their upbringings, arguably leads to a multitude of catastrophes, and I think calls for something beyond preserving and “transforming [the social ship] into a compassionate and sustainable vehicle for carrying us into the future.”6

Rather, it calls for a wholesale shift in social attitudes.  Anarchists see hierarchy at the root of many social problems, but we contend with a dictionary definition of anarchy as “a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority.”  Though the definition also recognizes an anarchist vision as “a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government,”7 the connotation of utopia is of a social structure that is impossible to realize.  Society presumes this utopia as impossible to realize because it has embedded biblical notions of “original sin,” that humans are inherently sinful and selfish, that they can only attain a “state of grace” through divine intervention.

The transformation I will seek thus has at least two parts.  First, to the extent that humans really are greedy, I will be looking for ways for humanity to evolve.  Second, to the extent that humans believe they are inherently greedy, I will be seeking ways for humanity to move beyond the experience that they are.  I doubt it is possible to overestimate the scope of this transformation.  But for as long as we expect humans to be greedy, we create a self-fulfilling prophesy that they will be.  And I expect this to be the focus of my research.

1Combs, Allan, “Integral Conversations for a Better World,” (accessed September 11, 2008).

2Sernau, Scott, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd Ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Shapiro, Thomas M., Ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd Ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).

3Barash, David P. and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 204-205.

4Sernau, Worlds Apart, 23, 62.

5Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Journal of Religion and Society 7 (2005), 2005-11.html (accessed 9 March 2008); You-me Park and Henry Schwarz, “Extending American Hegemony: Beyond empire,” Interventions 7, no. 2 (2005): 153-161, (accessed 9 March 2008).

6Combs, “Integral Conversations”

7“anarchy,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, (accessed September 26, 2008).

They mean it. Do you hear me? They mean it!

I’ve been trying, for a long time now, to explain that Pakistan has been an ally of the United States is the so-called “war on terror” only to protect its own sovereignty. Failing to respect Pakistani territory would therefore have consequences.

So today comes a report that “Pakistani troops and tribesmen opened fire when two U.S. helicopters crossed into the country from neighboring Afghanistan.” Pakistan’s military promised to defend its territory no matter what the odds.

“If somebody comes into your area, will you just sit there and take the beating?” said army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas, defending the army’s new position. “We will certainly respond to that.”

Conservatives are born that way?

The Los Angeles Times carried a story, which was picked up by UPI’s Odd News suggesting that the difference between liberals and conservatives is not a function of nurture but of birth.

First, I should point out that social scientists are generally so skeptical of nature as an explanation for behavior–as opposed to nurture–that I tend to dismiss such claims out of hand. But the media accounts of this study suggest other issues as well.

Operationalization can be understood as the meaning attached to each variable in research. It is rare that you can actually measure what you’re looking for, so you use something you can measure instead:

In an initial experiment, subjects were shown a series of images that included a bloody face, maggots in a wound and a spider on a frightened face. A device measured the electrical conductance of their skin, a physiological reaction that indicates fear.

In a second experiment, researchers measured eye blinks — another indicator of fear — as subjects responded to sudden blasts of noise.

People with strongly conservative views were three times more fearful than staunch liberals after the effects of gender, age, income and education were factored out.

But, even if we accept the association between fear and political persuasion, how can we assume from this experiment that the subjects were born more or less fearful? As anyone who has taken a few human development classes can tell you, there’s a whole lot of science demonstrating that nurture has a great deal to do with fearfulness, but the claim one-sidedly relies on “family and twin studies [which] have revealed strong genetic influences both for liberal-versus-conservative views and for people’s sensitivity to threat.” Second, the sample size was small:

The researchers . . . looked at 46 people who fell into two camps — liberals who supported foreign aid, immigration, pacifism and gun control; and conservatives who advocated defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq war.

It is reckless and wildly irresponsible to generalize from such a sample size to an entire population of over 300 million people. Fourth, these issues correspond with simplistic U.S. views of liberalism and conservatism.

I should emphasize here that I have not been able to gain access to the original research from home.

“I think we saw the best of the United States of America in the Speaker’s office tonight”

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson spoke after requesting legislation to help relieve banks of their bad assets. Details have yet to emerge, but the BBC speculates that “a government agency . . . would take on the debt” or that “lenders [would be forced] to renegotiate mortgages that homeowners are having difficulty paying.”

The underlying premise appears to be that the problem is with mortgages. This would ignore problems in other forms of credit, which may be even worse. Over a month ago, former Clinton White House economist Nouriel Roubini warned that “The banks are playing all sorts of accounting gimmicks not to recognize [consumer credit losses].”

Roubini said the bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “privatizing the gains and profits, and socializing the losses, as usual. This is socialism for Wall Street and the rich,” at a huge expense (at least $1 trillion) to the taxpayer. The Wall Street Journal‘s David Reilly wrote today that these “moves, especially proposals for a government vehicle to buy troubled assets before institutions fail, smack of an attempt to arrest price declines,” without solving the underlying problem of “excessive lending at unwise rates that led to unsustainable asset-price inflation, especially in housing.”

So the rich, the only people who apparently matter, the people whom Dan Quayle called the “best people,” are being bailed out. Never mind their role in creating all these exotic “collateralized debt obligations” to enable ever more reckless lending that especially targeted people of color and the poor, accepting as much of their money (in mortgage payments) as they could get, and now leaving them with nothing. Never mind the greed that exported well-paying jobs and left low wage jobs that don’t pay rent in their wake. Never mind the growing gap between rich and poor that has meant the only way that consumers could continue to buoy a sinking economy was by borrowing on the inflated value of their homes. Never mind the greed that paid upper managers hundreds of times the amounts paid ordinary workers. Never mind that taxpayers will be on the hook for trillions of dollars.

Never mind that when ordinary U.S. citizens sought relief, they got “bankruptcy reform,” but when these big institutions need relief, “This country is able to come together and do things quickly when it needs to be done for the good of the American people.”

Democrats irrelevant again

My political science professor last quarter had to explain something to the class that I’ve seen before, and if you don’t believe us, try getting breakfast at a coffee shop in the Central Valley at a table next to farmers ridiculing the need for fish to have water. Or, try a drive over the Sierra to Nevada, and listen to people who hate people and claim to love nature, but whose way of connecting with nature is with a rifle and a fishing rod.

Tara Shively is clear.

“McCain,” says the 35-year-old mother of five, manager of the popular Brick Coffee House Café in downtown Marysville, where local politicians and business leaders are regulars.

“I find him honest, and he’s real,” Shively said. “I appreciate everything he’s been through in his life.

The Bay Area is a lot more liberal than other parts of the world. And we are convinced, as if he had already been elected, that Barack Obama is our next president. They’ve been selling George W. Bush countdown clocks at Bookshop Santa Cruz practically since he stole the presidency for the second time in 2004. Now they’re selling Obama Change clocks as well.

Thomas Friedman writes, “If John McCain can win this election race with a 50-pound ball called “George W. Bush” wrapped around one ankle and a 50-pound ball called “The U.S. Economy” wrapped around the other, then he deserves to represent America in the next Olympics in any race he wants — swimming, cycling or track — I don’t care how old he is.” But I’m starting to think that this just might happen.

Marianne Means writes of McCain’s vice presidential pick, “The Palin choice was a political success and all talk of reaching across the aisle and being bipartisan has disappeared. Nobody seems to miss it. This was a very partisan pick, and it is going over well not only with Republicans but independents as well.”

I don’t miss bipartisanship. That’s what shifted the Democrats, including Barack Obama, so far to the right that progressives have trouble telling them apart from the Republicans. It reduces Democrats to irrelevance. If you’re going to vote for a conservative, you might as well vote for the real thing.

Friedman writes, “Whoever slipped that Valium into Barack Obama’s coffee needs to be found and arrested by the Democrats because Obama has gone from cool to cold.” He misses that these are the same Democrats who have collaborated with the Bush administration on everything from support for the Iraq war to torture to immunity for big telecommunications corporations. And Obama is lately sounding like nearly every other Democrat out there. No wonder Obama’s base of young, enthusiastic progressives isn’t so enthusiastic anymore.

But Obama, with the Democratic nomination in hand, is now surrounded by people telling him he’s doing the right thing, not to worry about McCain’s post-convention “bounce.” But a quick search of my mail archives on Trig, Palin’s Down syndrome son, turns up a bunch of hits. Since one of his teenage sisters is pregnant, we’re supposed to keep families out of this campaign, but Trig shows up in his mother’s arms a lot, appealing to a lot of women who face the challenges of juggling motherhood and careers.

But a third and perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Palin speech [at the Republican convention] was who and what she left out of her picture of Alaskan adventure and small-town values. Palin never mentioned health care, women’s economic issues like equal pay, or showed any empathy for the economic plight of millions who have done very poorly in George Bush’s America — particularly unmarried women, who, by virtue of their single status, tend to fare the worst in economic downturns.

At 26 percent of the voting-age population, single women are also the biggest single eligible voter demographic. And according to a survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, they are the most dependably progressive voters in the electorate. In the last two elections, unmarried women supported Democrats with 62 percent of their vote in 2004 and 65 percent in 2006.

With her speech, or rather with what was missing from it, Palin drew attention to the biggest fault line in the election: the huge chasm between mostly white, married women, and the less white, overall less affluent, but far more progressive unmarried women.

The dirty little secret in this election is that the gender gap — which may be as high as 10 percent for Obama — is dwarfed by the marriage gap. In a recent tracking survey by Gallup in mid-August, Obama led 49 percent to 39 percent among women, but trailed 49 percent to 40 percent among married women. Meanwhile, among unmarried women, Obama trounced McCain by 57 percent to 30 percent.

But there’s more to this story:

Although unmarried women are more likely to support Obama than McCain, getting them to the polls is another matter. Unmarried women are underrepresented in the electorate. In 2004, 20 million unmarried women did not vote. Compared to married women, single women are 9 percent less likely to register and 13 percent less likely to vote. To use one striking example, given that John Kerry won unmarried women by 62 percent to 37 percent, not getting unmarried women out effectively left 12 million progressive votes at home — and possibly cost Kerry the election.

Progressives are the very people whom Obama has been distancing himself from, the very people who provided all the energy for his campaign. A “change” vision, after all, is a progressive vision. Distancing oneself from progressives means distancing oneself from the hallmark of Obama’s campaign.

So Shively, a “middle-class mom,” sees Obama as “a good politician.”

Well, it’s cold!

Just to be sure, I went up, one more time. The band I earlier said sounded good indeed had a few dancers–I’m guessing 25-30 people clustered in front of the stage on the lawn opposite the Lupin clubhouse. I wandered up to the upper lawn and saw a few more people dancing up there.

I should give them credit. After a blistering hot Indian Summer last weekend, it has cooled off considerably. I actually put on a jacket for this trip. Inspecting the pockets, I found paraphernalia from when I drove cab for Luxor in San Francisco. The last time I drove for Luxor was in 1999.

I wandered through the restaurant; it appeared there was a steady stream of business for drinks (and possibly light meals). The man behind the counter, who has lived at Lupin for probably at least a decade, a good guy with a great sense of humor, said, “It’s crazy.” I laughed.

There were a few people inside the restaurant, taking refuge from the cold, but if there are a lot of people here, they’re huddling in their sleeping bags or in their RVs.

Proxemics and a not so big weekend

When my cat got off my lap, I wandered up again to see what the “crowds” were like at Lupin for the Earthdance festival.

It was about 10 pm when I went up. An act had just finished, and I saw a few cars driving out. But once again, the clubhouse lawn was virtually empty. I saw the outgoing operations manager (her resignation is effective on October 1) with her husband. She was enthusiastic, saying there were “a hundred people” on the lawn for the preceding act, and that there had been a steady stream of people coming in all day.

First, Lupin’s procedures for admitting people are so inefficient that the office cannot handle a truly large crowd without skipping steps like the sex offender check. Second, even if there were “a hundred people” for the preceding act, that amounts to a pittance next to the likely cost of the bands. It is possible that some bands worked for reduced cost for a non-profit organization; in terms of corporate structure, it wasn’t Lupin Lodge that put this event on, but a non-profit organization: Lupin Cultural Center. (All the money is in one set of hands.)

As I write this, another band is playing–mostly Beatles covers–that sounds good. But while there are still plenty of cars in the parking lot and plenty of tents set up, apparently very few stayed even for this performance. This is an older crowd–about my age, actually–that I’m guessing more highly values its space. I think they don’t crowd in to vehicles like younger people do, so instead of getting maybe often four people per car, you see a lot more couples and even a few single people up here alone. Thus a lot of space gets occupied without a lot of people.

If my analysis is correct, the proxemics of an older, wealthier group that largely shunned the carnivorous fare of the restaurant tonight do not help Lupin on what should be a big weekend. And they won’t help at a planned repeat for the Spring Equinox in 2009–if it actually happens.

I whispered to the operations manager’s husband, as they departed to check out the scene at the upper lawn, that I think Lupin will fold by the end of the year.

Where are the people?

Day two of Earthdance at Lupin brought a lot more cars and a few more tents, but the restaurant–featuring meat dishes in an event with Buddhist overtones–was virtually empty except for a table of Lupin members who would likely have been here anyway and walking around the grounds, I was struck by the paucity of people at a $45 per day rate (including camping). Cindy (I don’t know her last name), who organized the event, seemed satisfied but I think Lupin bet more than the bank on this and lost.

The people who have come seem like very nice people and frankly, given the sentiments that this event appeals to, it is disappointing to have so few turn out.

But I am reminded again of a koan I read a long time ago in a book on Zen, to the effect that if the wrong man follows the right path, the path will follow the man and become wrong. I will check again later tonight, but I’m guessing that is what has happened here.

Earthdance at Lupin

It turns out that something called Earthdance is happening this weekend at a number of locations around the world, but of course the way I find out about it is that one of those locations is Lupin. The music is great and they have what appears to be a very expensive line up of bands and DJs, for whom very few people have shown up.

I’ve been pessimistic about the future of Lupin for a while now. The owner’s wife, Lori Kay Stout, who has been in charge since a protracted firing of Ed Dennis, sees walking wads of money instead of human beings. She treats staff abysmally and so customer service has suffered. The disappearance of members, in combination with a visit from Sheriff’s deputies at the August Burning Man party that scared many attendees away, has meant that Lupin has had only one good month this year. Lupin has been barely getting by with three good months (in summer) and a couple more mediocre months out of each year. While I can’t claim its demise–which I have expected to happen within two years since about June this year–was a factor in my decision to buy land, that this event may flop could precipitate a quicker end than I anticipated.

How to lose an “invaluable ally”

There are several reports in Dina about a U.S.-led ground assault, spurred by faulty intelligence, in Pakistan’s Waziristan province, near the Afghan border, that killed “at least 20 people, most of them women and children.” This is not the first such attack. Pakistan protested, of course, to the U.S. ambassador.

Let’s remember a little history. Following the 9/11 attacks, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage warned Pakistan’s intelligence director that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” if it did not ally with the U.S. against the Taliban who then ruled Afghanistan. Said then-President (General) Pervez Musharraf of his decision to ally with the U.S., “One has to think and take actions in the interest of the nation, and that’s what I did.” Pakistan had previously supported the Taliban.

So we have to understand that Pakistan may only be a U.S. ally for fear of a U.S. attack on Pakistan’s soil. Pakistan chose to switch alliances at least in part to avert this attack. It did so despite significant support within Pakistan for the Taliban that extends even within Pakistan’s intelligence services, which might be why the U.S. did not vet its faulty intelligence with Pakistan. So despite Pakistan’s cooperation as an “invaluable ally” of the U.S., the U.S. attacks Pakistan anyway.

I don’t see how this works. The U.S. has a bunch of NATO nations sending troops to fight the U.S.’s unpopular war in Afghanistan, freeing up U.S. troops for an even more unpopular war in Iraq. They all do this because they see the U.S. as an “invaluable ally.” Yet, the U.S. attacks the territory of a country it calls an “invaluable ally.” With an ally like this, who needs enemies?