Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Sneering at dissidents: spiritual tonic for the modern bourgeoisie

June 11, 2010

As much as I love David McRaney for the challenge his blog poses to many of my misconceptions, one of his archived posts touches on a subject that winds me up.  It seems to be a cherished myth for those who would prefer not to reflect on the social and ecological cost of their lifestyle choices that there is no escape from the relentless onward march of global capitalism.  There is no rebellion one could engage in that impacts the big picture, no message one can communicate that isn’t fraught with hypocrisy and naivete, no behavior one can exhibit unmotivated by raw self-interest.

In McRaney’s (truncated, emphasis-added) words:

Wait long enough, and what was once mainstream will fall into obscurity. When that happens, it will become valuable again to those looking for authenticity…

You would compete like this no matter how society was constructed. Competition for status is built into the human experience at the biological level

You sold out long ago in one way or another. The specifics of who you sell to and how much you make – those are only details.

The subtext here is that the only way people can ever hope to express “authenticity” is by buying a shitload of pointless kitsch purposely designed for the “authentic” demographic.  Therefore, the story goes, we are all trapped.  There is no escape.

But what about simply being authentic?  It’s way cheaper and more effective than buying a T-shirt that says “I’m authentic!”  It requires only that we make a serious effort to determine what has real, immutable value to us and attempt to conform our behavior to whatever revelations unfold.

Adam Smith’s argument that pure self interest is the ultimate human motivator has captured the imagination of the bourgeoisie to such a breathtaking extent that competing philosophies are no longer seriously considered by most Western pundits, politicos and ideologues.  I suspect the idea is beguiling because, in a world where a minute fraction of the population sits on the lion’s share of the wealth, the notion that we can effortlessly advance the greater good simply by looking out for ourselves absolves us of shame.  If we can also embrace the delusion that it is impossible to free ourselves from selfish concerns, we can ignore claims that when “the self” is taken out of the picture, compassion flows as indiscriminately as rain and ethical behavior naturally arises.  We are not moved to contemplate how different our culture might be if it were structured around compassion rather than selfishness as long as we insist “compassion” is merely a deluded form of selfishness, from which there is no escape.

With the dogma of inescapable selfishness firmly entrenched, activists, dissidents and revolutionaries can be dismissed as childish, petulant attention seekers.  Even if some dissidents might have been partly motivated by lofty concerns to begin with, their message is entirely meaningless if it becomes popular or profitable.

Suffice it to say, I do not share this perspective.  I believe it is irresponsible, inaccurate, immature and empirically unsupportable.  While it’s true that the concept of individual self-interest underpins our current understanding of biological evolution, research makes it clear that selfishness is not our only motivator.  As it turns out, we are hard-wired to experience the joy and suffering of others as if it were our own.

As a dissident motivated by the desire to reduce the suffering of others, it seems obvious to me that the primary psychological force behind most forms of dissident behavior is empathy.  Whether for children laboring in unsafe factories, civilian victims of state violence, displaced or destroyed wildlife in a devastated biosphere or any other organism we believe has the capacity to feel pain or distress, we object because we feel it too.  It seems equally clear that the primary psychological force behind capitalism is indeed selfishness, exactly as its proponents would have us believe.  I have no idea how anyone is able to subvert their inherent capacity to feel the suffering of others when it interferes with their own personal gain, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that the pure selfishness embraced by the most passionate proponents of capitalism is not a universal and inescapable law.

To return to McRaney’s quote, if Ghandi could overthrow the British empire wearing nothing but a home-spun loincloth, surely there is more that is “built into the human experience” than “competition for status” and we have a great deal of choice in how we behave, regardless of how society is structured.  If the human psyche has a greater range of motives than pure self-interest, surely it makes a difference upon which specific values our society is constructed.  We have learned from our own experience that a society constructed on the principle of selfishness behaves selfishly.  It is not a great leap of imagination to propose that a society constructed on the principle of compassion behaves compassionately.


More on the search for classier blogs…

June 9, 2010

Here are a few good finds:

You are not so smart illuminates widespread misconceptions about the world by summing up psychological research on the subject of each post.  Essential reading for maintaining an honest amount of skepticism.

Arthur Silber and Chris Floyd have rhetorical skills occasionally reminiscent of Shaw or Twain, and on top of that I agree with nearly everything they write.

Greg Palast is an independent investigative journalist.  Perhaps I should say the independent investigative journalist, since I am not aware of any other freelancers who go further in their investigations than “whatever they can find on the internet” (although I’d be delighted to hear about them if they’re out there.)

That’s it for now.

The pressing need for adult supervision

June 4, 2010

Lord of the Flies is disturbing because it reveals a few dark insights about human nature.  Left to their own devices, the juvenile characters in the book become tribal, authoritarian, superstitious, punitive and reactionary.  Their perspective becomes increasingly divorced from reality and their new, irrational perceptions are reinforced by group thinking and the collective persecution of the weak.

The book springs to mind because it’s recently occurred to me how strongly the behavior of BP resembles the type of behavior I expect from a little girl I look after, and that of very young children in general.

Rose, let’s call her,  being three, is completely unruffled by precautionary concerns.  If she wants to run through the house in her sock feet, she simply can not see the sharp edges and slippery floors surrounding her or contemplate the danger they present.  She can’t grasp that her motor skills are less than precise even without perils lurking at every corner.  If I tell her it’s dangerous to run in the house, she does not believe me.  From her perspective, it’s ludicrous to suggest that it is an undesirable activity.  How could it be when she so desperately wants to do it?

Rose has injured herself on numerous occasions as a direct result of being inadequately cautious. She’s tripped and fallen on her face, bruised her shins, cut herself, bonked her head repeatedly and nearly put out an eye.  Every time, she considers herself the tragic victim of the brutal hand of fate.  For her, the dangers and potential consequences were unforeseeable.  She demands comfort and sympathy rather than simply making a mental note of each injury in order to adapt her behavior next time she gets an urge to go nuts inside the house.  Every time she hurts herself, it’s terribly unfair from her point of view.

This is all perfectly reasonable – after all, she’s only three.

BP on the other hand (not to mention the rubber-stamping governments who permit them to operate with no oversight whatsoever) is purportedly comprised of grown-ups.

But how do they behave?  Rather than heed warnings of terrible danger and conduct themselves accordingly, they deny the danger exists and carry on doing exactly as they please.  It is inconceivable to them that deep water drilling might be an undesirable activity when the risks are weighed against the gains.  When the dangers become impossible to deny on account of a major catastrophe occurring as a direct consequence of their irresponsible behavior, it was “unforeseeable“, or “an act of God“.  They are the victims and as such they yearn for comfort and consolation from the rest of us.  They resolutely reject the notion that the catastrophe was a consequence of their behavior.  They offer no proposals for how their future behavior might be modified by anything they have learned, and if their behavior since the Exxon Valdez spill is any indication, it will not be modified at all.  meanwhile, the catastrophic consequences of their behavior continue unabated.

It seems to me that BP is behaving like a very small child and has been for a long time.  Perhaps this too is understandable.  Making boatloads of money is probably almost as much fun  for Tony Hayward and his peers as running around the house in sock feet is for Rose.

My question is, where are the grown-ups who ought to be saying “no” to the ludicrously dangerous and minimally rewarding (for the rest of us) activities BP desires to engage in?  The governments of every nation I can think of behave more like playmates to the captains of industry than proper adult supervision.  Cautious voices have been all but completely ostracized from public discourse.  The mainstream media chases after sound bites from leaders who are tribal, authoritarian, superstitious, punitive and reactionary and passes them off as news.  Mainstream commentary has become increasingly divorced from reality and our new, irrational perceptions are reinforced by our collective persecution of the weak.  The most a grown-up can hope for in this day and age is a patronizing pat on the head from the cadre of unsupervised children who are driving this planet so far beyond its capacity to sustain life that it may never recover.

I don’t know if this inverse relationship between wisdom and power will continue for the rest of my days, but since it seems to have endured for the entire history of Western civilization, I have to assume that it will.  It’s enough to make a grown-up feel very much at odds with the world.

BP blocks press, press calls on public

June 3, 2010

Huffington Post has a slide show of 265 images of the BP spill.  Recommended viewing for those who would seek to underplay the scale of the disaster, but still lacking the gut-wrenching images of suffering wildlife that characterized BP’s other big American fuck-up, the Exxon Valdez spill.  BP will not allow photographers to travel freely in the area, lamely asserting it’s a “safety issue” when it is quite obviously a PR issue.  How can it be a “safety issue” to specifically exclude press from scheduled flights?  It’s either safe or not safe, whether you have a camera or not.  Considering the fact that their contractors have no meaningful safety gear at all, it seems they consider it “safe”.

The San Fransisco Chronicle has called upon the public, including contractors working on the clean-up to please document the disaster during the press black-out, and have written iphone and Android apps to facilitate the easy upload of pictures.

I certainly hope local residents take up the challenge.  The civil damages BP will be forced to pay will be partly based on the perceived scale of the ecological impact.  To allow them to downplay the impact on wildlife is to cheat local communities out of future compensation.

It must be said at this point I can not fall asleep any more without fantasizing about Tony Hayward, who thinks he’s the victim, being pilloried in some public square and repeatedly kicked in the crotch, or Sarah Palin, who blames environmentalists for the spill, being  made to bob for apples in a vat of crude oil to get a sense of what it’s like to be a pelican these days in the gulf of Mexico.  It brings me a sense of peace.

Update: Greenpeace is hosting a logo rebranding contest and got me all inspired.

BP's new logo

More doing, less kvetching

June 2, 2010

This is my recent resolution, but on further consideration I decided to amend that to “more doing than kvetching”, since I can’t morally justify letting up on my criticism of certain wrong-headed evangelical policies with enormous social costs.  I can change the tone of my complaints – a little less potty mouth and a few more verifiable facts and reputable studies supporting my arguments – but failing to complain would be no different from consenting.   Nonetheless, I need to add some meaningful action to the mix and, rather than grabbing issues that are in the headlines and regurgitating them with my opinion attached, see whether or not I might be able to pick up on some things that are not in the headlines at all.

To that end, I popped into an urban women’s centre today to see if I could lend a hand.

It was pretty obvious from the get-go that I could.  The centre takes up a single cramped floor of a tiny detached house.  There were half a dozen women milling around.  One was using the internet and the rest were milling around in the kitchen.  A practicum student in rubber gloves was trying to fix a broken toilet seat, and the director of the centre looked frazzled after dealing with three or four client requests, a pair of prospective volunteers and the landlord (about the toilet) in rapid succession.  It was complete chaos.

When she had a few minutes between crises, the director showed me around.  Internet, printer, fax and phone for drop-ins, a room for special events and counseling, a clothing exchange, kits of dishes and other stuff for women making the transition out of homelessness, kits of blankets and other gear for women going the other way, an office for tenant advocacy, a cache of professional clothes for interviews and court dates.

There was a lot of stuff packed into that quick and harried tour.  To be honest I didn’t take it all in on account of noticing distracting little details that clued me in on what I am getting myself into.  A note on the bulletin board reading “BAD DATE: about 35, brown hair, new to the area”.   A faint whiff of and alcohol, cigarettes and way too much fresh air coming off a cheery, nearly toothless old woman.  A disproportionate number of aboriginal clients roughly the right age to have been subjected to Canada’s horrific residential schools.   Comments like “whatever you do, don’t tell them about the staff bathroom – I don’t want anybody shooting up in there”.

Suffice it to say, all of this was pretty much in line with my expectations but sticking myself into the middle of it was a bit of a shock all the same.  I found myself worrying that I would never be trusted by these women without knocking out a couple of my teeth and somehow getting my face to look a little more careworn.   I’ve been told I look young for 35.  Sometimes I still get asked for ID when I  buy booze.  Some of the clients had lines on their faces in places I didn’t know lines could be.  I found myself confronting the problem of boundaries.  How do you gracefully end a conversation with a gregarious homeless alcoholic?  How do you not care too deeply about the fate of somebody else’s drug addicted daughter?  I found those concerns almost put me off the whole affair.

But, at the end of the day, somebody’s got to do it, so I signed up.  With a $250,000 budget shortfall this year due to some very aggressive public funding cuts, the place can use all the help it can get.

Skepticism for the pragmatic apophatic

May 31, 2010

One of the many subcultures one finds  on the internet are small crowds of science and technology fanatics who label themselves skeptics.  Despite the skeptic’s self-image as a person who is liberated from the shackles of doctrine and dogma, there are a many questionable ideological themes running through these communities.  For many of them, science and technology are always good.  Religion, spirituality, superstition and myth are always bad.  Healing alternatives to Western medicine (drugs and surgery) are scams, shams, superstition and charlatanism. All GM food, vaccines, drugs and new technologies are good and precautionary concerns are empty-headed fearmongering.  Widespread human experiences that are difficult to explain are delusion, but research to discover the mechanisms behind such experiences is ludicrous.

You get the picture.   It seems the modern skeptic is very often a person who is made so uncomfortable by the unknown that even musing about what might lie beyond our current scientific paradigm is thought worthy of contempt and ridicule.   It’s very chic among self-labelled skeptics to make much of the fallibility of human recollection, cognitive bias and imperfect reasoning – provided it’s everybody else’s:  a skeptic among skeptics is thought to be well defended against such cognitive frailties.

When did this shower of hostile, condescending, dogmatic cynics take over the philosophical tradition of skepticism?

For the record, I have no beef with the skeptical community’s central tenets of empiricism, materialism, critical thinking, atheism, fascination with scientific discovery or any other description by which they might sum up their own world view.  I only think their criticism is often much too outward looking.

One would think the first unsubstantiated convictions on the chopping block for an honest skeptic would be her own.  Any critic of bad ideas ought to be able to find a lifetime of questionable beliefs with which to preoccupy herself without ever having to look beyond the confines of her own mysterious and convoluted mind.   The task is never ending: unsubstantiated convictions crop up like weeds even in the most vigorously tended human psyche.

It is certainly the case that a person with a passionate devotion to scientific enquiry will have a much better grasp of the functioning of the material world than your average bear, provided her passion for science translates into actually reading reputable material on the subject.  However, keeping current with the latest studies in a handful of interesting fields is not a defense against irrational beliefs on subjects outside these areas of interest, and is no defense at all against susceptibility to cognitive bias, propaganda and misinformation.

In keeping with the notion that we must learn to love ourselves before we can love another, the apophatic skeptic seeks to discover and eliminate the fallacies clogging up her own mind before turning her sights on anyone else, all the while recognizing that her task will never be complete.  Ideally, the recognition that it is not only everybody else that can’t get their facts straight, but also herself,  would lead to criticisms that are measured, compassionate and tactful.

A quick perusal of my past posts is enough to reveal I haven’t been weeding, to say the least.  Starting now, I’m going to spend more time thinking about my own wacky misconceptions and less time hollering about everybody else’s.  I might also unsubscribe to a few of the snarkier blogs on my RSS feed and start shopping around for blogs that offer more dispassionate and intelligent commentary.

Blog recommendations are more than welcome.  My interests are peaceful progressive activism, civil liberties, politics, biology, physics, psychology, transition culture, literature and laughter.  There are a lot of blogs going down the drain today, so don’t hold back or I’ll have to start reading the mainstream news (*spits on the ground*).

Tony Blair totally looks like…

May 12, 2010
Blair totally looks like...

…Snow White’s wicked stepmother.

For more of this kind of thing, go here.

Jesus wept.

April 29, 2010

I know religious fundamentalists lie.  Everyone in their right mind knows this.  They have to lie in order to manhandle the world they see into the shape of myths so ancient and ignorant that they predate our realization the earth is not flat.

But there’s a small part of me – the part that believes human nature is basically good – that wants to believe they are not lying on purpose.  I want to believe they are the hapless victims of an incredible but sincere cognitive affliction preventing them from accepting things that are obviously true, like evolution, and forcing them to accept as fact things that are obviously untrue, like the preposterous story of Noah and his floating menagerie.

Then this:

“A group of Chinese and Turkish evangelical explorers say wooden remains they have discovered on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey are the remains of Noah’s Ark. “

OK.  Surely they found a few old logs lying about and due to their tragic cognitive disabilities jumped to an honest but mistaken conclusion?

But no.

“In the late summer of 2008 ten Kurdish workers hired by Parasut, the guide used by the Chinese… planted large wood beams taken from an old structure in the Black Sea area at the Mt. Ararat site… During the summer of 2009 more wood was planted inside a cave at the site. The Chinese team went in the late summer of 2009 … and was shown the cave with the wood and made their film. As I said, I have the photos of the inside of the so-called Ark (that show cobwebs in the corners of rafters – something just not possible in these conditions) and our Kurdish partner in Dogubabyazit (the village at the foot of Mt. Ararat) has all of the facts about the location, the men who planted the wood, and even the truck that transported it.”

Adam and Eve?  Word of God.  Noah’s ark?  Word of God.  Jesus walking on water?  Word of God.  Thou shalt not bear false witness?  Just a suggestion.

Amusing bit from the Star article:

Ararat has drawn a steady stream of explorers for decades. Many of them have “discovered” the ark.

“I don’t know of any expedition that ever went looking for the ark and didn’t find it,” said archeologist Paul Zimansky recently told National Geographic.

Afghan detainee torture documents?

April 28, 2010

We can’t produce them because they are of such an extremely sensitive nature that disclosing them in confidence to elected representatives with a legitimate mandate to establish POW policy would jeopardize our whole mission in Afghanistan.  Besides, we’ve made no effort whatsoever to catalogue these extremely sensitive documents or store them in an orderly and secure fashion.

Anybody else smell bullshit?

Brits tremble at the thought of a “Canadian-style parliament”

April 28, 2010

From Canwest:

“The parliamentary culture and media commentary (in Canada) continues to be more about an ongoing battle to ‘win’ a coveted majority rather than a focus on achieving stable governance and policy — an experience that may soon be replicated” in Britain, wrote researcher Anne White, a former director at the Toronto Board of Trade.”

I wouldn’t worry if I were them.  Stephen Harper and his posse are a rather unique phenomenon.  Recall, if you will, the Christmas Harper spent nostalgically gazing at multiple pictures of himself.  David Cameron may be a jerk, but is he a pathological narcissist psychologically incapable of coping with anything less than a complete grasp on the crown?

No, David Cameron may be a buffoon but he’s not a child.  I’m sure he understands the necessity for non-partisan cooperation in a government with a weak mandate.  He may wish things were otherwise, but I doubt the governance of Britain is going to grind to a complete halt.