Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Travel Lessons: Blind Spots and Distractions

One travel benefit is seeing how others view your "home" country. Mexico is particularly interesting because trade agreements and the strong U.S. dollar have made many Mexican cities (León, Irapuato, etc.) into de facto American and European economic satellites. Within one minute of entering any decent-sized Mexican city, even a one-eyed tourist will notice Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Ibis everywhere, usually with an American restaurant attached--and that's before you visit any major shopping mall. 
When shopping malls are legally-approved, only old buildings will be interesting. Wait...
Despite such Americanization, Mexicans tend to have blind spots about fundamental American facts--a revelation that initially seemed strange until I realized most Americans have similar blind spots about other countries, even ones they've visited. For Americans and Europeans, part of this phenomenon involves the desire to be well-liked, and part of it is writers' need to adapt to average attention spans. For instance, a very smart, well-traveled colleague recently wrote about Cuba's "first class" healthcare system. However, anyone who has actually visited Cuba as an ordinary tourist and ventured into any pharmacy (shelves are almost bare or sell mostly vitamins, though one anti-cholesterol drug seems effective) or seen anyone with hearing aids (they're usually analog, not digital, and similar to ones worn by Americans 25 years ago) will realize nothing is first-class about Cuban medical care above a pediatric or basic level. 

Suppose you're an older, affluent traveler and writer. Which is the easier path? An offhand reference to "first class" healthcare or spending vacation time investigating whether a country's healthcare system matches the hype? Not only is one clearly much easier, but the other option risks the ire of immigration officials as well as nationalistic residents and influential expats. Somehow, modern society has created a situation where telling the truth has massive downside with no clear benefit and taking a simplistic and conformist approach has only upside. Humanity's new religion is optimism, and few people seem to mind that controversy is rarely an optimist's preferred bailiwick.

In any case, Mexican history is incredibly complex--two revolutions in one century will do that--but most people agree true democracy hasn't existed in Mexico very long. Indeed, until recently, Mexico was a one-party state where corruption was assumed unless otherwise proven. Yet, most Mexicans are optimistic about their country's future because they argue they've only had democracy for a short while, whereas Americans have had it for centuries. In spite of Trump's election, Mexicans believe true democracy is the way forward, and America's success is based in large part on giving every member of its society a voice in government affairs. This analysis contains numerous blind spots, but it has captured the public's imagination even though many Americans couldn't vote until 1920, when women finally won the right to vote; minorities were often disenfranchised at the polls (poll taxes, voter registration issues, etc.) until the 1970s; and individual votes are often trumped by groups such as unions, which are more effective at influencing elections as 40+% of Americans have stopped voting, especially in primaries. Such cognitive dissonance got me thinking: what if every single zeitgeist is wrong? What if human beings prefer to eschew simple ideas in favor of delusions of grandeur?

Imagination is a double-edged sword. It allows me to write the previous sentence but also strives towards complexity, even if only to distract ourselves from the ordinary. Mexico's optimism is probably better understood as a function of higher oil prices, currency devaluations making its exports more attractive in an increasingly globalized economy, and family values (who doesn't love Mexican grandmothers or want one?). While no Mexican individual can influence oil prices or force families to stay together, democracy allows everyone to believe and to feel as if they have more choices in creating the future than they actually do. In short, fallacies exist because humanity's need to feel in control allows imagination to run amok, creating distraction after distraction that eventually evolves into something "pack mentality" lifts up and makes into "truth."

Think about why we are inherently suspicious of artificial intelligence and why we talk about love and souls as if they are the most important elements in our lives. We have or think we can have control over finding love and improving our souls, and our imagination generates these abstractions in ways similar to computer code generating virtual reality, but no human being feels as if artificial intelligence programming has a soul, even if it passes the Turing Test. The reason is simple: every single abstraction generated by humanity's imagination is designed to give us the feeling of more control, even if hijacked in negative ways in the real world. Yet, because humanity cannot strip away its imagination's need to strive for greater control even when interests hostile to the original purpose of an abstraction dominate, humanity's instinct is always to maintain the original idea--at any cost

If the aforementioned hypothesis is true, it explains why outlaws, artists, and rebels are so valued--in the abstract--by human beings: buried deep in our software, our source code knows we need them as check and balances on programming's tendency to build around bugs rather than eliminate them. If humanity's most salient feature is its ability to generate distractions, then everything--phrenology, social media, nonviolence, sports, Nazism, capitalism, socialism, racism, etc.--is our attempt to understand the bugs we've generated in this journey we call life--and to pass time. Remarkably, this process of passing time tends to improve conditions for most, as long as imagination and physical mobility are allowed to prosper, and they usually do, whether in Vaclav Havel's plays under Soviet occupation, in Iranian cinema under express censorship, and in America under military veteran and Democratic Governor George Wallace's cries for segregation. Seen this way, my optimistic friend who called Cuba's healthcare "first class" is as right as I am when I demand accuracy and context. If everything is a distraction, why not turn our mind's eye to the pleasant possibilities--and hope to direct humanity's collective imagination towards resolving the gap between reality and the better angels of our imagination? After all, it's just a matter of time--as long as we balance short-term desires with long-term goals. 

Dedicated to Jim Quillinan, who introduced me to Harold and Maude (1971) and many other wonderful distractions

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