Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Feminism and I

Courtesy of Mashable.com
What is it she needs?

The above photo is not a stand-alone picture of a girl who has come to believe all on her own that she's been shorted by our culture. In the bottom right hand, you can see the reference to a Facebook group called "Who Needs Feminism[?]," which is itself part of a much larger trend of people taking pictures of themselves holding descriptions of why they need Feminism.

Remember this phrase: "I need Feminism."

What is Feminism, exactly? The snarky answer proffered to us by many self-proclaimed feminists is that it is "the radical notion that women are people too." But "what is a person?" is a complex, abstract question, let alone the even more complex question of what person-hood means about how we ought to treat them. More to the point, you'd be hard-pressed to find this elusive foe who doesn't think that women are actually people, which is especially shocking when we're repeatedly told that we live in a society dominated by such people and attitudes. No, this won't do.

Google's default definition is that feminism is "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men." This one is not quite as blatantly unhelpful, as it gives something concrete. But concreteness means falsifiability, and women already have the same rights as men do in the United States, politically, socially, and economically. More, in fact, especially when it comes to family courts, the draft, and defining sexual assault. Google's definition won't help us out either.

Feminism is extremely difficult to pin down precisely, but we get the idea that it has something to do with equality and empowering women.

Meet the ultimate empowered woman: Ayn Rand.

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Whether you agree with her philosophy or not, Ayn Rand was a female force of nature. When readers rate the best novels of all time, Rand's works occupy four out of the top ten slots (including first and second place). The protagonist in her masterpiece Atlas Shrugged was as self-confident, successful, and inspirational as the author herself. Her message of self-reliance and the worship of competence and creativity is a message of equality and empowerment.

So why do feminists ignore and even criticize her?

"The question isn't who is going to let you; it's who is going to stop you." --Ayn Rand

Because Ayn Rand doesn't need Feminism. Ayn Rand is not dependent on Feminism (or anyone else, for that matter), which deprives Feminism of it's power.

"They're asking for government power and government handouts." Unlike our first two examined definitions, Feminism defined as a movement seeking power by appealing to the needs of women perfectly matches their actions and attitudes.

But I think the main reason why Ayn Rand annoys feminists so much isn't her disagreement with the doctrine itself, nor is it her independence. It is because she perfectly embodies everything that Feminism claims to be about but isn't, and exposes the deceit in their stated intentions by the black-and-white contrast between Rand's independence and dependence of Feminism.

Courtesy of Shrinks4men
Paul Elam, host of "A Voice for Men," describes the effects of such dependence and externalization of problems from his own past as a former feminist in the mental health and addiction treatment industry:
When I first saw it, I really thought that it was just the next logical step in a society that was looking for equity and looking for fairness and justice. But as time passed, even as I was involved with it myself, I noticed a lot of animosity, a lot of vitriol, a lot of the ideologues that were supposedly looking out for the interests of women actually expressing a message that was targeting men as their problem. I witnessed, in the mental health field, the idea that we were treating addictions, and maybe adding information about special populations in order to enhance our ability to help  people, [turn] to something entirely different. It became a blame-game. Women came into treatment and were basically told by a lot of people that all of their problems were rooted in men, which is of course the complete opposite; the idea of good chemical dependency treatment is that we treat people with accountability for their problems, that we acknowledge that they must take responsibility for their lives if they're going to address a problem that involves their own choices, which addictions certainly do. [Full interview with Janet Bloomfield]
The test of a good theory is its ability to explain reality. Why would Feminism want to go against standard industry knowledge about mental health and hurt women by convincing them to externalize their problems and blame men? This would make no sense if Feminism was a movement about helping and empowering women, but would make perfect sense if it was actually about using women's issues as a lever to gain power.

Simply defining Feminism as a gender-wedging grab for political power and resources would make it bad enough; it's nature is why I distance myself from it and oppose it in principle. But those aren't sufficient to justify my loathing for it and my opposition to it in practice. For me, it's more personal.

Baptisms that spark the intellect can happen in different waters. For some, it's politics; for others, economics. For me, it was religion, or, to be more precise, atheism. I read Dan Barker's book "Godless" and was hooked. I read Dawkins and Harris, and then I discovered Christopher Hitchens... It is said that ninety percent of people fall somewhere on the scale of bisexuality. I'm in the ten percent who don't--I'm completely and absolutely heterosexual--but I feel no shame or dishonesty in saying that Hitchens was, in a way, my first real love. While these encounters opened me up to the doors of politics, economics, philosophy, and literature, I always felt a special interest in studying religion and an attachment to the atheist community.

Then, in July of 2011, Feminism began taking over the Atheist community.

It began with the incident obnoxiously and misleadingly dubbed "Elevatorgate," in which Rebecca Watson, a speaker at the conference, was complimented by a man in an elevator at the hotel for her work and asked if she wanted to join him in his hotel room for coffee. In her vlog about the event, Watson said "guys, don't do that." Both the man's non-confrontational proposition and her unequivocal rejection were, by any reasonable standard, reasonable. The response, however, was not. A few men stated that it was unreasonable to tell people not to flirt at conferences, and they, in-turn, were told that the Atheist community needed to be a safe place for women. As rationalwiki describes, the incident became a "kerfuffle touching on feminism, privilege, conference creeps and the social makeup of the skepticsphere."

As the back-and-forth escalated, a schism formed within atheism, between those self-identifying as feminists, and those who did not. In December of 2012, it reached the point where atheist blogger PZ Myers said: "Right now, for instance, the internet community is racked with these paroxysms of argument over--of all things!--the status of women. We're trying to decide whether women are eye candy and fuck toys and eye candy for privileged white men, or whether we're colleagues together in this movement." People who did not join the Feminist side were ostracized and demonized: the blogger and creationism-debunker extraordinaire Thunderf00t was kicked out of Freethought Blogs. Notorious vlogger TJ Kirk, The Amazing Atheist, was shunned and attacked for his criticisms of Feminism. PJ Myers casually accused Michael Shermer--another non-feminist--of raping a woman at a conference (libel charges are still pending). Even Richard Dawkins has been variously accused of being a misogynist within the world of atheism for laughing at the pettiness of women's complaints in comparison to the harms women experience from religious abuse worldwide.

In the end, Feminism won. As of my writing this, Freethought Blogs writes as much if not slightly more about "Feminism, gender and sexuality," than it does about "Atheism and Skepticism." They froze the community, divided it, and conquered it. They appropriated much of the influence and community that decades of work from atheists and skeptics built to advance atheism and skepticism.

They did it in academia. They've managed it in the mainstream news (except for FOX). They pulled it off in my community, atheism. I'm sure they're doing it in plenty of Churches as well. Now they have their sights set on the gaming world.

This is the main reason why I hate Feminism. Sure, I hate it because it is dishonest. I hate it because it insults the individual capabilities of women and it insults the moral integrity of men. I hate it because it's so impossibly stupid, particularly when it comes to explaining gender differences. And while they do all of that, they'll tell everybody who isn't a transgender, asexual, gay black woman that they're privileged, that they're subconsciously perpetuating some systemic culture of bigotry or other, and we ought to feel ashamed about it. I feel no shame in saying I hate that part of it too, both for its hypocrisy and stupidity. But if that was it, and they left me alone, I wouldn't care that much.

But they won't leave us alone. Feminism is a leech. It wants to take the power and resources that other people have made as their own God-given right, and they have no qualms about destroying those creations in the process. This, I submit to you, is an unpardonable sin. I may not be able to do much, but I take great pleasure in what little vengeance I can visit back in return upon this poisonous ideology that is taking over the minds of my generation, by way of breaking people's illusions that they are morally better for calling themselves "feminists;" far from it.

This is why I call myself an egalitarian and an anti-feminist. I'm going to fight against Feminism to the extent that I can, and if you have any self-respect as a woman or any self-worth as a man, I encourage you to join me and do so as well. You don't need Feminism; it needs you.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Noblesville, Indiana

If you're reading this, thank you S.

It was a quiet Tuesday evening as Bill walked out of his aging, black car to the Denny's, the one near Our Lady of the Snow Church. The lights of the gas-station pierced through the darkness like those bright lone stars shining through on a cloudy night, and the faintest of winds pressed the cold through his clothes, his skin, and into his arthritic bones. The light dusting of snow had hardened the night before, and it crunched like gravel under his slow, uneven step as he walked up the gently winding path towards the golden, glass door.

Kurt and Frank were already inside, their wispy silver hair covered by the same hat Bill wore. He brushed his shoes off on the mat and walked over to sit down with the other two at a table for four. The waitress glanced at the trio, the corner of her lip rising slightly before she returned to wiping down a table on the other side of the brightly-lit room.

The empty chair sat heavily to Kurt's left.

Bill took a seat next to Frank, who was already in a deep discussion with Kurt about flying. All retired now, Kurt had been an investment banker, Frank was a cattle farmer, and Bill had done logistics for an oil company not far from Indianapolis. But here in the quiet evenings of their bright cafe, they were neither retired nor civilian workers, but the soldiers they'd been, together in Vietnam four decades ago.

Robert Frost suddenly came to mind in Bill's brain. It had been four decades since he'd heard it uttered aloud.

Nature's first green is gold
It's hardest hue to hold
It's early leaf's a flower
But only so an hour
Then leaf subside to leaf
So Eden sank to grief
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

Four decades. The voice had been Barry the poet's, whose ghost now sat with them in that orange and yellow diner, accented with green walls and brown shades. Barry had been the machine-gunner in Bill's team. For a machine-gunner, he had been an incongruously tall and lanky man with a narrow face and an appetite for literature, unbecoming for a marine in the group. He hadn't even done the platoon the courtesy of dying in combat so they could helplessly blame it on his intellectual preoccupations. It was a radar accident; he'd been fried when a radar technician accidentally turned on the system while Barry was cleaning of the crap and corpses of seagulls from the upper heights of their destroyer.

Kurt and Frank's conversation veered from flight to Barry. Kurt, the old Navy pilot, and Frank, the aviation technician, would talk radios and planes for hours, but Bill the Marine couldn't keep up with the more technical tone the conversation inevitably took when technology was involved.

"Well, Barry, it's good to see you again," said Kurt in a thick German accent. His eyes pointed to the empty chair, but his voice was aimed at his two living compatriots.

"To Barry! And to us, who carry his ghost along, at least for a little while longer."

"I'm not sure about you Kurt, my cogs and wheels aren't spinning like they used to," piped Frank in a chuckling Tennessee drawl.

Bill smiled and sipped his coffee with the rest of them. The light brown invigorated him, not in chemistry, but in experience. It flowed through his arms like heat, radiating from his chest. The supernova of a dying star. The other two men sipped their coffee too. Kurt coughed suddenly, with the ragged, guttural cough of the sick elderly. He smiled, then resumed sipping his coffee.

It's been a ride, thought Bill. He had no family; no children, no relatives. His wife had died two years ago. Now he was mourning his wife's death as well as Barry's death. But together, and with his aging, dying friends, it was his death they were mourning--no. Celebrating.

He smiled again, then chuckled aloud. The warm yellow lights glowed over them.

"I have Barry's poem. I know you old farts probably don't need to hear it again, but I'm going to say it anyways, because the odds of one of us chasing after Barry increase with every month."

The others nodded somberly, but smiled then smiled in anticipation of the old ritual. Frank leaned back in his chair a bit, as if relaxing while listening to music.

"Gold need not stay: A rebuttal," began Bill. "By Barry Swanson."

Though tarnish dims with grey
Gold's lustrous yellow ray,
And time will, from my mind
This beauteous image grind,
Still wondrous is it now
Before my vessel's prow,
This one-way trip to sea
Is gold enough for me.

"Crazy he wrote that at only 24 years old. Gets me every time," said Frank slowly, several moments after Bill finished. "And by that, I mean, he really gets me! Ha!" He slapped the table enthusiastically. "He writes like an old man looking back on the middle age he never knew."

The trio talked and joked into the night--only another forty minutes or so. The time together decreased every year, but felt long enough for them. Conversation shifted around, from Barry to planes, then to football, then to Frank's grandchildren, then to their respective vehicles and their problems, then finally back to Barry.

As Bill walked back out the golden door and into the cold night air, he glanced appreciatively back at the Denny's--it's young waitress, the bright lights, the comfortable tables and good food--as though for the last time, turned, and walked to his black Lincoln Town Car. It looked eminently hearse-like, but the semblance didn't bother him as it might have in his youth. The car itself was suffering the effects of age, and likely only had around ten thousand miles left before it'd need an engine rebuild.

Bill climbed in and took off his hat. He placed it ceremoniously on the passenger seat and turned the ignition key. The old Lincoln sputtered, coughed, and then came to life with a chuckle. "All right Lincoln. Let's go home," he said aloud. He backed up, turned, and, waving out the window to Kurt and Frank, drove off into the night.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Hunt

It was on the way down, moving down into that black gulch, that I saw the stag in the dappled light sifting through the aspen foliage. How the light faded! From the sunlit ridge, up, above the shadow of the surrounding hills, to the bone-white stripes of the gloomy wood, I was nearly surprised I could see anything at all. The scattered beams of sunlight penetrating the forest canopy had the effect of camouflaging everything beneath its gaze. And yet there it was. Standing, perfectly still, doomed as I did not then know, a ten-point buck.

Were my doctor more agreeable to my condition, and were my left arm not so numb (much to the good doctor's ignorance, thank god), I would have certainly brought my rifle along; a steady if brutish Marlin 30-30 with a kick almost as ferocious as that of its intended target. Unable to leave the house entirely unarmed, I brought a pair of binoculars and a pen and pad of paper. This close to the Dark Valley, that old aphorism about the pen and the sword really loses it's feeble obsolescence.

So too, as I walked down into the black gulch, did the sights around me seem more invigorating and enchanting than they used to be. In my mind their descriptors simply appeared in flowery language, and for that, dear reader, if you are indeed reading this, I sincerely apologize. I am no artist, or never have been before, that is, but I have always had an untapped gift with words. But I fear I would risk the dishonesty of downplaying the divine, were I to pretend the sights around me, and my own experience of them, here, on the cusp of light and darkness, were not so desperately fantastic. Desperate is not quite the right word, but no other adverb will do.

The stag was patient in its movement; I had the sense that it was quietly aware of me long before I noticed the handsome brown creature, so steady was his offset gaze. After a few moments of mutual awareness, he dropped his head back down to the small patch of grass in which the animal stood. Everything about it seemed graceful--believe me, reader, when I say that ordinarily such descriptions irritate me and strike me as spiritualist muck, grey in every way, but most especially in its put-on profundity. But here it seemed so true; the deer's muscles and shape, perfectly etched in tawny fur that looked, to the touch of my eyeballs, for all the world as the texture of silk feels under the fingertips.

Such was my bliss in that moment that everything was already over before my consciousness and credulity could catch up. A flash of movement in the brush behind the stag; the faint thud of impact as a mass of blonde fur collided with the deer; the ensuing entanglement; the kicking of the deer. I, as desperate for the deer's survival as the deer's flailing legs.

Somehow, the deer managed to right itself, but the mountain lion--as I now saw that flurry of death had been--still hung about its' neck. The mortally wounded creature, stepped, staggered, then spread its legs and stood, trying to remain upright. I could practically feel the life ebb out of the princely beast, from a hole somewhere in my chest. Its head hung down, and the mountain lion hung, quite still, about its' shoulders. It was nearly sunset, and the deer had mere minutes, perhaps seconds, before death would finally claw out its' throat in that black gulch.

In the most peculiar fashion, I found my sympathy (the source of which I still can't justify, except to say I felt a desperate necessity to sympathize with something), shift from the soon-to-be-deceased to its murderer. The great cat was, in fact, anything but great. It's sides were lean enough to see the individual ribs outlined beneath the blonde fur. There were the scars of healed gashes in it's tawny side. Perhaps the wounds of a lost fight, perhaps a brush with a bear, or perhaps the death throes of a recent victim. Or, more likely, the reminder of the successful defense of an elk or caribou, still roaming the forest somewhere.

Perhaps it too was near death, more knowingly, when it collided with that ill-fated dear in the black gulch, beneath the ridge-top I was now descending.

The various possibilities of the situation were unavoidable to me, and they charged into my head like a desperate blonde ball of death. Were the deer to have escaped, I noticed, the death of the feline would have been assured. Is that too murder? And starvation, what an atrocious, helpless death too! Were I armed, both the deer and the cougar, by indirect extension, would be doomed. Or perhaps the deer, by jaws, and then the mountain lion, by Marlin. And then I realized I had forgotten an important possibility: were the deer to have escaped, the desperate cat would have another last-resort option for survival, descending like a fated fool into that black gulch.

The source of my agony--watching death descend like a twilight shadow upon everything in the gulch--was not apparent to me in the moment, as the folly of my motives had not been apparent to me in all of my previous trips up to the ridge. There I came armed with death, and the life around me felt peripheral, uninteresting. It could wait, would wait for another day for my attention. And here I was, on that other day, looking with the insanity of a poet for life. And with the justice of a poet, nature has denied it to me.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Aaron Peleides, the Bully

I never thought I'd punch him.

I never thought I was even capable of punching anyone, in fact, let alone sending John Baker Jr., the tall kid with blonde hair and a vicious laugh, to the hospital with a broken jaw and a fractured cheek. I'm not really a violent person, though I do have my moments of quiet anger. I sort of thought we all do. But here I am, sitting at Camp Clarity for Social Rehabilitation in the wilderness of Montana, being told to journal about my feelings. Most people don't end up in Montana like this. Most people aren't bullies, and I'm a bully, so they say. I guess maybe I do experience it a bit more than most people.

When I'm angry, I can't think straight. All the ideas I'd have about what I was going to say if John teased me about some bruise on my arm, or about the comic book I was carrying, all those pre-planned, witty comments I had would simply vanish. I'd draw a blank if I tried to remember them, but usually I'd forget to try. And his comments always seemed controlled, calculated to maximize the humiliation, but to minimize the appearance of any effort on his part. They were so intentionally casual, so wickedly offhand, that any response I made felt--and would certainly appear--to be an emotional overreaction. Usually his comments, if written down and taken out of context, would even sound kind. But if I didn't respond, it would look like a tacit submission and acceptance of his dominance, of my submission.

Any parent or teacher would hardly recognize John's laughter as vicious, or even recognize his comments as the eroding droplets of water on the face of a chinese water-torture patient. There was no "hey faggot!," or "you smell like shit!," or anything so obvious. It was always something much more casual. "Hey, what'dya got for lunch for me today?" "Hey, you're not gonna come hang out with us?" No, of course I'm not going to come hang out with you, and you know I wouldn't want to, which means I know why you're asking. "Hey man, really, I got nothing against gays; I can help you find a good boyfriend if you want." Such an evil, sympathetic-sounding voice, Of course the girl I liked most would never spend time with a doormat like me, and John knew it too. He'd seen me watching her at lunch, and commented on it at the time.

But of course, no teacher would ever put the whole picture together; they simply weren't around enough to hear him contradict what he'd said to me a mere two days ago, and by itself, it all sounded inclusive. Kind. Sympathetic. John was a good person to them. Popular, good at sports, reasonable grades, and involved in community service projects (where he mainly just goofed off with his friends). If I ever did respond from my heart, I'm sure whatever might have passed my lips would have sounded as unjustified, vicious, and bullying as John's comments actually were.

That was the diabolical beauty of his bullying. He kept his head and his wit, while draining away mine. He was an absolute vampire.

I'd dream sometimes about beating the living shit out of him. In fact, I was almost ashamed, even as I was having them, of how brutal I could be in the world of sleep. I fantasized about punching him in the stomach until he doubled over, then punching him in the kidneys and face until he fell down. I imagined, with horrible glee, pulling out a knife and kneeling on his arms, pinning him face up under me. The knife moved towards his face and I would slowly, deliberately press the edge to his lips. Only in a dream-world could I cut off his lips while he thrashed and screamed. Without any emotion on my face, I cut out his tongue. And with a final feeling of triumph, I stuffed his tongue in his right ear, and his lips in the left. I felt like a cop handing out a speeding ticket, such was my feeling of the pettiness of the justice being dispensed. Such was my feeling of justice. Such was my ruinous rage.

I challenge you, Ms. Robinson, if they photocopy this and send it to you, to tell me you've never dreamed of something this brutal yourself. Tell it to my face, so I can see your eyes as you tell me I'm abnormal for thinking these thoughts. I'll bet you can't do it. You'll say "but I never punched someone," as if that answers the question. As if all of our shared dreams, our subconscious understanding of the injustice of everything, of how we protect the bullies and the sociopaths and then rain down condemnation, ridicule, and hatred on those of us who don't have the social savvy to twist your stupid rules back on themselves and make balloon figurines out of them.

That's what makes me the bully from all of this. Where John was wise in the ways of navigating the ins and outs of cliques, etiquette, etc, I had the social dexterity of a blind elephant. Where John could lie with the grace of an angel, I had no poker face. Nothing but the truth could sound plausible from my lips, and even that was sometimes tricky. I hated liars, and I was proud of my disability.

My advantage would have been in the realm of honor and virtue, since John had none to speak of, and it's far more difficult to fake. But honor has long since been replaced by rules, laws, and policies. That's what my dad used to say anyways, and I believe him. There was no rule that someone like John could not flip and use for his own purpose. No policy to oppose bullying that he could not use as a shield for his own behavior. His words flew in below the radar, below the threshold of what we defined as bullying. Redefine it, and he'd simply ratchet back a bit. They could have made all speech against the rules, but no law could stifle the evil in his heart and his ability to communicate it, someway or another.

That's why, Ms. Robinson, you'll never understand that when John asked how my day was going, and whether or not I planned on asking Rebecca out (right in front of her! he was saying this to me, before I was ready, humiliating me, right in front of her!), you may well never understand that you can't put a label on bullying, and that what John was doing was vicious, not kind. Evil, not friendly.

That's why you'll think I'm a psychopath, that I'm unbalanced, that I'm a loose cannon, who needs counseling and therapy to control my anger for turning around to walk away, then spinning back and throwing all of my weight down my arm, into my closed fist, and onto the side of John's sympathetic, smirking face. Maybe I need drugs to drain my passion, which could have fueled my progress on the clarinet or drawing, but turned to this instead. I never thought I'd punch him, never thought I could be driven to do that, and then driven all the way out to Camp Clarity for Social Rehabilitation in the wilderness of Montana, and being told to journal about my feelings. I never thought I, Aaron Peleides, would be a bully,

But here I am.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Wraith Watch (tentative Prologue & beginning of Chapter 1)


A laser of moonlight pierced the darkness in the old Scottish cave, coming to rest on the closed eyes of the man sleeping there. They opened.

The stone walls were musty, and they sweat droplets down their ancient faces, tears of condensation dripping down the fine masonry in the cool night air. Frost clung to the grass outside, had begun forming on the flat surfaces inside too, and as the man's exhalations increased, the puffs of vapor from his mouth lit up like billowing clouds in the ray of light illuminating the dark chamber.

The man rose up from where he had been laying. He knew what time it was, but he peered down at a primitive-looking pocket watch suspended from a leather necklace, just to be certain. The workings of his body were like those of his time-keeping devices, and they moved together. Even as he rose, the beam of moonlight vanished as the moon passed its mark in the sky. If his calculations were correct, the beam would return again in fifty years time.

The man wore nothing save the watch and a beard of fantastic proportions; although he would have only looked to be in his fifties clean-shaven, the long grey and white strands added a good twenty years to his appearance. After a few long moments of waking up, the smell of the matted hair seemed to disturb even its owner as his movement wafted the years of neglect in the stone dwelling up through his protesting nostrils. First order of business is shaving,he thought.

After food, of course.

The man set about waking up slowly, knowing that the muscular atrophy wouldn't permit prolonged activity as he used to do. He massaged and stretched his limbs as he started the fire. The familiar embers danced and crackled as the hearth was brought back to life from its owner's slumber. The copper rods running beneath the stone floor glowed where the ends protruded into the flames, emanating warmth up through the flagstone. It warmed the wiry sinews in his legs, the calloused bottoms of his feet.

The fifty years had been an approximate. There was no way to be sure if he was a year or two off, and in which direction, but he knew the time was close. The patterns sometimes rushed or delayed a bit, but they never failed. The old calendar room hadn't been calibrated for the time he needed when it was originally built three thousand years ago, of course, and he'd had to do a bit of architectural modification to get the alignment suited to his needs, but it still functioned essentially as it always had. About as effectively too. As far as the man could tell, the alignment had been about one and a half seconds early.

The man packed a leather rucksack as the water boiled: dry food, a blanket, a double-edged knife, and a small collection of gold ornaments and coins. It wasn't much, but it should be enough to purchase a boat-ticket across the Atlantic. The man pulled the knife back out of the rucksack and gripped the handle. The blade felt familiar to him as he drew it and examined the edge, touching it lightly with his finger. A drop of blood formed where the iron had touched. Excellent.

He took one more look at the carefully aligned hole in the wall, where the moonbeam had pierced his eyelids. The faint light of dawn was filtering in, pink and yellow against the black and grey walls, flecked with flickering orange light from the fire. The time had not yet come, but it was approaching.

Chapter 1 - Obituaries

Reading the obituaries in our local town newspaper had never particularly bothered me. At least not the way I felt that it should. It was always some old strangers passing along, some old stranger with breath that smelled of leather, incorrigible driving habits, a fine taste in literature, who spontaneously sang aloud. Some old stranger who would be greatly missed by their family, their church and (usually quite elderly) friends. The printed praising of the departed made sometimes made me wonder if bad people ever took their turn for a change and died of with the rest of us. Reading the obituaries, it didn't seem so. Reading the obituaries was a train of kind old grandmas with cancer kicking the bucket, making room for their grandchildren, who would deeply, deeply miss them. I know that last part is true because I read it in the obituaries.

But the Koschei family slaughter really was different. This was no story about a stroke finally taking down a beloved family patriarch with one leg already in the grave. Young couple, successful, beautiful, immigrants by the sound of it--Ukranian father and Scottish mother. Beautiful couple, gunned down by bank robbers. Their six-year-old son was in the hospital, a bullet lodged in his heart, but still alive somehow. Adam was his name.

It wasn't their death, I slowly came to realize, but their lack of life that bothered me. Sure, all the old strangers that ate candy and shopped at the farmer's market lacked life when they died, but they had followed their trail all the way. They'd had their allotted time, and were politely passing the baton on. I thought, these deaths shouldn't bother me. I thought: they just finished up their time a bit early. Some take the long road, some go home early. "Go away," I corrected myself. I tend to extend my metaphors a bit too far when I'm thinking.

But something about the theft of these two tugged at something between my shoulder blades and inflated my lungs with hot indignation. The news piece that correlated to the story did make me feel bit better, of course. I didn't need to read it, having written it yesterday myself. The details still came to mind at my command: "two gunmen chased by police... quarter block... gunned down by law enforcement agents, one in critical condition, charges pending..."

One of the clumsy duo had tripped and accidentally sprayed Mr. and Mrs. Koschei with his automatic weapon. Anatol, the tall Ukrainian professor, had been hit five times in the chest, once in the arm, once in his hand, and twice in the neck. He'd bled to death through his carotid artery. Evalyn, the brunette Scottish beauty and advertising guru, had been shot twice in the stomach, once through her left breast, and two more times through her face. The policeman I talked to said even with the bullet wounds in her forehead and cheek, she looked beautiful.

And poor Adam took one in the chest, straight to the heart. I couldn't stifle a black chuckle at the time when I was told the boy was in "critical condition." The phrased seemed so inadequate, describing the state of the boy that once had been Adam Koschei. God knows who he would become after all of this. But if the boy did die, I thought, at least the robbers had shown me that the scales were even with a broad enough picture frame through which to look at the world. The bad guys do die, occasionally. Inevitably. We all have to die. No one escapes.

With that, I finished my coffee got up to go shower.


"Grandpa, what does enlightenment mean?"

Frank carefully turned the prickly question over in his old mind, grey eyes steady on the road.

"Well, young Killian..."

He paused for dramatic effect. How to answer this question...

"Enlightenment... where'd you hear the term?"

"Joey at school."

"Oh, well..."

Another pause, this time noticeably less dramatic. Killian waited patiently, his eight-year-old ears perked.

"Enlightenment is a kind of happiness, but not all happiness is enlightenment."

Frank's hopefulness in his vague answer fell away as he saw that Killian's waiting attention showed no sign of satisfaction.


Another pause. When he spoke again, his voice came from the mountains far ahead of them.

"It's the happiness that comes after you've felt pain and overcome it. Enlightenment comes after you've sang the saddest songs you know off-key, mouthing the words because you can't actually speak, when you can't even breathe you're crying so hard from the pain. When you've cried so much that you feel like vomiting, and simply cough up tears that aren't there, when you reach that point where the person you value most--"

His voice caught. "--or thing you value most, of course.

"When that leaves you, then you find yourself with nothing but the worst pain you can imagine, then you eventually come out the other side and realize that you're still alive. What's more, that even though you lost what was greatest to you, some things in life still make it all worth it.

"After a time, you come to understand that nothing can keep you down forever, because there's always good out there, no matter how small."

He turned back and looked at Killian. "That understanding gives you strength and gives your happiness endurance. That's enlightenment."

"So enlightened people can't be unhappy?" Not a beat was skipped.

"Oh, yes they can." Frank's eyes returned to the hills in the distance. "But it takes the edge off to know that you can be happy without... whatever it is that you miss, even if it feels like you lost the whole world."

Killian began to grasp that his questions were hitting Frank just below the sternum, but not that this meant good graces called upon him to cease.

"Are you enlightened Grandpa?"

Frank chuckled at the suggestion. "No my boy, not by a long ways."

Killian paused for a moment, feeling a connection but not understanding its' full nature.

"Was Grandma enlightened?"

A minute passed by silently as the pair drove on. The mountains loomed, ancient and ambivalent before them, and the road trailed away into empty farmland behind them. Frank's mind raced like their car towards the ominous, dark cliffs rising up ahead, nearly leaving Killian behind. But after a moment he remembered the boy and came back.

"Yes Killian. I think so."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Leaving Graywinter

It was a quarter till midnight when George finally arrived at John's apartment, pulling through the mud and snowy slush at the Graywinter complex. He trudged under the black security cameras, up the white snow and pushed on the grey door to number 203.

Rick spoke first as the door opened. "Ah, here's George. John, tell him about the notice from Graywinter management you were telling me about."

The young men were sitting down for a few drinks after their Thursday of retail and monotony. Still at the age when the freedom from schools and parents was a novel, exhilarating sensation, their shared evenings at the two-bedroom, two-bathroom on the second floor were what made life worth living. This was the breath of wind through the pine and cedar after two decades in a sterilized hospital ward. They called it John's apartment even though it belonged to all three of them, simply as a matter of habit. John had found it and moved in first.

"Oh! So the fucking rent lady sent us this notice that says from now on, they need the password for our internet hotspot to make sure we're not doing anything illegal online on their property. And they want to be able to view our email and facebook profiles, supposedly for the same reason. Isn't that bullshit?'

Rick jumped in. "I don't even know why they'd need that. It's not like there's been any issues with illegal activity online in the past, so it doesn't even make sense. Besides, it's not like they'd be liable for any illegal shit we do anyways."

John turned to look at George.

"Dude, can they even do this? I'm not even sure it's legal."

"It probably is, somehow. They have lawyers check all this shit." Rick spit the words as if in contempt. The contempt itself wasn't quite there. "It's bullshit in any case," he threw in, just for good measure.

George sat for a few seconds.

"It doesn't matter if it's legal or not. It's wrong, and I won't put up with it."

"You won't put up with it? What does that mean? It's not like there's anything we can do about it."

John's expression of outrage noticeably softened as he spoke.

"I don't know yet. Hand me a beer."

The conversation drifted to the logistics of opening beer bottles; superior designs, whether the keychain or belt-buckle was more handy, and the optimal metal for bottle-opener construction. Outside, the winds were picking up and the snow was falling harder.

George got up and stood by the window, looking out at the black winter around them. Fifteen minutes of talking about designs for inventions that would never be built had brought his mind back to the black winter's notice.

"I'm moving out," he said suddenly. The words came out and the thought formulated itself simultaneously.

"Dude, what the hell are you talking about?"

Rick seemed unconvinced. "Don't overreact man. It's not like they're setting our bedtimes or sending us off to a labor camp. They just want access to our internet."

"Hold up! Wait a second there... if they're doing this to check for illegal activity, any illegal activity, that's potential leverage they could use against you if you're being rowdy, even before quiet hours. It's not like they need to actually act on any illegal activity they might find, at least not right away. And if they did, instead of kicking us out, they could report it to the police. So yeah, actually. They are setting our bedtimes or possibly sending us off to a labor camp. If they felt like it."

Rick's exasperated shrug arced over his head as though George's statement had just rudely buzzed around his head on the wings of a drunken mosquito. "Alright, now you're just being ridiculous--"

"None of us do anything illegal!"

"Really? Do you know all the laws? How much would you be willing to bet you've lived a clean, legal life online?"

John paused before responding. "Dude, you're just making shit up now. They wouldn't do that."

"I'd have thought they wouldn't do something like this, but they did."

"Whatever man. You do your thing. But it's not like this is abnormal or anything. Plenty of other apartments, companies, and schools have been doing this recently; I just looked it up."

"That doesn't make it right."

Rick sipped his beer, sat forward in his chair and pressed his fingers together as a philosopher or chess player might do before their coup de grรขce.

"Look Saint George, it's like this: we young, poor guys need apartment set-ups like this that give nice places for cheap. They're just looking out for their own interests when they put these crazy rules in place. Ten-to-one odds there's some liability thing with their insurance behind it.

"All your moralistic crap about things being 'right' or 'wrong' is garbage. All you're saying when you say something is 'wrong,' is 'this is inconvenient to me.' Well guess what, Mr. High and Noble, you're not the only one here, and what's convenient to a lot of people might not be convenient to you.

"You live in a group of guys--us--and we're relying on you for your share of the rent. You can't just leave on some moral principle that you just made up and fuck us like that.

"And bigger than that, we all live in an interconnected society. You're not some lone island, who picked yourself up by your bootstraps and built yourself up with your own two hands. You have us, your family, the government, your schools, and even this little apartment complex to thank for where you are today. We're all indebted to them, so if this measly price is what you we have to pay, so be it. I'll pay it gladly. Hell, I'm not doing anything illegal; certainly not any more illegal than anyone else I know anyways, we all basically do the same thing. I'm not doing anything wrong, so I don't mind them looking through my shit."

He folded his hands across his chest and sat back. John gave a little triumphant snort and smirked in George's general direction, accidentally dropping his beer as he did so. He'd strategically chuckled throughout Rick's argument, but in all the wrong places, giving the impression that he completely agreed with Rick without having properly understood any of it.

"How the piper has changed his tune. Saint George now, am I?"

George looked out the window again.

"I kind of like it."

The snow was building up on the cars now. In the short half-hour, nearly an inch had accumulated, and it showed no signs of stopping. Out in the woods--he had to press his hands and face to the glass to see beyond the glare--he saw a deer stepping gingerly across the white field and into the black forest. The faint tinge of brown on the animal was the only hint of shade or color in the blizzard. Everything else was black or white under the cover of darkness. The glare off the mirrored glass hid the black and white landscape from the other two, but standing so close, it was clear to George.

Rick shifted a bit, as the harsh words hung in the air a bit longer than he'd intended.

"Would you say it's merely 'inconvenient' when someone is raped or murdered? A mere violation of good taste?"

George paused, thinking. The trio had had their run-ins over these issues in the past, but never so directly. It had all been passing snipes and witty stabs, never given or taken seriously because the differences between their ideas had always been abstract and intellectual. Now George had laid a real choice lay before them, and the clever comebacks, which had seemed a mark of sophistication before, made Jerry feel suddenly more unprepared for acting on his moral notions than if they'd never talked about them.

"Here's the problem you're trying to wriggle out of Rick: if what's convenient--what's pleasurable or painful--to me is something I shouldn't really concern myself with, why should anyone care of yours? You obviously don't care about my preferences. As for the preferences of society, that's just a bunch of individual's too, whose hopes and dreams are discarded as easily as mine. Or am I special?

"If you're going to say that things being really 'right' or 'wrong' is garbage, than you have no ground at all to be upset. I can't even ask you 'what's wrong?' because nothing could possibly be wrong. You're just being inconvenienced somehow, but we shouldn't concern ourselves with the inconveniences of an individual.

"But of course, what's convenient for me does not make the moral choice, and you're actually doubly wrong because it would be more convenient for me to stay. Don't act like you're taking this position as if it's because you care about other people."

Rick seethed at the insinuation, but there was no indignation in his face.

"Shut the fuck up, asshole. Just pay the goddamn rent and move on."

"I'm not finished yet. I have one more point to make."

George didn't seem to notice Jerry, was carrying on without looking at him, without noticing Jerry's arms begin to tremble. His words flowed like cool water over his sizzling hot friend in the armchair.

"I never thought I'd have heard you say it, but you did. You said you don't mind them looking through your stuff? Anyone can see through that bullshit; you're lying and you know it."

Rick rose to his feet, his eyes wide.

"You're defending the people who wish to spy on you, to have control over you, but not because being right in an argument with me is so important... no. You've conceded points to me before, as we all have to you, with no issues. You don't want to face some inconsistency in your past, you don't want to look at your parents, or maybe yourself, as you would have to look at Graywinter. And so you defend them. But don't you see this? Don't you see you're defending the attack against yourself? You're speaking like one fit to be a slave--"

His words were cut off as Rick's fist sliced through the air and into the back of George's head. He tilted forward, and his forehead passed through the glass pane, shattering it. A shower of tinkling glass, the broken mirror of glass, fell to the floor with George. The glare was replaced by the clear black and white of the world outside, stained along the edges by their friend.

John sat still in his seat, paralyzed by incredulity and comforting helplessness.

Slowly, George turned on the floor. Blood dripped from his forehead and seeped from his hands. His eyes gazed steadily downward.

"...and so you'll be ruled like one," he said quietly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Five Things That Six Years Of Debating Has Taught Me

New York Times
This is my last blog post.

I've spent the last six years arguing. I know I hold no professional title or public prestige in this self-appointed occupation, but it is nonetheless true. It began with religion, after I became an atheist in High School, and has since morphed into intense conversations about politics, economics, climate, education, philosophy, culture, history, and even literature. Some of these conversations were deeply enjoyable. Others, not so much. But all the while through, I persevered in having these conversations (and educating myself about the subjects), not specifically because they were enjoyable, but because they were so intensely important. And they weren't important for their own sake, but were important because of the way that their answers--and our ignorance of them--affect our day-to-day lives. All of the big questions are big precisely because they influence in our most basic assumptions about life, our universe, and each other. In other words, they are important because they determine the shape, structure and existence of what is ultimately the most important thing in life: our relationships.

Except for the big Catch-22: short of going on a killing spree, this pursuit is one of the most effective ways of purging your life of all social ties. It's not that no one wants to talk about these issues; it's that no one wants to be contradicted. Everyone wants to be right and, what's worse, the wise and knowledgeable are aware of how little they know; the ignorant and stupid (at least in relation to the big questions) are not... which means that they are usually the ones who are more confident in their misinformed opinions and more eager to take up causes. They're the ones most actively and self-assuredly pushing the buttons that control this monstrous contraption we're all riding along in. The desire to stop them from destroying everything, or even just a few things, is difficult to control, but the cost is the very reason these issues are worth caring about in the first place: your relationships, even with the ones driving us brilliantly towards oblivion.

But this is not a plea for pity, or a vain cry of anguish at an unfair, uncaring universe. I've learned a lot about what's really important in life from these conversations, and especially from losing friends over these conversations. A few of them were intelligent, funny, and intensely driven. From these losses, I've compiled a list of rules to follow in contemplating the big questions.

1.) Divide people into categories.

This doesn't mean they must be locked in, or to stereotype based on something superficial (like race), but seriously consider people's personalities and how much your relationship with them means to you. I have three categories: (A) people I love, and therefore don't want to have serious conversations with; (B) people I love because I can have serious conversations with; and (C) people who I don't love.

Many people will have a very difficult time admitting that the third category exists for themselves. We've been taught that we must love everyone, after all. I'm here to inform you that you are under no such obligation; some people are stupid, some people are straight-up assholes, and some people are just boring, or otherwise not fun to be around. Some of these people we love anyways. Maybe they're family, or we grew up with them. But make no mistake--you don't have to love these people. Society functions better when we all treat each other decently, sure, but holding a door open for a person at a store doesn't mean I love them. I'd just as soon ignore them, or even verbally destroy them if they said something vulgar or stupid about someone or something I do care about.

If this is still difficult to swallow, consider that some people hate other people. Or maybe they don't hate them, but are convinced of something that will hurt or kill others. Can you love both simultaneously? Not without doing violence to the meaning of love. If you love Fred, you can't simultaneously love John, whose hatred or stupidity will maim or kill Fred. If you claim to love John, you aren't acting consistently with loving Fred. And so you must choose. The fatuous claim to love everyone is a cop-out, an empty ego-boost, and an insult to those who really deserve your love.

2.) Don't debate with people you care about

This one is slightly more complex for me, because I have a number of friends that I care about in part because they make such great conversation partners. But if you aren't like me, and don't watch hundreds of hours of debates on YouTube while debating your friends' friends on Facebook for the sheer pleasure of it, this may not be a category for you. These friends of mine are unique and extraordinarily rare in their ability to emotionally detach themselves from their own position (but not from the conversation), and so our friendship is, for the most part, safe from harm.

With these exceptional individuals aside, talking about big questions with people you love is an invitation for tension, anger, frustration, miscommunication, and ultimately the destruction of that relationship.

3.) Don't stop learning

The fact that talking with the people in your day to day life about big-question topics is generally counterproductive on several levels doesn't mean that the issues are no longer important to understand.

On a related note, there will be people--journalists, statisticians, statesmen and ordinary citizens--who will still take up the flag and go on the charge. Not only do they give you the opportunity to stay informed on these most important of issues, but often do so at significant personal and financial cost, ranging from the loss of a few friends to loss of liberty or life (Edward Snowden, Salmon Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh, etc). They may not lose a limb in combat, but for some of them it may feel like it. Remember that, and remember that they're the ones allowing you to inform yourself.

4.) Consider that you might be the stupid one in any given subject

It happens to the best of us. Don't be offended when someone points it out; thank them. Odds are high that you are one of the assholes pushing the world towards death, and didn't even know it, whether it's because of your religion (or lack of it?), your politics, or your atrocious sense of style.

5.) Always remind yourself what you can and cannot control

There's a degree of nihilistic angst that comes with the realization that the most important thing in life and the pursuit of its preservation can often be mutually exclusive. When some large parts of humanity are dedicated to bringing all of us to the afterlife together, while other even larger groups attempt to reshape economic laws that only work if we make some definitively false assumptions about human psychology and motivation (otherwise they destroy everything), it can sometimes feel like you jumped out of an airplane with fellow jumpers who packed all of your backpacks with prayer-books instead of parachutes. At 10,000 feet in free fall, there isn't much you can do; talking is no use, and nothing you can do solo will possibly save you. But suppose you could save yourself, while the rest of the world fell to their death--being right, metaphorically. Would a life of solitude be worthwhile?

In the meantime, you're still at 9,500 feet. You can't control your fate, but you're surrounded by other people, doomed just as you are. Ask them who they are. Tell them a funny joke. If you're feeling ambitious, write a final message to your children about the dangers of skydiving with prayer-warriors. Who knows; maybe the books will save you (probably not). Maybe you'll hit water, but in either case, you have no final say in the matter. But you do have a say in how you use that time, and maybe influencing what that time looks like for your children, just a little bit. And remember that no matter how dreary our future seems, how dense our planet cohabitants may seem, the short decades we have to experience it all is a fantastic accident more improbable than winning the lottery. That's important.


So long internet debate world, and good riddance. Fellow internet-debaters, get out as soon as you can. You're the captain of your own ship, and no one else is going to save you from the island of isolation. Sail away. Go learn a skill, drive a truck, or become a carpenter. Fall in love. Live life for yourself, don't let it lapse away for some dumb cause or other. You'll do more good, do less harm, and enjoy it all far more for it.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Who's Responsible For Your Income?

I had a phone interview last week with my new employer--we'll call him Bill--a finishing carpenter who works on the finest homes in the Seattle area. "I'm huffin' and puffin'," he said early on (he was breathing rather heavily). "We work hard here." When he asked how much I expected to make, I told him that I expected to be compensated based on the value of my work, and that I didn't have a set amount I was expecting. Bill responded by telling me a story of another employee he'd trained who had said the same thing. "He looked at his first paycheck and said 'there's been a mistake, you're paying me $15 an hour instead of the $12 we agreed upon,' but I told him that was no mistake. He got better and was doing more work. That's what we like to see."

The equation is simple: the harder you work, the more you'll be paid. If you want more pay, you have to work more, harder, or both. If you feel that you are worth more than you are being paid, you can either attempt to convince your employer of their error or you can find work elsewhere. This has nothing to do with abstract constructs like "justice," "fairness," or "rights," and everything to do with mutual benefit and the subjective value of what it is you're providing to potential customers.

Right before my phone interview, I'd dropped by Bellevue College, where the faculty was pasting flyers about how they could barely afford this or that commodity (usually something aiming at the gut, like childcare), and this fact proved that they were being exploited by the school. What a peculiar inversion of responsibility! Instead of the burden being on the parent to raise the child--or on any particular person to feed and clothe themselves--it is expected that your employer should pay you based not for the work that you do, but on the demands accumulated by your own choices. Choices which your employer had no say in, of course.

An indirect acquaintance of mine whom we'll call Alex found himself in that precise predicament. Alex was a teacher, and didn't earn enough to support his family, so he simply picked up more classes at other schools--at last count, he was teaching at about six different schools through their online platforms, and manages to comfortably support his family of four single-handedly. Despite his busy work life, he still finds time to do independent research as well as watch TV, garden, and spend time with his family and kids. His ratemyprofessor.com score is 4.5.

Is everybody as smart, resourceful, and organized as Alex, or as dedicated and hardworking as Bill? Probably not, but then again, they could be below many who are making less than they are. The key difference between the likes of Bill and Alex and the exploited professors at Bellevue College is their perspective on whose responsibility it is to take care of them. You can take responsibility for yourself, think proactively, and do some real work to improve your standing; or you can put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of others, whereupon you can angrily decry how the universe hasn't treated you fairly as you remain stagnant right where you are.

A final note: some jobs really are terrible. They don't pay well, and they just aren't fun. Don't these employers owe their employees wages that will sustain a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle?

No. They don't. In fact, they don't owe anybody anything, let alone a job, let alone high wages. These employers are hiring people into positions that are generally low in both skill and responsibility. Some people do appear to be content to work in these sorts of jobs all of their lives, whether they're a cook gradually working their way into management at a fast-food joint, or if they're a janitor happy with a modest but stable income. For others who aren't so content, the way to a more comfortable standard of living is not an appeal to the non-existent right of a "living-wage" ("living" by whose standards anyways?), but to broaden and deepen your skill set to make you more valuable, either to your current employer or to a future one. Go to the library, or watch some YouTube videos. Show up to a job-site, or, like I did, just browse Craigslist and find an apprenticeship. If you can afford it, take some classes and get a degree. Maybe even start your own business.

In short, it's time employees stopped expecting their employers to solve all of their financial problems for them. Everyone else is busy taking care of themselves because they're adults, and it's time BC's professors and others like them drop their narcissism and follow suit.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"American Spartan" Review

Aristotle defined "tragedy" as an arrangement of incidents simulating real-life. Based on a chain of cause-and-effect incidents, they culminate in a climax that purges the readers of emotions like pity, fear, and outrage by bringing those feelings to the fore through the story. Complex tragedies, he said, are not just simple changes of fortune brought on by a singular catastrophe, but a reversal of intention and the eventual recognition of this reversal. Sophocles captured this in Oedipus Rex and Antigone, Mike Rowe humorously captured these concepts out of narrative structure in his experience of lamb-castration, but Ann Scott Tyson found a real-life, Aristotelian tragedy in the heroic story of special forces Major Jim Gant.

The ethics of the book are complex and contentious on all fronts, not the least of which being the romantic relationship between the author and the subject, but the events are deeply informative, vivid, and heartbreaking. More important still, they are accurate. As the story moves forward, the official answer to Gant's question, "are we really trying to win?" becomes more clear, as does the price of being passionate and being right in a bureaucratic world like the United States military. The well-written story brings much needed self-knowledge to what's really going on in our wars abroad, and how our own government threatens to lose the war against Al Qaeda and its kind that has been fought so bravely and so selflessly by our Green Berets and the Afghans fighting with them.

Major Gant was deeply inspired by Steven Pressfield's novel Gates of Fire, the story of Thermopylae that moved Jim to take on the Spartan warrior as part of his identity. But Pressfield in turn was inspired by Tyson's account of Gant, saying "if you read only one book this year about war or politics, read American Spartan." Between the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq--with or without our presence--and the expanding bureaucratic government in the world of healthcare, economics and data-collection, such a poignant and prescient account could not be more important, and I agree wholeheartedly with Pressfield.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why you should stop watching porn. Right now.

Since I am assuming the reader is male, I want you to imagine your girlfriend (or potential girlfriend) is in another room with a friend. Despite their quiet tone, and your lack of intent to eavesdrop, you happen to distinctly hear your girlfriend tell her friend that she thinks about other men while she masturbates... which she does, all the time, while you're away. Particularly one affluent, young, six-foot-three, former football captain-turned-hotshot lawyer with a nine-inch dick. He's so unbelievably irresistible...

If you are thinking to yourself "that wouldn't bother me at all, that's fine," I would suggest that you are almost certainly lying to yourself. It hurts when your partner even thinks about having sex with other people, and this is amplified by conscious repetition of the habit. Am I inadequate socially? Sexually? Am I not manly enough? Almost certainly not, but it damn sure feels that way. From this understanding, we're only one empathetic leap away from understanding the emotional reason why porn is toxic to relationships. This, if you are in a committed, monogomous relationship that you care about, is sufficient reason to stop watching porn, all by itself.

But it's nothing compared to the reasons Gary Wilson articulates in his TEDx talk from several years ago, which extend far beyond relationships to your individual mental health and capabilities. I'll leave the explaining to the speaker and his 16-minute talk, but if 16 minutes feels a bit too long, and you're tempted to pass it up, I'll try to keep your interest by mentioning that your sexual capabilities, physiologically, may be at stake. Yes, erectile dysfunction from too much internet porn. "How!" you may ask? Here's the video:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Gun Debate

The raging gun-debate will no doubt escalate once more, now that the shock of the Fort Hood shooting has ebbed a little bit. This time, the conversation is reaching its point of reductio ad absurdum termination: should we disarm soldiers on military bases? If ever there was a place full of qualified individuals to safely and effectively use weapons to protect themselves, rather than wait for armed help to arrive in a not-so-timely fashion, surely a military base would at least make the list?

A good place to begin in exploring the subject of gun-control is Sam Harris' blog post on the subject. Harris himself is quite liberal on the matter of firearms, in modern political terms, and has stated that he believes people should need permits to own guns, permits that would be equivalent in difficulty to acquiring a pilot's license. But he isn't against gun-ownership at all. Au contraire, he points out that "a world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. It is a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene." Harris himself is a gun-owner, as is Gabrielle Giffords, who survived the attack of a man who only managed to kill six people before being stopped by a motley crew of crowd members. One of those crowd members was Joseph Zamudio, who was carrying a weapon with him at the time, but had arrived at the scene after the initial (and only) burst of shooting had ceased. It is truly a pity he had not been there from the beginning, or that someone else in the crowd had not been armed.

It is natural for people to say "I'd rather no one had been armed in Arizona that day," but this is wishful thinking, not useful policy discussion. The guns are not the cause of the violence, but merely a means. People often talk about living in a "gun culture," but consider what the alternative might be if we address the means but not the cause. I would rather live in a gun culture than, for instance, a "bomb-culture," or a "biochemical-poisoning" culture. The worst mass-killing in an American school was not done with a gun, after all, but a bomb. Taking away guns won't merely disarm good people and, by extension, empower bad people, but could even encourage violent killers to find more creative and effective means, like poison or bombs.

What are the root causes? Some people adamantly believe that violent video games are the culprit. There's a lot to be said about video games, positive and negative, but the link between video games like Grand Theft Auto and violent action in children is somewhere between tenuous and purely speculative. Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman has contributed a lot of tremendous work on the subject of psychology and killing, and like Harris, is worth reading if you want to really educate yourself on the subject, but his assertion that video games are the only thing that's changed in tandem with the rise in mass-shootings is simply incorrect.

A much more believable and demonstrable root cause is the over-medication of children, particularly from selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI's, anti-depressants like Prozac. "It's been well known that adolescents and young people have an increased risk of suicide when they begin to take SSRI's," writes Lennard Davis in Psychology Today. "[S]uicide is an impulsive behavior turned against oneself. But impulses particularly violent ones, can be turned against others." As it happens, almost all of the perpetrators of recent mass shootings were either taking SSRIs or were experiencing withdrawal symptoms from them.

Clearly, any conversation about violence has to tackle the over-diagnosing and medicating of children and teenagers. Most of the time, the depression experienced by boys has nothing to do with some chemical imbalance in the brain, and everything to do with our decrepit and soul-crushing government schools. Still, living in the present demands policy founded in the conditions we have, not the one's we'd like to have. What's the most effective way to curb, counter, and preempt these mass-shootings, or even smaller shootings and incidents of violence involving guns?

In addition to the observed link between SSRIs and violence, another trend is worth mentioning: every single mass shooting in the last few years except one (the Arizona shooting, among the least lethal) occurred in a "gun free zone." It's an unfortunate tendency that people who are willing to break the law by killing large numbers of people seem, for whatever reason, disinclined to obey the signs saying "no weapons beyond this point." If we lived in a world where such logic was effective, there would be no need for razor-wire fences and guard towers in prisons: a simple "no escape" sign every few yards or so would suffice. There are actually good reasons to believe that gun free zones attract violence, rather than deter it, the Aurora shooting being the best example.

All of these are pragmatic arguments defending two points: first, that guns are a good and equalizing means of self-protection, and two, that the existence of guns has very little to do with the violence and, more importantly, the fear of gun related violence over the last few decades. I've scrupulously kept the second amendment out of the discussion so far because the second amendment has nothing to do with self-defense. As many have pointed out, the bill of rights doesn't give citizens a blank-check gun-ownership right for the sake of self-protection, hunting, etc, and restrictions on gun ownership to low-caliber pistols and Joe Biden's choice of shotguns would be reasonable and legal if the second amendment had anything to do with self-defense.

Many people feel that the second amendment is out of date. As Harris argues in his piece, "the Constitution was written by men who could not possibly have foreseen every change that would occur in American society in the ensuing centuries[...]We have since invented weapons that no civilian should be allowed to own [...] the idea that a few pistols and an AR 15 in every home constitutes a necessary bulwark against totalitarianism is fairly ridiculous."

If you look closely, you'll notice the semi-circular reasoning here: it would be silly to try to fight off a totalitarian state with a few small arms, and also, people shouldn't be allowed to carry anything other than small arms. The necessary premise that must be granted is that it would be inconceivable for the United States to gradually transform into a tyrannical state. I'll grant that it's unlikely, but given recent events--the IRS's political bullying, the ever-expanding NSA dragnet, the increasing power of police forces, schools, and government generally--is it really impossible? It would take nearly religious faith to accept that. Technology changes, it's true, but human nature doesn't, and we are, in many ways, fighting the same political battles today as we were 300 years ago in Europe, and 2,000 years ago in Rome. "It could never happen here," are the words of the unimaginative and those unversed in history.

You can think of the second amendment in the same way that anarchists often think of taxes. When you fill out your 1099 and mail it off, there is no force used, but you know that if you fail, forget, or refuse to pay your taxes, eventually you'll get notices. If you ignore the notices, you'll be visited by nice people to remind you. Eventually, they will attempt to repossess your property. If you try to kick them off your land for trespass or attempted theft, you will be arrested ("kidnapped") by men with guns. If you attempt to resist, the government has deadly force at its disposal as a last resort. For anarchists, it is from this threat of deadly force latent in that 1099 that we pay our taxes. So too is the second amendment a deeply buried but always lurking last resort that can keep a government from becoming tyrannical without requiring any exercise of force on the part of citizens. Is it really so certain that we can get rid of this right to own weapons, for the purpose of inhibiting government metastasis, with no negative consequences? Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed that the life of the law is not logic, but experience, and experience has shown that the logical first step for a tyrannical government is to disarm its subjects. The recent Cliven Bundy standoff is not a complete vindication of this necessity, but a useful illustration of its concept. As a friend of mine recently put it:

"The only reason the federal government backed down and gave in to the protesters was the fact that they had firearms. That they formed an armed guard. that they made clear demands, that they wanted a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The feds saw reason, and backed down. What would happen if those protesters were not armed? I'm pretty convinced that they would have lost. They may even have been arrested. Let's be clear, this isn't some kind of crazy call to violence. This is an observation on the true reason why Americans own firearms."

Indeed, though I'd argue it wasn't reason that the feds saw before they backed down. Like signs telling people not to carry guns or telling prisoners to stay in place, reason only works on people who listen to reason.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Crimea Revisited: "We've Made it Clear"

ABC News
President Obama and his Secretary of State Kerry seem convinced of the efficacy of making grandiose pronouncements about consequences in the realm of international politics. They first made this policy clear in Syria, and are now reiterating their "speak loudly and carry a small stick" stance in the Russian annexation of Crimea.

In light of the best intelligence of the most sophisticated nation in the world, at least in regards to gathering intelligence, the separatist movement in Crimea (which is appearing to have likenesses in nearby regions) are the result of the rather obvious involvement of Russian special forces in those regions. Such actions violate the sovereignty of the state of Ukraine in the most blatant challenge to international borders since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

As laws only exist to the extent that they are enforceable, clearly something must be done. What bold and clear defense of international law will the United States take? After all, Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry "made it very clear" that there would be consequences, that there would be a very high price for Russia to pay. But what exactly does that mean? Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin (what other state could he serve with a name like that) pressed Kerry on the subject of clarity in action. What are we going to do?

Secretary Kerry's definitive answer was that we would use "tools of the 21st century" to combat "behavior from the 19th century." He didn't elaborate on what those tools were, but I'm going to assume he wasn't going to use social pressure from Facebook and Twitter, unless of course, that's now national defense policy. It wouldn't be particularly surprising. Senator Johnson's admonition that Putin "only responds to action, and not to word" is only countered by Kerry's assertion that it has been made eminently clear that the United States will act. Just like Syria, it seems.

But this in itself would hardly constitute a crime, were it not for our president's tragic misreading of Russia's character. Both Hitler and Churchill were the successful statesmen they were (Churchill more so, thank goodness) for their ability to accurately read the will and sentiments of nations; it is what allowed Hitler to predict that France would succumb to a Nazi invasion, despite every single one of his general's protestations to the contrary. France--Hitler realized--was sick of war, and lacked to will to fight, even for its own preservation. Churchill, similarly understanding Germany and it's citizens' history, culture, and predicament in the 1920's, knew that Hitler was no laughable side-show, and posed a serious threat to Western civilization. This, before accurately predicting a similar threat from Soviet Russia on its heels. Obama seems to believe that Russia doesn't plan on continuing this expansion, first in Georgia in 2008, now into Crimea. Did he not hear Putin espouse the "Russian-ness" of Crimea, and Kiev (the capital of Ukraine, not in Crimea), and of Belaruss? Did he not hear the shock and hurt in Putin's description of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that "no one could have forseen"? If he did hear these implicit and insidious foreshadowing of Putin's plans for Russian dominance of Eastern Europe, he doesn't seem to think the problem is serious enough to warrant immediate and visible action. But the odds are high that he doesn't grasp this at all, given his public incredulity about Russia's desire for these expansions, as they are clearly "not in Russia's best interest." Unfortunately Mr. President, it isn't our job or area of expertise to dictate what is or isn't in Russia's best interest. We can only attempt to anticipate, form theories, and react accordingly.

The problem is with Obama's foreign-policy ideology and its evaluation of the character of nations and its leaders. Sometimes, people don't reciprocate kindness. Sometimes, generosity and giving the benefit of the doubt is--rightfully--thought by other heads of state as signs of weakness and permissiveness in matters of international law. Our current administration has tried its best to champion diplomacy as its primary tool, rather than violence, and it has already strained this in Iraq and Afghanistan. But here, words are empty. As Senator Johnson said, Putin doesn't respond to words, just as Bashar al Assad learned he need not worry about the big words of what was once the world's greatest superpower, since we don't have the will to follow up on our promises when they become politically inconvenient. We need action if we wish to avert a second Soviet empire with theocratic tendencies, casting a pallid shadow over Europe and Asia, but words are not real action, and "making it clear" that we're going to do "something" is not actually doing anything at all.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Against Circumcision

Edit: Based on recent revelations that the Norwegian study observed men who were circumcised in adulthood, rather than as children, and on a number of referred articles (1, 2, 3, 4), I've changed my stance to neutral on the subject of infant circumcision since originally writing this post.

Why is crystal meth so bad?

It isn't as though Walter White's product is the equivalent of pot or alcohol with more legal restrictions. Alcohol ups your brain's levels of the neurotransmitter and "pleasure chemical" dopamine by about 2.5 times (above normal), while THC, the active chemical of cannabis, increases it by around 3 times. This is less than sex, as a point of reference. But methamphetamine floods your brain with up to 20,000 times your baseline levels of dopamine. The saturation and marination of a thirty-something-year-old's brain in dopamine that high resets your body's dopamine baseline, and a healthy, sober level is suddenly far below the new norm. The result is a condition called anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure, even from highly pleasurable past-times like eating, sex, and old hobbies. Crystal meth semi-permanently rewires the brain for the worse.

There is another natural body chemical called cortisol that has a tremendous impact on our brains. Released in response to stress, cortisol changes the body's natural metabolism and suppresses the immune system, an ordinary and healthy response for an adult in a fight-or-flight situation, but otherwise detrimental to our overall health.

Our crystal meth example of the chemical rewiring of the brain is true even of people who are cognitively fully-developed. Imagine the effects of chemical saturation--even comparatively milder saturation--on the mind of an infant within the first days or even hours outside the womb. At some level, everybody understands this concept: we encourage pregnant mothers-to-be not to drink or smoke for precisely this reason. But cortisol is a powerful chemical as well. A family-member of mine severely broke their elbow in their early teens, and subsequently had seven surgeries and an extensive physical therapy program in order to regain some degree of movement. But more interestingly, and importantly for this discussion, their pain-tolerance shrank to near-oblivion. The sensation of touch on any part of their arm was excruciating, as were minor pains on other parts of the body; stubbed toes and the like.

Is it possible that subjecting newborn boys to lacerating the most sensitive part of their body and dousing their sponge-like, developing brains with a hefty dose of cortisol may produce permanent, adverse effects? The jury is still out, as the subject has (strangely) not been very well studied. But circumcision is excrutiating without proper anesthetic, which is usually not used, and the data that has come out [example 1, example 2], does strongly support this hypothesis. The more we learn about the brain, the more obviously important those developing years appear to be. From sociopathy in Romanian orphans from childhood neglect to language development, the early years, and especially the early months, of a child's mental development are crucial to their character later in life. Whether or not circumcision makes people more or less sensitive to pain than they should be--or otherwise affects their brain more generally--will have to be a subject for further investigation, as we simply don't have enough data to make conclusive pronouncements.

Whether or not circumcision negatively effects sensation in the penis, however, is already an academically agreed-upon fact. [Second study].

"But wait!" says the post-hoc apologist, "doesn't decreased sensitivity mean guys will last longer in bed? See, it was a good idea after all!"

Not only is this unwitting defense of barbaric religious prudery completely dismissive of men's pleasure and focusing oddly on women's, when the subject is the removal of half the nerves on the penis (a male organ, in case that wasn't clear before), but happens to be false as well. Actually, it isn't just false: it's backwards. A 2011 study found that circumcision was associated with premature ejaculation.

And speaking of sexual dysfunction, another 2011 study from Denmark found that "Circumcision was associated with frequent orgasm difficulties in Danish men and with a range of frequent sexual difficulties in women, notably orgasm difficulties, dyspareunia and a sense of incomplete sexual needs fulfilment[sic]." The following chart was created from their compiled results.

Hardly a ringing endorsement for the benefits of destroying part of the penis, unless you happen to be a believer in the ancient and original purpose of the practice: to curb sexual desires and habits. In that regard, it is indeed a modestly but reliably effective operation.

In the face of all of these downsides, any petty health benefit like a slightly decreased chance of male UTIs--easily treated with antibiotics, which I would like to point out are slightly less invasive than partial removal of a body-part--shouldn't even be discussed, but nevertheless, circumcision still has its defenders. "It helps prevent AIDS," they say. Penile cancer too.

While the dangers of AIDS and penile cancer can be preemptively tackled without resorting to a knife, that misses the deeper psychological problem here. Do you think these people would suggest or support the idea that women, after having their last child, should have their breasts surgically removed? Breast cancer is FAR more common than penile cancer (the AIDS-deterring effect of circumcision is marginal), and yet no such suggestion has been seriously brought to the table. The difference in attitudes over the health question--regarding the efficacy of removing body-parts willie-nilly, so to speak--suggests that these justifications have less to do with the actual medical benefits, and more to do with how people want to think about themselves. This is especially true of two groups of people in particular: parents who have circumcised their children, and men who have themselves been circumcised, because it is painful and difficult to imagine yourself as a cause or a victim of senseless mutilation. The implications are uncomfortable to contemplate for both group. But comfort is a poor guide to truth (to put it mildly), and the validity of that discomfort that should be a stronger reason for solidarity in being done with this atavistic and barbaric carry-over from the bloody superstitions of the pre-scientific ages, rather than a tranquilizing excuse for the continuation of this ritual cut.