Saturday, June 29, 2013

Disempowering students...through empowerment!

The Universe is a bigoted asshole for making me go through this. We should punish it!
It seems that every culture has some variation of the self-reliance message. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." The old man and Hercules. "Fall down seven times, get up eight." "I didn't fail 1,000 times; I found 1,000 ways not to make a light-bulb." The ant and the grasshopper. Giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish.

The story is always the same: perseverance, hard-work, and rising above obstacles and opposition through force of will and effort. My own favorite example happens to be the real-life story of Ernest Shackleton and his voyage through the Antarctic on a ship aptly named The Endurance. It wasn't "changing the system," or shifting the cultural paradigm on X, Y or Z that got him out of what could have been a nearly fatal shipwreck for the crew, it should be noted. It was incredible amounts of effort, preparation and sacrifice.

Side-note: in case you missed one of the best articulations of this lesson, check out David Wong's piece in Cracked. It involves allegorical street-surgeries, incendiary Jesus quotes and Alec Baldwin screaming curse words at old sales farts, so on those grounds alone it may be well worth the read.

As if this idea needed more support, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney recently published an article in Scientific American Mind about the importance of resilience on the road to success. "Success can hinge on resilience. Setbacks are part of any endeavor, and those who react to them productively will make the most progress." So reads Fast Facts, item number two. Number three claims that people can boost their resilience through a number of strategies. Logically, it follows that conversely, there must be ways through which we could, theoretically, drain people's resilience.

Why would we want to do that? Who would want to do that?

It's easier to speculate on how for the moment, since after all, we're speaking in hypotheticals.

Perhaps we would start by disconnecting what happens to people from their own actions. Even better, we could simultaneously flatter these people by telling them that they don't deserve these bad things. We could tell them that they are "victims." Better yet, victims of an old and evil "system" of perpetual racism, sexism, or some other conveniently simple-minded bigotry (heteronormativity, patriarchy, eurocentricism, take your pick). That way, they would feel unable to do anything about it, except feel sorry for themselves and maybe demand unreasonable accommodations, thus feeding the cycle of dependency. Simultaneously, we could say that giving them as close to a stress-free environment as possible, cut off from inhibiting adversity and uncomfortable challenges, really makes them more free to do what they want and say what they want, without fear of reprisal. We're empowering them. This is how to give a man a fish and explain to him why this is better than learning how to do it himself.

Where do these ideas prevail strongest? Why, in the same place designed to prepare people for greater success in life, where else? The university. This brings us to the why question.

The University claims that it is preparing students for the working world, and they would be right...partially. When we hear "prepared for the working world," we think of job skills, creativity, networking and portfolio building. In actuality, "preparing students for the working world" means training them to be obedient and dependent, which makes sense, given that students want (or are convinced to want?) jobs at companies that desire conformity. Said companies hire out of school, school decides to optimize curriculum to improve numbers and voila, the perfect storm of incentives to breed a generation of citizens prone to conformity and averse to creativity and problem-solving. I disagree with Chomsky on many international issues, but I think he's right on the button when it comes to education:

But I digress. All of this disempowerment is made possible by the idea that personal problems should be externalized, an idea that schools teach to their students with the industry they lack in other departments, namely math and science. If your feelings are hurt, if you don't succeed, if you're late for the bus, if you slept in, whatever your trials and troubles may be, remember, it isn't your fault: it's everyone else's fault for letting you down. This could fairly accurately be described as the approximate opposite of what Southwick and Charney found to be the best attitude to achieve success and overcome obstacles.

What do we do instead? Here's an idea...

Full episode available here.

Friday, June 21, 2013


I recently finished Douglas Murray's recent book Islamophilia: A Very Metropolitan Malady, which I found easier and more entertaining reading than his previous book Neoconservativism: Why We Need It. The premise of the book is essentially that unlike the word "Islamophobia," "Islamophilia" is a useful word that describes an actual and dangerous trend, particularly in Europe (America seems to be about 10 years behind Europe in social movements and their subsequent recantings).

In my own view, the most powerful proof of the author's point, ironically, lies withing his own text. In a chapter 10, "Where are the critics?" (here's one?), Murray explains:
"...Professor Dawkins is not an enemy of Jews or Christians. He is a critic of their religion. Lars Hedegaard is not an enemy of Muslims. He is a critic of aspects of their religion."
[my emphasis]
The difference in what Hedegaard is allegedly criticizing only just strays from an otherwise mirrored phrase, so the additional two words seem intentionally placed (no mere slip of the pen); yet it is petty enough and subtle enough, and derived from a passage written recently enough (February) that I think I can say with relative certainty the self-deprecating irony was unintentional, and therefore a legitimate demonstration of precisely Murray's own point. Lars Hedegaard is not a critic of aspects of Islam. If he is, it is only to the same extent that Richard Dawkins is merely criticizing aspects of supernatural superstitions like Christianity, which he clearly isn't. Hedegaard, having written 1400 Years [of] War: Islam's Strategy, the EU and Liberty Finally and Muhammed's Girls: Violence, Murders and Rapes in the House of Islam (source, with Google translations), is similarly un-hedged in his criticism of Islam.

Murray, unwittingly to his own credit, and at his own expense, hints at the twisting of language and equivocation slanted in favor of this one particular Middle Eastern religion in his own writing. If the language of this British journalist, of all people, can be unintentionally twisted so by force of social necessity or political subconscious, one can only guess at the depth of double-think and equivocation embedded in the thoughts of ordinary citizens confronted with the twin dangers of the believable threat of violence and the more pressing threat of social castigation for admitting to the former. This book shows it to be much deeper, and more dangerous than at first meets the eye, and does so with a sense of humor tinged slightly with the sadism of reading people say the most gut-wrenchingly embarrassing garbage on hands and knees. It's even more guiltily delicious than...

At $7.00, it's certainly worth two Starbucks, or more. Here is the link again: Islamophilia

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why Snowden is the Greatest American of the last decade

Courtesy Business Insider

"It is proper to take alarm at the first experiments on our liberties...The freemen of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much, soon to forget it..." 
- James Madison

Most Americans who haven't actually bothered to read the founding documents of their own country have a tendency to forget the lessons in civics and philosophy behind them. These are the people who, if you ask them, will tell you that the first words of the Declaration of Independence are "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." etc, etc.

They're also very often the same ones who will say that Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about the American government's extensive illegal wire-tapping activities to the media, is a traitor and probably deserves whatever punishment he might have headed his way. After all, he signed a contract. He broke it, he deserves what's coming to him. David Brooks' piece in the New York Times is a fairly common example of such thinking.

More "o"s in the "no" make the disagreement more intellectually rigorous

Of course, a brief glance at the actual text of the Declaration reveals it actually begins on a slightly different note. It says:

"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

Compare this with the reasoning given by Edward Snowden for revealing his identity, when Glenn Greewald asked why he went the opposite direction of most leakers who do their best to keep their identity hidden:

"I think that the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democratic model. When you are subverting the power of government, that is a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy, and if you do that in secret, consistently, as the government does, when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it'll kind of give its officials a mandate to go 'hey, tell the press about this thing and that thing till the public is on our side.' But they rarely if ever do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens."
The full 12-minute interview is worth watching:

 The nuance and forward acceptance of the consequences of his actions flies directly in face of all the silly accusations about Snowden not considering the consequences of his actions, or not knowing what he was doing. Virtually all of David Brooks' list of allegations in his piece commit the fallacy of mixing up the horse and the cart, but when he lays down accusations such as, "He [Snowden] betrayed the cause of open government," and, "He betrayed the Constitution." it's a rather audacious claim, to put it mildly. We could call it chutzpah defined. By extension, such a claim would indict the drafters of the Declaration of Independence (who's sedition was far more severe than the mere dissemination of secret information), as essentially anti-Freedom. Don't mind what the government's doing, look at this asshole! That's the real, important information!

Brooks explains that he betrayed the Constitution, privacy, and the cause of open government (horrible crimes, apparently?) because "if the federal security agencies can't do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods." Presumably the other kind of eavesdropping the government isn't supposed to be doing in the first place. Brooks claims that Snowden's actions will rock the boat, as it were, and cause the government to crack down on everybody. If the government is some kind of monster on a chain, one that we'd best not provoke, shouldn't we be tightening the chain, rather than punishing people who point this out?

Were Brooks' allegations a bit more catchy and concise, they would make excellent additions to the normal trio of doublespeak: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. Something like "courageous and loving self-sacrifice that preserves freedom is cowardly, hateful, selfishness that destroys freedom." Or maybe just invert Orwell's original: "slavery is freedom."

It is interesting to see people who will praise and laud the founding fathers on command--men who were militantly treasonous against their country--come out so opposed to, or worse, ambivalent about Edward Snowden's actions. Obviously, the analogy isn't precise, but in both cases we have a small group of educated men noticing that the government has more power than it should if we are to live in a free republic, and who put their own life on the line; out of line with a safe, comfortable lifestyle (the founding fathers were overwhelmingly rich land-owners while Snowden was a well-paid government contractor living in Hawaii), and in line with their principles, which happen to be in line with the free society he was charged with protecting.

Acting on principle alone isn't a good thing in itself, of course; we can act on bad principles, like subverting our government, disobeying orders or violating contracts. Surely these are bad principles?

Certainly, as is lying, yet virtually no one will go with Kant to the extreme of saying that it would be morally permissible, let alone ethical, to tell the truth to a Nazi soldier at the door who asks if you happen to be hiding any Jews in the basement. This thought experiment doesn't prove that lying is no longer a good principle, but merely that it isn't the highest ethical principle when we prioritize our values in this situation. Protecting innocent life is more important than honesty. So is protecting free society and the Constitution a higher priority than a comparatively petty government contract.

For the slaves of circular legal swamps, it's worth remembering that all military persons are required to take an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States (not its secrets) from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Contractors may or may not have to say or sign something similar; if they did than they would have mutually exclusive obligations, at least to the literal-minded among us. Even if they didn't, they would still have a duty as a citizen to do the same. The old phrase "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" is not a platitude; it's a lesson that, as a species, we've learned from experience. As generations die away and new ones spring up under the protection of a free society, the failure to really internalize and understand this lesson can lead to a society that gives lip-service to the people who made their society possible, but without knowing why, or how. And without being able to recognize the face of what these founders were fighting against, or of those heretical patriot's modern-day equivalents. Faces like Edward Snowden's.

Speaking of faces, here's another one I'd recommend learning. Jeremy Scahill began working on his most recent book "Dirty Wars" long before the NSA incident with Snowden. This is an excerpt from an interview with ReasonTV:

The full interview is available here. More than anything else, Scahill shows the dangers of what an uncontrolled government can do. We already have the advantage of knowing what an industrial, technologically-advanced tyranny can look like. What Scahill reveals is that we're on that path. That's where we're headed, as Edward Snowden has demonstrated in more ways than one.

We face a choice in prioritization here, just as Snowden did, and the stakes aren't that much lower, though it might feel that way for the moment. Snowden chose his obligation to the Constitution and the principles of free society over short term peace of staying quiet and merely "doing his job." His worry was that the greater American public wouldn't grasp how serious of a choice this is, not for him, but for everyone else:

"The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see  in the media all of these disclosures, they'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves power, unilaterally, to create greater control over American society and global society, but they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things, to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interest."

Indeed. This seems to be the centennial problem. Our geographic predecessors learned the answer to this lesson of apathy in time, some fast, some slow. We'll have to learn it ourselves eventually, at least I hope so, and the sooner the better.

To ensure that the horse I've beaten is, in fact, dead, I'll link one more video featuring Philip Zimbardo speaking on the psychology of evil. The political implications on obedience to authority (apathy) and its converse trait, heroism, are profound. A hint: the very juxtaposition of "hero" and "obedience" as opposites should tell you something about how a free society ought to function.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Is something really wrong with Seattle guys?

The Seattle Times recently ran an opinion by Danielle Campoamor (available here). She claimed, in essence, that guys from Seattle are "shy, timid, and seemingly incapable of striking up conversation" with women. She was since a guest on KIRO radio and is considering a book option, presumably about the subject.

By her own admission, she has subsequently been inundated with dating requests from the same male Seattleites she bashed in her column, at least from the ones who weren't bashing her back (not uncourageously, as bashing tends not to be). Whether this constitutes a point of ironic victory for Pacific North-westerners with penises is out for the jury to decide.

The controversy gives an interesting insight, however, into the mixed messages men are hearing from women. On the one hand, guys hear things like Danielle's column, calling on them to "be a man," to "not to be a pussy," etc etc. On the other, they are increasingly told by radical feminists that initiating any kind of conversation with romantic intent is potentially sexual harassment (depending on the mood of the recipient). Those who point this out are, of course, defending a patriarchal rape-culture, and through their speech are practically defending rape itself. Hell, they're probably a rapist themselves. Rape rape rape. Hey, would you be interested in meeting for coffee? STOP RAPING ME! STOP RAPING ME!

Clearly this isn't the precise verbiage used, but it can certainly come across this way. This is a typical Facebook interaction between these kinds of radical feminists and male non-feminists, pulled from Reddit two days after Danielle's column.

I've gone through my own versions of this kind of conversation, and seen others go through it too. It isn't particularly relevant what the disagreement is about; any conflict of perspective with a liberal-minded woman can potentially land a man with labels that will doom him politically, socially, romantically, and even economically. Who, after all, would want to hire, date, or even be friends with someone whom others claimed to be a misogynist or a rape-apologist?

Is it any surprise that the men in one of the most liberal cities in the country are so coy and hesitant to step out of line in matters concerning the opposite sex?

Danielle says "Some men claim the women's equality movement, which empowered women to simply take care of themselves, has left a man two steps behind and incapable of putting his foot down. I find such an excuse ridiculous." Oh, well if she finds it ridiculous, then I guess it's settled.

In all seriousness, she is in some ways correct. We shouldn't make personal responsibility a casualty of self-pity and the socio-political mission of a radical minority. That said, Campoamor severely underestimates the effect that "progressive" gender expectations have shaped male behavior. Men didn't used to behave like this. They weren't "left two steps behind," which would leave men where they were a few decades ago. A more accurate description would be that they were "pushed two steps forward," (backward is the new forward). They've been trained by the dominant culture of her beloved Capitol Hill that it's safer not to push the boundaries. In essence, Seattle men have done precisely what women have told them to do, and suddenly, women like Danielle are realizing it isn't actually what they wanted.

I recognize that Danielle is clearly not a radical feminist, but some food for thought from more recent news may at least help her and her supporters empathize and understand why men are often behaving as she described, especially in the college-cultured areas where she enjoys spending time. Last month, the Federal Government laid out the blueprints of what they hope to be a nation-wide standard for sexual harassment definitions and codes in colleges. Among the prohibited actions (which fall under the description, hence making perpetrators "sex offenders") is "any request for dates or any flirtation that is not welcomed by the recipient of such a request or flirtation." This is more than just a legal admonishment; it's the classification of ordinary dating behavior, the kind Danielle decries the abject lack of, as something we should morally detest. Ask and ye shall receive.

If women have a problem with guys being too shy and timid, perhaps the issue writers like Danielle should complain about should be the underlying cause of the "demise of guys," (as Zimbardo would say), rather than trying to tackle the symptom as the cause of this social malady. Her theory of guys being too digitally immersed to be functional in "the real world" has some merit to it, but it isn't anything close to adequate by itself. Other parts of the country are as connected as the Northwest, and more so. The primary problem is socially and culturally deeper, and the "manly man" that Danielle and other women are biologically wired to desire--the provider and the protector--will not return until he is allowed to.