2013/08/09

On Privilege

Apparently anyone who writes on feminism and intersectional politics eventually writes about privilege.  I suppose one reason for this is that privilege is often a central part of our structure for analysis of various situations.  Perhaps more important is because it seems to be so often misunderstood.  And occasionally deliberately misunderstood.

I think the most important thing to understand about privilege is how difficult it is to see unless you are directly and adversely affected by it, and sometimes not even then.

My father was a lifelong smoker (yes I know this seems like a sudden acceleration away from the topic, bear with me), and at the time I was born the idea that smokers should not smoke in their homes, or around babies, had no real traction in society at large.  Like many smokers of his generation, my father saw smoking as something of a sacred right granted by the gods themselves and anyone who suggested that he would do better to smoke outside the house would have been met with all the scorn that he could muster; and he could muster a *lot* of scorn.  The result was that from my first few days of life until the day he died when I was in my early 20's, I was constantly surrounded by smoke and the odour of cigarettes.

We humans have a remarkable way of normalizing things.  I had never lived without the smell of cigarettes and so I had no idea that they particularly did smell.  When my father actually had a lit cigarette in his hand, if I was nearby and in the visible haze of smoke he produced, then I could smell the cigarette, but otherwise I can honestly say I did not.

Other people claimed they could.  They sometimes complained about the stench of cigarettes, a complaint my father (and later I) met with disbelief, and when talking to such people my father generated an almost visible field of wounded defensiveness.  Like many smokers in the late 1980's and early 1990's my father grew to be incredibly defensive about his smoking, convinced that a granola munching bunch of control freaks wanted to deprive him of what he saw as a gods given right to smoke anywhere and everywhere.  To him claims that cigarettes smelled bad were merely part of the nefarious scheme to deny him his right to smoke anywhere and everywhere.

To the younger people this may seem bizarre, but there was a time not too long ago when smoking was permitted in virtually all businesses and semi-public places.  Grocery stores, libraries, office buildings, all had ashtrays scattered around and people would walk in with a lit cigarette and continue smoking their entire time in such places.  When this changed and an increasing number of places began banning smoking, many smokers (my father among them) were outraged and went out of their way to violate those policies.  My father was especially proud of frequently forcing some poor schmuck paid minimum wage to ask him to please not smoke in the store, and then storming out while giving said schmuck a lecture on the rights of man and the horrible way they were being violated.

Attitudes are contageous, and while I never did smoke I did acquire the idea that objections to smoking, and especially objections to the smell of cigarettes were the work of nefarious people who had nothing better to do with their lives than harass innocent smokers, presumably out of some deeply rooted desire to control others for the sake of controlling others.

And then, when I was 22, my father died of a cancer caused stroke.  Ironically, I suppose, the cancer was not lung cancer but bone cancer.  Had he survived I'm sure he would have used that fact as the centerpiece of his many speeches defending smoking.

We cleaned the house, finally discarding his ashtrays and cigarettes, and about six months later something completely unexpected happened: I smelled a cigarette for the very first time in my life.

At first I honestly had no idea what I was smelling.  It was a foul, pungent and penetrating odour.  I guessed at first that it was a chemical spill or leak of some sort.  Then, finally, I realized that it was a cigarette.

We get used to smells, and after being exposed to them continuously for months eventually don't notice even the strongest of odours.  It takes time for our noses to adjust to the absence of a familiar smell and notice them again.  Which is why I was 22 before I first actually smelled a cigarette and realized that my whole life I had not only been wrong but had been horribly maligning the people who objected to cigarette smoke.  Far from being meddlesome busybodies who sought control for the sake of control, they were as they claimed: people who just plain didn't like having the foul stench of cigarettes everywhere.

Now that I can smell cigarettes, I have noticed that tobacco is an almost uniquely penetrating smell.  I have, no exaggeration, smelled the cigarette a person lit in their car (windows up), through the rolled up windows of my own car, only seconds after they lit up.  I now know that the idea of smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants is a cruel joke and the only real way to keep your nostrils from being assaulted by the vile smell of smouldering tobacco while you eat is to ban smoking in the building entirely.

Which finally brings us back to Privilege.  In many ways privilege is much the same as the smell of tobacco.  When you are privileged you don't notice it.  To you it is invisible, the situation is merely normal, and those who try to point out, or worse complain about, your privilege seem like malicious busybodies with some hidden agenda because self evidently their claimed agenda can't be true.  If you were privileged you'd notice, right?

Wrong.  Like a smell you have become accoustomed to, privilege is often not noticible to those who have it.  And often not even very noticible to those who don't have it, but have grown up with its presence being normative.

Unlike smoking, privilege is not (or at least not usually) something we do deliberately.  And that I think is the other important thing to remember if you think you are being attacked when people discuss privilege.  We, they, are not discussing a personal failing you have, or a malicious way you are acting.  Privilege is simply the product of the society in which we live, it is not (usually) something people deliberately do and your privilege is not a sin, or a flaw in yourself.

Privilege is also not a guarantee of success or power.  I have often heard those who object to the idea of privilege claiming that they know for a fact it is a myth because they personally are said to be privileged but they had hard lives and are not successful.

Rather than seeing privilege as a sort of automatic win token in the game of life, imagine it more as the difficulty setting.  You can still lose a game even if it is set to the lowest difficulty setting.  You can still lose a game if your opponent gives you a handicap.  You can still be unsuccessful in life despite having privilege.  All privilege means is that you are playing at an easier difficulty setting.

Being born in the USA or Western Europe is a privilege of location, infrastructure, etc, even for the poorest and otherwise least advantaged of us.  This first world nation privilege is rarely discussed because mostly when we talk about privilege we are people from first world nations talking about relative privilege within our nation.  But from a global context everyone born in a first world nation has a significant privilege over those born in the third world.  We first worlders can still wind up homeless and starving, and a third worlder can wind up rich and powerful, privilege is no guarantee of anything.  But we have an easier time than a third worlder does.

Further, privilege is not binary.  It is not something you either have, or lack.  Rather there are dozens of sorts of privilege, some more important some less so, which are present to a greater or lesser extent in us.

A black man may have male privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, able privilege, and possibly even educational privilege.  But he won't have white privilege, and in our society that's one of the biggest sorts of privilege to have.  No matter how male, straight, cisgendered, ablebodied, and educated he is, our hypothetical black man will still encounter difficulty that white men don't.    Sometimes this difficulty will be sufficient to prevent him from succeeding where a white person would have. 

When privilege is discussed it is useful for those of us who aren't in the group in question to listen and not to dismiss the experiences of the people in that group.  I am man, I have never experienced street harassment, and until my sister told me otherwise part of my privilege was assuming that the small town in which I live didn't have a problem with street harassment.  Like the smell of cigarette smoke, I simply never noticed it despite it being around me all the time. 

To those who have a privilege, hearing those who don't describe their experiences is often a jarring experience.  There can be an urge to disbelieve their experiences, an urge to suppose that they must be exaggerating or even lying, and often an urge to believe that they are lying or exaggerating specifically to hurt or insult you.  Stifle those urges, remember that you don't notice things you're used to, and listen.  You'll learn a lot, and as you do the blinders will fall away and you too will start noticing things.

2013/08/01

Left, right, and Libertarian, thoughts on proper political divsions

There are many objections, some of them valid, to the nearly 300 year old left/right political division.  The Libertarian party is, I think, both self serving and legitimately seeking a better way to express political division with their two axis approach to things.

For those unfamiliar with the Libertarian Party's two axis model, they declare the the left/right division is archaic and has little relation to people's actual political thinking.  They argue that political positions can be more accurately plotted on a two dimensional plane, with one axis devoted to "social liberty" and the other "economic liberty".  Per the Libertarian Party, those traditionally defined as liberal support a large degree of social liberty, but favor restrictions on economic liberty, while those traditionally defined as conservatives favor the opposite.  Libertarians, they say, favor maximum liberty on both axes.   We can see clearly the self serving nature of this method of defining politicial differences, but I think many in their rush to condemn the Libertarians for that blatant self serving mechanism miss that the Libertarians do describe a real problem.

The division between left and right is fuzzy, often changes dramatically over the years, and seems to contain many contradictions.  This, I'll argue, is not because it is an inherently bad model (though it is certainly imperfect), but rather because it has been defined wrongly in our political discourse.

In the USA, especially, political discourse often centers around the concept of freedom, or liberty.  Being able to define oneself as a defender of freedom is an essential component of any successful political career.

And for that reason, I'm going to deliberately avoid using freedom or liberty as a criteria for political division.  Not only are there disagreements (with varying degrees of validity) over what "freedom" actually means, but I think the focus on freedom obscures the true political division.  I'll also note that people who are usually described as being on the extreme ends of the spectrum, left or right, are typically authoritarian.  Fascism on the right, Communism on the left, for example.  Despite their mutual hatred and the differences between the two, it is undeniable that both are authoritarian and totalitarian, and not in favor of freedom.

The actual disagreement is not over liberty, or freedom, but rather hierarchy.

This was originally not obscure in the slightest.  We call the political split left/right, because in the negotiating phase of one of France's revolutions the supporters of the aristocracy sat to the King's right, and the opponents to his left.

The true division is equality vs. Hierarchy.  And this is not a division of totality, but rather a division containing categories and segments.  The Founders of the USA were invested, to various degrees, in the idea of equality in the political sphere (at least for certain classes of people), but explicitly rejected, and indeed reacted with horror to, the idea of equality in society or the home.  Their egalitarianism was strictily limited both in scope (politics only) and in who it applied to (all white, male, property owners).  Egalitarianism outside those areas was not merely not among their concerns, but was actively opposed.

One reason for the frequent changes in what left and right stand for is changes in which area of society is proposed for equality.  In the 1770's the core disagreement was on the idea of an explicit political aristocracy and monarchy, an explicit political hierarchy in other words.  Those on the side of the revolutionaries were willing to fight for equality, but only in that limited area.  Some did support a broader egalatarian movement, but were unable to muster any broad support among the revolutionaries.  Those opposed to the American revolution were in favor of a system of explicit political hierarchy with a king on top and other people arrayed at various places below the king.

In the modern world we see this same equality vs. Hierarchy disagreement playing out, both internally in the "left" political parties, and externally in disagreement between the left and right.

Which is why we see some of the apparent contradictions in the Libertarian movement, why despite the objections of Libertarians their movement is inevitably classified as being on the right, and why ultimately the Libertarian movement backs Republicans when forced to choose between the two major parties.  This is because ultimately the Libertarian movement is a pro-hierarchy movement.  Indeed in some ways it is more the movement of supporters of hierarchy (in general) than the US Republican party.  Search through libertarian (note the lower case "l") discussions and academic works and you will often find a startling yearning for monarchy or other totalitarian systems of government.  This is not because libertarians oppose "freedom", but rather because they argue that freedom, as they define it, would be better protected under a non-democratic form of government.

It is also generally the case that while Libertarians, and more generally libertarians, offer a mushy defense for what they term "social liberty", they are generally in favor of hierarchal arrangements both in the home and in the business world. 

I'd argue that the best, if quite confusing, method of expressing political positions would be as a bubble chart, with the importance of various specific cases of hierarchy or equality expressed as the size of the bubble representing that specific.

Libertarians, for example, are almost universally in agreement that a hierarchal business world is right and proper.  They usually argue hat labor unions and other mechanisms to produce an equality of power between employer and employee are inherently dangerous and bad.  The goal is not, as they claim, "maximum economic liberty", but rather maximal employment hierarchy.  Boss on top, managers under boss, workers at the bottom.  This is not merely seen as a reasonable chain of command, but a moral imperitive.  Opponents of this hiearchal arrangement are seen as dangerously radical or foolishly naive.

Similarly we see that the social differences between liberals and conservatives can be most clearly portrayed not as arguments over freedom, but as disagreement over hierarchal arrangements in the home and in civil society.  The conservative argues for the freedom of a man to run his household as he desires, implicitly arguing for a hierarchal home with the husband at the top, and others arrayed below him.  The liberal argues for the freedom of the wife to be unoppressed, the freedom of the children to exercise their own rights, etc, in other words for a home environment with more equality between participants.

The specific areas of disagreement change.  The *basis* of disagreement remains the same: hierarchy vs. Equality.

Two Americas

Today I'd like to talk about the economy by discussing two different Americas.

In the America most of us live in, McDonalds and Wendy's workers are trying to organize and demand pay of $15/hour.  This is roughly double what they make now, and around the same level that Washington DC wants Wal-Mart to pay their employees.

The interesting thing about doubling fast food worker pay is how little impact it would have on prices even if we assume corporate profits and executive pay are sacrosanct and cannot be decreased at all in order to accomplish the goal of doubling the pay for the low level employees.  A group of economists ran the numbers and determined that the result would be that the $1 menu would become the $1.17 menu.  That's not a crushing increase in price.

McDonalds, disturbingly, refuses to even consider raising worker pay.

Which brings us to the second America.  The America that very few of us live in: Corporate America.

President Obama recently declared that he favored lowering the corporate income tax rate to 25% from it's current 35%.  There are many things wrong with this.  To begin with, American corporations don't pay a 35% tax rate on their income, thanks to various tax avoidance strategies the effective tax rate is only 12%, and many of the larger and richer corporations actually have a negative tax rate (that is, the government takes money away from us and gives it to GE, Verizon, or Boeing, all of which made massive profits last year but somehow managed to get money from the government when they filed their taxes).

Obama, like most other advocates of lowering the corporate tax rate, argues that this is necessary to make a more business friendly environment and lure jobs back to America.

The problem with this argument is that America is currently the most business friendly it has ever been.  Corporate profits are at an all time high.  I'm not engaging in hyperbole here, I mean that quite literally.  In all of American history there has never, not once, been a time when corporate profits were higher than they are currently.

Similarly corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at an all time high.  Again, I mean that literally.  There has never, not in all American history, been a time when corporations got more of the GDP in profits than they do currently.

Corporate taxes are at an all time low.  During the 1950's corporate income tax revenues accounted for nearly a third of all tax revenues collected by the federal government.  Today they account for less than 10% of tax revenues collected by the federal government.

To argue that corporations are over taxed, or that corporations in America today are facing burdens that make doing business in America difficult, is to deny reality.  There has never been a time in American history when corporations had a better deal than they do now.

And yet they want more, and they want to take it from us.

That sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it isn't.

Remember that corporate profits are a greater percentage of the GDP than ever before?  Think through what that means.  The GDP represents the total amount of money available, if the GDP grows and corporate profits remain at the same percentage of the GDP as before, then corporate profits are up, and everyone else benefits.  But if corporate profits make up a larger *percentage* of the GDP than that has to come from somewhere.

And one place it's come from is our wages.  Currently wages are a smaller percentage of the GDP than they ever have been before in all American history.  We are, in other words, being paid a smaller piece of the pie than our parents and grandparents were.

Fun fact, if minimum wage had kept up with inflation from the time it was first established it'd be around $22/hour today.  Instead it's about 1/3 of that.

One of the ways that corporate profits as a percentage of the GDP has grown is that money that once went to wages has gone to profits.  In other words, money has been taken out of our pockets, and put into the bank accounts of the richest people in our nation.  That doesn't account for all of the growth of corporate profits as a percentage of GDP of course, but it accounts for a goodly chunk of it.

And, in this environment, we are told that America must become "more business friendly", and that it is absurd to suggest that workers be paid more.

Something is desperately wrong.

2013/05/21

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged and bad writing

My favorite evangelical Christian blogger, Fred Clark, in his ongoing dissection of the Left Behind series keeps returning to a theme in his criticism of those books: bad theology leads to bad writing.  He contends that while Jerry Jenkins may well be a not very good writer to begin with, the illogical, irrational, and completely incoherent theology that forms the basis for the books makes his writing worse by demanding that he write in multiple impossibilities, contradictions, and generally write characters who behave in a way nothing at all like the way real people behave.

Substitute "philosophy" or "thinking" for "theology" and I think much the same argument can be made about Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged (and probably her other books as well, but as I've only read Atlas Shrugged (and not yet finished it) I'll limit my criticism to that book).

Rand's problem is a problem of willing suspension of disbelief and internal inconsistency.  Some genres of fiction get broad leeway when it comes to willing suspension of disbelief.  Tolkien, for example, set his stories in a world that was not our world, and was not supposed to be our world [1].  We do not object to the existence of Orcs and magic and Elves because we know that Middle Earth is not our Earth.  While the alien nature of the setting does not disrupt our willing suspension of disbelief, internal consistency becomes vastly more important than it would be in other settings.

Some books go so far as to begin in a way that produces the false impression that the setting is our world, and then expose the radical differences between the book universe and ours as a way of adding to the enjoyment of the story.  Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, is a good example of this as the first five or ten pages deal with the mundane aspects of the protagonist's life in ways and with language that would not be out of place in our world.  Then McKinley jerks the reader out of this complacent fog with casual references to events and background information that simply cannot fit our world, producing a sort of intellectual whiplash that many readers of that genre find enjoyable.

Rand, however, sets her book in the near future (presumably some time around 1968 or thereabouts, "near future" rarely mans more than 10 years from the publication date of a book, though she never specifies the year).  While readers will give a great deal of leeway for such books, readers do expect the path from their present to the fictional near future to be apparent and sensible.

A book telling us that it takes place in the near future and portraying America as having undergone a mass conversion to Islam is, if not utterly impossible, at the very least going to have to go to great lengths to justify its background.  I'm not sure even verifiable and widespread Islamic miracles would trigger a mass conversion to Islam in the USA.

Rand proposes a "near future" no less unbelievable than one proposing a near universal conversion of Americans to Islam.  And she does so due entirely to her philosophy and ideology.

Rand said that Atlas Shrugged began with her anger at reading about a strike in the news.  What, she wondered, would happen if the true productive class (of which she counted herself as a member) went on strike?  The result was Rand's magnum opus, a novel that is cited by numerous people as the most important book they have ever read.

We see, from the beginning, two major problems with Rand's work.  Of secondary importance is her unwavering belief in nakedly aristocratic principles, and the utter contempt and disdain for the lower classes that aristocracy implies.  Most important, from a bad writing standpoint, is that Rand started with a completely unbelievable premise, tried to produce a universe in which that premise might make sense, and then told us that this universe was our own.

The wealthy and powerful do not go on strike.  If you were told that Bill Gates, or Bob Iger (CEO of Disney), Daniel Akerson (CEO of GM) had gone on strike you would assume that the person telling you this had mistaken the Onion for a real news source.

Strikes are a singularly ineffective means of producing change in the world, the reason they are the tool most frequently employed by the working classes is not because strikes work, but because the working classes very rarely have access to any other means of producing change.  The wealthy and powerful do not strike because if they are dissatisfied with the world, they have much more effective means of changing the world to suit them.

We need only to look at the real world outcomes of laws and government action that do not please the wealthy and powerful to see this.  Bill Gates, for example, objected to being prosecuted under antitrust legislation in 1998.  Employing an expensive, and extremely effective, law firm and spending tens of millions on lobbying efforts, Gates not only gutted the case against him (technically MS was found guilty of violating the law, but the penalty imposed was non-existent and MS was not prohibited from abusing its position), but antitrust laws were changed to accommodate his desires.

If anyone had suggested that Gates and MS go on strike they would have been roundly mocked.  Because going on strike is ineffective, while lobbying, bribing elected officials, and working through a firewall of high powered lawyers is so vastly more effective.  Microsoft stock rose during the entire affair, their profits increased steadily, and their future actions were completely unfettered by any government action.

In order to produce a fictional universe in which Galt and his comrades going on strike [2] Rand is forced to produce a universe which bears virtually no resemblance to our own save for the names of a few places.  If she was content to put her story in a completely fictional universe then we would be limited to criticizing the (many) failures to produce an internally consistent universe.

However, Rand tries to present her impossible setting as not merely possible in our universe, but a warning that unless rapid and immediate action is taken the universe she describes may quickly become reality.  And even the most casual reader is immediately struck by the sheer preposterous nature of this claim, and the truly horrible writing that is produced by the mental gymnastics necessary to pretend that her impossible setting is both realistic and prophetic.

[1] For those Tolkien fans in the audience, yes I know that Middle Earth was supposed to be our Earth in a long distant pre-history so far back that even the shapes of the continents have shifted.  That's not our world of today, and like Howard's Hyperboria (which had the same conceit) it still falls into the category of "not being our world" for the purposes of willing suspension of disbelief.

[2] Not that they actually went on strike, rather they vanished in such a secretive manner that for much of the book no one is even sure that anything is happening.  Strikes are public, and among other things are a forum for the aggrieved to explain why they are striking.  Galt et al did nothing of the sort and in fact went out of their way to avoid explaining their grievances.

2012/02/20

Blatant misogyny from the right

One of the interesting things to come out of the recent false conflicts about contraception, and the recent spate of anti-abortion bills being passed in various states, is the increasingly bold and blatant misogyny coming from the American right.

While misogyny has always been a part of right wing politics there is usually an effort to disguise it at least a bit.  Not so with the most recent nonsense.

We're seeing conservatism drop the mask and finally admit that it is not merely abortion they oppose, but rather contraception.  A serious contender for the Republican nomination for president, Rick Santorum, has come out in opposition to Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruling which granted the right to contraception.

Only a few days ago Santorum's biggest contributor, Foster Friess (pronounced "Freeze"), came out against the proposed requirement that health insurance cover contraceptives by literally telling women to keep their legs shut as it was so much less expensive.  Of special note is that he did not tell men not to have sex, but rather directed his remarks to women.

The most blatant recent example of outright misogyny, however, comes as a result of Virginia's new law requiring a transvaginal ultrasound for any woman seeking an abortion. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, a "transvaginal ultrasound" requires that the gynecologist insert a plastic wand into the woman's vagina.  It is, as you might imagine, a rather invasive procedure and not one that doctors consider necessary for many abortions, especially for pharmaceutical abortions (that is, abortion by taking a pill).

People who were not complete and utter misogynists found the new regulation to be revolting.  CNN's Dana Loesch [1] defended the law:
That’s the big thing that progressives are trying to say, that it’s rape and so on and so forth. And in fact, this big battle that I’ve, uh, totally won with Keith Olbermann by the way, like, not only won once but twice and three times… uh, there were individuals saying, [high voice] “Oh what about the Virginia rape? The rapes that, the forced rapes of women who are pregnant?” What!?
Wait a minute, they had no problem having similar to a trans-vaginal procedure when they engaged in the act that resulted in their pregnancy.
Emphasis mine.

It's hard to find a more blatant, more open, declaration of misogyny than that.  It is a distillation of the virgin/whore complex into a single sentence.

The first impulse of many would be to point out that not all women seeking abortion have, in fact, consented to any transvaginal procedures, rape victims for example.  It is, I think, a bad idea to make that argument as it (however unwillingly or unwittingly) buys into the basic misogynist idea that "good girls" are more deserving of respect and consideration than "bad girls".

In the misogynist view consent is understood to be a single universal occurrence.  A woman can choose to remain celibate, or she can consent to sex.  Consent is not determined on a case by case basis, a woman cannot (for example) choose to have sex with her boyfriend and then choose not to be vaginally penetrated with an ultrasound wand if the condom breaks and all she wants is some RU-486.  In the mind of a misogynist that is an absurd contradiction.  The woman chose to be a slut, and sluts exist to be penetrated at any time by any one for any reason.  If the state of Virginia chooses to punish sluts by penetrating them with ultrasound wands that can't be rape, the sluts consented to sex once didn't they?

We're seeing the misogyny in the conservative War on Sex more clearly lately, and I find that disturbing.

[1] Already infamous for not merely defending, but cheering for, US soldiers who urinated on Taliban corpses, and declared that she'd like an opportunity to piss on some corpses herself.

2012/01/18

Musings on believers in chemtrails, a general sense of helplessness, populist uprisings, and Ron Paul

One of the various, and easily mocked, sorts of conspiracy thinking floating around these days is the idea of "chemtrails".  For those of you who don't have a hobby of following conspiracy nonsense, a brief explanation follows.

For the believers in chemtrails the idea that jet airplanes leave contrails due to their high speed through a humid atmosphere condensing that humidity into clouds is laughably naive. Their belief is that the so-called contrails are in fact clouds of Evil Chemicals that the dark forces controlling things from behind the scenes are spreading over an unsuspecting America. 

What specifically the Evil Chemicals do is something very few chemtrail believers can agree on.  Some will tell you that the Evil Chemicals are mind control drugs, others that they just make people unhealthy.  But they all agree that the Evil Chemicals are bad, and that the forces spreading the Evil Chemicals are bad.

Oddly, and unlike many conspiracy theories which tend to be politically polarized, chemtrails seem to have believers on both the left and the right. Some hucksters make money selling anti-chemtrail equipment, mostly to the newage crystal idiocy leftist variety of believer. 

Lately the more right wing chemtrail believers have been posting videos claiming to show that spraying vinegar around your back yard from a squirt bottle can dissipate chemtrails.  Many of those videos include pleas to vote for Ron Paul on the grounds that he will stop the chemtrails, which in their version of the mythology are being spread by the federal government for various but nefarious purposes.

It's easy to mock the chemtrail believers, as it is easy to mock any of the conspiracy mongers.  And on the one hand I don't have any objection to such mockery.

But on the other hand, I think that they and many others like them represent a political and social need being filled by the wrong thing.

The world has problems.  That's obvious to anyone who looks.  We can argue about whether things are getting better or worse (I'll argue better), we can argue about how best to solve the problems, and we might even disagree on what exactly the problems are, but there is going to be near universal agreement on the idea that the world has problems.

Worse, the problems we face are usually huge, with no clear cause, and no clear way to fix them.  Often the political process seems engineered to prevent fixing, or even discussing the problems.

Which is where the conspiracies come in.  Like the anti-vaccine crowd, the chemtrail crowd has seen problems and seeing that no one seems to seriously discuss the problems they've turned to conspiracy theories.  One of the appealing thing about conspiracy theories is that they boil the complex and often downright opaque problems down to a straightforward and easy to grasp good vs. evil narrative.

The actual causes of autism, to pick on the anti-vaccine crowd for a while, are still something of a mystery.  It is doubtful that any effective treatment to help autistic people will be developed soon. There's some reason to believe that such treatments won't exist until we really understand the human brain and can affect it at a cellular level; which is to say that if it ever happens it won't be for a very long time.  For that matter even classifying and diagnosing autism is not a cut and dried matter.

With that sort of uncertainty it shouldn't be surprising that some people look for easy answers, and for someone or something to blame.  We've got the pathetic fallacy built into our very genes, we see a kid with autism so we instinctively assume that someone was responsible for that.  Most of us recognize that fallacy and are able to accept that sometimes things just happen and no one is responsible.  Others of us can't, or won't, and so they look for someone to blame.

What we see with the anti-vaccine crowd, the chemtrail crowd, and the others is often (though certainly not always) a denial of helplessness and confusion.  Like most of us, the conspiracy believer are powerless to really change much, and they don't even really have a firm grasp on what is wrong.  Unlike most of us they've decided to latch on to any convenient explanation.  That, in turn, allows them to focus their impotent rage at something, even if it's a laughably wrong target, and that having something to focus on feels better than being confused.

We see this same dynamic, though to a lesser extent, with the Tea Party.  Unlike the anti-vaccine people or the chemtrail people, the Tea Party is sufficiently grounded in reality to realize the actual cause of many problems.  They correctly identify one of the core problems as our political process, but "our political process" is a big thing and they still misdirect their ire to many wrong areas (such as Obama's mythic Islam, or his mythic Communism, etc).  Rather than looking for real problems and real solutions the Tea Party, like their more conspiracy minded cousins, seeks easy answers and someone to blame.

I'm harsher on the anti-vaccine crowd than I am with the chemtrail crowd for one simple reason: the anti-vaccine crowd is actually causing harm both to their own children (by putting them at risk of very nasty diseases) and to society at large (by reducing herd immunity).  All the chemtrail people do is buy vinegar or crystals.

I'm also sympathetic to the urge to understand and act that motivates a great many of the conspiracy theorists.  They've horribly misunderstood things, and their actions are pointless at best, and harmful at worst, but the motivation to fix problems and improve the world is laudable.

What worries me is that the helplessness and increasing hopelessness we all have is going to fuel a misguided populist movement that may do horrible things.  Fascism had its origins in the very understandable and luadable desire of many Italians to fix the problems that faced their nation; the result of that was so bad that "Fascist" has become a semi-generic insult.

A people will only tolerate abuse for so long, eventually they will rise up and do something.  And history shows that more often than not the ultimate result of rising up and doing something is terrible.  Revolutions generally produce results as bad as, or even wors than, the original porblem.  And populist revolutions have a particularly bad track record.

I therefore see conspiracy thinking as something of an early warning system for a potental catastrophic failure in democracy.  Conspiracy thinking grows when the feeling of impotent rage at increasingly intolerable situations grows.  The fact that Ron Paul, an unwavering pro-conspiracy voice, is rising in political popularity is, to me, a very disturbing sign.

2011/11/21

Samuel dies, plus a side story and Nice Guys! (1 Samuel 25)

The narrative of 1 Samuel often involves detours and sidetracks, one of which I find interesting enough to comment on.


Before that though, Samuel dies.  This is handled in one single verse.  You might suppose that a prophet important enough to have not one, but two, books in the Bible (in fact, the very first example of two or more books) would have his death addressed with a bit more than one measly verse.

Fortunately for Samuel's inclusion in his own eponymous books, he'll be back.  Anyway, he dies and is mourned.

And then David moves to a new place and encounters Nabal, who is quite wealthy and miserly.  Note that the later lessons from Jesus about the evils of wealth and wealthy people are not really new to the New Testament.  There is very little in the Bible that is approving of wealth and the wealthy.  Something that is virtually completely ignored by most modern churches, and inverted by the preachers of the Prosperity Gospel.

At any rate, it is shearing time, and like most people back then Nabal's wealth is largely tied up in livestock.  David and his men guard the shearers and they're virtuous and steal nothing at all.

However we discover that David is a Nice Guy.

Nice Guys are a men who, for a variety of reasons including simple shyness, have the idea that a) sex and romance are transactional, and b) therefore they can get sex/romance by being "nice" to women.  Scare quotes around nice because they aren't really being nice, what they're doing can be more accurately described as attempting to purchase sex and/or romance from a woman by pretending to be her friend.

What makes Nice Guys not so nice is that they have the expectation that by being "nice" they deserve sex, and that there must be something wrong with women who don't just hop into the sack with them after they've been so "nice".

Note that, quite often, the Nice Guy never actually mentions to the woman he's interested in that he'd like a romantic relationship with her, and will often later be quite venomous about being "friendzoned" even though he never, not once, told the woman he wanted to be in a romantic relationship.

Nice Guys often evolve, or perhaps devolve, into Pick Up Artists and become convinced that the secret to getting sex is to be a total asshole.  Like the Pick Up Artists they often become, Nice Guys are convinced that women are basically without agency and that by doing X, Y, and Z they are simply entitled to attention and sex from women.

David exhibits similar behavior here. Nabal didn't ask for David to hang around his shearing team, and apparently Nabal was completely unaware that David had even been around until David sent a messenger to his house telling him so.

6 [...] Peace be both to thee, and peace be to thine house, and peace be unto all that thou hast.

 7 And now I have heard that thou hast shearers: now thy shepherds which were with us, we hurt them not, neither was there ought missing unto them, all the while they were in Carmel.

 8 Ask thy young men, and they will shew thee. Wherefore let the young men find favour in thine eyes: for we come in a good day: give, I pray thee, whatsoever cometh to thine hand unto thy servants, and to thy son David.  (1 Samuel 25:6-8, KJV)
 Having rendered his service, entirely unrequested, David now requests payment.

And Nabal refuses, he sends out messengers of his own telling David that he doesn't know who he is or why he's hanging around, but he didn't ask for his help and he sees no reason to give him anything. To be sure, he is rather curt, rude, and abrupt in his dismissal of David's request/demand.

David's response is, much like a Nice Guy who goes on a spittle filled rant about the evils of women and how they only like jerks and he never gets any despite being so Nice and always being there for the woman, an example of misplaced and odd rage.

21 Now David had said, Surely in vain have I kept all that this fellow hath in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that pertained unto him: and he hath requited me evil for good.

 22 So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall. (1 Samuel 25:21-22, KJV)
I'll sidetrack briefly here and mention that we have another great example of why the KJV is often more entertaining to read than the NIV.  The NIV translates that last bit as "if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!"  I think "any that pisseth against the wall" has a more evocative ring to it.

The point is that David, snubbed in his demand for payment for a completely unrequested service, is outraged.  So outraged that, in that lovely Biblical style of punishing a group of innocent people for a sin committed by a single person, he swears to kill every man in Nabal's household.  Presumably they'd have then taken the women as sex slaves, that is what typically follows a Biblical slaughter.

But Nabal's wife Abagail gives David a present, David realizes that perhaps swearing to kill all the men in Nabal's household was a mite rash, and they leave.  Then Abagail gives her husband a heart attack (literally) by telling him he came this close to being slaughtered by David, and once Nabal is dead David asks her to marry him.  To the victor go the spoils I suppose.