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*).

Benjamin Netanyahu, thug and proud of it.

May 31, 2010

Good news for pirates: According to Netahanyu, international waters are Israeli jurisdiction.  Not only that, but if you board a ship and slaughter the unarmed civilian passengers in international waters, it is an act of “self-defense“.

I’m sure there are a few boatloads of relieved Nigerians out there today.

In other news, Canadian Prime Minister Harper expressed his regret that Israel’s unprovoked massacre of a humanitarian aid convoy in international waters ruined what could otherwise have been a great photo op for Harper.

“I’m sorry this has coloured this (visit) but delighted you were able to join me at least last night and today.”

The real tragedy, according to Harper?  Wobbly message control.

And they wonder why certain parties might yearn to see the whole stinking edifice of Israel pushed into the sea.

Happy quit facebook day!

May 31, 2010

Hat tip to Dale at Faith in Honest Doubt for reminding me what a clueless dickhead Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is when it comes to understanding internet privacy concerns.

In his own words:

Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity

No, Mark.  Having two identities for yourself is an example of “having a job”.  Would it be great if nobody had to have a job?  Hell, yeah, sure it would.  But that’s not the world you or I live in.  You and I, Mark, live in a world where a Catholic school educator can be fired from her job for ticking “no” on a Facebook poll asking whether or not she believes in God.  Those of us who are not 20-something dot com billionaires spend our time working (or looking for work).  In this world, the more intelligent and interesting you are the more likely it is that keeping your job entails a truckload of make believe.

You go ahead and invite your grandma over for a slide show of your latest XXX leather party.  Give your business associates a running commentary on your gay wedding plans and let the bank handling your debts know where the best mushroom picking is this year.  Who’s going to fire you?  For my part, I’m going to keep deciding for myself who gets to see what.  Just for shits and giggles, I’m going to call it consideration of the differing sensibilities of my friends, business associates and family rather than a “lack of integrity”, but you can call it whatever you like.

Today I changed my privacy settings to ensure that my personal information is no longer spewing all over the shop like blood from a severed kung fu flick limb thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughtless idealism.  Having a good look at exactly what was being shared without my consent was an eye-opener, to say the least.  For Facebook users, today’s top priority should be to opt out of sharing personal information with applications your friends sign up for.  Sharing my personal information with random third parties attached to my friends turned out to be the default setting, believe it or not.  In light of that bombshell, I went a step further and also deleted all but one of my third party applications (MyBand) out of consideration for the privacy of my friends.

Those who find it tricky to get their head around the “simplified” privacy settings can always just quit facebook like the 25,000 users who claim they’re going to do it today.

Thank God for Catholic girls.

May 27, 2010

That was an expression floated around high schools in my area when I was growing up.  (In case the meaning isn’t obvious, I’ll clarify that it was specifically used by boys who were not having much luck getting into the pants of secular school girls, in a province where Catholics have their own separate school system.)

Today I’m really feeling it though.  If I believed in a god I would feel sincerely grateful toward her for inspiring 40 secret mistresses of Catholic priests to petition the pope in an effort to put an end the twisted, arbitrary, mind-warping rule of clerical celibacy.

Of course I hold out little hope of their success.  What greying, impotent knee-bender, having spent his whole life trying to avoid sexual temptation, is going to finally agree at the end of his life that it was a pointless rule all along and ought to be forgotten?   Nevertheless, I am tremendously relieved to discover there are in fact some Catholic priests who are boning adult, consenting women instead of  all molesting children.  I was honestly starting to wonder.

Cardinal Ouellet lectures the rest of us on “moral disorders”

May 27, 2010

Dear Catholic clergy.

I have a great idea.  How about first you stop raping children, sheltering the rapists from meaningful consequences and denying accusations of wrong-doing , then you lecture women about how you can’t tell the difference between abortion and murder?

There is a definite trend here:  Catholic priests can’t tell the difference between pedophilia and homosexuality and they can’t tell the difference between birth control and murder.

In fact, at times Catholics react as if homosexuality is worse than pedophilia and abortion is worse than murder.  When Catholics openly celebrate the fact that a raped 10 year old child in some benighted Catholic corner of Mexico was denied information and access to abortion by the state but has been made to understand there is a baby growing inside her, (Hallelujah!  Break out the Jesus crackers!), it  only underlines their general lack of moral credibility in my view.

Cardinal Ouellet, how about you clean up your own damn back yard before you point your shriveled, pious man-fingers at women?  As with gay marriage, the abortion debate is over.  Your side lost.  Try to keep up.


Not careful enough, Steve

May 22, 2010

A few days ago I recalled Stephen Harper’s 2003 article proposing the gradual (“incremental”), discreet (“careful”) fusion of social conservative and fiscal conservative policies as a strategy for the budding theo-conservative movement.   To quote the man himself:

Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.

So what did he pick?  Abortion.  Way to be careful, Steve!

Is it possible that Steve, sheltered as he is from the mainstream by a wide buffer of young earth creationists, anti-gay activists, Christian Zionists, criminals and racists, is a little out of touch with the concerns of average Canadians?

Having provoked an unambiguous smack down from the US Secretary of State, a raised eyebrow from the United Nations, and unanimous hostility from the entire provincial legislature of Quebec, Steve is stomping mad and looking for a way out.  Harper is shocked – shocked! – to discover that when you appoint a shameless horde of bona fide fundamentalist whack jobs to high-ranking government policy posts, you get government policies that reflect fundamentalist whack job values and alienate or outrage everybody else.

Of course Harper is making decisive public statements to distance himself from the entire fiasco.  But who is he kidding?  Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time with fundamentalist whack jobs will understand that in order to believe they can be reasonable, dispassionate, inclusive and competent policy makers you have to be a fundamentalist whack job yourself.  Judging by his appointments alone, I am confident in asserting that Harper is a fundamentalist whack-job and approves of the theocratic policies coming out of his benighted office, in principle.  I think he just wishes his minions would be more “careful” and more “incremental” with the implementation of their fundamentalist whack job agenda.

Anyway, hopefully Steve has learned there’s no “careful” and “incremental” way to sneak anti-choice policies under the radar of mainstream Canadians.  Whether it is through easily disavowed “private members’ bills” or bizarre foreign policy initiatives that you think shouldn’t upset Canadians at home, we are going to notice and make some noise, especially when you tell us to shut the fuck up.  So please just come out and say you hope to one day have enough of a mandate to outlaw reproductive choice in Canada and quit pussyfooting around.  The theo-cons’ endless maneuvering, message control, debate framing, and general furtiveness about their social conservative agenda is beyond irritating.  You’re not fooling anybody.

What should we do about those darn creationists?

May 19, 2010

The inimitable godless blogger P.Z. Meyers has had a go at theistic evolutionist Karl Giberson for an article where he claims science has not only failed to dislodge creationism, but failed abysmally.  Giberson argues non-creationists need to tell creationists it’s “OK to believe in God”, and then gently persuade them that you can believe in evolution as well.  For his part, Meyers insists that it would be better to root out magical thinking entirely from the whole of human civilization.

I think both arguments are deeply flawed, for the simple reason that cdesign proponentsists don’t give a fiddler’s fart what either of them think.  Whether Meyers and Giberson patronize them with a soothing “there, there” or rail against the folly of their convictions, they’re still going to believe a bunch of nonsense for as long as they wish to belong to whatever community they’ve contracted it from.

Dawkins picked up on this phenomenon in an unbearable interview with Wendy Wright, partly transcribed in the Greatest Show on Earth:

Wendy: What I go back to is the evolutionists are still lacking the science to back it up.  Instead, what happens is, science that doesn’t bolster the case for evolution gets censored out.  Such as, there is no evidence of evolution going from one species going to another species.  If evolution had occurred, then … surely there’d be at least ONE evidence.

Richard: There’s massive amounts of evidence.  I’m sorry, but you people keep repeating that like a kind of mantra because you just listen to each other.

He’s exactly right.  The only reason a creationist would be looking at anything written by the likes of Meyers or Giberson would be to quote mine sentence fragments that might mislead the reader into believing they don’t really believe in evolution, or to find material for later use in a character assassination campaign.  I sympathize with them for their charming fantasy that something they could say or do (if only enough of us climbed aboard the bandwagon) might have an impact on the thinking of people like Wendy Wright.  However, I think it would be better for us not to wring our hands about how we can best infiltrate the religious mind and rearrange the furniture.

It’s a red herring.  Personal belief in creationism is not the problem.  In the complex, aromatic bouquet of ideologies the religious right brings to the table, the toxic flower is not personal belief in god or creationism, it is the collective rejection of the separation of church and state. I would propose a third option:  instead of wasting our breath debating religionists or debating each other about how best to debate religionists, why don’t we devote our energy to affirming the principle of secular government?

General human wingnuttery is not a real problem.  Or at least, if it is, it is a problem that will never go away, like psoriasis.  The problem is that a certain wing-nuts are organized and lobbying effectively for the fusion of religion and government.  Perhaps normal people feel no need to organize and lobby collectively to prevent such a development because we are, after all, the vast majority (at least north of the border).  Nevertheless, I think we need to make it absolutely crystal clear that blurring  the line between religion and politics in Canada to appease the Conservatives’ religious base will not be tolerated.

In 2003 Steven Harper wrote an article for the Christian Coalition (motto: a vibrant majority, proudly Christian).  In it, he plainly stated that elusive “hidden agenda” so many leftists love to speculate about:

Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.

Second, we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental. This, in my experience, is harder for social conservatives than for economic conservatives. The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives makes it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach. Yet, in democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail. We should never accept the standard of just being “better than the Liberals” – people who advocate that standard seldom achieve it – but conservatives should be satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly.

Third, rebalancing means there will be changes to the composition of the conservative coalition. We may not have all the same people we have had in the past. The new liberal corporatist agenda will appeal to some in the business community. We may lose some old “conservatives,” Red Tories like the David Orchards or the Joe Clarks.

This is not all bad. A more coherent coalition can take strong positions it wouldn’t otherwise be able to take – as the Alliance alone was able to do during the Iraq war. More importantly, a new approach can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family.

Does it look like Steve’s proposing a prolonged and “careful” culture war to you?  It does to me.  Sign me up.