A public development of my political and philosophical musings. Occasional thoughts on current events. Primarily for personal satisfaction.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

There's a saying: nothing is more frustrating then seeing your own position argued poorly.

I find liberals much more annoying then conservatives in part because I care about liberal issues. And it's my opinion that most self-proclaimed liberals don't. I think Progressives have to put "progressive" in their name because nobody would conclude it from their beliefs.

BUT, today I read an essay that started with the authors identifying themselves as democrats and progressives and I can't remember the last time I read anything of substance where I agreed with so much and disagreed with so little. I reacted the same way I did when I read Peter Beinart's essay after the last elections about saving liberalism--maybe there's hope after all.

Here are guys who want to save progressiveism. And, more importantly, they know what it means to be progressive. If they mean it, I'll do whatever little I can to help. Now I haven't posted in quite some time and never built a readership anyway, so as a consequence, The Euston Manifesto will get no help whatsoever from this post. But it doesn't cost anything, so why not? Meanwhile, I'll keep my eyes and ears open for other ways to contribute.

When you have some time, hit the button and read.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Media Stupidity and Bias
If I want to be more like other bloggers, I have to spend some time reporting bias and stupidity in the media. So here's today's entry:

The Independent has a story about the movie The Day After Tomorrow entitled "Ice age movie is realistic, says Britain's chief scientist"

But what he actually said is that it is realistic in parts.

And the part that isn't realistic? The science.
The Abu Ghraib photos.

I'm looking back on this much later and feel the need to point out, in case anybody looks at it, that this is an initial reaction to the first photos, before the full scale of abuse became known. I considered taking this post down as it appears to make light of what has turned out to be a serious violation, but decided not to. This post isn't really about the torture as a fact, but about why the actions in these first images were considered torture.

I don’t know what to think about the Abu Ghraib photos. I have a lot of thoughts, of course, but I’m not sure what they add up to. For instance, I know I’m not the only person who’s noticed that, as abuse goes, this stuff is pretty minor league.

These are men standing naked while a woman points at their genitals. That’s abuse? Or a man lies on the ground while a woman holds a leash attached to his neck. This picture can’t tell its own story, of course. To be abuse, we have to fill in the surrounding facts ourselves (did she drag him? did she make him sit up and beg?)—which most of us are eager to do.

Here are three of my many reactions:

1) The controversy is not about the abuse, it’s about the photos. Nobody cared when, in January, the pentagon announced reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Nobody cared when, in March, the pentagon confirmed the abuse and began the penalty phase of their investigation. But when the pictures came out…wow!

Only an intrepid few protest at the School of the Americas, where the U.S. trains Central American death squads, but Abu Ghraib? Uproar. So it’s not the fact of the abuse that bothers us, not the knowledge of the abuse, but the visual—seeing it is what gets our goat. And then there’s no sense of proportion whatsoever.

Until the visual image of a woman pointing at men’s genitals goes head to head with the visual image of five masked men cutting off the head of Nicholas Berg. Then, finally, we get some perspective. These savages might actually have achieved their goal of undermining the rebuilding effort if they hadn’t filmed it. But they did. Because they learned only half the lesson of Abu Ghraib—they learned power, but not how to control it.

Which actually tells you everything you need to know about Islamic Fundamentalists and why they will lose when faced with a disciplined opponent. (The first tip-off was the ’72 virgins’—they’re not committing suicide by mass murder for god or country, they’re doing it for sex. People who call Islamofascists ‘savages’ are more right then they know).

2) How is this abuse anyway? Well, it’s abuse because it’s humiliating. The prisoners are being degraded as people. But it’s only degrading if you’re ashamed of your body. If I accept myself and reject the idea that my bodily functions are dirty, then so what if a woman points at my genitals? Granted, there are rumors of pictures of glow sticks being shoved up people’s butts, raising issues of body autonomy (in roughly the same ballpark as rape, but if rape is about not sex but power, and prison guards already have recognized power over prisoners, then the violation is blunted).

Even the butt play is at worst mildly physically uncomfortable. The ‘abuse’ is still psychic (before I get too far away from my main point, I remind you again of the School of the Americas).

So why is it so awful? Well, one guy said he was made to feel like a woman for a few minutes, which is a fate worse than death. Presumably, that’s not why Americans are so angered. Rather, Christians, like Muslims, believe that the body is dirty. It occurred to our soldiers to do this as a method of torture for the same reason the prisoners felt it was torture—we are taught to hate our bodies, especially the naughty parts. So that merely forcing public recognition that we have bodies, especially naughty parts, is torture worthy of public uproar.

Ultimately, this torture is self-inflicted. Back to the ’72 virgins’ issue: these people are willing to commit suicide by mass murder just to get to a place where they can have lots of guilt-free sex—that’s how much they hate their own body, their own urges. I can’t help but wonder how they’ll treat their 72 virgins.

3) About me: I live in New York City, anti-Bush, anti-war central (not me, the city). Yet I have heard precisely zero conversations about the Abu Ghraib photos. None.

Granted, until a couple days ago, I was an overwhelmed law student and most of my friends are overwhelmed law students, but on the subway, the sidewalk, the store, from my knee-jerk liberal roommate, the library, the cafeteria…not one word. Nothing. The only place in my world that there is any prison abuse controversy at all is in the newspapers and on the web. And yet I accept that there is a controversy.

I know full well that journalists are ignorant arrogant people who simply assume that what is important to them is important to every thoughtful person, and yet here, with nothing to go on but the bleating of journalists, I accept that there is a controversy that actually makes little sense. (Is bringing human rights and democracy to Iraq really tainted because women point at men’s genitals in Iraqi prisons? Again, see above, School of the Americas.)

What does that say about me?
In an earlier post, I declared that I was changing English by adding non-gender specific third person singular pronouns because the contortions of good writers and silly cheats of bad writers to deal with this hole in our language have been annoying me for too long. But as I look back on the one post where I used the new words, I find them distracting and weird. So I’m backing down—the change must come organically, or at least from a better writer than me.

Friday, May 07, 2004

So I'm just about done with lawschool. One more paper that I hope to have done by Sunday. I'm sitting in the library at 8:00 Friday night procrastinating. Then I'm done. Graduation May 23.

I'm trying hard not to look past this paper, but it's getting harder all the time. It's a little scary. Law school has been my life for three years and all the other parts of me have rusted away. I recently stumbled across an email I sent to some guy a few years ago. Someone I met socially and I was introducing myself to him--my favorite books, movies, quotes, that kind of stuff. I don't know why I saved it.

But I did and I just reread it and didn't recognize the person who wrote it--did I really used to have favorite books? Favorite quotes? Did I do things and lead a life? Graduation is going to be about discovery. Discovering me.

The future is exciting, but also a wide-open abyss. Who am I? I've forgotten and now will have to rediscover me. What if I'm boring? I've been boring for a couple years now and have used law school as an excuse. What if I graduate and I'm still boring?

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

One thing I’ve noticed in the 18 or 20 years I’ve been following politics is that people’s opinions about a particular politician have virtually nothing to do with that politician or hes policies.

For instance, Bush strikes me as a fairly decent man and moderate president (a little incoherent, maybe, where he doesn't have something like a war on terror to focus him, but it's been a long time since we had a president who ran for some reason other than that he thought it would be cool to be president). He has some liberal tendencies, some conservative tendencies. He’s very similar to Clinton—both speak to their extremist base, but generally govern to the middle. Both are loathed by the other side and are steadfastly defended by a base that isn’t entirely happy with them but have nowhere else to turn.

But back to the "love 'em or hate 'em" question: The reason why there is a disconnect between the politician and the perception is fairly obvious—we don’t know much about what’s going on. What’s the real effect of the Medicare Bill or the Tax cuts? Why did this company get awarded that contract? What’s the real motivation? Who really benefits? And who is supposed to benefit? It’s all a bit vague and rarely affects us personally. As a result, there are plenty of blanks for our mind to fill in. And virtually all of us are ready to let our biases do the filling.

What often happens is that, very early in our exposure to a politician we get a warm or cold feeling about ler—because de’s a Democrat, Republican, for or against some bill or issue, a football fan, handsome. Then for the rest of that politician’s career, unless something really big and noteworthy happens, we interpret all those vague positions and actions through the lense of this impression.

And of course the vagueness leaves plenty of room for us to interpretat to our heart’s content. Each processed action tends to reinforce the opinion we already have so that, ultimately, our opninion of the person is completely divorced from the actual person.

Today we have a country where Democrats, who were very tolerant of the personally flawed but talented and dedicated President Clinton, were chomping at the bit to hate that lying moron Bush. Much of their hate, I think, was already in place before Bush came along and gave them a target to attach it to, and what a bonanza that Florida chad thing turned out to be for them! Republicans are much the same, merely reverse the loyalties—despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, the only significant differences between the two are anatomical: Clinton has a silver tongue and Bush has a backbone.

Why this happens is understandable, but it would be nice if people, especially journalists, would do a better job of monitoring how their biases affect their perception of events. Unfortunately most people, especially journalists, don’t.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

In this day and age, it’s ridiculous that there is no non-gender specific third-person singular. Grammatically, you use ‘he’ or ‘him’ when you don’t know or it is a generic person. But political correctness puts the kybosh on that.

Careful writers avoid the situation, often by pluralizing the sentence and using “them” or “they.” Careless writers just use “they” or “them.” Writers with a tin ear use “one” and mindless PC slaves (textbook writers, for instance) use “she” based on some twisted notion that simply changing the sex makes it ok. But it’s just as sexist and now it’s grammatically incorrect too.

What this language needs is a new word, and I’m proposing one here. I looked at Spanish, Latin, French, German, English, and Esperanto and tried to merge them.

So from here on in, wherever in this column I need a non-gender specific third-person singular, I will use de (hard ‘e’, like dee) for he/she, hes (soft ‘e’, like Tess) for his/hers, ler (the 'er' like hair or glare or Jim Lehr(er)) for him/her, and lerself (same 'air' sound) for himself/herself.

And if I ever get any readers, it might one day matter.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Lately I’ve been in a battle with Eugene Volokh (well, I’ve been in a battle with him, he probably doesn’t know I’m alive) over the reach of gay rights. He’s generally supportive but, in my opinion, far too accommodating to those who are not supportive. For instance, a couple weeks ago, he argued that it is legitimate to oppose gay marriage because one man and one woman have the potential to be better parents than two men or two women. I emailed him and pointed out that, while this may be true, child rearing is irrelevant to marriage and therefore, the argument is not rational (I found it curious that he recognized that this argument, even if true, says nothing about the merits of any particular couple, and yet he did not recognize that this invalidates the argument, nor did he argue for a “parent IQ” test prior to marriage).

Volokh didn’t respond to my email. That doesn’t bother me too much since he probably has a lot of email to deal with—what with him having actual readers and all (a problem with which I am not burdened).

Now, he’s insulting students at Western Oregon University for rallying against the Red Cross, who refuses to take blood donations from men who have had sex with other men. See, the Red Cross has these “donorability” requirements to help them decide whose blood to take. Among other restrictions, if you have had heterosexual sex with someone who tested positive for HIV, then you can’t donate for 12 months. If you have had homosexual sex with a man after 1977, then you can’t donate ever.

Is it folly to have a problem with this? If you know to a certainty that you have been exposed to HIV, but the exposure was through heterosexual sex, you can’t donate for 12 months. If you know to a certainty that you have never been exposed to HIV, but you are a man who has had sex with a man, even once, in the past 27 years, you are banned from donating for life.

Now I’m not sure I’d call this discrimination (but what other word would you use?) and I don’t think boycotting the Red Cross is the right approach, but I certainly get annoyed when I see the poster of infants over the caption “One in four may not get the blood they need” and know that that’s partly because of the homophobia of the Red Cross.

This policy may have made sense 15 or 20 years ago, but today it’s discrimination (for lack of a better word) that kills people—and the Red Cross shares the blame for those deaths.

This is perfectly reasonable to complain about.

Monday, March 01, 2004

In my opening post, I confessed my status as an anarchist. This blog is in large part an effort to fully describe what I mean when I say that. I also claim that most people, choosing freely, would see anarchism as the best choice.

Unfortunately, few choose freely. We are so manipulated when searching for answers to life’s various questions that we don’t even know what questions to ask. For instance, everyone, when asked what they want out of life, will answer, “to be happy.” The actual words used may vary: to be a good father, a good mother, respected, well liked, cure cancer, bring world peace, be an omnipotent potentate, etc. What they ultimately mean is that they want to be fulfilled and content with their station in life. They want to be happy.

In a capitalist, market driven society, happiness is closely tied up with the pursuit of money—happiness is acquisition and money is the fuel that runs the buying machine. We need an endless supply of objects, which creates an endless need for money, which keeps us working far beyond what is necessary for survival or even comfort.

The formula is half right: Money is a means to happiness, but acquisition as an end in itself is an empty, unsatisfying exercise. On some level, this is generally understood (intellectually, people know that buying some product will not make them as beautiful and happy as the person in the commercial), but there is a second level of coercion at work that has prevented people from abandoning the model.

That second level of coercion is our concept of success. It takes time and focus to get to know people well enough to judge their value in terms of ethics and intellect, trustworthiness and admirability. So instead we use cues: beauty, grooming, and, most importantly, apparent wealth as evidenced by the quantity and quality of a person’s possessions. It’s a convenient shortcut that makes some sense in an economy like ours: he or she must be good and smart to amass the money to get these things.

The problem is, we’ve become so comfortable with the shortcut that we’ve forgotten that it’s not the finish line itself (we know what people are willing to show the public, but we don’t know how or why they got it—we don’t know their methods and motivations). Instead, we’ve come to so closely identify the possession with the personal qualities that we’ve separated the person from the qualities and attached them to the possessions. That is, we’ve come to assume that if we achieve that level of possession, we will have those qualities. And since money can buy almost any tangible object, money itself becomes the finish line.

Certainly, money can help you achieve what you want. But it’s just a tool. A good tool, maybe, but only a tool and one of many. It is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve your true goal in life. But since we are actively discouraged by marketers from looking deeper, most people fail to see the nature of the tool.

So now within this context, most of us work hard, hoping to achieve some level of wealth. And because we’re fortunate enough to be Americans, we stand a good chance of getting there. But when we do and find we’re not happy, we tend to conclude the problem is that we set our sights too low—we rarely question the underlying assumption that money is the answer to our problems. We work more or harder, make more money, buy more stuff, accumulate more debt. If we successfully move another rung up the economic ladder, we find we’re merely empty and suffocated in a nicer or more cluttered house. That wasn’t the answer.

Most of us don’t know what to do with this discovery and ultimately wait to retire or die, accepting a disappointed life. It’s so common it’s a cliché: the rat race, the white picket fence: beautiful on the outside but empty or fetid on the inside; optimism is for youth, before reality crushes our dreams, and so on.

We can’t find the answer because we’re not asking the right questions—because we confuse a tool (money) with a goal (fulfillment). And because we don’t see the true purpose of money, we don’t use it properly as a tool.

Here’s one experience (mine) and one observation (someone else’s):

Experience: I live in New York City, having moved here from Ohio in 1995. Housing being what it is in these two places, I accumulated lots of furniture and assorted knick-knacks and dust collectors in Ohio. When I left, I had to throw out all that I could bear to throw out. When I arrived in New York, I had to throw out more.

In 1999, I lost my lease in Brooklyn and had to move again. The apartments I looked at were very small but they were at rents I could afford in neighborhoods I wanted to live in. That should be good enough. But while looking at each apartment, I pictured where my couch would go, where my table would go, my TV and so on, and each time I concluded that I couldn’t live there because there was no way my furniture would fit.

Suddenly it dawned on me—my furniture is deciding where I’m going to live. They were exactly right in Fight Club—my possessions possess me! They weigh me down, their safety worries me, maintaining them takes my time and buying them takes my paycheck. I work jobs I hate to buy junk I don’t need.

And now they’re deciding where I’m going to live!

So I threw out almost everything—I kept my bed, dresser, clothes, stereo, softball mitt and little else. I’m a pretty nostalgic person. Parting was painful, but, once done, I was shocked at how little I missed. I was just fine. Turns out, all that stuff I worked so hard for added virtually nothing to my life.

Observation: The Dalai Lama, in The Art of Happiness, cited psychological testing results that I didn’t check, but ring true and comport with my personal experiences. He said that people who are generous and have compassion for others tend to be happier then selfish, grasping people. Somewhat counterintuitive, but undoubtedly true—you can make your life better by focusing on making other people’s lives better.

So our system, which teaches us to accumulate things to make our lives better, precisely prevents us from being happy and content with our lives! Most people intuitively know this—we will help a person in need if the cost to ourselves is not too great. And large numbers of people do some sort of charitable work, even if it’s merely giving loose change to a beggar. We feel better about ourselves afterwards. Who doesn’t get a lift from making a positive difference in someone else’s life?

But we’re so bombarded by contrary messages that we cannot go beyond these small gestures, momentary opportunities for easy sainthood. It’s considered heroic when a person makes public service the center of his or her life, but we also feel that that person is a dupe, divorced from reality, a little bit sad. “Do-gooder” isn’t a compliment.

If this weren’t true, these people wouldn’t be so rare. We recognize on some metaphysical level just how rich people dedicated to public service really are, but we’re afraid to go there ourselves. So I suppose they are courageous. But only at first. Then they learn how little it costs to sacrifice material wealth.

As I see it, that’s one of the strengths of Anarchism—it takes what, under a capitalist system, is a courageous choice that few people are confident enough to make and brings it easily within the reach of all. Indeed, the freedom to choose and the dignity of the individual are the foundations of Anarchism.
Just in case: All rights reserved, Copyright 2006 Ignatius Byrd

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