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Social Distancing

Social distancing. It seems to be the rallying cry of the year 2020. Stand six feet apart. Don’t travel out of town. Stay at home whenever possible. Avoid bars, nightclubs, and other crowded venues. Limit the capacity of indoor businesses. No more fans at sporting events. Wash your hands often and wear a face covering. I heard the advice just the same as the rest of you. My general reaction was ‘OK, I’ll do those things. I do most of them anyway. This is no big deal. Yawn’. I hate crowded places. I can count on one hand the times I have entered an establishment that could credibly be called a ‘bar’ and I’ve never even considered going to a nightclub. I tend to shop at odd hours to avoid crowds anyway so I’m unlikely to notice the change. Same with restaurants, I avoid the rush. I’m already a dedicated hand washer and I don’t mind an excuse to get even more neurotic about it. I like my sports, but I mostly watch on TV, and if it’s only on TV for a while, that’s OK by me. The mask is a minor discomfort, but not worth raising a big stink over.

No big deal right? Wrong! Everybody is nuts. A lot of people are out of work. It’s been two months since George Floyd and people are still rioting. Could be because they’re all jobless now thanks to lock downs and legitimately have nothing better to do. Arguments about mask wearing are considered political discourse with all the inherent problems. People are a little less friendly, a little more tense, and everybody is wondering how soon things can go back to “normal”.

Whatever social distancing means, it’s clearly a very big deal for a lot of people. It’s rather a reversal of the usual order of things. Social distancing isn’t hard for me. It’s my default setting. I do this all the time, naturally, as easy as most people do the opposite. All my life I’ve been the odd duck swimming against the current, standing too far away from people. All my life I’ve been listening to people say ‘you should get out more’, or ‘you should be more sociable’ or some other ‘helpful advice’, but social distancing suits me just fine. It’s ‘normal’ that I struggle with. I have to admit, it’s sort of nice having the shoe on the other foot for once.

It’s a bit petty of me, I admit that, but this is something of a ‘touche society’ moment for me. The tables have temporarily turned and now everybody else gets to experience the pressure to change their natural social inclinations. Am I chuckling a little watching people struggle with this, especially the younger generation? Honestly, yeah, I am. Now the rest of the world gets to try having to be like me instead of the other way round. Quite a refreshing change, even if its only temporary

Now, before you run me through the grinder or accuse me of being flippant or unsympathetic, hear me out. Yes, people are dying. Yes, it’s awful and I’d rather Covid-19 had never happened (or at least stayed contained in China like it should have under a less authoritarian government; see the post a couple entries down). Yes, this is the first time anything like this has happened to several generations of people. Yes, the economic effects are serious and will be felt for months and years to come. I get all of that, but let’s state facts. Covid is serious but it isn’t the black plague. Even if everybody eventually gets it, and we probably will, only a relatively small percentage will die. That’s a tragedy, but so is a hurricane, or a tsunami, or a war. People die unexpectedly from all sorts of accidents but it usually doesn’t put people so out of sorts.

Part of the problem is probably how our government handled the situation, but I think the greater problem is that people really are under a lot more stress. It’s not just the constant bad news and updates on the death toll. People are also being asked to change their behavior. Social distancing takes an effort for most people. It’s difficult, uncomfortable, and nobody knows how long it will have to last. Giving up a trip to the local bar may be meaningless for me, but it’s a big part of a lot of people’s social lives, especially young people. You can give it up for a while, yes, but for a year or longer waiting on a vaccine that may or may not ever come. It’s really not surprising. Asking people to give up significant portions of their lives for months and years is asking a lot, especially for a disease that everyone concedes is rarely fatal and often not even felt by younger people. Add to that the fact that all this sacrifice, all the lockdowns, the mandates, the restrictions, etc. isn’t going to keep people from getting the disease forever. It’s only going to slow the spread so our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, kicking the can down the road so the system isn’t flooded with too many hospitalizations at once

Covid-19 isn’t exactly the black plague. It’s not the worst disease to come down the pipe. The fatality rate could be as high as 1%. To give you a comparison, the fatality rate for smallpox was 30%, meningitis is just below 15%, ebola’s fatality rate varies from 25% to as high as 90%. The reason this particular molehill has been made into a mountain comes down to two facts that make covid-19 a problem. Fact 1: the virus is highly infectious, spreading quickly and easily from person to person, even those who don’t develop symptoms. Without shutdowns and social distancing, a lot, maybe most, of the country would have already gotten the disease, so many that a lot of people would have died at home from a lack of medical care, and nobody wants that. Fact 2: our entire healthcare system, from medicine to testing to the manufacture of PPE has been optimized for efficiency and profit but NOT resiliency. The system works well under normal conditions but can fail catastrophically under stress, or put more simply, if too many people get sick at once, there aren’t enough hospitals or doctors or nurses or medicine to go around. The reasons for that state are complicated and will take work to address. Excessive corporate greed, lack of accountability, prioritizing profits over emergency planning, too much globalization and not enough local sourcing, too many people moving too easily across national borders and insufficient means to keep track of them all, failure to stockpile crucial supplies, the list goes on and on. What to do differently next time and how to fix things so a pandemic doesn’t become a civilization level crisis is a longer discussion one our society will have to address eventually, but there’s not much we can do in the short term to change it.

What can we do now? Most of us can’t do much other than social distancing, and even that isn’t going to save every person from covid-19. Whatever choices our leaders have made or will make, they won’t be ideal. You can’t fight a pandemic without casualties and costs any more than you can fight a war and bring every last soldier home. The world doesn’t work that way, and life isn’t fair. No matter what we do, a lot of people are going to die. That’s been inevitable since the first covid passenger got on a flight out of China, but that should not be daunting to us. The fact is that the risk of death is with us every day. To live is to risk death daily. We could die in a car accident, drown swimming in the ocean, or even fall down the stairs, but we still drive to the beach from our multistory homes and/or second floor apartments. We could keel over from a heart attack doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV. There’s room for reasonable people to disagree on what constitutes an ‘acceptable risk’. Some people don’t mind risking getting covid if it means they can continue to work and make money. Some people will empty their savings to stay at home waiting on a vaccine. Nobody has to be right or wrong either. We all have different risk tolerances, and that should be OK.

Perhaps all the sniping is a result of the shared frustrations from all the socializing people can’t be doing. There’s been a lot of controversy about so called ‘covid parties’, and a lot of shaming and finger pointing towards the young people arranging and attending them. Young people, though, like most people, aren’t stupid. They understand risk and they know that they are more likely to die from a number of things besides Covid. They know that, and they want to party, so they do. Their behavior is rational at an individual level, and I, for one, am not going to condemn them over it. Still, there’s a counterargument that the young people get covid and then expose others who are more at risk. That sounds like a reasonable argument but it’s not the end of the argument. A young person might counter by saying, ‘so quarantine grandma. Let her be locked up in her house because she’s ‘at risk’. There are advocates for such an approach. Why should everyone have to sacrifice so much for so few when there are other ways to tackle this problem. Why not identify risk groups and sequester them until a vaccine is found. The cost would arguably be much lower than what we’re doing now, and fewer people would be affected. Either way, whether we sequester our old folks and cancer patients and other at risk groups, or whether we restrict parties and require masks, somebody is being inconvenienced.

It’s not as simple as it seems. Is it better for a few people to make large sacrifices or for everyone to make smaller ones? How do we decide which is better? Do some peoples rights count more than others? Is freedom more important than safety? Is it more important than lives lost? The answer might be different for an affluent business person with a savings of several hundred thousand dollars vs. a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. A lot of people believed that freedom, even someone else’s freedom, was worth dying for when the Civil War was fought to end slavery. It’s not a simple issue. We all have different perspectives, and we have to leave room for others to disagree. Kids going to covid parties and people who refuse to wear masks are not evil, bad people. They just have different ideas about what’s an acceptable risk. They balance the scales of freedom and safety differently Does that put others at risk. Yes, it does, but living in a free country means accepting the risks that come from free people exercising their personal rights. Balancing collective issues like public health with individual rights is among the most difficult issues for a free people. Reasonable people can, and should, disagree, but demonizing and finger pointing demeans us all and reduces serious discussion to a shouting match where nobody wins and nothing is ever settled.

It’s been said that one man should not pass judgement upon another until he has walked a mile in the other man’s shoes. This proverb comes from Native American culture, though to be fair, there are other versions from other cultures. It’s one of those little lessons we learn from stories, called aesops by some after the apocryphal Greek purveyor of fables (though parables would be a more accurate term) that told a simple story to illustrate a profound lesson. This one is about empathy, appreciating the feelings of others, understanding that the next man’s experiences are not like my own, that he faces his own problems, his own struggles. It’s also about simple humility, accepting that each of us is only human, and since nobody has all the answers, we should listen to each other instead of reflexively passing judgement on everyone we meet. It took a long time for me to understand that the people who urged me to be more ‘social’ and to be less ‘distant’ were not trying to taunt me or ridicule me or force me to conform to some idea of ‘normal’. Most probably thought something was wrong with me, and knowing how they would feel if they spent as much time alone as I did, they gave me advice they thought would be legitimately helpful. They didn’t understand how different I was, and I possessed neither the confidence or self-awareness to explain. Either way, that realization allowed me to let go of a lot of resentment I had carried around a long time.

I’m humble enough to admit I don’t know what the ‘right’ way to respond to Covid-19 is, or whether there is such a thing as a right way. If there is an optimal path, I doubt we’ll be able to figure it out until years later. The fact is nobody knows the the right response. Nobody has ever gone through this before. We’re facing the unknown, and nothing’s scarier than the unknown. Let’s all be humble enough to realize none of us have all the answers. Let’s give each other space to disagree while we’re socially distancing.

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The Easy Way Out

Electricity, Water, People….

 

Name three things that follow the path of least resistance.

Some things are funny, some things are true, and some things are funny because they’re true. Most things are funny when Johnny Carson says them, and I used to love those old sketches where he puts on his ridiculous turban, reads three seemingly random words, and then gives the punchline, some unexpected commonality or question that they all answer. Funny or not, it’s hard to deny that most people do the easy thing in most situations. People are always looking for easier ways to do almost everything, and that isn’t a bad thing. That’s why we have all kinds of technology, everything from smart phones to jet airplanes. Almost every invention represents a successful attempt to make some aspect of our lives easier. It’s all about getting more results for less effort. We even have an economic statistic to measure it, productivity, basically the total of our economic output divided by the number of people. People are more productive than ever before in history, and getting more productive all the time. In fact, we’re so productive that at this rate, we will soon reach a point where our various inventions do so much of our work that there isn’t enough work to keep everyone employed, at which point our leaders may just throw up their hands and give everyone money to spend (universal basic income), because it’s…wait for it… easier than coming up with some scheme to give everyone some kind of life sustaining job. It’s kind of funny when you think about it. We wouldn’t be so productive and efficient if we weren’t so unfailingly lazy.

Unfortunately, our tendency towards laziness isn’t always a good thing. There are some problems that, by their very nature, defy easy solutions, problems like racism. Nobody can honestly say racism isn’t an issue in our society. It’s a problem, and it’s not a uniquely American problem. It’s a human problem, and like most other aspects of human nature, it’s hard to change. Changing a person’s mind is harder than building a robot, or an army of robots. There’s no instruction manual, no algorithm, no surefire way to change somebody’s attitude. There’s no shortcuts, no quick fix, no way to increase your productivity. Some people can be persuaded to change, and others can’t, and there’s no way but one mind at a time.

So, when I hear things like “We need to eradicate systemic racism”, I’m skeptical that such a goal is realistic, or possible at all. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Some battles are worth fighting even when they can’t be won. In such battles, we should be wary of our own tendency to take the easy way out. Our current climate of racial awareness sprang from the death of a black man at the hands of a white officer. The officer has been arrested and one hopes he will be punished for his crime. Still, this example is hardly an isolated incident. Racism, felt or subconscious, among police officers seems to be a serious problem, and the fix won’t be easy. It isn’t something that can be fixed by Congress passing a law or the President issuing a statement. There’s very little actual law enforcement at the federal level. It’s a few departments like the FBI, or ICE, with a very limited actual jurisdiction. Some law enforcement is at the state level also, but the vast majority of officers, and the vast majority of incidents, are locally controlled, by whatever city or county. That’s thousands of people serving in hundreds of cities and towns throughout the US. Some are better and some are worse, but none of them are the same and all will have unique problems based on local laws and conditions. If this problem is ever going to be solved, it’s going to be solved slowly, one department, one officer at a time. There will be no declaration of victory, no major news story, just a lot of individual people doing the hard work one policy shift, one city council vote, one police chief replacement, at a time. Forget about eliminating racism in society. Even the limited task of reducing racism in policing is difficult, a long hard slog of unrewarding, unheralded slow and steady progress.

That doesn’t stop people from looking for an easy way out. NASCAR bans the confederate flag, The Washington Football team changes its name, Confederate statues being taken down.

Name three easy things to do that show an opposition to racism but don’t actually do anything to improve the lives of minorities.

I suspect that the only thing the above three things will accomplish is to make a few (probably white) people feel better about themselves. Knocking down a statue is pretty easy. All it really requires is a truck, some rope, and the permission of whoever owns said statue, or if you don’t mind going to jail, just the truck and the rope. It won’t change the historical fact that slavery happened. It won’t erase any of the real prejudice and discrimination that black people of today face. It won’t change much at all really, but it’s clearly anti racism, and it’s easy. Banning a symbol like the confederate flag is almost trivially easy. It just takes the leaders of an organization agreeing to ban something. It won’t really change the attitudes of any of the people who fly that flag. It won’t make them less racist. It’s more likely to just piss them off, which may or may not be constructive in the larger picture. Changing a team name just requires one person, the owner, to make a decision. Even if the owner doesn’t want to budge, it’s a business and enough financial consequences will probably change his mind. It won’t change the historical fact that European colonization decimated native populations with disease and conquered them one by one over a span of several centuries. It won’t give any Native Americans any of their land back, nor will it erase the results of several centuries worth of legitimate grievances. Still, it’s easy, so why not?

Don’t get me wrong. I actually favor two of those three things. I’m leery of banning Confederate flags because censorship sets a dangerous precedent. True, it’s not the same as the government banning flags, but for many reasons, some discussed below, we shouldn’t get into the habit of reflexively banning things we don’t like. The Washington team name should have been changed years ago because the entire issue is trivial and meaningless. Changing the name puts an end to it forever and we can all move on to more important things. I particularly favor the removal of confederate statues, because I always considered them rather ridiculous. It’s odd when you think about it. After all, the south lost, and the world is better for the result. The USA that won two World Wars and defeated Nazism and Communism would not exist if the south had won. Maybe that’s a biased view, but the victors always write the history, and we don’t honor the leaders of any of the other countries we’ve beaten in wars. I doubt anyone would favor putting up a statue of King George III, or Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, despite the fact that both of them could legitimately claim, like the confederates, to have ruled part of the historical United States at some point or other and could legitimately claim to enjoy the support of some significant segment of the local populations of the territories in question.  I suspect a lot of these confederate statues were put there as a way to remind outsiders (including white outsiders) that even though the south lost the war, we still don’t like you. They couldn’t carve a giant middle finger pointing northward so they settled on statues of generals and soldiers instead.  They probably should never have been erected in the first place. That, at least, was the opinion of General Robert E. Lee, probably the most commonly depicted confederate leader. Yes, in what is one of those little ironies of history, Lee opposed confederate memorials and would probably want the several hundred statues of himself in various small southern towns taken down. He wanted America to reconcile as a nation and not carry the seeds of division into the future. If the man himself didn’t want statues of himself, who are we to argue. Lee’s objections aside, I doubt, the statues mattered much then, or will matter much now. Putting up statues didn’t make the south any more racist than it already was. Taking down statues won’t make our country any less racist now. Neither will banning confederate flags or changing team names. There are decent arguments to be made for all these things, but the idea that these things will really make a difference against racism should not be one of them. Symbols don’t create the things they represent. It’s the other way around.

The bottom line is this. Erasing the symbols of racism won’t change racist attitudes. It’s not a new tactic. The Soviets tried to ban symbols of religion. There’s still plenty of religious Russians but not too many clamoring for the return of the Politburo. The Chinese government is still doing this, in Tibet, with Falun Gong, and worst of all, in Xinjiang ‘education camps’ for Muslims. Despite their Orwellian, high tech surveillance state and brutally efficient government, they won’t succeed either. This never works, yet no matter how much history passes, some things mankind never seems to learn. All the way back to Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, and Babylonians, numerous conquerors have tried to replace the gods and traditions of conquered people with their own only to create militant minorities that never really go away. The few conquering empires who tolerate or incorporate the beliefs and traditions of locals, like the Persians, Mongols, and Romans, last centuries. Still, many before and since refuse to heed the lesson of history and continue to try because it was, and always will be, pretty easy to knock down a statue.

Our modern life, with all its devices, technologies, and conveniences has gotten all of us used to getting things the easy way, so we’re confused when confronted with something that can’t be solved that way. Changing attitudes, shifting cultures, is very hard. Our instinct is to treat those who hold differing views as enemies, suppress their attitudes, censor their speech, punish their beliefs. It’s a fault we all share, rich or poor, black or white, religious or nonreligious, Democrat or Republicans. It’s our tendency to take the easy path that dooms us to fight the same battles over and over. Really changing attitudes like racism is hard. Tolerating people whose attitudes turn your stomach is hard. Listening to opinions that make your blood boil is hard. It’s easy to love your friends, your family, the people that look, act, and think like you. Even the wicked love those who love them. Loving your enemy, tolerating the thing you can’t stand, listening to the words you will never agree with; that’s the harder path, and the only true path to peace.  The end of racism won’t come at the behest of kings, popes, presidents, or pop stars. Change like that only comes from the people. People will either change it themselves, or they won’t. Destroying symbols of hate doesn’t destroy hate. Only love can do that. We should remember that before we pat ourselves on the back for knocking down statues.

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Grasping for Words

I’ve been struggling to come up with a blog entry for about a week now, trying to decide what I could or should say about the death of George Floyd. For starters, I will point out the obvious. Watching the video is physically sickening. The video is one of the most awful, gut wrenching things I’ve ever watched. It’s a murder, committed over a span of nearly ten minutes, complete with the victim begging for his life. The most similar experience I can register in my lifetime was when I watched Passion of the Christ. I’m even struck by the parallels between the last words “I thirst”, “I can’t breathe”.  That’s the closest emotional equivalency for me, but this was not a reenactment of ancient history, but a recent event, a poignant reminder that no matter how much we advance in technology, our human failings remain. And it was so senseless, so needless. How can a person, a police officer, be so indifferent to suffering, that he can listen to a victim begging for his life, and yet not even care enough to remove his knee from the victim’s neck. It makes me angry, so angry I wanted to jump through the screen and tackle the policeman. I wished someone, anyone, would intervene. I would like to think that if I ever witnessed something similar, I would at least try to intervene. It’s hard to say what one would do in hypothetical situations where courage is required, though. Would the bystander effect have taken hold. Would the uniform and a fear reaction deterred me? I don’t know, but it probably wouldn’t have done any good, with three other officers basically standing guard watching it happen. Maybe that sounds silly, and it probably is silly, but those were my honest thoughts. I can honestly say I hate that policeman, and hate is a word I do not use lightly. Whatever he gets, it’s probably better than what he deserves.

This visceral reaction makes it difficult to put my experience into words. I’ve always been more comfortable talking and writing in the realm of thoughts and ideas, where words have precise meanings and I can be thorough and exactingly accurate. Feelings, rather, are comparatively untidy, blurry things, defying precise understanding. Perhaps that’s why I rarely speak about my feelings. Indeed, most people would describe me as an exceptionally detached and dispassionate individual, in keeping with the stereotype of Asperger’s. In fact, it has been theorized by some that people with Asperger’s lack empathy. I can’t speak for others of course, but based on what I’ve read and learned, I would say it’s more accurate to say we don’t experience empathy in the same way as others and we don’t express our feelings as visibly as most others. My emotional experiences are intense, but usually private. My personal, unscientific theory is that my emotional reactions are more powerful than others, and because of that, I learned from a very young age to suppress most of it so I’m not a crying mess all the time, and that this suppression of emotion is the cause of many of my other psychological problems. I still have vague memories from my early youth of going to the verge of tears when someone stepped on a bug. It’s harder to get to me these days. It takes something powerful to generate an emotional response in me anymore, and the Floyd video has such power. It has such power that it demands a response, even from me, and something beyond the intellectual musings I usually offer. There is only so much that can be endured before it is too much, and this is too much, too much for any of us. It has to stop. 

I can relate, therefore, to the protesters, even the ones breaking windows and looting stores. That’s how angry the video made me personally. I’m inclined to forgive crimes against property. I was raised to believe, and still believe, that there is a profound gap between crimes against property and those against people. What is a few broken windows or stolen TVs against a man’s life or against systemic oppression. People are more important than things, more important than money. Things can be replaced, but lives cannot. I lament the loss of small business owners who lose their livelihood and dreams when their business, burns. Many of them are minorities themselves, and many serve precisely the underprivileged neighborhoods where protesters live. That, however, is where my sympathy ends. I frankly do not give a shit how much stuff is stolen from the corporate stores. Let it burn, I say. If we looted every Wal-Mart in America, it would barely put a dent in what they owe to this nation. They would still have a long way to go before they paid for the full impact of their cheap merchandise, low inventory, underpaid employees, tax evading world. It’s not hard, honestly, to follow the money from massive retailers to overpolicing. George Floyd’s alleged crime, passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. Ahmaud Arbery’s crime, selling individual cigarettes in violation of local ordinance. Breonna Taylor didn’t even commit a crime, but happened to be present when police officers broke into an apartment looking for drug sellers. So there it is. Drug sales and trivial property crimes. Is this worth civilian lives, or the lives of police officers. I’m okay with spending whatever it takes to catch murderers and rapists, but to have people dying over trivial crimes is just absurd to me.

You may notice I’ve written quite a bit without speaking about race or racism. The main reason for that is I don’t think I’m properly qualified. First, is my Asperger’s. Collective, social concepts like race are difficult for me to fathom, and always have been. When I first learned about it in school, I remember thinking how utterly stupid and counterproductive this thinking is and wondering why anybody would ever behave this way. It has always seemed an absurd and rather hollow concept for me, and I think that’s because I don’t sort myself into this or that social group and then tie my group affiliation to my self worth in the same way that I gather ‘normal’ people do. That’s probably related to my Asperger’s, yet race always struck me as egregiously pointless. Some social concepts, like nationality or religion, make a certain amount of sense. After all, people from different religions have different and sometimes contradictory beliefs, and nations have always struggled against one another for resources and influence, all the way back to when humans had tribes and clans instead of nations. By contrast, race seemed to be just a way for groups of people to discriminate against each other using an unimportant and arbitrary physical trait that has nothing to do with anything. There is more difference between breeds of dog than races of humanity, genetically speaking, so there is no basis for distinguishing between races. That has always been my thoughts on the subject, and since youth, I have viewed people with overt racist beliefs as the lowest common denominator of idiot and people to be avoided as a general rule.

Secondly, as a white person, I don’t really have to suffer the effects of systemic racism. As a member of a majority group, however involuntarily, I don’t get the short end of the racism stick. The effects of racism usually fall upon whatever group is in the minority, although there are a few examples in ancient history when the opposite has happened. I can’t speak to what minority communities experience. As a white person, I can’t really truly experience racism in the same way an African American could, even if I were ‘normal’. Social science even has suggested that a lot of racism occurs at a subconscious level and thus, I may be saying and doing racist things I’m not aware of. This would actually not surprise me at all as I often run afoul of ordinary social convention without intending to, even as an adult. Since my youth, I’ve often been guilty of saying inappropriate things simply because I have no built in social compass. What I do have is learned from years of practice, and my success is predicated on remaining mostly quiet in social situations. I often wonder how many times growing up, I might have offended my African American friends without realizing it. I also wonder whether they didn’t say anything because of how prevalent racism is in society. I feel doubly unqualified to say much about race, yet one cannot discuss George Floyd without acknowledging how race plays a role in policing.

What, then, should we do now, is the question? I think, for starters, it is incumbent upon us white folks, first and foremost, to listen to the voices of the protesters, particularly African Americans. We white folks probably won’t ever really ‘get’ racism, so we should listen to the people who suffer from it. Instead of suggesting our own solutions, let’s listen to our minority communities. Let’s listen to their ideas for how to change police and policing. Let’s put minority leaders in positions of authority and give them control over how and how much their neighborhoods are policed. I’m always in favor of more local control and this is no exception. Let’s put people in control of their neighborhoods, down to the street level, and let’s give them the authority. Let’s stop talking and start listening. Let’s listen to the voices crying out in protest, and let’s help them find new ways forward. Until I saw the video, I didn’t realize it was this bad, and I feel like anything I say will fall short of what’s necessary, so I’ll leave it to more qualified voices to decide what changes are necessary.

All I can say with conviction is that our leaders have failed catastrophically and completely during most of my lifetime. Too much power wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a few who seem woefully unequal to the task. As citizens, we must hold our leaders accountable for their failures. That’s what protests are about. That’s what riots are about. They are about power, who has it, and who doesn’t. At bottom, widespread protests and riots are about reminding people in power that their power requires our consent. There is nothing more American than getting in the streets and demanding change from our government and accountability from our leaders. The right to assemble and petition the government is part of our constitution, the first amendment. Nationwide protests, even to the point of rioting, are both good and necessary. So long as they are not engaged in physical violence against other human beings, so long as their ‘crimes’ consist of broken windows and stolen stuff, I will never have a critical word for protesters. Target can replace their broken windows and stolen inventory. Nobody can give George Floyd back his life. Protests, riots, can be ugly and chaotic, but they are a necessary part of the democratic process. The murder of George Floyd shows what’s wrong with our country. The following two weeks, the protesters in the streets, average people of all colors, creeds, backgrounds, rising up to demand change, gathering despite the risk of coronavirus to address the wrongs of our nation.  That’s something to celebrate. That gives me hope, because it tells me that people still value life, and want to do what’s right, even if sometimes our leaders don’t seem to care about anything but GDP growth and stock prices.  I’ve written before, and maintain here again, that we’re a lot less divided than the media would have us believe. The real divide is between the elites that run this country and the average people, black, white, and otherwise, who live there. I grew up in a mostly white county in Kentucky, where I still live, and we even had a protest here in Benton Kentucky. I don’t see much overt racism here, and I’m not sure I would recognize it if I did given my limitations, but the county has a reputation in the area as being a hotbed of racism. Still, we even had a Black Lives Matter protest here. Here’s a link.

http://westkentuckystar.com/News/Local-Regional/Western-Kentucky/Peaceful-Protest-Held-in-Benton.aspx

It was only a hundred or so people, but given the population of the county could fill less than half the seats in an NFL stadium, that’s something at least. The police blocked off the court square and everybody stayed peaceful. If most of us agree that Black Lives Matter, even in the land of guns, good ole boys, and confederate flag waving idiots, there’s hope for us yet.

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The Return of History

I’ve only witnessed a couple truly significant historical events in my lifetime. One was 9/11, an event that, while traumatic, turned out to be an isolated incident. The other was the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The End of History. That’s what one intellectual called it. The evil empire was fallen. Good had triumphed over evil, hope over despair, freedom over oppression, and prosperity over poverty. A new era of peace, prosperity, and freedom had arrived. No more wars. No more oppression. We were on our way to a harmonious globe where militaries, armies, and borders were an artifact of the past. It didn’t work out as well as we planned. For most of us, it didn’t work at all.

I was nine when the Berlin Wall came down, and eleven when the Soviet Union collapsed. I had enough sense of history and intelligence to realize in an intellectual way the historic importance of these events, but being young and emotionally even less mature than my age, I didn’t really feel it. Even were I more normal, I couldn’t experience that moment the way my parents must have, who remember duck and cover drills. I have only vague notions of what living in that world was like, under a constant fear of nuclear annihilation. The USSR of the late eighties was already well into decay and the threat of nuclear war had already begun to fade. I can only imagine what people who had lived under that cloud must have felt, a sense of relief and exhilaration as decades of lurking fear suddenly collapsed. No more war, no more conflict over ideology, and a rising tide to lift all boats. I wonder if, after decades of fear and weariness from the struggle, in that moment of irrational exuberance, we declared victory prematurely.

After all, the USSR may have collapsed, but you can’t defeat ideas by knocking down statues or collapsing governments. Communism, after all, didn’t die as an ideology, and really communism was never the problem. Marxist ideology was simply used to dress up and rationalize a much older idea, an idea as old as humanity itself, that people are tools that exist to serve the the state, the kingdom, the Empire, etc., that ‘society’ as a whole is what matters. People don’t have rights. They aren’t smart enough to have freedom. They need guidance from people wiser and ‘more civilized’. Left to themselves, they’re just dumb beasts, so the state, the king, the emperor, the wise and benevolent rulers will decide what’s best for the group. No matter the justification, that line of thinking always ends the same way. Whether the noble and powerful appeal to Marxist utopianism or Hobbesian pragmatism, the result is always the same, a small group of privileged and powerful people make all the decisions for everyone else. That idea was already ancient by the time of Marx or even Hobbes. The American values of individual rights and freedoms are, historically speaking, a fairly new idea. American freedom, at the country’s founding, was the exception, not the rule. Of course our founders didn’t go far enough. They allowed slavery and ending up paying for that failure in a bloody war. They did what practical adults do when faced with disagreement. They talked things out and compromised where they had to in order to build a new nation very different from any nation of that era. Though imperfectly implemented by imperfect people, the ideas that founded the United States were a fundamental departure from European tradition, and they impacted the French Revolution which occurred just a few years later, and helped to light a spark that would move the world towards democracy and freedom. Perhaps it was understandable then, at the end of the cold war, people perceived that they had reached the summit, that the long struggle for human rights and freedoms had been one, that those earlier ideas of commissars and comrades, bourgeois and proletariat, nobleman and peasant, patrician and plebeian were defeated forever. In the broader context of history, however, it was inevitable that some other threat to freedom would come from somewhere without or within. Freedom is not free. It never has been and it never will be.

There was something else that happened when I was nine. I’m a very visual learner, and I was doubly so when young. Images tended to make more of an impression on me than words then. Probably why I gravitated towards movies, television, and video games rather than books. There was one particular image that captured the spirit of the Cold War for me. It was a famous photograph of a democracy protester standing in front of a tank column, standing up for freedom. Most of us have seen the famous photo. It really captured my idea of what it meant to stand up for freedom. To a young American boy, a single man standing up to a column of tanks, demanding his freedom. That’s what America is supposed to stand for. That’s what the Cold War was about, but that didn’t happen in Moscow, Prague, or East Berlin, it happened in China.

I don’t know what happened to the man standing in front of that tank. Maybe he really did stand there and get run over. Maybe they just stopped, arrested him, and sent him to prison, never to be seen again. Maybe he’s still out there somewhere living anonymously. Who knows, but that image always captivated me. Nobody actually knows for sure what happened to the so called ‘tank man’, though there are theories and speculations about his possible identity, but in truth, we aren’t even sure of his name, and there’s a simple reason why. China was not a free country then and it still isn’t. They had no independent press. They were not allowed to criticize their government. The Chinese government did what authoritarians through history have always done. They forcefully put down the protesters, and the entire incident was censored and swept out of public view. To this day, most of the Chinese people have never seen the photo, because their government still decides what they can and cannot see. Their government decides what words they can read, what internet searches they can make, what foreign products they can buy, and a lot of other things as well. In America, we believe that all people everywhere have individual human rights, and that government’s job is and should be to guarantee those rights against oppression both foreign and domestic. In China, the opposite holds. The state is all powerful and the individual exists to serve the state. Some still call it communism. They call it “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but whatever you call it, it’s the same old tyranny. The colors may change through the tapestry of history, but the pattern is rather predictable. In China, a small group of wise leaders, in this case the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, decides things for everybody, and the ordinary citizen has no rights for himself, and very little influence over national leadership. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, was not elected by anybody except a small committee of important party leaders. He recently abolished term limits so he can stay in power indefinitely. Starting to sound familiar yet?

A lot of people smarter than myself had a plan. They thought if we traded with the Chinese government, if we welcomed them onto the world stage, they would gradually move towards a more free and open society. It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but I honestly wonder why anyone thought this. I can’t think of any historical examples of this happening nor any underlying psychological principle that economic prosperity leads to freedom and greater human rights. There’s no obvious connection between trading, economic success, and individual freedom, other than the fact that the one country that based itself on individual freedom happened to have a lot of both. There were and are nations that are both poor and relatively free, and there were and are nations that are autocratic, repressive, yet also wealthy and technologically advanced. It should not be forgotten that at the outset of World War II, Germany was the most technologically advanced nation on earth, and among the wealthiest by most measures. They had largely recovered from the Great Depression by investing in infrastructure, production, and research. At the same time, they built maybe the most evil regime in human history. Had Germany not been defeated, would some magical force have liberalized their society? I doubt it? Should we have stood up to Hitler earlier in the decade, before he started a global war. Certainly, as soon as we recognized what he was and the kind of world he wanted. America now faces a similar dilemma, because once again, we find ourselves dealing with a nation that now, at this very moment, has millions of people in concentration camps.This China is very different than the one we hoped for.

Let me be clear. I don’t blame the Chinese government for the coronavirus. Even if it came from a research lab, that represents a failure of safety protocols, an accident, a most horrible accident with dire consequences, but not an act of war. I do blame the Chinese government for attempting to cover up the threat and silence dissent from their own citizens. I do blame them for placing their information control before the lives of their citizens. I blame them for failing to be open and honest with the world about this threat. Instead of letting international authorities see what was going on, they shut everyone out so they could control the narrative. This, after all, is what police surveillance states do. They control and manipulate information to advance their particular agenda. They jail protesters. They silence dissent. The government’s agenda and image comes before people’s rights and even their lives because individuals don’t matter. Only the group matters, only the state matters. Does anyone honestly believe that if the virus had started here, our media wouldn’t have seized on it immediately? Our media may not be up to the standards of previous generations, but at least it is still free, and people are free to disagree with it. Nearly anywhere else, coronavirus would have been an international news story, as it should have been, because most of the world either has a free press, or doesn’t have enough power to shut out the free press of other nations. America, and most of the world’s people, believe people have the right to information not controlled by the government. If the virus had originated in Germany, England, India, or Brazil would those nations have cut off an entire region and prevented any information from coming out? I doubt it.

We thought China had changed since 1989. We thought that even though their government might be authoritarian, we could trust them to act responsibly as a global citizen. We were wrong. We probably should have seen this sooner. We know that the Chinese have occupied Tibet and suppressed their culture and religion. We’ve watched for several years as the CCP sent ethnic minorities into what they call “reeducation centers” (read concentration camps). Last October, they brutally put down pro-democracy protests from people demanding the rights the CCP supposedly guaranteed them when Hong Kong was annexed in 1997. The CCP are making victims of their own people. It turns out China hasn’t changed much after all. They’ve gained wealth and significant military power, but that famous Tienanmen Square photo could have come from three months ago as easily as thirty years ago. This begs the question, did the cold war ever really ended, or did one side just forget what it stood for and decide to stop fighting?

Because the Chinese didn’t stop. They knew they couldn’t match the US militarily in 1989, so they used a different strategy. They feigned friendship to engage the world, and to use the world’s trading network. They built themselves up economically. They built factories and ports and infrastructure. They subsidized entire industries and manipulated currencies to become the lowest cost producer of a whole range of goods. They made themselves into the world’s factory. They bought foreign companies to access new technology, and stole whatever they could. They manipulated foreign businesses into participating in this process when they dangled the carrot of artificially low cost production and a potential market of billions to sell to. Is it any wonder corporate CEOs whose vision is both narrow and profit-focused took the bait? China’s goal all along was self sufficiency, technologically and economically, and they are very nearly there. Once they don’t need the world, the mask comes off, and we see the real villain lurking behind. 

Now in the midst of a crisis, America can’t produce enough virus tests, personal protective equipment, drugs, ventilators, the list goes on. The corporations that could produce some of these things even had to be forced to do so through an archaic wartime law. So much for corporate social responsibility. It bears remembering that the US won two World Wars not because our technology was better (it wasn’t), nor because we had a bigger military (we had almost none at the start of either conflict). We won because we produced more tanks, guns, and planes faster than our enemies. Does anybody believe we could outproduce China today? If China suspended exports to America, we would be scrambling to find ways to get the supplies that are not manufactured anywhere else. Do we trust the CCP that far? That’s not the only card they can play. Many of the rare earth elements needed for electronics are only mined there. Yes, we do have them in the USA, but, surprise, it’s more expensive to mine them here, because we have those annoying rules about worker safety and preserving the environment, which cuts into corporate profits. So America has no mines operating. Sure we could build some, but how long would that take, and who’s paying for it? Further, the Chinese hold massive amounts of treasury securities. They could wreak havoc on our economy by selling them off. They use the same tactics with other nations, using debt as an economic weapon to get their way. They’ve been practicing economic warfare for at least two decades. As they need us less, they’ve been doing it all these things a lot more openly. Trump may be an irritating, hateful, blowhard, and he may have hurt the country in dozens of other ways, but he realized what China was doing before many of our so-called experts. 

In hindsight, one is forced to recognize the brilliance of the Chinese strategy. They looked farther ahead than the CEOs who only looked at profits and losses or our politicians, who didn’t care who did what as long as the ‘economy’ as measured by Wall Street bankers, stayed strong. As a nation, we wasted time and money on endless conflicts in the hopeless quagmire that is the Middle East while we wasted our political capital on fighting such critical issues as microaggressions, trigger words, who can use what bathroom, who can marry whom, and businesses not saying ‘Merry Christmas’. Clearly, we were a nation with some very misplaced priorities.

That has to change, and soon. We can’t fight another superpower if we can’t stop fighting each other over who is offending whom and whose feelings get hurt. Yes, it’s important to have those discussions, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger issues. Let’s find some issues we can agree on, like the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure and manufacturing base, the need to attract the best and brightest minds from around the world through a more enlightened immigration policy, the need to control our technology and prevent it falling into the wrong hands and being used against us. We can even reach compromises on tough issues like emissions reduction and energy if both sides can suck it up and compromise. Maybe the democrats allow a few more dams and nuclear plants to be built alongside those windmills and solar panels and maybe the republicans concede to some kind of carbon tax since we already tax almost everything else anyway. We can’t afford not to resolve these issues, because for the first time in thirty years, we have an adversary, and this adversary is a lot more formidable than the USSR was.

The task before us is daunting. This opponent is not like the Soviets. Russia as a nation always had geographic and economic disadvantages that made it an unlikely superpower. China has no such disadvantages, and based on what we’ve seen so far, their leaders are a lot smarter than the Soviets were. They have more vision. They’ve been weaponizing economics for a long time and they’re very good at it. They have the technology, some of it stolen, to track every citizen through their phone and build a new kind of super hi-tech surveillance state that would make Orwell blush. We have to stand up to the CCP, or accept a world where “reeducation centers” are an acceptable solution to social problems. We should be prepared that our old nemesis, Russia, may choose to throw in their lot with our new one, contributing a still formidable military and vast amounts of territory and untapped resources.

We will face great challenges. We are not starting from a good position economically, and we have a lot of ground to make up in terms of matching China’s manufacturing base and infrastructure. It won’t be cheap. We will immediately find ourselves in a technological race similar to the arms race of the last war, and we must do whatever it takes to win, just as we did what it took to win the space race. What could the CCP do to expand their surveillance state with artificial intelligence. Can we afford to lose that race? We must spend to ensure our military is prepared for this adversary and this threat. We cannot afford to keep fighting the last war. Future wars are as likely to be fought in space or cyberspace as on traditional battlefields. Above all, we cannot afford to waste more resources on the hopelessly corrupt nations of the Middle East. They seem incapable of letting go of their affinity for religious fundamentalism and repression. We should not be engaging with them either.

We will face an entrenched business community that stands to lose billions on what they have already invested in China and lose access to that market. Already the billionaires and multinational corporations that spent millions building factories in China are marshaling their remaining political clout to advocate a return to business as usual. They don’t want to pay for the lack of vision that led them to spend billions in a country led by an authoritarian government, and they’ll try their best to steer our course back towards the status quo as if the virus never happened. Just pretend we didn’t see an attempt by a police state to cover up a health disaster. Just pretend that their actions didn’t put the world at risk. The voices of economic reason, as they will declare themselves to be, will say things like ‘decoupling is impossible’ or ‘we can’t undo globalization’. Let’s not listen. After all, what if Washington and Jefferson had believed the experts who said it was ‘impossible’ to overthrow the British crown. What if Lincoln had believed it was ‘impossible’ to free the slaves? What if Martin Luther King had believed his dream was ‘impossible’. Impossible is just a word, a word often used by people who want to avoid making the tough choices, the right choices. Some people would rather sacrifice our values to save their stock prices. Some people, to save their personal fortunes, would pay instead with the soul of our nation. Let’s not let them. Something is only impossible until it isn’t.

Let’s demand our leaders, be they Republican, Democrat, or Independent, put our values first. Let’s demand our leaders bring some manufacturing back, and let’s make sure that globalization in the future means trading with nations that are friendly, environmentally responsible, and most importantly free. The USMCA was, IMHO, a good start. Let’s work on similar deals with other allies like the U.K., Japan, India, and South Korea. Let’s recognize Taiwan, who should be the world’s model of how to handle the coronavirus crisis, but is denied a voice in international bodies like the WHO because of China’s claim to the island. Let’s guarantee Taiwan’s freedom against a hostile China. Let’s strengthen our ties with other nations that share our common spirit of human freedom, and reject those that do not. Let’s demand better of our leaders now and in the future. The era of putting profits before principles needs to end immediately and decisively.

I’m almost forty, and maybe it’s naive, but I’d like to believe the America of my early youth isn’t just a ghost of history. I’d like to think that we as a nation can still come together and stand for something, even when we don’t agree on everything. I’d like to think we can resist the radicals on all sides and confine them to the fringes where they belong lest they sell the freedom hard won by generations of Americans for the sake of whatever extreme dogma they preach. I would hope we can come together and work out compromises like rational adults rather instead of throwing tantrums like spoiled children who don’t get their way. We’ll see if America is up to the challenge of another cold war, because one side never really stopped fighting, and they aren’t going to stop until the rest of the world bows to their ambitions. Doing business in China means accepting that censorship is OK, dissidents get arrested, and ‘reeducation centers’ are not concentration camps. The information control is perfidious. The CCP is already trying to influence the speech and conduct of foreign citizens (see last October’s NBA controversy), companies, and governments (see Chinese diplomatic attempts to influence the EU’s coronavirus inquiry). The implied threat is economic retaliation the way governments once threatened military action. Warfare has changed a lot throughout history, but it’s always been there, and I don’t anticipate it ending anytime soon. History, it seems, hasn’t ended after all.

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Capital G

I used to stand for something, but forgot what that could be… trading in my god for this one, and he signs his name with a capital G.

-Nine Inch Nails, “Capital G”

I’ve not written here in a long while for a reason. I’m trying to finish the final book of my series, a task I am failing in a most epic way. I am in a state where I can barely stand to open the file. Everything I write sounds awful to me when I reread it, so I’ve rewritten the same four or five chapters, I don’t know, ten or more times at this point. I’ve tried reading more fiction to stimulate my imagination, switching to more story-based video games and less strategy stuff, doing more yard work for exercise. I even got a new dog to replace the one who died last summer at only six years old (This wasn’t the only reason I got a new dog or even the most important one, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a factor. His name is Yoshi, by the way, and he’s wonderful).  I’ve even gone back and reread the Lord of the Rings, one of my original sources of inspiration. Nothing seems to be working. So, my thinking now is maybe by writing something, anything, I’ll jog myself from my writer’s block. 

I also haven’t been inspired to write about anything else. I don’t feel any need to write about the many typical subjects I enjoy, like sports, video games, music, etc. There are already so many excellent sources for those subjects, and most of them say more or less the same thing, that I don’t feel I’d be adding much by joining the chorus. If there is value in my writing, it lies in my unique perspective on life, in the oft discussed differences between myself and the vast majority of humanity.  Today, I happened to be inspired by a video sent to me through email. It’s a little bit funny, a little bit angry, a little bit practical, and surprisingly enlightening. It reminds me of the comedy ranting of the late George Carlin, and the video contains a similar level of profanity, so you have been warned.

Like the aforementioned comedy of George Carlin, I find this profanity laced tirade both funny and at the same time profound. It makes one laugh, and also makes one think, and both of those things are good, and hard to accomplish.

I’ll briefly summarize for those who couldn’t take the profanity or the thick New York accent. He’s basically saying that, yes, he’s grateful for the $1200 stimulus checks, and it will help, but he’s also saying that it’s not nearly enough to keep a lot of people going. He particularly dislikes the notion of mortgage payment ‘furloughs’ which he explains are agreements to delay payment for a month, or in this case, three months. However, he points out that at the end of the three month furlough, all the money that was delayed is due at that point, immediately. The problem seems obvious to any intelligent person, and he says as much in a much more animated way. How does one who has not been paid in three months suddenly come up with three months worth of mortgage payments. This is a problem the average fifth grader could identify.  It sure would be helpful if our government had some kind of, you know, plan to get people through this without massive bankruptcies, foreclosures, homelessness.

What’s funny is he’s only suggesting extending mortgages so people don’t get dumped on with several months payment due at one time. He’s not even suggesting that *gasp* the banks actually forfeit a couple months of mortgage payment income for the greater good of our nation, nevermind that’s exactly what every American under a quarantine or stay at home order is doing. He’s just asking the banks to delay payments for a while and not ask for a lump sum whenever the crisis has passed, but even that seems to be a bridge too far. God forbid the banks lose money for any reason or even *zomgz* go bankrupt. We can’t have that, now can we. It would be a travesty of epic scale. Worse than nuclear war or the zombie apocalypse. People wouldn’t know what to do. We’d all be wandering the streets in a daze because of the lack of billionaires and banks to guide us. Where would we be without mortgage based securities, amortization tables, or compound interest. Civilization would come to an end and we’d all be eating rat meat over garbage cans within three months, so whatever we do, let’s make sure the banks don’t lose money.

I have to wonder when we got to the point where we prioritized bank profits over everything else. It wasn’t in 1929, when banks were allowed to fail and many did. It certainly wasn’t in the 1933, when we passed the law that created the FDIC to ensure the savings of bank customers, not owners, would be protected if a bank failed. It wasn’t during the rest of the 1930’s, when  Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms focused on building up our infrastructure and putting people to work, not bank profits. It certainly wasn’t during World War II, when businesses and private citizens alike worked together and sacrificed together to win a global war. It wasn’t even like this in 1985, a time when every town had its own independent bank or credit union, and most of them were small enough nobody cared if a few stupid ones overextended themselves, and that rarely happened.

Yet, here we are, the same place we were in 2008. The government bailed out the banks, and like the spoiled children of overly permissive parents, they learned nothing. A relatively small disturbance, part of the economy, not the whole economy, shutting down for a couple months sends them to the verge of bankruptcy. We can’t possibly suggest the banks forgo a few months of profits, or even delay them. Just asking them to wait three months is nearly too great a burden to bear. Nobody outside of crazy people on the Internet (and maybe Bernie Sanders, the patron saint of crazy people on the Internet), would dare suggest that loan payments be partially forgiven.

It’s interesting that nobody in the media seems to be making suggestions like this, or pointing out problems like these. I have not heard any politician calling for anything beyond the ‘furloughs’ mentioned in this gentleman’s rather justified rant. It’s not just impossible, it’s inconceivable, and yes, unlike Vizzini I know the meaning. It means we cannot even consider the possibility. The very idea is beyond us. Our thinking is now so constrained that anything that inconveniences the moneyed elite, the multinational corporations, the wall street banks, etc. is automatically out of consideration, and the strictest taboo. Trump may sit in the White House, and he is awful in a number of obvious ways, but he doesn’t really run the country. The ugly truth that nobody can quite grasp is that nobody runs it. We are living in a version of Orwell’s 1984. Granted, it is not as nasty, or ugly, or unpleasant, as what was written. Like many if not most fiction writers, Orwell resorts to hyperbole largely to prove a point, but a gilded cage is still a cage. Like a minimum security prison, it can seem fairly comfortable by some measures. Maybe that’s why we don’t easily make such a comparison? Still, like in that book, we feel powerless, and most of us, for all intents and purposes, are powerless, because nobody runs our civilization anymore. The system runs itself, and that system is driven by a word that starts with a G. It isn’t generally capitalized, maybe because nobody likes to acknowledge how much power it has over us, but it certainly has enough influence in our world to warrant it.

The title, by the way, comes from a song of the same name and the quote is part of the chorus. It’s a mildly political song by a band called Nine Inch Nails. They are a little bit too hardcore for my tastes usually. This song was actually one of their more radio friendly hits. There’s some profanity, but if you made it through the video, this shouldn’t bother you.

https://www.metrolyrics.com/capital-g-lyrics-nine-inch-nails.html

There was a small controversy when the song released over what the title, “Capital G” referred to. This was during the War in Iraq when George W Bush was president, and he was (arguably) even less popular then than our current president is now, so a lot of people speculated the Capital G referred to George Bush, but the songwriter, Trent Reznor, disputed the claim at the time. No, he was referring to the real driving force of our society, something bigger and more powerful than any one man, something with as much power and influence, and many would say more influence, than God Almighty. Reznor later clarified what should have been obvious from the lyrics.

I imagine anyone who knows the song or read the lyrics knows the answer at this point. It’s obvious when you think about it. It’s one of those things that, I suspect, makes people uncomfortable to talk about because in our society, it’s inescapable. It’s one of those things about life that we don’t particularly like, but accept because we can’t change it, or at least don’t know how. That’s not all we know. We know things used to be different, better in many ways. We can’t put our finger on what changed, or why, or when, or how we got to this point in history, but we know there was a time when “Capital G” didn’t run the whole country along with most of the world and everyone in it basically unchallenged.

The answer, of course, if it must be stated outright, is Greed. What drives banks to leverage themselves so aggressively to maximize profit rather than saving for crises such as the one we now find ourselves in? What leads to market speculation that creates bubbles, crashes, corrections, and recessions? What force ensures the most unscrupulous, the most covetous individuals in society receive the greatest rewards and accolades? What drives companies to replace American workers with cheap foreign labor, or even machines? When was it that this one force became so powerful that it fairly drowns out all other concerns?

If you’re waiting for me to provide an answer, you’ll be disappointed, because I have none. I can’t escape it either. I sell compatible printer cartridges, most of which are made by factories in China, (where unions and the businesses themselves are both ultimately run by the ruling party), or other foreign nations where labor is cheap and, by extension, disposable. The printer manufacturers use similar factories to make their own nearly identical cartridge, and then mark them up many hundreds of times above what it costs to make them, using legal devices like copyrights and patents to attempt (so far unsuccessfully) to monopolize the market for consumables like ink and toner then force consumers to pay whatever they decide to charge. I often say they could put me out of business tomorrow if they simply priced their consumables at a reasonable profit margin. They won’t, though. They’ll continue to try to use various forms of suggestion, coercion, and legal tactics, to discredit and force out compatibles, and compatible makers will continue to try to outmaneuver them, and I’ll continue to buy them from cheap foreign factories. I will rationalize that I’m saving my customers money, and that’s very true. I’m not making anything close to the fortunes that HP and Canon are making. It’s a good rationalization, but it’s still a rationalization. For whatever reason, this is what we’ve come to.

We’re all guilty, and we’re all innocent, but we’re not all equally so. As Spider-Man might suggest, with great power comes great responsibility. It’s up to those who have the power to be leaders, to at least try and rise above the system. Me, I’m nobody, just another peasant. Never aspired to be much else. Like my ranting video inspiration, I won’t be giving back the $1,200 stimulus check. I’ll take whatever I can get, just like everyone else, to get by as well as I can and I’ll help my family if and when needed. Maybe people who are much better off than me should do more. Maybe the banks should voluntarily forgo a few months profit for the good of the nation, but even if they can do that without going bankrupt, they won’t. They won’t do any more than they have to, no more than the government forces them to do, and that probably won’t be much at all. After this long post, I think we all know why.

We used to stand for something, now we’re on our hands and knees…

 

 

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One Year Later

It’s now been a few days over a year since the tragic shooting at Marshall County High School that snuffed out two promising young lives. One of these was a neighbor of mine, Preston Cope. I knew him as a polite, well spoken young man who treated others kindly. Our dogs loved him and so did everyone who met him. He was a promising young man from a loving family. He loved playing in the woods and learning baseball from his father. I will miss watching him grow into the good man I know he would have been. Our world is diminished now that he’s gone. It still makes me angry, every time I think of it.

Nobody is debating what happened. Everyone knows what happened and who did it. The perpetrator is known and identified. There are witnesses, video, plenty of evidence. There’s no mystery, and the prosecution has very little to prove. There’s just the tragedy of it, and the lingering question, Why? That’s the question I’m left with. What leads an innocent child to turn into a mass murderer? That’s the thing that I find disturbing. With most murders, there’s a clear motive, money, revenge, jealousy. We can understand motives like that. They can be found in our oldest stories. They persist through generations. They reflect our human failings. They are familiar. We’re familiar with people killing people out of rage, jealousy, anger, over money, love. We’re also familiar with war. People kill each other by the thousands and millions in conflicts between nations over land, resources, and power. Recent tragedies however, seem to lack purpose. Columbine, Heath, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Aurora, etc. all share a common characteristic. They leave us wondering why. We have the how, the when, the where, but we’re missing the motive. There doesn’t seem to be a very good reason, even years later. Some talk of bullying, some of self-esteem. Some blame the parents, the schools, or the guns themselves. Many try to use tragedies to score points for unrelated political causes. None of this is new. No indeed. Murder is old, bullying is old, the blame game is old. These tragedies are new. That means something has changed. We all know it, we all feel it, we can see the results of it, but we can’t put our finger on what it is. I would suggest that we may be asking the wrong questions. Perhaps instead of asking why, we should instead ask ‘why not?’.

I admit I’ve followed the Marshall County shooter, Gabriel Parker, in the news. To hear the reasons he gives for murdering his classmates is chilling. He suggests that it was an ‘experiment’. He asserts that he is an atheist and that he believes all life is meaningless. He just wanted to see what would happen. In other words, there’s no ‘why not’ for him. He certainly did not consider prison a sufficient deterrent. If a person is determined to commit a crime, there’s little we can do to stop them. Maybe there’s just no saving some people. Maybe there’s no explaining evil. Maybe I’m wasting my time trying to understand. Still, I have to wonder if children killing children doesn’t say something about the world we as the older generation have given them.

We live in an increasingly cynical, materialistic age. For better or worse, science has been raised above religion, philosophy, art, and relationships in our society. We dissect every problem under that materialistic lens, picking apart every aspect of our world and of ourselves hoping to glean some insight. We dissect, we analyze, we reduce everything to its barest and most simple form. We cite studies from prominent universities, research papers in scholarly journals, and double-blind studies. We talk of genetics, mental illness, psychology, and brain development. We marginalize traditional religion and spirituality in general in favor of cold hard empirical data. We judge others by how much they produce and how ‘useful’ they are to society. We assign value according to income, and accept the stratification of our world into the haves and the have nots. We increasingly replace people with machines because the latter are cheaper and easier to control. We have built a world of things, of money, of profits, of mechanistic regularity. The problem is that this world isn’t just ours, it’s also the world we pass to our children. The world they are born into molds them in countless ways, and there’s only so much any parent can do. When we send the message that people are worth only what they produce, that a person’s income signifies their value, that people are no different than animals, that humans can be easily replaced by machines, our children perceive. Should it come as a surprise that some of them choose to carry such principles to their most extreme logical conclusion? After all, if all life is meaningless, if we’re nothing more than bags of meat walking around for a while before we die, if nothing we do matters, why shouldn’t we just go about murdering one another? If there’s no God, and our feelings are just an illusion provided by electrochemical reactions in our brain, why should murder be any different than any other act? If morality is a social construct, a result of our herd instincts, why should any individual recognize any moral authority? Why not do whatever we want, whenever we want? Why not just light a match and watch the world burn? Why not? Too many of our children are finding no answer to this fundamental question.

I see these tragedies as a sign of the times we live in, the test that our generation faces. Most of us are well aware of how our environment, our reality, can shape our thoughts, feelings, and ideas, but few acknowledge that the opposite also holds. If we continue toward a world of pure materialism, where money is king, science is god, and scientists are priests who hand down gospel truth to the world, the more Gabriel Parkers we are likely to have. To be fair, science and those who enshrine it have answers to life’s profound questions, but not everyone will accept those answers. If society excludes and marginalizes the alternatives, if there is no room for disagreement, then we are no better than the crusaders of our past who fought over the right way to worship. If we continue to assert that men and women have no special value, just intelligent apes, no different than animals or maybe even robots, we should not be surprised when our society comes to look more like the packs of wolves or troops of baboons from which we are descended. It is no coincidence that the development of religion accompanied the rise of civilization. When we consider the answers to life’s deeper questions, when we expand our minds beyond what is plain and sitting right in front of us, we take a step away from the beasts that we were. We aspire to something greater. Regardless of the answers we come up with, regardless of who is right or wrong, when we ask questions about the meaning of life, the nature of the soul, the unique nature of humanity, we move towards being more than we were before, something better than just bags of meat, and what is more human than that struggle. That unique struggle is an important part of the human condition, and we ignore our spiritual impulse at considerable peril. How strange it would be if we came full circle as a species, rising above the apes and animals to build great civilizations only to decide it was all a mistake after all and go back to killing each other on the whim of our instincts.

I’m not telling anyone individually what to believe. Each of us has a right to choose his or her own beliefs, to answer life’s questions in his or her own way. I believe that freedom is important. History speaks to those who listen, and when one group attempts to impose a single set of beliefs on the whole of humanity, history speaks of tragedy, tyranny, oppression, and hate. This world has seen enough crusades and crusaders, and we should all embrace love and acceptance before judgements, lest we recreate history’s tragedies. The dogmas of materialistic science are still dogmas, justified or not, and imposing them upon the world will ultimately create the same conflicts that every other dogma has created throughout history. Imagining that we are so much more enlightened than the generations before is, that our truths are so much more unassailable than our ancestors, is the conceit of every generation. It speaks more of our hubris than of the truth. Let us choose instead to remain humble. Any of us may be wrong. Let us listen and understand each other rather than preach and proselytize.

There is much in our society that could lead children to the conclusions reached by one Gabriel Parker, but that does not negate personal responsibility. Holding people responsible for their actions is the first and most important element in building a world where life has meaning. The assailant deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. That, at least, will uphold the meaning of the lives lost. Excusing his conduct for reasons like youth or mental illness would send the opposite message. In the coming months and years, people will use excuses like these to attempt to excuse the perpetrator or reduce his culpability. Every detail will be inspected and analyzed. Every excuse will be put forward, and that is part of the problem as well. We pay too much attention to the bare facts and not enough attention to the messages we send. We agonize over single brushstrokes while we paint a picture that is increasingly bleak and grim. We analyze every leaf and branch of the tree while the forest burns around us. The landscape we paint, the forest we care for, is the one our children will inhabit.

We must remember that our children are always watching, listening, and learning. When materialistic ‘facts’, money, and objectivity become more important than the emotional and spiritual well-being of actual people, we invite tragedies like this. Children reflect the world we give them, and in them, we see our own failings. School shootings are a warning that we are failing our children and ourselves. We are all responsible. We create their world, their entire reality. We should, above all, be sure it’s something worthwhile, wholesome, and good. If it isn’t, that says more about us than them. Children need to be taught the value of human life, they need to inherit a world where their lives, and all lives have purpose and meaning, whether the data says so or not. The alternative is a world where nothing matters, everything is relative, and shooting into a crowd is no different than swatting at flies. A world where everything is stripped down and reduced to cold materialistic facts is not one many of us would want to live in. Each of us should pause and consider how our words and actions shape the next generation, and fundamentally shape the world around us. We should be quicker to affirm the sanctity of life and the importance of our human souls, rather than so quickly give voice to our doubts. In this cynical age, we must work harder to check our cynicism. This will be a difficult path. It may require us to stand against the powerful and the influential. It may require us to hold our ground against popular opinion. It is always harder to swim against the current, but for the sake of our children, we must alter our course.

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Truth isn’t Truth

Or so said Rudy Giuliani to an interviewer last month. The interviewer responded with the typical level of shock, and even started to argue the point, going so far as to suggest that the statement would wind up an internet meme. It probably will spawn multiple memes, actually, and no two of them will have exactly the same motivation or meaning, and that, actually, is the point that New York’s former mayor was awkwardly attempting to make. It isn’t that truth isn’t truth, it’s that truth isn’t Truth. The capitalization is important, because it shows a subtle, but critical difference.

As for the context, They were discussing whether President Trump should or shouldn’t testify before the special counsel investigating whether or not the candidate Trump did or did not have contact with a Russian official and whether such contact involved discussing Russia’s alleged intervention in the election of 2016.Whew, what a mouthful that was. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as your preferences go for my readers, I’m not going to write an entire essay on the President or the investigation. I don’t care one way or the other, because it doesn’t really matter. Issues like this are, like the Lewinsky scandal, a show for the partisan viewers, the equivalent of a baseball game between the political parties where zealous partisans can ooh and ahh at each new twist in the case in the same manner as a sports fan when the home team hits a home run. If the Republicans win, they won’t be able to do that. That’s my take on that situation.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this entry is about philosophy. Indeed, I’m going to take Rudy’s statement on its face, because its something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. When I heard that Giuliani had made such a statement, it actually increased my respect for the man. I already respected him for his leadership of the city of New York after 9/11, but this showed me that he actually has a deeper grasp on the meaning of truth, the nature of humanity, and the inseparability of the two. You see, if we add the capitalization truth isn’t Truth, then Rudy is right, and almost inarguably so. Indeed, philosophers have been debating the fundamental question ‘what is truth’ for thousands, yes thousands, of years. There are dozens of schools of philosophy, each with divisions and subdivisions thereof. As you might expect, they don’t all agree. Some are religious, others not, some dodge the question entirely, while some posit that there is no legitimate answer. So, when Rudy Giuliani says that truth isn’t Truth, he is demonstrably correct. The search for Truth has been happening for millennia, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Many of you may not know I have considered myself a philosophical rationalist, since I’ve known the meaning of the word. Rationalism, broadly speaking, means I believe in searching for truth through meditation, logical thought, and careful consideration of the answers to fundamental questions. Rationalism stands opposed to empiricism which instead looks outside the self, to the physical world, for answers. It’s an argument that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and there are many, many variations under the broad umbrellas of rationalism and empiricism, but I came to my realization through a more plebeian vehicle.

What crystallized my position on the issue was actually a movie, “The Matrix”, a movie which posits a world where humanity has been placed in pods and fed an electronically simulated reality by machines which use the humans as a power source. It’s a suitably ridiculous concept subject to numerous reasonable logical objections, but we’re talking about a sci-fi movie. As often happens, a bit of real wisdom slips itself into the absurdity when a question is articulated by the character Morpheus. He asks of Neo, and of us, “How do you define ‘real’?” His answer is illuminating “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste, and see, then ‘real’ is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” At the time, I was enrolled in a philosophy 101 class, and I had a teacher point out that we could all be in the Matrix, right now, and we wouldn’t know it. I’ve always been a skeptic, a doubter, by nature. I don’t trust easily. I don’t take things at face value, I ask questions. I question peoples’ motivations, their reason, their prejudice, their authority, and society as a whole. Most of all, I question myself, for how can I hold myself to a lesser standard. If I were in something like the matrix, how would I know, how would anyone ever know, how would science prove or disprove that particular hypothesis? Would the revelation come as the result of arduous scientific research, or of a vision from heaven easily dismissed as psychosis or drug induced hallucination? I didn’t seriously believe we were all in a simulation, but I couldn’t completely discount the possibility.

Over the years since, I’ve considered many other questions, both mundane and profound. I remain intrigued by philosophy and by the deep sciences that attempt to explain the nature of the universe, and though exploring those questions often leaves me physically tired and mentally exhausted, I am still drawn to it, perhaps as a way to challenge myself in a way most of  life fails to do. I encountered various points beyond which I can make no satisfying conclusion based on logical thought alone, intractable problems with no obvious solution, logical paradoxes, unexplained realities that defy what statistically ‘should’ be true. I started finding them everywhere, even in simple things.

Consider this statement. Either it will rain, or it won’t. This must be true, because it exhausts all possibilities. Both things can’t be true at the same time, except they actually can. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it is raining, while simultaneously holding that it is in fact also not raining. This is not an example of doublethink, but rather a question of perspective. At any given moment in time, it is raining somewhere on planet earth, and it is also not raining somewhere. So, without further clarifying the statement, either it will rain or it will not, by specifying a particular area, the statement can be both true and false at the same time. I have discovered that many of the questions I asked myself depended upon my particular perspective. If I asked the question differently, it suggested different possible answers. Truth is, to a large degree, dependent upon one’s perspective, one’s individual thoughts, one’s philosophy, their underlying assumptions. As demonstrated by the above example, even the language by which a question is asked can change the answer.

Often the answer says more about the person giving the answer than about the question itself, or about any truth their answer might contain. We are all prisoners of our own assumptions, our experiences, our genetics, our heritage. I’ve often been wrong in life. I used to believe there was a person named Santa Claus living at the North Pole, but no more. My eyes tell me that the chair I’m sitting on is solid, but scientific inquiry tells me that it is not solid at all, but in fact composed of tiny particles which are joined together chemically, but are composed mostly of empty space. The chair I’m sitting on, scientifically speaking, is mostly empty space. If something as obvious as solidity is, in fact, illusory, what else might be wrong with our understanding? As humans, we are prone to error, our senses deceive us, we each hold unconscious biases, assumptions we’re not even aware we’re making.

Those are just the problems of individual perspective. How much more or less fallible are we likely to be collectively. The conventional wisdom would suggest that many people are more reliable than one, but why and how did we decide on conventional wisdom, and is it correct? If biases exist for individuals, why not groups of people? We know that people have a tendency towards conformity. We are aware of some of these biases, and we have names for them, names like racism, sexism, anti-semitism, etc. What other biases might exist within groups of people? Might some be so pervasive that they effect the whole species without anyone realizing it? It is possible. On a more fundamental level, what are the limits of our perception? What if the characteristics by which we understand our world, color, size, mass, energy, force, light, gravity are not the only characteristics of the universe? What if those are just the things we happen to be able to perceive and measure? These are just a few of the questions I’ve pondered over the years. No matter how I approach the problem, I can never reach a certain answer. My inability to ever finally settle on any one particular philosophy led me to a somewhat counterintuitive idea, and it’s rather similar to what was expressed by Mr. Giuliani, that truth isn’t Truth, or rather truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, a concept Mr. Giuliani tried vainly to explain to the interviewer. Many, perhaps most, are just convinced they are right, that their truth IS the Truth, the only Truth, the unquestionable Truth.

For someone like me, who believes exchanging and discussing our ideas is how we grow as people individually and collectively, the idea of all mankind uniting under a single Truth is anathema. I find there is a certain kind of arrogance, a haughtiness, in the declaration of Truth, a tyranny of Truth that enables the worst aspects of humanity to surface. If we decide there is an absolute, unquestionable truth, whether religious, philosophical, or scientific, it leads eventually to the denigration and ultimately the suppression of competing ideas. Every dystopian fantasy begins the same way, when one particular group decides to impose a Truth on others, and succeeds in doing so. This is where we get stories like 1984, where truth is decided by the party and tightly controlled. Truth becomes the motivation and justification for indoctrination, thought control, reeducation camps, and in the worst cases, the purging of all dissidents. We don’t have to travel very far in our history to find examples. I don’t need to name them.

Our modern technology and our current culture is not immune to this tendency. I’ve written before on the idea of ‘scientific heresy’ where dissenters to a popular theory are unceremonious labeled as lying heretics, and cast out into the wilderness of scientific thought. Like religious dissenters, they are assigned a derogatory label ‘pseudoscience’, and generally ostracized from the ‘respectable’ people. To the proselytizers of scientific truth, this is justified because they have evidence, but this raises further questions. It sounds reasonable, but who decides what counts as evidence? Why is a double blind study more reliable than the rantings of a madman? We all seem to agree that it is, but why do we think that? Ultimately, I think it comes down to the assumptions we make. In order to have a beginning point for any knowledge at all, we have to accept certain assumptions without question. We have to assume we’re not in the Matrix, or dreaming, or part of some kind of simulation, or, what I suspect is an endless list of other possibilities. We assume the measurements and conclusions we observe outside ourselves,  what we see, hear, smell,  and deduce through scientific study are a reliable way to uncover Truth. Put another way, in order to claim truth, or believe anything for ourselves or anyone else, we must make some leap of faith, however small. We all have faith, but most of us don’t have the courage to name it as such.

To me, the appearance of this same pattern in many different philosophies, religions, creeds, and nations, suggests the urge to elevate and promote some ideas while denigrating and exterminating, others is not a distinguishing trait of any particular creed, religion, or philosophy. Rather, it is a quality of humanity in general, and as it is a bias we all seem to share, we should be particularly wary of it, slower to judge others, and quicker to question ourselves.

In the news, one often hears of a “Post-Truth Era”. This is, I suspect, meant as a derogatory towards people whose ideas tend to question the absolute Truth of those who use the term. It seems to imply that the preachers of truth are unquestionably right, that they act solely for the good of all, that they alone know what is best for their fellow man, In a world of unquestioned Truth, all who disagree must be marked for the evil that they are, hated, reviled, and cast out. I would more accurately describe it as a “Polarized Truth Era”, where two sides, each hell bent on making sure its own Truth triumphs, fight with each other in every way short of outright violence.

It is also a very dangerous time, because regardless of who wins, we all suffer when ideas, even the most ridiculous ideas, are suppressed. What we seem to lack in this era is any degree of humility. Too many are too convinced of their own certitude. We really should understand by now, that regardless of how much evidence we collect, there remains the possibility, however great or small it may be, that we are wrong. Many who have come before us have been equally certain of their own correctness. They were certain the world was flat, certain the earth was the center of the universe, certain the ground they walked on was solid and continuous. What do we think of their certainty now? If anyone asserted such things today, they would be laughed at, but it begs the question, will future generations be laughing at us? To me, that seems all but certain.

If a real “Post Truth Era” were to come, I would be first to welcome it. You see, a world without absolute Truth is a world of absolute Freedom. A world without Truth is a world without reeducation camps, propaganda, or thought police. It is a world without excommunications, witch trials, heretics, or crusades. A world without Truth is a world where each of us, both individually and collectively, can look at the world around us, search our own souls, and decide what we want to believe. It is a world where we can talk to each other and explore each other’s ideas, rather than simply shouting at one another about what is or is not “True”. It is a world where we can accept and love one another, regardless of differences, where we can try to understand each other, rather than convert each other. It is a world where many different ideas can coexist, compromise, thrive, and grow from one another. It may be difficult, because diverse ideas encourage us to think, change, grow, evolve, and those processes are often frightening. We can make it better by consoling, rather than condemning, one another. This writer looks forward to a day when many more of us will accept the notion that truth isn’t Truth.

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Thoughts on the Food Police

I consider myself an independent, a libertarian, a free thinker, and sometimes even a radical. On some issues, I lean towards the Democratic position (gay rights, civil liberties, legalization of marijuana), while on other issues, I lean toward the Republican (gun rights, limited government, terrorism). On many issues, my own views don’t align with either of the major political parties and are based on my own understanding of issues, (climate change, energy policy, military spending, taxation, health care). Then, there are some issues that I consider unimportant (immigration), that I don’t know much about (trade policy, financial regulations), or that I don’t feel qualified to judge (abortion).

There are many problems, however, that I consider beyond the scope of what any government could or should ever attempt to solve. Some problems, like obesity, don’t have easy, straightforward answers. We don’t fully understand all the factors at the genetic level that contribute to a person’s tendency to gain or not to gain weight, and we don’t entirely understand how those factors combine with environmental factors like diet and exercise to contribute to a certain outcome. It’s often the case that two people with very similar diets will end up with very different body shapes, weights, and builds. That’s genetics. Figuring out all the permutations of genetics is going to take time. We only sequenced the human genome about twenty years ago. It will take many more decades if not centuries before we understand what each gene contributes to what health factors. I don’t understand much about it, other than the reality is a lot more complicated than Mendel’s pea plants.

Most of us are familiar with the monk Gregor Mendel and his pea plant experiments. It’s fairly standard, or at least it was in my day, to begin the study of genetics with his simple experiments. He was, after all, far ahead of his time. He imagined the mechanism for evolutionary theory decades before Darwin articulated the theory itself. Darwin himself was unaware of Mendel’s work. There’s one problem with this view. Most experts who understand statistics believe Mendel fudged his results. He also chose a notably small number of plant characteristics to experiment on, and his experiments only succeeded on that one pea plant species. Mendel got the credit because he had the idea first, regardless of his questionable methodology. Some genetic disorders are as simple as Mendel’s pea plants, like cystic fibrosis, or sickle cell disease. Most things however, even things as simple as skin color, hair color, and eye color, are not simple at all. Most factors, in fact, are not simple at all. Until the theory of evolution, which prompted scientists to actually look for factors of inheritance, Mendel’s work was ignored, and it gathered dust for half a century before being rediscovered.. The simple truth is that Mendel cut corners, maybe without even consciously realizing it. History tends to forgive people when they turn out to be right, regardless of how wrong their methods may be. I know I wandered off on a tangent there, but I love history, because of the lessons it can teach us. What better way to learn than examining ourselves. In this case, the lesson is that there’s always a temptation to cut corners, but history will forgive you, if you get results.

Nowhere is the temptation to cut corners greater than in the halls of government, where every minor event is drummed up into a civilizational crisis, and every blemish on our society is a plague to be relentlessly eliminated. A government can look at a problem like obesity from what they might call a macro level. They can gather statistical data from tax records, surveys, censuses, Medicare and Medicaid claims and expenditures. etc. and learn a lot about America’s eating, exercise habits, and healthcare. They can then take that data and draw statistical conclusions, figure out what foods are ‘causing’ the obesity epidemic, figure out what medical problems are related to obesity, and much more. You can draw all kinds of scientifically sound conclusions when looking at all that data. That’s where the modern dogma of the low fat diet came about. Pretty much everything we know about eating healthy originated from data like this. There’s just one problem. It’s not at all simple. One can look at all that data, and still not make a causal statement such as fast food hamburgers cause heart disease. It isn’t that simple. One hamburger isn’t going to guarantee a heart attack. Neither is one hamburger a week, or one hamburger a day. The only thing that we can say truthfully and responsibly is that these things contribute to heart disease, that people who eat lots of fatty foods have an elevated risk for heart disease. That’s it. We can’t put a percentage on it. We can’t say how it relates to other factors like genetics, exercise, or whatever else. It’s possible, indeed, it’s almost certain that there’s a few people out of the seven or so billion humans who could easily eat hamburgers at every meal and never have a heart attack. These guidelines are helpful in so far as they allow us to make educated choices about what we eat, but diet isn’t destiny. Neither is genetics. It’s not simple. It’s complicated.

Politicians, however, like things to be simple. They want problems that are easy to explain and easy to solve. They want to get credit for solving those problems. That’s what gets them elected in the short term, and gets streets and buildings named after them in the long term. That’s why we get government trying to restrict individual’s choice for the sake of public health.

One of the first targets was school lunches. The schools are an easy target, because kids aren’t yet smart enough to understand their lunch as a political issue, and the government already controls public schools. Since I left school, the trend has been towards encouraging (read forcing) ‘healthier’ menu items on school lunches. I know this is going to make me sound like a grumpy old man, but so be it. When I was a kid, the lunches served in school looked like cheaper versions of the food everybody ate every day. I didn’t like it, so I didn’t eat it. I either packed a lunch or just skipped lunch entirely. My parents learned fairly early on that ‘eat it or you’ll go to bed hungry’, wouldn’t work on me. The first time that was offered, I cheerfully accepted and went to my room to play. My mom showed up some time later and asked if I wanted a peanut butter sandwich. I recall my great confusion because this wasn’t part of the earlier agreement. Point is, if I didn’t like it, I didn’t eat it, period. When the previous presidential administration introduced new health guidelines for students, the results were predictable. The cost of the lunches increased, and the number of kids eating them decreased. Anybody surprised by that result? No, didn’t think so. Given the choice, most kids are going to eat what they like, or not. If they have another option, they’ll take it. They’ll sneak a snack cake from home in their pocket or maybe some peanut butter crackers. They’ll pick out the few things they like and toss the rest in the garbage. Some will probably skip lunch entirely. Is this result an improvement over how things were before? Does that justify the cost? Who really benefits most from school lunch food police; the kids, the schools,, the parents, or the politicians who, above all, want to take credit for solving problems?

It doesn’t stop there, though. The food police are expanding their crusade anywhere they can get a legislative toehold. In addition to the numerous sanitary and labor regulations that restaurant owners must endure, there are now cities adding to that with regulations on nutrition, bans on certain foods, and limitations on portion size. It’s not entirely a new phenomenon. We had a crusade in the 80’s to eliminate saturated fats from fast food and from our kitchens. These were largely replaced with trans fats like Crisco and margarine. Then we figured out trans fats were actually worse, so we had to have another crusade to undo the harmful effects of the first crusade. Those who know the history of the actual crusades may recognize some uncomfortable similarities. Crusades, whether against heathens or hamburgers, tend to end badly, but we never seem to learn the lesson. There was a time when cigarette smoking was considered healthy and companies advertised how smoking would make you thinner, and there’s actually some decent science behind that assertion (nicotine is a fairly effective appetite suppressant). One has to wonder if the decline in smoking over the past half century hasn’t contributed to the obesity epidemic? Maybe we should all start vaping. For those who don’t know, Vaping or e-cigarettes essentially deliver the same nicotine without the tars. Some of them (the cheapest kinds) do still contain some levels of some of the bad chemicals as regular cigarettes, but no sane person who knows anything about pharmaceutical science is going to say that e-cigarettes are anywhere near as bad as regular ones. Maybe we should go a different route and put nicotine in the water. We’ve already set the precedent with the fluoride that combats tooth decay? Why not add some appetite suppressing nicotine. We all eat less. Price of food goes down. More food for the poor. Less obesity. What’s not to like? I’m sure if some politician thought it would get a highway or a library named after him, it would suddenly seem like a great idea.

I know I’ve been rather harsh to the public health experts, government regulators, and talking heads who advocate for these types of policys. I’ve cracked a few jokes at their expense. I know they aren’t bad people. Some of them probably have completely pure intentions. They may well be better human beings than I am. I’ve never been particularly good at doing good. I’m good at thinking, writing, living frugally, and otherwise minding my own business. I understand the reasoning of the leaders. They probably do understand that they’ll never be able to point out any of the people their trans-fat ban will save, but they’re convinced they saved lives. Their reasoning is not wrong, at least not at the collective, macro level. The problem is that in order to get those collective results, they have to restrict individual choice. If everybody has unfettered access to bad foods, some people will abuse it, and they’ll get sick, and that’s bad, so let’s restrict people’s choices for their own good. The unstated implication is that some people shouldn’t have unfettered choices, and once we accept that implication, once that principle is established, we must ask ourselves, where will it end? When the next scientific study reveals the next horribly unhealthy food, will that be the next target? How long will it take before we’re choosing between different colors of government approved nutrition wafers? Where is the line drawn? If the ends justifies the means in this case, why wouldn’t it apply in the next public health scare, or the one after that?

A critic might naturally ask me what my answer is? What would I do about the obesity epidemic? My answer is simple, nothing. I would do nothing, because there’s nothing to be done, at least nothing that won’t do more harm than good. Obesity is a result of free human beings exercising free choices in a free society. One could well argue that it isn’t a ‘problem’ at all, but the sign of a society that has largely eliminated hunger as a social problem. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the trumpeting of these various public health ‘crises’ started at about the same time that government healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid became widespread. It’s a simple formula, the government now has a financial interest in restricting people’s choice. They are joined by lobbyists for health insurers, providers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, who are often the uncredited ghost writers of healthcare legislation. They spend money to form ‘advocacy’ groups, buy advertising time for public service announcements. They may mean well, but they cut corners. Actually treating patients at an individual level, understanding their situations, empathizing with their problems, that’s hard work. It’s not something that can be done by passing a law or buying an advertisement. But politicians want to be seen doing something, so they cut corners. Doing the job of a doctor, a personal trainer, a chef, and all those other niceties that the private jet crowd takes for granted, is really hard, and really expensive. Banning jumbo Mountain Dew, or forcing students to pick up an apple (whether they eat it or not), is actually pretty easy. What they’re hoping is some statistical evidence at the macro level that obesity is decreasing. That way, they can claim victory, or at least ‘progress’. Maybe the food police will succeed in lowering obesity. If they do, history may forgive them as easily as Mendel, but it’s just as likely they’ll fail, and create a laundry list of unintended consequences. If you’re going to be vindicated by history, you have to be right. A lot of people thought they were right throughout history, and cut corners to try to prove it. Not many ended up being right. I personally can’t think of any who were politicians, leaders, or lobbyists.

 

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Of Bullfighters and Bulls

Been a while since I posted anything on here. I have to admit, my writing has suffered as I’ve been adjusting to running a small business out of my home. It’s not from a lack of time, I have plenty of that, but rather that any change in routine takes time for me to adjust to. Changes in routine are, for lack of a better word, mentally disruptive. It’s a bit hard to describe but I end up being on edge for quite a while. I’m adjusting more and more lately, and I’m starting to feel comfortable again, so I’m trying to get back to writing more. I’ve gotten several more chapters of my book finished in the last couple weeks, and I’ve also been doing quite a bit of reading lately. One of the things I’ve been reading is the news, which is depressing as usual. Some things just make me roll my eyes and sigh.

We’re now two years into the Donald Trump administration, a reign prophesied by The Simpsons as a joke over a decade ago. One would think that the outrage would have died down. One would assume that people would get used to his outrageous tweets, his divisive rhetoric, his blatant pandering to his fanatic base, and his combative attitude toward the media. One would hope that the people who run things, politicians, business leaders, pundits, media executives, newspaper editors, and other intelligent people would have figured out by this point that Trump thrives on conflict, division, and hostility and attempt to counter with quiet dignity, well-reasoned arguments and sound compromises. Unfortunately, that’s not the America we live in anymore.

I don’t know whether to attribute the media’s latest bungle to overzealousness, or outright stupidity, but regardless of motive, several hundred newspapers led by the Boston Globe have joined together in a combined editorial response to Trump’s assertion that the press is the ‘enemy of the people’. In so doing, they play directly into his hand. Eighteen months into his administration, and they’re still playing Trump’s game. This isn’t new. This is how the man operates. This is how he got famous. This is how he ran his campaign, and it’s how he distracts people from his actual governance now that he’s President. The man says or does something outrageous and controversial, then sits back and waits for the predictable outrage from the media. Then the spotlight is on him, the attention is on him, and nobody is paying attention to anything else. Winning the war of words becomes an end in itself, and nobody is talking about anything substantive.

Defending a free press is all well and good, but responding en masse to an obvious provocation from a man who regularly provokes others on purpose to drive his agenda is colossally foolish. At best, it’s rising to the bait of a man who has manipulated the press to serve his interests from day one. At worst, it’s a reflection of their motivations, a disturbing possibility that they really are driven not by facts, objectivity, and reasoned criticism, but by a particular political agenda. Let’s face it. A large segment of the American people don’t trust the media. There’s some justification for this. The most visible media outlets, especially the big city newspapers, are fairly far removed from the everyday lives of most Americans. I doubt anyone on the New York Times salaried staff has ever worked a minimum wage job, worked in a factory, seen his job sent overseas to a worker making pennies a day, or been replaced by a robot.

Donald Trump knows that. He’s known that since before he ran for office. He catered to it during the campaign. His base agrees with him, and many Americans who don’t necessarily like him personally also agree. When the big city newspapers stand up as a group to denounce him, it makes him look right. It confirms his words and further erodes their credibility with Trump’s base and with an increasing number of otherwise impartial observers who see the press’s behavior as unseemly for them as an institution. Now he can say, “See, I told you so. I knew they were all against me.” He looks like the smartest guy in the room, because he accomplished the political equivalent of waving a red flag at an angry bull. Like the stereotypical matador, he taunts his opponent, then whips the flag away only to repeat the process in a new location. Like the bull, the press can’t seem to resist the urge to charge. Trump is running the show and probably somewhere in his own mind shouting ‘Ole’. It doesn’t matter if the newspapers are right or wrong, or whether Trump is right or wrong. What matters is that the media are being played like a fiddle by a master manipulator. Whether you agree with him, or them, his tactics are working. One would think somebody in the media would have had enough sense to figure that out by now.

I’ve never liked Donald Trump. I never believed he was a real populist who would actually challenge the corporate interests or ‘drain the swamp’. He’s not Adolf Hitler, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. Those people knew how to get power and to wield it effectively, often brutally, against their enemies. Those men were ruthlessly effective. Donald Trump is not them. He’s not a visionary or a revolutionary. He’s not a great politician, or even a particularly effective leader of men, but he’s no fool, either. He’s very good at what he does, and what he does is put on a good show. I believed, and still do, that Donald Trump is a masterful manipulator of public opinion, a genius at getting people’s attention where he wants it and keeping it there. He pretended to be a populist because that’s which way the wind was blowing, and he’s good at reading people. He read the outrage in middle America and played the piper’s tune all the way to the White House. The media missed the proverbial boat, either because they were too stupid or too shocked by the realization that there are people between the Rockies and the Appalachians whose lifestyle and opinions differ drastically from those on either coast.

One things for sure. I may not like Donald Trump, but I at least have some respect for him, because he’s good at something. He’s good at manipulating the media. He’s good at reading a room, playing to people’s emotions, and getting people energized.  He’s good at listening to people’s anger, understanding where that anger comes from, and then capitalizing on that knowledge. The media, on the other hand, don’t appear to be particularly good at anything right now. They failed to understand the rise of Donald Trump. They failed to realize their own role in facilitating that rise. They failed to understand the people who support Trump. They colossally failed in their many predictions for the election. They have failed to address the issues at the heart of Trump’s campaign, the plight of middle America, the job losses, the outsourcing, the exploitation of workers, both foreign and domestic in the name of ‘free trade’, the creeping inequity of an America, and indeed an entire world, marked ever more by a sharp division between a super wealthy elite who hold all the power in society, and everybody else. I have no respect left for a media that continues to charge blindly into every conflict that the master matador waves at them. Sometimes the right way to respond is not to respond at all. Until the media realizes that, they’ll continue as the unwilling and unwitting accomplices to Donald Trump’s presidency.

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Separating Fact and Fiction

You learn something new every day. It’s an old phrase we’ve probably all uttered at some point in our lives, perhaps when we learn about the latest electronic gadget, or when watching some obscure discovery channel special about the Amazon rainforest. I’ve always been a most curious sort of person, so Google and Wikipedia were rather like manna from heaven to a teenaged me. I like to think I spend more time learning than the average adult, and I consider myself mostly well informed on a wide variety of subjects.

Nevertheless, from time to time, I come across a piece of information that genuinely surprises me, not because it is new, but rather because it is old. None of us is perfect, and nobody knows everything there is to know. Even the smartest end up with gaps in our knowledge. I recently came upon one of mine.

I’m a writer of fantasy, specifically the type of fantasy that involves, wizards, faeries, demons, and knights in armor. I’ve immersed myself in such stories since youth, through books of course, but also through television, movies, and video games, other forms of storytelling. I certainly consider myself well versed on the subject, at least in fiction. I also consider myself a well grounded person who knows where the fiction ends and reality begins. I’ve never cast a spell or seen a faerie, and I don’t know anyone who as. Furthermore, I know the sword fighting we see in movies, TV, and video games is overdramatized to the point it scarcely resembles actual combat.

Reality, you see, is not that convenient. Swords are made of metal, and metal is heavy. Surely those big swords must have weighed over ten pounds, with the larger ones probably about like swinging around a small tree. We have the real world, and we have the romanticized world of storytellers.  Everything neatly packed in its corner and labeled appropriately. Reality is reality, and fiction is fiction, except when it isn’t.

Google, the undisputed authority on human knowledge and truth in this life begs to disagree. It seems that medieval swords, real ones anyway, were not actually heavy. This seems counterintuitive to me, because just about any object made of mostly metal always seems heavier than other objects. Then again, perhaps I don’t know much about metals either. Most medieval swords weighed around 2.5-3.5 lbs. with the larger ones weighing up to 5 lbs. Here’s my source so you don’t think I’m making it up.  www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm.

For the sake of comparison, I next Googled the weight of a common, everyday object, a shovel. The average shovel weighs three to six pounds. The average laptop computer weighs five pounds. Each is heavier than the average medieval sword. Each also weighs  much less than my family’s gas powered lawn appliances. The weed whacker has a shoulder strap because its so heavy, and then there’s the chainsaw, which is a chore just to carry from place to place, to say nothing of actually using it. All these years, I thought we modern folk were just wimpy, but maybe the average medieval knight would have marveled at our ability to handle such unwieldy tools on a regular basis.

I don’t know whether this comes as quite so great a revelation to my readers as it did to me, but I kind of sat here scratching my head for several minutes, wondering how I could have gotten that so wrong, for so long. I searched my memory for where I learned about how heavy swords were. I certainly remember seeing countless Robin Hood style sword fights in movies and television, where they dance around waving swords at each other pretending to fight. I can only recall one movie I ever saw, and a couple video games, that ever depicted swords as heavy. I even remember thinking ‘hey, somebody got it right for once’. Evidently not me. So why was I convinced otherwise.

I finally settled upon a rather discomforting answer. Since I’m a skeptical sort when it comes to media, I naturally distrust most of what I see on television. I don’t assume everything they say is absolutely true, even on the news, and certainly not in fiction. There are always reasons to bend the truth, or make it up entirely, and usually those reasons begin with the dollar sign. Put simply, I err on the side of cynicism in all things. Usually, that serves me pretty well. I’m not easily taken in by con men or phone scams. I don’t just parrot the political positions of the talking heads on cable news, and I certainly don’t believe anything in movies is remotely realistic. In this case, however, my cynicism actually worked against me. I suppose nobody’s perfect. No doubt Hollywood swashbuckling is still dramatized, silly, and unrealistic, but the weapons themselves are quite useful as what they are.

It certainly gave me some pause, and a dose of humility. It’s easy enough to be mistaken, even about something you have experience with. I wonder just how many misconceptions there might be in the world, for each of us as individuals, and for humanity collectively. It also makes me wonder whether the ubiquitous nature of modern media and the abundance of information available on the Internet will ultimately increase or decrease these misconceptions. It’s perhaps and unanswerable question, but perhaps it reminds us that the old phrase; ‘You learn something new every day’, might be missing a word or two. Perhaps, we should learn something new every day.

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