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Friday, December 2, 2011

Boiling Frogs

The myth about boiling frogs seems to be widely accepted. I was told this myth at age 13. A frog will allow itself to be boiled alive if the heat is slowly applied. I remember being first amazed, and then obsessed with the story. In 1960 frogs where common and easy for a teenage boy to catch. With my best friend, Tommy, we set out to test the story. The first problem is that a frog will not voluntarily stay confined in a pot at any temperature, we had to construct a terrarium with mostly water, provide a food source and wait for the frogs to settle down to a easy life in  captivity.
Frogs do try to escape as the water is heated, even when heated very slowly. I have always liked animals of all kinds so the frogs were released after they displayed obvious distress and the story disproved. I filed this story with all the other stories adults tell children. Santa Claus, not true, Easter bunny, not true, tooth fairy, not true, boiling frogs, not true, the list just grew longer with each passing year and I was starting my journey to full skepticism.
I was told the story several times over many years by people who should have know better. By college I had most of the story correct. Wikipedia, as usual, has the complete frog story well documented, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog Wikipedia was not available during my long undergraduate years and an engineering professor completed the frog story for me. I did have a literature professor who appeared to believe this myth, and when questioned, she related that it is a useful metaphor.
How can a metaphor that is factually wrong be useful? Why do so many adults believe this myth when a teenage boy will question the myth? There is at least one potential candidate for the American Presidency that thinks this myth true, or at least, a useful metaphor. There are well educated editorial writers that relate the story in major newspapers and on political cable television programs.
The story goes like this. We are slowly losing our greatness, our morality, our superiority, our laws and culture. Politicians and political commentators have been using this story line forever. We find the same speeches from the Roman Empire to present day. Charlemagne’s writing is the same as Newt Gingrich’s.  My question is not about a factually incorrect metaphor. It is the lack of originality.
Human nature, those psychological characteristics and behavioral traits that set us apart from all other animals, is unchanged over the 8,000 years of written languages. I would guess that it has not changed since we were hunter gatherers more than 10,000 years pass. Our human nature distilled out of evolutionary forces over millions of years. Human nature then created our various religions, myths and cultures, our cultures then created our politics.
Modern American politicians differ none from the Roman patrician, current Wall Street bankers have no more greed than the Savings and Loan greed of the 1970’s. The self serving rationalities, the misdirection and misinformation, the hidden agendas are modern translations of Niccolo Machiavelli.
That there is large and wide spread dissatisfaction in the American population, which is growing, is evident in first the Tea Party movement and now the Occupy Wall Street movement. The larger political structure successfully compromised and then incorporated the Tea Party, now the establishment is trying to marginalize and delegitimize the OWS. Failing this the next step will be to assimilate the movement. Another pattern unchanged since Rome ruled.
There has been progress. Roman dissidents could be slaughter in mass by the Emperor. America today could not even arrest large numbers of dissidents without considerable political blow back.
What is desired is a fair system, currently the playing field is heavily tilted, the dice loaded, the card deck stacked. Corporations have greater rights than I have, insiders can legally conduct business I would be arrested for. Public money is gambled for private gain, a “too large to fail” institution gets all the profit if it wins the bet, I get all the loss when it losses the bet.
The game has never been fair, utopian dreams can never be completed and certainly not implemented. What I see in the drift of history is that a more even playing field creates a stronger society. The clearest example is when governments moved from the feudal monarchies to representative government with capitalism. In feudalism the King owned everything and would take the last food from a serf child, the child would likely die and there is no more income for the King. With political representation and capitalism the King could not take the last bit of food. The King could now tax some of the freeman’s property, generating more income for the government and a continuing government income. Both the elite and the general masses were healthier and wealthier. The King had more money for war and a source of healthier soldiers. Those governments that became more equalitarian fielded larger, better equipped and motivated armies. The old system lost on the field of battle.
A frog will not be boiled voluntarily and neither will people. The current American political parties have become dysfunctional, incapable of even obvious corrections. All they seem cable of is increasing the heat, boiling the water.  If OWS does get neutralized another populist movement will start, and another, and another.
We will never have a completely fair system, but we can certainly do better than this.

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