Friday, December 27, 2013

Bellevue College Revisited: Five Reasons to Despair in as Many Minutes

Political objectivity and free inquiry are not just important, but are necessary ingredients in the scientific pursuit of truth, and by extension, are necessary ingredients of an academic institution's law and culture. Without the ability to challenge conventional ideas openly, there is a danger of creating a kind of feedback loop that will support a separation from reality by repelling the protestations of the latter with ideological re-framing or by simply ignoring conflicting evidence. This classical-liberal view is shared across the right and the left verbally, which is a good sign of sorts, but it's become increasingly clear that most people don't know why it is important to separate church and state, so to speak, in the world of learning. Students, faculty and administrators have, in other words, learned to accept the core values of science and philosophy as mere platitudes and pay lip service to them while demonstrating their abject dismissal, or at the very least gross misunderstanding, of these principles. It's the classic "I believe in free speech, but..." sentiment.

I had the opportunity to revisit Bellevue College yesterday morning, and during the period after I had left academia, primarily for the above reasons, I had harbored fantasies of slow and subtle improvements in the state of academic freedom and free expression on campus. Especially freedom from the clutches of one particularly Marxist social ideology that has been pumped through the minds and coursework of students in the forms of multiculturalismfeminismanti-racism, and moralistic rhetoric about economic disparity. I wasn't surprised by what I saw, but I was rather depressed. In about five minutes wandering around campus, I observed these five minor but subtly telling indications:
  1. An article in The Watchdog heralding the election to Seattle City Council of socialist Kshama Sawant as bringing a "new, sexier age in Seattle politics, where idealism doesn't always take a backseat to bureaucracy, political paradigms, and corporate agendas."
  2. Another article in The Watchdog detailing Bellevue College's paying for 17 students (at around $100 a piece) to attend this year's Budget Matters conference, an explicitly progressive-liberal conference that I attended myself last year, primarily focused on disseminating and enacting their variety of economic policies,
  3. A flyer for an upcoming informational lecture on Obamacare, to be given by two public health government employees
  4. Another flyer for a lecture series on such things as "dealing with difficult people," "influence and negotiation," and "communication techniques for leaders."
  5. The continued existence of Bellevue College's infamous bias incident policy, a policy that FIRE representative Azhar Majeed called a "pretty terrible policy and rather restrictive of free speech rights."
The first four points are not particularly worrisome by themselves, but when viewed together under the stark light of the diversity and equality-oriented political rhetoric of everything the school does, it paints a very troubling picture of the schools' administrative priorities, and of the effect on student perspectives these priorities are having. It would appear that in higher education, ideological conformity and social mobilization are being put in the driver's seat while free inquiry, skepticism and learning generally are relegated to the passenger seat, or the trunk. In some cases, the side of the road is the most apt metaphor.

It should be clarified that the correctness or incorrectness of this Marxist social ideology is not the important question; for full disclosure, I think it is a stupid, petty, and actually rather dangerous ideology, but those opinions are irrelevant to the larger question of whether it is the schools' place to actively support and promote particular political ideologies over their stated goals and legal obligations as publicly funded institutes of learning. It is all excellent that students learn the Marxist perspective, but it is something else for the school to actively utilize students in pursuit of its own political aims, at the price of the student's own education.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Anarchism v. the State: The Debate

As this was the second take on this debate subject, I've added the opening argument from our first video in text form below:

"I was trying to think of a light-hearted observation to make about government to open this up, which is harder than it sounds, given the scale of destruction we'd ordinarily be talking about. There is one fun little story that comes to mind however; Douglas Murray, a young English Journalist, was telling a story about a Canadian politician who was under pressure to solve some minor problem or other, but she didn't have time to deal with it herself, so she delegated the task of solving this problem to her assistant before a trip overseas. Upon her return, she asked her assistant how her task was going. "Well," said the assistant, "I put together a committee to solve the problem," to which the infuriated politician replied "I told you to solve the problem, not to make it worse!"

We all kind of know our government doesn't really work for us; it's corrupt, it produces the opposite effect of what it tries to do, and hinders the work of people who are really doing great things for society. Yet when this hobbled and limping society produces some signs of progress, statists point to this as evidence that government is not merely working, but is in fact necessary for the continuation of such things. How could we have roads, or protection, or equality, or security, or freedom without the state? they ask. The real wonder, of course, isn't how we would manage it without government, but rather how we've accomplished everything that we have with this beuracratic anvil weighing us down, holding us back and poisoning with its groping, grubby fingers everything that it touches.

Before I go any further, I'll give you the definitions of "government" and "anarchy" that I'm working from, as well as three premises that I hope Chris will share with me. The first premise is that freedom is inherently good. It's not valuable because it allows us to do everything else more efficiently, though there's good reason to believe that's true, but is valuable because it is good in itself. The second premise is that coercion is evil. You could rephrase this premise as a restatement of the non-aggression principle if you'd like. The third premise is that any viable ethical standard must be consistent and universalizable, which is to say that we don't hold one standard of behavior for one person, and a different one for another. Freedom is good, coercion is bad, and double-standards are bad--those are my premises. Now, government is an organization that maintains the right to and monopoly on the initiation of force. It is authoritarian by nature, and participation in the government is not voluntary (if it was, it would merely be a kind of club with obnoxious rules). Now, since I won't expect Chris to defend some of the more extreme forms of government like Fascism, but a relatively milder kind of pseudo-democratic republic, I hope he will extend the same courtesy to me by allowing me to defend one formulation of anarchism, which is the following: an anarchist society is a society built upon the non-aggression principle, freedom, and voluntarism.  This is more like medieval Iceland, which lasted completely free of government in the above formulation for over 300 years, and not at all like the anarchy of Somalia, which is not suffering from too little aggression or too much freedom but is in fact a failed state.

By comparison, it would take 238 years to describe everything wrong with the government of the United States. I don't have that kind of time here, however, so I'll see what I can do with five minutes.

For starters, Government necessarily relies on central planning in order to accomplish its goals. This extends to every realm the government has been tragically entrusted to: economics, security, information-gathering, justice, education, infrastructure, and even social values. Central planning is less efficient in allocating resources by limiting input to a small group of people. Even your consent to be governed, the consent upon which all of American government's supposed right to power is built, is condensed into a ritualistic bureaucracy that only nine percent of Americans think actually works to their expectations. Comparing the top-down approach of the state to the bottom-up approach of a free society is to compare Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia. For those of you listening who've read Hayek's "Road to Serfdom," you know the greater dangers of central planning and the quite slippery slope to totalitarianism it presents, a slope that every day our own government gives more evidence for us to believe that we may already be over the edge of.

It's also worth pointing out that central planning usually manages to accomplish the opposite of its stated goal. I opened with Mr. Murray's joke about the Canadian politician and the committee, which demonstrates how the incentives of beuracracies built in such a way so that the beuracracy would vanish if the problem is solved, lead to the problem never actually being solved. Magic. veryone knows where it goes from there; if the problem doesn't go away, then it just proves how important the task-force's mission is and shows that we need to give them more money. This is never how people spend their money in the free market; you don't give more money to the guy who sells you rotten fruit so that he can buy better fruit. It's ridiculous until the state does it.

There's another kind of failure that comes with central planning too, one that comes from giving people peace of mind in the form of complacency with the belief that with government's help, all their problems of organization and security will be ok. In another public appearance, Mr. Murray made a humorous point of differentiating himself from the crazy kinds of libertarians who don't believe in stop signs and traffic lights. That's just silly. Except that earlier this month, reports from the German town of Bohmte, a small city that completely abolished its traffic laws, have shown that when people don't rely on central planning and take responsibility for themselves, crashes become virtually non-existent. The joke's on Douglas.

On a less humorous note, top-down planning has caused incalculable harm by increasing crime and drug problems in its war on drugs, by impoverishing us in its war on poverty, by creepily spying on us and spawning more reactionary terror in its War on Terror, by holding back children's education through the No Child Left Behind Act, by causing more teen pregnancy and spreading STDs through abstinence-only sex education programs, and by catalyzing the biggest economic crash in nearly 100 years, leaving millions of homes foreclosed, in a concerted effort to make sure every American owned their own home. If you sit down for several minutes, you can probably think of another dozen or so examples yourself. That's number one--central planning.

Number two, government fights fire with fire. In its moral inconsistency, it does precisely the crimes that it tells everyone else are wrong, and ultimately, we end up as the victims. The state punishes violent crime, but uses the threat of force to accomplish its goals via the military and the cops, and subjects hundreds of thousands of people a year to kidnap, brutality, imprisonment, rape, and even death. It punishes counterfeiting, but prints money at will, currency that doesn't correlate to any value created in the market. Why does it have value? Because we say it has value, and we'll jail you if you refuse to accept it. It punishes and destroys monopolies, while simultaneously attempting to establish itself as a monopoly in various fields. It punishes fraud, but lies, insists on secrecy, and misleads the public. It punishes theft but takes money from us by force through taxation. More elaboration might be needed for listeners who don't believe taxation is essentially armed robbery, but for the sake of time I'll save it for the rebuttal or open discussion portion.

Thirdly, the authoritarian nature of government predisposes its population to the twin evils of apathy and ignorance. One of my favorite quotes from the Supreme Court is from Justice Robert Jackson's opinion in the Barnette decision, an overruling of a decision from three years prior that compelled students to pledge allegiance to the flag--idolatry to the young Jehova's Witnesses and accompanied with the uncannily Nazi-like gesture of the time, arm outstretched in the classical Bellamy salute. In response to the notion that students could not be trusted with the liberty extended to adults, Jackson said the very fact that children are being educated for citizenship "is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes." It is an unfortunate irony that it is precisely "our government" Justice Jackson referenced that was doing what he feared, in the form of the school board as well as the Supreme Court in its previous decision, and all of modern social psychology supports the notion that not money, but authority and obedience to authority, is the root of all evil. Philip Zimbardo's work supports this based on his observations in the Stanford Prison experiment and in Abu Ghraib, Stanley Milgram noticed this in his infamous shock-therapy research, and countless other writers, politicians and intellectuals have pointed this out in various ways. "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." The very existence of government, and the acceptance of its claims to power, underscores this point and undermines its subsequent moral imperative to individual autonomy and free thought.

Finally, while people aren't wholly good or evil, they definitely aren't all the same either. Psychopathy, pseudologia fantastica (what we normally call compulsive lying), sadism and egomania are real things, as are their clinically milder forms in generic character traits, and the coercive power offered by government position attracts precisely the kinds of people we shouldn't want to give power too. Alternately put, if people are good enough to trust with authority over others, than they wouldn't need to be governed in the first place; if they're bad enough to need governing, than you couldn't trust them with the power vested in the State for fear of making a bad situation even worse. This is the foundation of what we now call "Crony capitalism," domination by monopolies led by equally psychopathic executives that can only rise to their positions of extraordinary power and influence with the assistance of corruption in the State. Wall Street, Blackwater, Monsanto, Haliburton, and various other pet companies of powerful politicians demonstrate this point with crystalline clarity.

A side effect of this that we should notice is that the assistance and subsidies provided to these companies also works to stifle legitimate competition. Thorium, for instance, the most efficient and incredible energy source known to man, is currently being actively suppressed as a viable energy source in favor of oil and various green energy projects. It's impossible to guess how much scientific progress we've lost to the interests of big brother's best friends.

In the vein of state power's attraction to evil, our government's adventures in foreign policy is tragic, bordering on grotesque. Thousands upon thousands of innocent men, women and children have been killed every decade by the American government, even before its metastasis in the last century. The Native American tribes are but a shadow of their former selves, even today, as a result of government action in that era. Mexico, the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, Iran, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, could be added to the list of countries left decimated by the United States' uninvited arrival. We should recognize here that whether such actions were spiritually supported by the country's initial founders and documents is irrelevant; it grants legitimacy to the initiation of force, and the descent into something much more sinister and much more ugly is only a matter of time.

This, unfortunately, is what Chris is forced to defend.

Now, a society based on the non-aggression principle, universal standards and freedom is not an unstructured Wild West, contrary to popular belief. An anarchist state is one that would benefit from unfettered free markets, free and open trade being the ongoing 300-year experiment that has proven to be one of the greatest advances in human civilization.

An anarchist state is one without coercion or forced relationships. Isn't it an old story, about the North Wind and the Sun betting on which could get the man to take his coat off? The harder the wind blew, the tighter the man bundled himself up, but when the sun simply gave a bit of warmth, he took it off of his own free will. Persuasion is more conducive to truth, economic efficiency, and healthy human relationships than force, and a society built around this principle will benefit accordingly. In short, an anarchist society would be one that is more peaceful, more wealthy, and more happy than in any similar community forced to deal with a force that can take away your property, your freedoms, or even your life, whenever and wherever it so chooses. With that, I hope you will overwhelmingly support the motion."

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Disturbing Aesthetic Draw of Inner Demons

"The writer is the engineer of the human soul."
--Joseph Stalin

When I was in High School, I was among a fairly large crowd of students for whom Lord of the Flies was the crown of literature. "Ralph wept for the end of innocence, for the darkness of man's heart..." For the emotionally smoldering adolescent with the embers of a newly kindling intellect, Golding simultaneously captured the evil we saw in the world, the dark side of the supposedly good people in our lives--often the ones we had just discovered weren't as saintly as we had been taught to believe--and, most importantly, our own inner demons. There was good, as we'd been shown in childhood, but our own darker desires, a new mix of sexual and violent instincts, had seemed like a tabboo subject, not to be broached with parents, teachers, or any other adult. Or friend, for that matter. Here was everyone pretending to be good and perfect, but they weren't. I wasn't. "No one understands me," is so universal a sentiment it's become an cliche. In my own teenage years, the irony of such generic uniqueness was lost on me.

Of course, teenage hormone-induced angst is not the same as the good and evil duality of human nature, but for many of us who grew up in good neighborhoods, it was our first glimpse at this idea, and it coincides (perhaps for reasons beyond chance?) with a genre of art that made us feel that someone really did see the world through the same lens as we did.

As I grew older, more literature spoke out in the same way. Macbeth: "Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires." From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both." And, getting older still, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being..." This artistic expression isn't limited to literature either: it creeps into painting, to tattoos, graffiti, even fashion. Movies like the infamous, black-humored "Full Metal Jacket" illustrate the point in a more major form of media.

Possibly even more powerfully for young people, it comes through in music: "In the land of the killers, a sinner's mind is a sanctum" (Eminem).

Indeed, what we know of human psychology, primarily through the eerie experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, support this intuition. People are good... but good people can and do turn evil in strange and terrifyingly predictable ways. Perhaps we aren't even really good, just a convoluted mix of good and evil, or just good and bad instincts that lead to outcomes we divide into good an evil. In any case, the voice of science has spoken, and there are no angels. Or demons.

But there is an aesthetic question that is unanswered by psychology: why the fascination? What draws us to art that dwells upon this fact about ourselves and holds us there, in ways our tendencies to love, to hate, and to err don't quite manage? This very fascination has a kind of meta-draw in itself, as brilliantly illustrated by Tool in a song I can't help but feel incredibly attached to: (lyrics)

In saying all of this, I am breaking one of my own cardinal rules of discussion by singing along with the lyrics: you all feel the same, don't lie.

As is fitting to the tone of the art itself, there is a danger of opportunistic thinking in our dwelling on these dark expressions of human nature so tenaciously, with results that can be very consequential in the world outside of mere aesthetic appreciation. I think that part of the grip of these dark works is their taboo nature, like the dirty secret of everyone you ever knew, and yourself, all in one statement. But that simply begs the follow-up question of why that is so incredibly interesting, and the answer, I think, belies the larger attraction of art like Tool's "Vicarious," and also its hidden danger: it says that not only are those previously idolized role models for proper living not so great, but also that such aspirations may be impossible. The most gripping works almost seem to sneak the thought into your mind for you that perhaps... well, maybe it's a good thing? Well, no of course not, that's horrible. Oh wow, look at the news, there's a body...

It cannot be helped--the entertaining fascination with death feeds on the inaction of the forces of good.

Not terribly long ago, people used to look at idealistic, noble heroes as their role models. If one was religiously or mythically inclined, the selection was obvious and straightforward; Jesus, perhaps, or king Arthur and the knights of Camelot. If not, or perhaps in addition, there were a variety of others to choose from, depending on one's values: Kant, Mill, Socrates, Trotsky, Currie, Darwin, and countless others. The stories of chivalry, honor, of living by a code and striving to do right were the stuff of children's stories and bred principled and moral individuals with enough regularity to shape the culture of the generation. When the cutting and cynical perception of not just human weakness, but the corruptibility of even the greatest among us became de rigueur, the bar was set quite a bit lower for personal standards than it was for previous generation. And it's so easy; it's a get-out-of-moral-responsibility-free card that can be waived in the face of even the most righteous and humble agitator for public virtue. Our hypocrite-alarms are like spinning radars, ready to swivel round and level our gorgon gaze at anyone who appears to make us look ethically lazy by comparison. They drive us not only to be critics by incentive, but also by extension to be conformists by threat.

The best, the worst, part: it's all true. We really are fallen angels with the capacity buried within us to do great acts of compassion as well as horrific evil and violence.

Does this immediately turn us into self-conceited sociopaths? Obviously not, but in my observation, this mindset makes little things like littering a bit easier, and stills our uneasy conscious about not donating money to things we might actually care about. The ratcheting of this pattern, as data inevitably brings these trends to light, could become a self-feeding cycle of cynicism and moral apathy. Universalizing works in both ways after all; just as the old "what if everybody did that?" question can be used to convince people not to throw that empty pop can out the window, it would hardly seem worth the effort to not litter if everyone actually was doing that. If solving the problems of the world rely on people's voluntary efforts, there's a danger of failure, however slight and mild, built into these paintings and novels and songs. It's so evil, and it feels so good!

Can this all come about by art? Yes, of course it can. An end of the world scenario of nihilistic zombies caused by an exceptional haiku is, indeed "unlikely," but it's worth remembering that a novel created the FDA, and a movie launched the KKK into a position of enormous political power and influence for decades. Think about the effect that the Bible, what amounts to a collection of mythological stories, has had on human history. As Robin Williams said in his nearly anachronistic role as poetry teacher, "no matter what people tell you, word and ideas can change the world."

Fortunately it is possible to appreciate the works of Golding and Shakespeare, and even the research of Zimbardo and Milgram, without letting it lower our bar for higher moral aspirations. We can sing along with Tool without letting the uncomfortable knowledge of our fascination with death and suffering prevent us from actively working to fight against it, even if it sometimes feels like we're the only ones. The fallibility, or fall-ability in the catholic-myth tradition, of human nature need not be a justification to stay on the ground when we fall. But this way of thinking, upon which the rate of our civilization's advancement rests, takes awareness and conscious effort. The art of inner demons sells well because it speaks to an inner truth about us that we aren't really used to hearing and tempts us with an offer of evening out the social ladder by morally tearing down everybody else, instead of doing the hard work of actually climbing it by living a life of principle and honor (there's a word you don't hear very often).

Ultimately, the failures of other people and the corruptibility of the soul are not a valid reason for apathy in important matters, and a wonderfully paradoxical justification is that we're imperfect. The impossibility of sainthood, to anyone or anything, is a kind of freedom to live the life we want to live. Close examination of this question, when we really look at what makes us feel happy, and not just secure, points to the idealist life in pursuit of truth, beauty, justice, and virtue that the music of the angsty and adolescent split human spirit draws us away from. One could say the aesthetic of outward-looking but self-focused idealism is the opposite of the inward-looking and projecting art of cynicism. It is proactive self-reliance instead of reactive denigration. Conscious decision in the dualism of art, in other words, is the answer to our internalized disquiet on the dualism of man.

"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude ."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Endlessly Changing Horizon

Within the first few months of my departure, a friend of mine asked if I was going "into the wilds" on her and everybody else back home in Washington. I didn't know the specific reference at the time, but my proclivity towards good literature, even while driving, eventually paired me with an audio version of Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, about the young Christopher McCandless' tragic but nonetheless inspiring adventure of self discovery and pursuit of true beauty and the good life. Yes S, I may be slow, but I get the reference now.

It would be fraudulent of me to say, post hoc, that the eloquent reasons McCandless gave for his expedition into the wilderness are my own. The reasons I gave for my abandonment of academia were more banal in their (ironically, I see now) academic tone: student loan depredations, academic inconsistency with my values and with liberty generally, the cult of diversity and multiculturalism--a critic's phrase, not my own--the raw price of the whole ordeal, its ultimate irrelevance and separation from pure learning generally, etc. But it would be wrong to say that the Joycian drive to forge off on one's own played no part, and the benefits sought by the likes of Steven Daedalus and his creator have become the bi-products of my more shallow motives.

It isn't just Irish writers and young athletes with family problems that feel impelled to hit the road. Some of the same impulses McCandless put words to were true for various young idealists throughout history, many of whom are detailed in Krakauer's book. Krakauer himself is among these dreamers. I feel that my love of authors like Jack London, Gary Paulson and Richard Bach, in conjunction with my love of traveling, my idealistic tendencies that drove me towards becoming a SEAL and then towards writing, and the testimony of my friends and of strangers, all allow me to claim some degree of membership in this ancient and demanding club of misfits.

My own brief reference back in August to finding the open road and solitude attractive is nothing in depth and passion compared to McCandless' own thoughts, nor to Thoreau's in Walden, nor the various other prophets, thinkers, and characters in history who wrote about their time alone in the woods. But what I was thinking about and conceptualizing in that concise sentence, had I devoted a day to elaboration, meditation and exhortation, might have come close in feeling to one of Christopher's letters:

"I'd like to repeat the advice I that I gave you before, in that I really think you should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence, there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty."

It's a point two of my other intellectual heroes, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, primed me for in their own views about how to live the good life in the short time we have, but one that very few people seem to pursue, and perhaps for good reason. Different people do have different preferences (I'll avoid delving into the political implications of such an obvious but ignored fact for the sake of keeping a cohesive post), and the nomadic, adventurous life may not be for everyone, even for a brief time. It has always had a draw on me however, and while it wasn't the original reason of my departure from civilization to the strangely Borderlands-esque world of professional truck-driving, this kind of freedom and variety has already fast become my favorite part of my new life. Make no mistake, it is a new life, no matter how long or temporary it ends up being, but if things continue as they are, it may be longer than I originally anticipated. I am doing exactly what I envisioned doing: listening to intelligent people on audio books, listening to... people, of all kinds of backgrounds and with different ideas outside of the truck, writing consistently and seeing the country. It may be a bit early to judge, but if first impressions mean anything, ditching college and its trappings for the road has been the most radical and best decision of my life.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Vicarious Redemption: The Masochistic Religion of the Left

A repetitive routine of racial, ethnic, national and even ideological self-flagellation has somehow become one of the defining characteristics of the modern progressive-liberal movement. I first noticed this when our economic history (economics, mind you; this wasn't a social or ethnic studies class) read Howard Zinn's infamous tract, "A People's History of the United States." This majority hating and/or self-hating, masquerading as "empowerment" for minorities, is worked into government school curricula with the explicit purpose of infiltrating this philosophy into the mainstream public through the next few generations.

What's the attraction of this self-evisceration?

In 1951, the social psychologist Eric Hoffer wrote a book entitled "The True Believer." It was heavily utilized in a recent critique of the American far-right, an excellent and informative book called "Republican Gommorah" by Max Blumenthall. I think however, that the prophetic concerns and arguments raised in Hoffer's little book go far in explaining the bizarre loathing of the left in its modern form. The best analogy, fittingly, is in the Right's own pet problem: religion.

What are the core beliefs of Christianity? We can summarize its essential elements in the following way. Long ago, a man named Adam disobeyed God's commands, and so God punished him by condemning him, his wife, and all of his children to the remotest generation as sinful. We are not sinful because we have sinned, per se, but were in fact sinful by birth: we were born disobedient, rebellious, and short of the glory of god. This crime is punishable by death. Not death in the ordinary sense, but infinite death in the fires of Hell. But God did something that we today might call "counter-intuitive:" he had his son born into human form so that he could be killed off, thus freeing human-kind of their sinful nature by the magic of this human-sacrifice, so long as they accept this offer and throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord. In the words of the immortal Hitchens, "we are created sick, and commanded upon pain of death to be well again."

"Here, as elsewhere," writes Eric Hoffer, "the technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as the cure."

The artificial disease, in the case of modern-day radical-egalitarian culture, is responsibility for the infinite crimes of our ancestors. The cure is penitence and public disavowal of these crimes. By repudiating our ancestors, our history, our heritage, and our culture, while simultaneously embracing the moral, and perhaps even pragmatic, superiority of other cultures, we can achieve moral purity and self-transcendence. We can speak vicariously for the oppressed, against ourselves, and find redemption.

The self-negation and moral bankruptcy of this proposition should be self-evident the moment you actually do put yourself in another person's shoes. In the opening of Zinn's chapter on American slavery, he makes excuses and explains away the existence of African slavery as not being "real" slavery compared to the American variety. To be fair, he's right in saying the two are not equivalent, and that there is a scale of right and wrong action, rather than an easy binary, but it is odd how otherwise exceptionally intelligent people with sharp noses for crimes against humanity make excuses for the most horrendous crimes when they are committed by "the other." Sam Harris' encounter with a Whitehouse bioethics advisor who couldn't bring herself to condemn a hypothetical tribe that gouged out the eyeballs of children for religious reasons is another sharp illustration of the effects of such a philosophy. The idea on the left that our identity in the West (the origin of this masochistic movement)--our race, our nations, our ethnicity, our cultures, even our values--that all of that is evil, is an idea that is every bit as dogmatic and taken as an axiom of faith as the claims made by its supernatural counterparts on the right.

There is a more pragmatically sinister aspect of this faith of ideological self-immolation. In the aftermath of 9/11, there were a number of public figures who claimed that we deserved it, that we brought those airplanes upon ourselves. This is, aside from disgusting, immediately and obviously false; the western-educated and upper-class terrorists flew themselves into our skyscrapers because they had been convinced that they would get an "advance-directly-to-go" card for heaven, where they would collect 72 virgins, and if they were lucky, advance the cause of reestablishing the old Islamic empire, the Caliphate, in the process. But it's interesting to notice who it was, specifically, that was saying that it was all our fault. Jerry Fallwell and his compadres on the right claimed we had brought it on ourselves by embracing homosexuality and abortion. This actually contains a probable grain of truth, since the Abrahamic prejudices of Fallwell and his ilk are in many ways shared with the pork-shunning Muslim reactionaries who see violence as a legitimate tool for religious evangelism. But the peace-loving progressive-liberals had their response prepared too: Noam Chomsky, the hero of the most radical elements of the modern-day left, responded by saying it was we, the United States, that were the real terrorists, and that while al Qaeda was still responsible, we had more or less caused these delusional religious zealots to bomb us through decades of political manipulation and oppression in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is how to "love thy enemy" as a godless liberal.

What this does is take away a nation's right to self-defense, so long as that nation is us (when others do it, it's always justified, since it's always self-defense). If we go into Afghanistan to try to root out international criminals protected by a ragged, theocratic-fascist government, that's a war of aggression, because 9/11 was itself an act of retribution against American imperialism. What sort of imperialist crimes were these? Among Bin Laden's list of indictments used as justification for the attack were the crimes of not doing enough to stop the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Serbia, and also for stopping a Muslim genocide against Christians in East Timor. We'd have to allow the genocides desired by Bin Laden or any other thug with violent inclinations towards a Western nation, while suppressing the violence they dislike.

This kind of self-transcendence via self-negation from the left is a one-way street, as foreigners are quick to agree with us and point out our historical moral failings (as if that left us responsible, decades or centuries later), while being extremely slow and equivocating about their own culture's record. Try, for example, to find a modern-day Muslim who will admit plainly and unequivocally that it was an wrong for Mohammed to have married a 7-year-old girl. ("But he waited till she was 9 to make it official!"). Similarly, the crimes of the Turkish empire, or the horrible atrocities of the Japanese empire, are relatively unknown in the American classroom, but everyone is intimately familiar with the Trail of Tears and the Japanese internment camps. No one else is responsible for their history, but we in the civilized West are responsible for everything. In accepting this malady of historical responsibility, we open the door to some genuinely dreadful ideologies that are far less apologetic about far worse crimes.

Fortunately, the remedy is not needed because the disease is imaginary. We are not living in sin because Adam ate the apple, and we are not genocidal racists because Americans 300 or 50 years ago had these very real but often exaggerated tendencies. We are individuals, not members of a collective inheriting liability for the sins of our fathers. This should be a fundamentally attractive way of thinking to liberals, as it is the only way to thoroughly combat bigotry, the broad characterization and judgment of entire groups based on membership rather than on their individual character. If we forget this, it's conceivable that we could end up in a society where it's socially unacceptable to use racial slurs against minorities, like "nigger," but common practice to use racial slurs against the races of our own core-culture, like "redneck" for the Irish. Let us hope we never reach that level of ingrained masochism.

Douglas Murray on the crimes of the west:

Christopher Hitchens on the necessary concessions of liberal masochism

Sunday, November 3, 2013

To Germany: "Help us!"

Washington Post
Everyone is familiar with the obsessive, clingy stalker girlfriend, or overprotective and inquisitive boyfriend. The "overly attached girlfriend" videos and memes are a kind of humorous satire of this kind of thing gone extreme.

Okay, maybe not satire or extreme, but still funny in abstract. But no one tolerates this kind of thing from their significant other for very long, and from their friends, not for a second.

Except Americans, for some strange reason. Our government has done precisely this, and now we're past a point of being able to control the tiger. Our overly-attached girlfriend completely controls our lives, and we're trapped. It's only natural for us to assume that other countries are similarly controlled.

It's easy for Americans living in a post-9/11 America to make post-hoc excuses for this kind of espionage, usually cynical ones along the lines of, "well, isn't this kind of normal, even if it isn't good? Didn't everyone know about this already, like, 10 years ago?" The answer is no, and even if everyone around the world did know the American government was spying on them, it wouldn't make it okay.

I hope that Angela Merkel doesn't forgive Obama, and I hope that France, the UK, and other countries jump on the shame train to try to change our governments policies. Here in the United Staes, around 75% of Americans are against the Orwellian NSA's spying operations, but that wasn't enough to stop it from happening. Both Obama and Romney supported these operations, despite Obama's stated opposition, and even if 100% of the American public had voted for Gary Johnson (the candidate I voted for who actively opposed excessive government growth and power, including the War on Terror and its spying operations, and who received just under 1% of the popular vote), not a single member of the electoral college voted for him. There is literally nothing the American people can do to stop this at the moment, short of something as drastic as a violent revolution. Given most gun-regulations, in blatant violation of the spirit of the 2nd Amendment, that isn't really a possibility either.

The American people have been spied on and locked up by their own government for things like whistleblowing or speaking out against the government, not just more than any other time in American history, but more than all of American history up to this point combined. Between the occupy movement, the espionage act of 1917 (now used to defend government espionage, instead of protect against it), and the broad and vague list of laws that leave most citizens guilty of several felonies daily, there's nothing we can do. Most Americans seem to be disillusioned with politics, but lack the willpower, the knowledge, or the conviction to change things, and are certainly not willing to go to prison in the attempt. It might be up to foreign powers like Germany using a big stick in order to change things, if they really do think that American spying is unacceptable.

For our freedom's sake, I hope they do. Help us Germany.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Logocidal Maniacs

In Kors' and Silvergate's book "Shadow University," they discuss a court case in which a young Jewish student, Eden Jacobowitz, had charges of racial hatred, or something to that effect, brought up against him for shouting "shut up, you water buffalo!" to a black sorority group that was drunkenly serenading his dormitory at 11:00 pm. There was an enormous amount of discussion and argument over whether or not "water buffalo" was a racial slur or epithet; a term which, to the Yiddish-speaking Jacobowitz, roughly translated from the Yiddish word behema, or "cow," a mildly insulting synonym for "foolish, unmannered or obnoxious person." The news anchor, John Chancellor, argued that the thought police on campus were threatening communication itself by extension, because if the unspoken premises of the charges were true, words no longer had agreed upon meanings, but could mean whatever the alleged and presumed victim wanted them to mean.

Chancellor's evocation of Orwell by referencing "thought police" is more prescient than it might seem to those who think, "come on, this is an academic institution, not some Big Brother." In his 1946 essay on politics and the English language, a defense of simple English against the creeping in of euphemism and abused metaphors, Orwell argues that if we aren't careful, sloppy language can create sloppy thinking, and that bad metaphors and meaningless phrases can lead us to come to bad, meaningless, or imprecise conclusions. If "water buffalo" can be a racially-charged insult, what other words might the young minority college student interpret through the convoluted lens of deconstructive ideology and critical power-structure analysis?

I've written about the problems of political polarization before, and it's true that much of the problem does have to do with how we solve our problems of cognitive dissonance. Do we assume the people we disagree with are seeing things differently, and one of us is incorrect, or assume we have identical experiences and the other side is simply evil? However, the proper interpretation of language, or the failure to properly define what we mean and agree upon definitions, can exacerbate or perhaps even cause these problems too. When I listen to popular pundits talk about how the Republicans are terrorists, or how Liberals hate freedom, it's not just an exercise in what I like to call "bad psychology," but it's also an attack on the agreed upon meaning of "terrorist," and a confusion of what "hating freedom" looks like. By example, imagine an anarchist debating a socialist about the proper role of government. As soon as the anarchist says that he's an anarchist and that he thinks government shouldn't exist, let alone monopolize healthcare, the socialist is in danger of using different interpretations of "government" and "anarchy" than the anarchist.

How anarchists think of Anarchism:

How socialists think of Anarchism:

There is a grain of truth to both, of course, but they're very, very different and separate ideas, and if an anarchist is implicitly defending the former and condemning the latter, while the socialist is completely ignorant of the former and assuming the latter because of imprecise and completely different understandings of what "anarchy" means, debate becomes impossible and you get more severe segregation of ideas.

Conversely, when the socialist defends the necessity of government and the state to correct for congealed imbalances of power, they might picture statism/socialism like this:

But when the anarchist thinks of state intervention, or even hear the word "statism," they might think of something other than what the socialist is describing:

Again, these are two very different ideas that have been blurred together. Without precisely defining terms and outlining ideas, arguments will be useless at best, divisive and counterproductive at worst.

Here's a very short list* of politically-charged words I think are being abused and mangled beyond recognition--killed, in my mind--by their use in ordinary political conversation:

1.) Terrorism

A terrorist is someone who uses lethal violence to inspire fear in a population in order to coerce that population to do something, or perhaps to not do something. A terrorist is a Mexican drug cartel hit-man leaving severed heads in elementary schools, not politician leveraging their decision-making power to further an agenda, or a hacker from 4chan insulting or mildly disrupting the Church of Scientology. You can call these bad if you'd like; that's an opinion. But to call it terrorism is an assertion of fact, and it's objectively untrue, and diluting to our ability to communicate.

2.) Racist

The connotation when someone is called a racist is usually that they are a racial supremacist, probably violent, of the Hitler variety. If someone asserts that they think the races might be genetically different, that is factually a racist statement, but it isn't an argument about racial supremacy or violence or anything that comes with the connotations we associate with the term "racist." It's a scientific assertion that might or might not be true, and it's truth is irrelevant to someone's opinion about whether it's good or bad. That's only a mild problem though, and is limited mainly to biology disputes. Eden Jacobowitz was called racist, a crime he said he would rather die than be guilty of, because what he said was reinterpreted. This is most common in the art of "deconstructionism," whereby an idea is broken down and taken in the context of who said it, at what time, and under what conditions such an idea might have benefited the speaker, before being ruthlessly shredded to pieces and discarded as selfish and evil. This is where we get strange words like "patriarchy" and "heteronormativity" from, which are, of course, just as vulnerable to deconstructive criticism as any other ideology.

Racism is generalizing skills and traits by race and ascribing them to that race. It is biologically unfounded (racism is false), but not morally evil, compared to, say, racial supremacy. Racism has nothing intrinsically to do with culture or religion. Let me say that again: racism has nothing intrinsically to do with culture or religion. Someone who criticizes Islam is not racist against Arabs. Similarly, someone who holds American culture to be inferior to, say, African culture is not racist against white people.

3.) Fascist

Closely associated to the abuse of labeling people as Nazis. Fascism is a specific and extreme form of authoritarian nationalism. It has nothing to do with gun control or abortion, or religion, though it might have an effect on these things. It isn't uncommon to see someone called a fascist for being too left wing or too right wing, when in reality, either side can be excessively authoritarian. Often times, some of the most outspoken opponents of Fascism and totalitarianism are themselves accused of being fascist (neoconservatives and Trotskyites in particular). One's economic ideas have nothing to do with nationalism or authoritarianism, intrinsically (though admittedly, the latter does tend to be correlated).

4.) Rape

Rape is forcing someone to have sex. It can happen to men, women or children, and it doesn't necessarily require penetration. What makes a word like "rape" complicated is how people define consent nowadays and its relationship to personal responsibility. For example, if a woman has several drinks, many feminists hold that she cannot give consent anymore. Therefore, any sex that happens after a woman drinks is de facto rape (this isn't extended to men, of course). Notice that we don't hold to this kind of reasoning when a drunk driver runs someone over; the driver is not only still held responsible, but is in many ways held to be more responsible.

Some of the more legally aggressive have gone even farther in taking away a woman's responsibility in the matter, saying that excessive power differentials take away a woman's ability to consent (rape), or that a woman who regrets sex might realize post hoc that she might not have been able to give consent, even if it seemed alright at the time (rape), or even that a woman who dressed attractively, flirted, made out with, implicitly consented to, and actively participated in sex, but perhaps forgot to say the magic words "I consent to sex!" repeatedly--because consent can be withdrawn at any moment--might legally and ethically be able to later say that they were raped.

Other misapplied terms like "rape apologist" and "rape culture" have come out of some of these misrepresentations and blurred definitions of rape. Suffice to say, American prisons and fascistic Islamic countries are something like rape cultures. Mainstream American society is not.

5.) Irony

This is a word that isn't being killed, but might actually already be dead. Hopefully, it will be possible to resuscitate the great word, but odds are slim.

Irony is when there is an incongruity between a statement or situation and the truth, particularly when there is a reversal of expectations. The Oatmeal does a much better job explaining exactly what it is than I can, but here's a short list of what irony is not (though some of these can be ironic):

- anything humorous
- poetic justice
- blatant sarcasm (especially if its repetitive and predictable)

--To be continuted--

*Other words commonly abused, in no particular order, include: conservative, liberal, Tea Party, empowerment, tolerance, safe, diversity, equality, communist, democracy, rights, freedom, faith, courage, religion, brainwash, dogmatic, and the various ____phobes (homophobe, Islamophobe, etc)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Would you buy coffee from a cafe run like the DMV?

Experiencing government-run organizations parallel to private-run organizations puts the issue of socialized healthcare in a new light, and an eerie light when it looks as though, given the political zeitgeist, socialized healthcare is inevitable. My thoughts and meditations, from a day of errands:

Monday, October 28, 2013

Japan's future

**DISCLAIMER: Though I've studied the culture, I've never actually been to Japan, so I would encourage anyone who has to share their experiences and critiques in the comments section below.**

This article came out in The Guardian a few days ago, and as I read it, the fascinating and alarming decline of Japan gave me some insights about the cultural situation in the United States. I highly encourage you to read it in full, but knowing you probably won't, I'll give a brief synopsis here.

Japan is dying, sexually. Young men and boys are growing up in a conservative culture, and do not have the knowledge or skills to start, let alone maintain, relationships. Many of these young men--old boys, really--live with their parents well into their 30's, secluded from the world, recluses, even called "parasitic singles." Of the more successful, independent ones, many are "engaging in a kind of passive rebellion against traditional Japanese masculinity," ditching the tandem responsibilities of a stressful career and romantic relationship entirely. 25% report feeling disgusted at any kind of sexual contact. I was particularly struck by a sex-worker-turned-therapist being interviewed, who said that the first thing she has to do with many of her male clients is to get them to "stop apologizing for their own physical existence."

Women, in the mean time, are beginning to discover their place in the workplace, and often reject marriage (and thus dating more generally) to protect their employment. Supporting a child is such an expensive endeavor in Japan that both parents would need to work to support the child, but 70% of women leave their job after their first child. This is sufficiently incentivized by both the economic demands of parenting and the pressures of a brutally judgmental and conservative culture. According to the author, "romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery," and as a result, 90% of young women hold the single life to be preferable to marriage.

In short, Japanese relationships aren't working due to a combination of archaic cultural norms and the backlash-counterculture response, and as a result, emotional health is abysmal and childbirth rates are dwindling. Given current trends, it's entirely possible that Japan, an economically vibrant, technologically advanced industrial nation of the highest order, might dwindle into a hollow demographic shell of its current self in a single generation.

Let that thought and its implications rest on your mind for a moment.

Now, culture is something that populations grow and nurture over time. What is reaped is often beyond the lifetime or perception of those most responsible for producing it, so it is something we should consider and watch, accept and reject, individually, publicly and often. In the case of Japan, it would seem that an old and clearly inferior culture--in regards to maintaining healthy relationships--was not corrected or rejected soon enough. The expectations and stresses of living the 18th century lifestyle collided with 21st century living, an impossible demand to place on an entire generation.

It was while thinking about the effect of Feminism on Western society, especially American society, that I first picked out this article from Reddit's list of news, so I want to be very careful in how I proceed here. Feminism is not the problem in Japan. If anything, in fact, they could probably use a little bit of second-wave feminism, or a kind of individualistic, rights-based philosophy of some kind to cure them of their sexism and semi-xenophobic racism. To preempt any charges of racism myself, I want to clarify that we're talking about cultures here, not skin color, or place of birth, or whether you have attached earlobes or not (no less arbitrary than skin color), or whatever. Some cultures really are superior to others, and populations that adapt their cultures by taking in the best from others while avoiding the bad parts will end up with better societies. To demonstrate this, imagine that you're a lonely single looking for a romantic partner, and ask yourself whether you'd want to try your luck in Japan or in the United States.

Culture is a double-edged blade however. America is currently going through a viral phase of multiculturalism, which does two things very effectively. First, it takes away the dominant and superior parts of culture's ability to defend themselves on a moral level. Second, it lets in and then actively promotes and supports inferior or minority cultures. In other words, America is doing in a politically radical style what Japan was doing in a politically conservative style: trying to rig which cultural bits would come out on top.

The record of such attempts to plan out what culture should be like is very telling. The socially conservative culture in general is usually supported in order to preserve the family and to protect social order. Japan would be a classical case of central planning accomplishing the opposite of its intended goals (I'm reminded of stories of purity-ring rituals in the conservative Christian south, where society attempts to pressure women to stay celibate until marriage...the same region and culture is naturally home to eight out of ten of the states with the highest teenage pregnancy rates).

But of course, culture isn't solely responsible for Japan's plight. Economics plays a huge role in whether young people decide whether marriage, or sexual life generally, is worth pursuing...but it's difficult in this instance to talk about economics without talking about culture, specifically gender expectations, and provies a good segue into what's going on in the United States. In case you haven't been following the bitter Feminist/MRA battles, online and in legal policy, and even in video games, I'll attempt to summarize the entire complex history in its relevance to the present subject in two sentences. Feminists, in their effort to protect women and advance their rights, inadvertently put men in a situation where the financial, legal, and cultural incentives no longer make marriage (or even sex, sometimes) an attractive option. I'd encourage you to research this subject yourself, from both perspectives, but suffice to say that the incredible dual threat of alimony and child-support--the latter can be incurred even if it is not the father's own child--coupled with the statistic that most divorces are initiated by the woman, and on the grounds that the marriage isn't "satisfying," and the ever-looming danger of a malicious rape allegation, all of these combine to make marriage a discouraging and unattractive prospect for men, however attractive the lady may be.

Fortunately for our country, biology seems to be winning the battle against rational economics in decision-making, but we'd be better off by far if the two were on the same side. It isn't beyond the scope of possibility that the culture of feminism, if left unopposed, could inch us nearer to the demographic quagmire Japan has found itself in. Given our current economic state of affairs, the timing could not be much worse.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What is a dollar? A difficult question, with a depressing answer...

George Washington couldn't tell a lie (supposedly), and the man on the five is "honest Abe." You'd think that the basic units of our currency would have something to do with integrity, or at least a kind of trust. I don't think this is the case however, or at least not any more, and the situation we've found ourselves in with currency, as a country, has the potential of getting a whole lot worse. The problem arises when you ask the seemingly innocent question of what a dollar is.

Allow me to first illustrate what I mean by analogy. For variety's sake, I'll try my hand at emulating old Aesop (while we're talking about old historical men):


The Fox's Pepples

A cow, a dog, and a fox lived together. The cow produced milk, the dog provided security from wolves, and the fox provided them with pebbles. A pebble, the fox explained to them, holding one up, is a unit the three animals could use to measure and keep track of their contribution to the farm. It had no value itself, but represented real value. A gallon of milk from the cow would be worth 3 pebbles, and a day's worth of protection from the dog was also to be worth 3. "My service of providing, maintaining, and balancing a serviceable amount of pebbles, is worth 4 pebbles a day," said the fox, and the animals felt that this distribution was fair enough. And so life went on for a time, with the animals paying each other for their services in pebbles.

Soon enough, however, the cow and the dog realized that while they had to save up enough pebbles to buy security or milk, the fox had a seemingly endless supply. "Where do you get all of these pebbles from?," asked the dog one day. "You buy as much milk in a day as I can afford in three, and you only make one third more than I do." The fox replied: "I get more pebbles to spend by making them. I go to the river and retrieve as many as I want and come back in five minutes." Noticing the alarm in the dog's expression, the fox recovered: "Ah, don't worry about perceived unfairness, my friend! It's all very complex and mathematical, but it's fair, I assure you. Besides, I'm bringing pebbles onto the farm that ultimately pay you for your work. It's for your own benefit."

But the cow was unconvinced, realizing that she would never attain the real value promised by the pebbles she had been given, and she was angry about the deception. "You told us all this time that pebbles represented value. Now I see that they only measure our gullibility!"

At the risk of ruining the allegory by explaining it, I'll try to put my little parable in context. There are essentially two kinds of politically involved people in the United States, for the purpose of our discussion: people who are mortified at our national debt, ringing in at $17 trillion and growing by over $1 trillion more per year, and people who think that the debt literally doesn't matter at all. Why does the debt not matter? Because, they say, the government can just print more money. They can mint as much as we need. As much as they need.

Here's where definitions become important. Back in the day, a dollar used to represent a fixed amount of gold or silver. We've since moved on from that, but the idea that monetary units represented value has been the persistent underlying idea behind money. If it didn't represent something, why would I care how many little green slips engraved with the faces of dead presidents I possessed? But typing in a number and pressing a button doesn't create value. If I make a pair of tennis shoes, that creates value, and I can use twenty five dollars that someone else purchased my tennis shoes with to accurately represent that value. Creating money doesn't do that. That's why we have laws against counterfeiting, after all.

So when people say "don't worry about the debt, we can just print more money to pay it off," what they're actually saying is far more cynical than that. What they're saying, in a way, is that money doesn't represent actual value anymore. So why does it matter? What does money represent? Trust, they might say. Or at least that's the answer I've heard most often when debating the issue. Money doesn't need to represent actual value because the government is basically too big to fail. Yes, people actually say that, even after 2008. Another family member recently told me that dollars represent units of energy moving through the economy, but even this is a kind of trust; trust that the market will continue to always move faster, if you're going to use that as a justification to print more money.

Except what they're talking about is people's trust in some kind of value that may or may not be there. As we pump more dollars into the economy, it's increasingly likely to be the latter. So what dollars will represent if we attempt to buy our way out of our debt by printing more money? Dollars will be a metric for public credulity and naivete. Dollars, instead of being units of value, will literally be units of gullibility.

That's in philosophical principle, of course. Pragmatically, they'll still represent value. Just a whole lot less.

It's the story of every market bubble: people assume on faith that something can't fail,when it does or will only go up, or, most reprehensibly of all, that when it does finally crash in a fiery explosion of death and destruction, they'll be one of the smart ones ready for it, having played everyone else along the whole time. They'll have a chair when the music stops. Obviously, this was what the bankers and credit-raters were banking on several years ago; the problem was that thousands of people were looking at a dwindling number of chairs, knowing what was coming, and dancing as though the music would never quit. Surprise! It did, and left them standing there looking stupid for refusing to look reality in the face. Now, I'm no economist, and I don't know what a monetary bubble-burst would look like in comparison to the sub-prime mortgage credit bubble, but $17 trillion sounds like a  lot to me. At the rate we're going, we could find ourselves at $20, or even $30 trillion dollars of national debt in the next few years, and that's only national debt. We're completely ignoring private debt, which also operates almost exclusively on guess which currency? Yes, the very same dollar.

So how to handle the debt becomes a question that our politicians and, more importantly, the populace that elects them, will actually have to address instead of running away from, or throwing the weight of responsibility at the next generation. Do we want a functional monetary system and universal unit of exchange or not? If the answer is yes, and I suspect that it is for all but the most antisocial members of society, than fixing our debt isn't something we can wave a wand and hocus-pocus our way out of. It will require a great deal of pain and sacrifice, and how that suffering is distributed among the different parts of society is a question that might deserve its own debate. But the decision, with any wisdom and foresight, is really not an economic decision at all. To go for an actual fable of Aesop's, it's about whether we want to be grasshoppers or ants. The grasshopper, dancing and chirping through the summer and the fall, laughs at the ant's silly and dreary pragmatism and toiling preparation right up until winter comes. The decision is whether we want to think in the present like toddlers, fooling our selves in measurable units of credulity, or plan for the future like adults.

The currently trending choice between these two among our politicians isn't looking good.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Brave New World?

I was watching The Tempest earlier this morning, and was reminded of the title of Aldous Huxley's famous book title. The line it was derived from reads, in full:

"O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it!"

The irony appears when one considers that the speaker, Miranda, is a young lady (15 or so) who can count the humanoid acquaintances she's known since she was 2 on one hand. The new people she's looking upon in this scene are not beautiful, or even numerous, but bedraggled sailors who've recently survived a shipwreck and a stressful adventure on the island. When one considers the types of people in Huxley's "brave new world," with the notable and beautiful exception of Helmholtz Watson and arguably John, the irony is doubled back on itself.

The title's more literal and obvious (less literary) connotation was what struck me however. Courage is not the greatest virtue--perhaps one could even say it's not really a virtue in itself--but it is the characteristic necessary for all the other virtues. Philip Zimbardo and Salmon Rushdie, each in their own separate ways, have made the case that the courage of the current generation will determine how things go in upcoming decades. The natural follow-up question is, of course, how are we doing?

On the one hand, we have seemingly fearless whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning dominating headlines, and some politicians putting their necks on the line to try new things. Whatever you may think of Obama's aggressive and successful push for the affordable health-care act, or the Tea Party's extreme response in recent months, it would be hard to deny that they took a big risk in doing what they did, and would count, at least in my book, as courageous. Even the 9/11 truther folks can't be ignored on this issue; when they're willing to come out in the public and state their opinion, knowing they'll get laughed at and be thought of as kooks, it's actually pretty noble.

On the other hand, the number of whistleblowers might not match where it should be, given the extent of illegal and unethical operations in businesses and the government, and the Tea-Party/Liberal-progressive Democrats hardly make up the majority of the government, which carefully and cautiously sticks within its voters defined lines and dares not take a contentious stance, read, "saying what they really think," on an issue for fear of potentially alienating voters. Achilles' retort to Odysseus comes to mind: "More hateful to me than the gates of hell is the man who hides one thing away in his heart and utters another."

Perhaps more importantly, how individual students and youths in their late teens and early twenties measure up isn't very heartening. As part of a film-project for a class on propaganda, I asked a dozen students at Bellevue College what they would think if they found out that the government or the school administration was violating their first amendment rights by limiting what they could say or write, and by extension read or hear. Of the 12, three volunteered that they would rebel. One specified that he would "violently" rebel. Needless to say, when I pointed out to them that this wasn't a mere hypothetical, but was actually happening, there was no subsequent protest, or even a sit-in or petition, let alone a violent rebellion by 8% of the school.

I had the same kind of pay-lip-service-to-one-value-and-advocate-another experience when I first started criticizing Islam in print, namely from my family, but from a few friends and acquaintances too. Even an old girlfriend of mine, when I told her I was joining the military, was extremely upset. When I asked her if she thought that the military should be manned, generally, she said, essentially, "yes, but not by you." Touching yes, but if people make decisions based on concerned family-member's and friends' discouragement of acting on principle, and telling you to keep your head down and your nose clean, then the inner courageous lion within us doesn't do us any more good than being cowards in the first place.

Only time will tell how things play out, but in the mean-time, I would like to advocate two rules of action, if you find this line of thinking convincing. Number one, ask yourself, and others "on what principle are you deciding to do X?" It's a subtly different and more powerful, pointed question than the more basic, "Why are you doing X?" Number two, if someone is doing something principled and noble, don't try to talk them out of it on pragmatic grounds. I'm not talking about their eloquent defense of drunken skydiving, obviously, but suppose a friend of yours decides that the wars in the Middle East are bothering them, and they decide to quit their job, pack up their things, move to the hills of Afghanistan and try to run a school there. An extreme example, sure, but it's a normal, friendly knee-jerk reaction to try to talk your semi-crazy friend out of adventurous ideas like that. Are their lives really going to be better off doing exactly what everyone else does, instead of taking a life-shaping adventure, however risky? If you really want to be their friend, try to help them figure out the logistics, or maybe offer to watch their pets while they're gone, or something like that, instead of talking them out of doing what they think is right for themselves and for the world. The question becomes trickier, of course, when legal conflicts come into play (e.g., whistleblowing), but the thought-process is the same: don't ask "is this the a safe choice?," but "is this a wise choice?" Sometimes the answers are different, and supporting your friends' and family's courageous decisions will be better for you, for them, for your relationship, and for society at large.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Demon-Haunted House

Our government isn't actually haunted, as far as I can tell, but you might be tempted to assume so with the number of demons claimed to occupy it nowadays. I ran across this article on Reddit today, tellingly entitled "Republicans who Support the Tea Party are Traitors." The author claims that the Tea Party is attempting to destroy the Constitution, which is being valiantly defended by the political left, and that Republicans who support the Tea Party in its mission to do so are, and should be thought of as, traitors.

For obvious reasons, one article on the internet is hardly cause for alarm or righteous indignation, but there is a building trend of ratcheting rhetoric that someone would have to be almost completely removed from politics not to notice. Consider Senator Elizabeth Warren's railings on the Senate floor, for example, or virtually any article from's political section. I stopped reading Paul Krugman quite a while back, but he is among the most widely-read journalists alive today, and one could summarize every column he's written in the last few years in 4 words: "It's the Republicans' fault." One can only imagine what he's been writing in the last few weeks. I know I can, and quite accurately too.

I hear grandiose indictments of the opposing political party--"Republicans/Democrats are what's wrong with this country!"--from friends and family members on a regular basis, and I'm sure that if the reader is remotely interested in politics or has obnoxious, politically-inclined friends (like the author) who are, they've heard similar statements, or perhaps even uttered it yourself. The senators, representatives, and even partisan citizens who vote for the other side are either racists and corporate pigs that don't care in the slightest for anyone but themselves and their compadres, or they're socialists/communists who hate freedom and hate America, and can't handle personal responsibility. I have a slightly different contention: people who demonize the other side, particularly without understanding their perspective and arguments, are what's wrong with this country. And I urge you, the reader, to join me in publicly and repeatedly demonizing the demonizers.

Allow me a slight digression; I don't really watch TV much, but there are a few shows I enjoy, and one of them is a wonderful little call-in show out of Austin, TX called The Atheist Experience, hosted by Matt Dillahunty and other members of the Atheist Community of Austin. In one of the episodes, a caller asked one of the hosts (Jeff Dee, if I'm not mistaken), an "atheist book" to get started on, no doubt expecting a recommendation of Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens. Instead, the host recommended Carl Sagan's book The Demon-Haunted World, which is less about religion and belief and more about advocating a scientific way of thinking. The implication of the title is, of course, that although we used to think of the world as inhabited by spirits, gods, and even devils and demons, closer inspection, reason, evidence, and science can show us better explanations. There are no real demons.

So too, in my own view, are there no demons in the Senate, or at least FAR fewer than the true believers on each side of the debate would have you believe. I can't really claim this as an original idea of my own--Jonathan Haidt made this point years ago, and even advocated "demonizing demonization," but I think it's a point that bears repeating (again). It's a point that Penn Jillette has made over and over again as well, that if you pick the person, they're all good, but most people still seem to assume that everyone out there is at best an asshole and at worst, outright evil... everyone except them and the person they're talking to, of course.

Liberals who are reading this, conservatives generally assume the following about you:

  1. You don't know anything about economics
  2. You don't know anything about history, particularly American history
  3. You don't have any sense of personal responsibility
  4. You expect the government to take care of you

    And let's not forget,
  5. You hate freedom
  6. You hate America
  7. You're a fascist
If you're a liberal, the absurdity and offensive nature of these assumptions is obvious, but how can they not assume these claims to have a grain of truth when the people you vote for have the following to say about them?

Conservatives are:
  1. Greedy and money-loving
  2. Practically vampiric in their willingness to take advantage of others
  3. Scientifically, economically, ethically and politically incompetent
  4. Racists, sexists, and bigots of all shades, every one of them
  5. Generally stupid
  6. Anti-American
  7. Fascists
Know that conservatives reading this list are laughing and crying on the inside (or perhaps even out loud) just as much reading this list as you were reading your own politically-biased descriptors. The lists are equally inaccurate, as well as about equally insulting, but are both widely held to be true by their respective political partisans. If you are one of those people who believe that the other side is just a rabble of ignorant fools, then I have a message for you: they aren't what's wrong with America. Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama and Dianne Feinstein aren't what's wrong with America--you are.

I'll close on an uncomfortably conciliatory note, by quoting two uncharacteristically prescient and wise passages from the Bible. In Matthew 7, Jesus tells his followers to worry about the plank in their own eye before they hypocritically attempt to remove the speck of dust from their brother's eye. For safety reasons, it's inadvisable to attempt to remove foreign objects from other people's eyes, generally speaking, but allegorically it's sound wisdom, and one Christians as well as non-Christians should meditate on a bit more; more than they demonstrate by their actions, that is. Secondly, in Mark 3, Jesus tells his disciples that a house divided against itself cannot stand. I'm not sure that this is actually true generally; healthy disagreement is good for the pursuit of knowledge, truth, beauty and wisdom, but too much strife and you end up with the exclusive psychology of teams and tribalism, and the dangers that lie within, of which we've seen plenty throughout human history, particularly in the 20th century. We're much further down that path than is safe and healthy for a country, and violence, even civil war, isn't beyond the realm of possibility, unlikely though it may seem in the moment. Don't think 'it can't happen here.' As Sam Harris has said, we have two options: we can either solve our differences through a battle of ideas, or through a battle of physical violence and force. When you dismiss the other side of an argument as evil instead of merely being incorrect--as a demon, in other words--without honestly allowing a legitimate battle of ideas to take place, you're moving us away from the liberal, Enlightenment ideals of the former option, and ever closer to the Dark Age latter. The Government isn't haunted, and if you're one of those people claiming it is, you are the demon.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Syria and Sociopathy

While thinking about Syria, I ran across this anti-war music video by Serj Tankien called "Empty Walls:"

It's a wonderful, horrific, powerful song, set to an equally powerful video, with recognizeable iconographic images and stories imitated by naive and innocent children. Ostensibly, this is to symbolize the wider American public that sees a picture of war cleansed from the harsh images, it's true nature hidden behind euphemisms and glamour.

I'm not sure that's the real crime of the crazy, neoconservative war-hawks, those bloodthirsty sociopaths wanting to take us to war yet again. Serj Tankien did a beautiful job creatively showing the dangers of warfare; more specifically, of our participation. What then, does non-participation look like? My guess is that it would look something like this...

These images are as much a reason to intervene and attempt to put an end to this scale of death and suffering as they are an argument against war; perhaps greater, in fact. In it's two-and-a-half years, the Syrian Civil War has claimed approximately 100,000 lives so far. To put this in perspective, the Bosnian Genocide of the early 1990's claimed 8,373 Bosniac lives, and no chemical weapons were used.

There are those who say "it's not our fight." This would be equally true were they to be sitting on a bus and witness a rape-murder take place across the aisle and not lift a finger to stop it. Such a bus-rider would rightly earn the title of "sociopath," at least from me, for that kind of blatant disregard for human life, even though they really do have no legal obligation to do anything. Those who oppose the war in Syria are (for the most part) clearly not sociopaths, but I think they are missing the connection between this kind of hypothetical situation and the potential war we're looking at. The geographical, cultural, and political barriers between the Syrian public and ourselves don't make them any different than a fellow bus-rider in their humanity.

An intervention will almost certainly be difficult; there will be deaths, there will be mistakes, there will be embarrassing moments, and worst of all, there will be self-righteous armchair-philosophers pointing out the inevitable pains and failures of military operations and saying "aha! we told you so," as if their alternative, watching Syria tear itself into oblivion, would have been the morally superior option. There will be speculations about ulterior motives, about oil, or Monsanto, or the Freemasons, or the Bilderbergs, or whatever. There will even be people who say, "you, who advocated intervention, you have Syrian blood on your hands." In international politics, these kinds of slanderous equivocations and hindsight cherry-picked claims to intellectual victory seems to be the price of action, but the price of inaction is far worse: dislocation, disruption, pain, death, and despair for real people. Not for us, this time, but for thousands of very real humans.

No one is asking you to pick up a rifle and go off to Syria. We have plenty of people who have volunteered, of their own free will, to do that for you. I did, my brother did, and countless other people who were willing to put their life on the line for principle have done this so you don't have to. If you don't want to go off and fight, that's okay. But if you find yourself thinking "but it's my tax money!," I want you to add one more element to our bus-rape thought experiment. Suppose you're sitting next to a gentleman who, on seeing the rape-attack commence, seems decidedly opposed to getting tangled up in the whole mess. "That's alright," you think. "I'll do it myself." You get up to go and save the poor woman.

"Hold it right there!" says the man. "We're covered by the same insurance company. If you go over there and get injured, I could lose money. It's not our fight. Don't go over there on my dime."

It is for people like this that Jonathan Swift wrote his modest proposal. I hear that babies are delicious, you anti-war pragmatists.