Sunday, July 26, 2015

Advice on Life

Just another one of those passing thoughts at the height of summer as I try to get the garage painted and the woods cleared. I recently found out about from I recommend both. I found this bit from a young Hunter S. Thompson, who is asked for advice on life and starts out pointing out how impossible that is and how arrogant it would be to try, then he pulls it off.

He does it by not offering any advice, but talks to his friend about setting himself on a path of self discovery. He doesn't give any actual advice, like "be a fireman" or "do what you love" or "follow your bliss" or "plastics!". Instead he says the answer lies in the questioner. The questioner has already taken the first step by asking the question. The answer is to keep asking.

Self reflection is a daily task, although not one to get obsessed with. Re-examining the landscape of everything out there is equally important, especially in this rapidly changing world we now find ourselves in.

Well, time to let Maria Popova walk you through this essay. Enjoy.

But, before you go, let me tell you where this sent my thoughts. I argue about politics, against libertarians, about God, against fundamentalists, about science, against anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers, anti-global warmingers. And where these arguments often lead is to a point where my opponent finds completely unacceptable of the entire scientific method, including the integrity of our universities, the validity of peer review, the trustworthiness of government reports, the ability of experts to interpret data and the ability of anyone to verify that the data is accurate. It leaves me with nothing to build on since the only thing left is each of our opinions.

This attitude toward the modern world of delegation of authority and knowledge begins early. At some point you begin listening to the people that say a college degree has no value and that high schools are designed by capitalists who want to create subservient workers. There is some truth in there, that is, there are some horrible teachers and there are corporations that don't value human life, but it is not a vast conspiracy led by a secret cabal. That you can discuss the idea that it might be is evidence that it isn't.

To figure out if all or any of these systems are working, one merely needs to attempt to work within them, to create some change. Short of that, looking into the history of where these system came from will tell you a lot. If you can't find that documentary on your list of 80 stations, just think about basic high school history. At one point there were kings who cut your head off, now we have nations. At one point owning another human being was commonplace, now it's not. The Pope once had power over all of Europe, now he doesn't. Even if you weren't paying attention to exactly how we got from there to here, you have to accept that here is better and there must be a reason for that.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Why I think this world should end

I don’t think that, but this rapper does. Here’s a few of the lyrics from his poem:

Isn’t that special? Whenever I hear something like this, my first question is, compared to what? By “world”, he means this particular version of civilization, and that’s happened a lot. That’s why we have Mayan RUINS and the Great Wall is now just a tourist attraction and why we marvel at buildings built thousands of years ago that are still standing, but the people are gone. Civilizations end.

The difference today is scale. If you compare us to a primitive village, they polluted their streams, then they just moved away from it, upstream. Why did you think they were nomadic? Did they just like to travel? My favorite though is “education is shot”. This from a guy who knew more than most people in history by the time he was 10 years old. This from a guy who has a command of the English language and has uploaded it onto a world wide communication system that I watched from little cabin in the woods in mid-Northern nowhere.

And if you can’t live with yourself, get help.

So everyone’s medicated
We pass each other on the streets
And if we do speak it's meaningless robotic communication
More people want 15 seconds of fame
Than a lifetime of meaning and purpose
Because what’s popular is more important than what’s right
Ratings are more important than the truth
Our government builds twice as many prisons than schools
It’s easier to find a Big Mac than an apple

And when you find the apple
It's been genetically processed and modified

Presidents lie, politicians trick us
Race is still an issue and so is religion
Your God doesn’t exist, my God does and he is All-Loving
If you disagree with me I'll kill you
Or even worse argue you to death
You think that’s new? There are 7 billion people on this planet, someone’s talking about sex somewhere. And games change. Go get a dreidel if it makes you happy.

The average person watches 5 hours of television a day
And it's more violence on the screen than ever before

Again, before what? I grew up seeing the violence in Vietnam on TV. It’s why we ended Vietnam, because we were aware of it. Or we could go back to seeing violence in the streets, I’m not just talking about Detroit, go for a walk in Paris in the year 1420, be sure to wear your knife. Or how about that great civilization of Rome? The Pax Romana was maintained by killing anyone who threatened it. Then they’d nail you to a cross in public as an example, you might have heard of this practice.

Technology has given us everything we could ever want
And at the same time stolen everything we really need
Pride is at an all time high, humility, an all time low
Everybody knows everything, everybody’s going somewhere
Ignoring someone, blaming somebody

I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say this is intentional irony.

Not many human beings left anymore, a lot of human doings
Plenty of human lingerings in the past, not many human beings

Money is still the root of all evil
Yet we tell our kids don’t get that degree
The jobs don’t pay enough

Good deeds are only done when there's a profit margin
Videos of the misfortunes of others go viral
We laugh and share them with our friends to laugh with us
Our role models today
60 years ago would have been examples of what not to be

There are states where people can legally be discriminated against Because they were born a certain way

It’s natural to fear the unknown, those who aren’t like us. It is a survival mechanism that goes back to our earliest ancestors. We are now aware of it and are learning to trust and live together. Look at your main street and count how many different churches there are. Now show me a town in history, more than 500 years ago, that can beat that number. For most of human history, your leader decided what your religion was and if you didn’t like it, you had to leave. If you were lucky you could leave with all your body parts intact. Go back far enough and it wasn’t even called religion, it was just the culture of your tribe, your way of life.

Prejudice is taught, no doubt. But it is also created by a few people who’s fear of change and feelings of being threatened get out of hand and the blame they place is believed by others. Everyone is “born a certain way”, with different advantages, physical and social. We created this “all men are created equal” thing a mere 250 years ago, and we didn’t have it right then, we left out women, obviously, and everyone at the time knew they meant “white” men. We have since improved on it, but there is still work to be done.

If you don’t know this, you weren’t paying attention in High School history. Read a book. If you are learning this from a rap song, you’re behind in your education. We need you to get caught up and join those of us who are working toward a more just and peaceful world.

Companies invest millions of dollars hiring specialists to make Little girls feel like they need “make up” to be beautiful Permanently lowering their self esteem
Because they will never be pretty enough
To meet those impossible standards

I kinda covered this in the sex part above. Really? You think treating girls like sex objects is new? Really? Ever hear of foot-binding?

Corporations tell us buy, buy, buy, get this, get that
You must keep up, you must fit in
This will make you happy, but it never does for long
So what can we do in the face of all of this madness and chaos?
What is the solution? We can love
Not the love you hear in your favorite song on the radio
I mean real love, true love, boundless love
You can love, love each other
From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed
Perform an act of kindness because that is contagious
We can be mindful during every interaction
Planting seeds of goodness
Showing a little more compassion than usual
We can forgive
Because 300 years from now will that grudge you hold against Your friend, your mother, your father have been worth 
Instead of trying to change others we can change ourselves
We can change our hearts

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. This is a song. It’s not action, but it is a call to action, and we need that. What we don’t need is more angry people shaking their fists at things they don’t understand. It doesn’t do much good to get angry at those you say are making you angry. If that’s what they want, and you say it’s not what you want, then why are you doing it? Be angry, it’s an indicator that you’re alive, but you don’t need to feed that anger. Of course life is hard and something’s wrong. We used to live in trees until someone decided that was stupid. The question is, what are you going to do?

We have been sold lies
Brainwashed by our leaders and those we trust
To not recognize our brothers and sisters
And to exhibit anger, hatred and cruelty
But once we truly love we will meet anger with sympathy
Hatred with compassion, cruelty with kindness
Love is the most powerful weapon on the face of the Earth
Robert Kennedy once said that
Few will have the greatness to bend history
But each of us can work to change a small portion of events
And in the total of all those act
Will be written in the history of a generation
So yes, the world is coming to an end
And the path towards a new beginning starts within you

Monday, June 29, 2015

The All Boy's League

I was once arguing with someone about science vs religion and he said the current system, where scientific evidence is required for something to be considered “proven” was an unfair system. He compared it to an all boys basketball league. The rules of that league said girls could participate but, to prove that girls were acceptable, an all girls’ team would have to win in some sort of tournament. He left some detail out. The point was, it was unfair to expect the girls to win at that level without some experience of playing on the boy’s teams or being coached by experienced coaches. He compared this to the rules of science, requiring evidence of natural phenomena.

I couldn’t get him to see that the old system, where if you questioned Catholicism, you were tortured, is exactly the old boy’s system. But that aside, he also couldn’t see that science is precisely designed to be fair. That’s a little harder to see. He pointed out that if something supernatural did occur, science would approach it as a natural event and try to find a natural explanation. That’s what science does. If there is not a natural explanation it is considered a mystery to science.

Without going into the philosophical details of this, I want to apply this to Friday’s Supreme Court decision to make marriage available to any two consenting adults. The reason it happened is that for about 100 years, we have been determining what it means when people say they feel attracted to the same sex in the way most people are attracted to the opposite sex. In a fair system, it’s not enough to simply say you feel that way. If that were true, then those who say they feel oppressed or offended by this new law would have to be given equal consideration. There is no way to justify the law one way or another if we simply go by what people say they feel.

A big part of determining what is actually true about our biology based on what people were reporting came to us via psychology and psychiatry. That system had a lot of flaws and was essentially a boy’s basketball league 100 years ago. It took years of lobbying to change the manual from saying homosexuality was a disease that needed a cure. Hopefully we have learned from the errors made during that process and improved our methods.

Another big factor has simply been getting to know the people that are willing to let us know they feel differently. In the “boy’s league” days, you were shunned or banished for openly expressing those feelings. Many still are. It’s hard to understand someone who has an attraction to something that you are repulsed by. But it’s not impossible, as we have seen millions of minds changed over the last few decades.

The Supreme Court simply put a stamp on what most of us have already figured out. But it also made it official that the boy’s league has to change  it’s name. Not everyone was ready for that, and they are now experiencing the same feelings that everyone who wasn’t invited to play used to feel. If we forget that, then we’ve made no progress at all. If we forget that, then we’re just a majority rule society and not much better than “might makes right”.

Getting back to science, if you remember what it was like to be treated unfairly, or see your friends being treated unfairly, then also remember what it took to get to where we are now. The colorful parades were fun, but there was more than that. There were logical arguments being made and long discussions between psychologists and pastors. If you missed those, get to know them before you thumb your nose at the losers in this debate. Someone listened to the queer kids in class when others were making fun of them, now it’s your turn to make that choice.

If someone mentions the Dred Scott decision and you don’t get the analogy, look it up. If someone says marriage is about children being raised by their biological offspring, look at how adopted kids do in healthy homes. If someone says gay marriage is an abomination, find out what they mean by “abomination”. If Scalia's dissent doesn't make sense, find someone who can help you make sense of it. It’s okay to say you don’t know or hadn’t thought about it. If someone thinks it makes them the “winner” because they thought of something you didn’t, that’s their problem.

The LGBTQ movement was and is an incredibly successful one. It is especially notable for its lack of violence. I’m not ignoring the horrid violence perpetrated against them, but pointing out that there was never a gay terrorist group or band of gay freedom fighters hiding in a mountainous region somewhere. This is what we need to see more of in our revolutions in the modern world. That is, we need to see less violence and more peaceful resolutions to our differences.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The King is Dead, long live the Westphalian nation-state

Kings and Queens are pretty much an anachronism these days. England has their royals but they are figureheads, they don’t have any real power to rule. Where there are kings, we think of them more like dictators. With a few exceptions, as always. But in the time of Kings and kingdoms, it was unheard of to not have a King.

If a King died, whether it be by old age, in battle, or more suspicious circumstances, he was replaced by another from a royal lineage. Hopefully the transition was a clean and peaceful to the eldest son, but if that wasn’t possible, a nearby King would likely move in and claim the territory. Sometimes a Queen or child King could hold the kingdom together, but that was less likely to last.

This was seen as some sort of natural order. As if the very blood in your veins made you a royal. Being born a peasant had equal meaning for what you would do with your life and what you were capable of. The many notable exceptions didn’t seem to matter. Royals who inherited their position failed miserably and peasants rose up to be great men and women. Power rested in the hands of a few and overcoming it seemed impossible.

We got rid of kings because we got tired of their childish bickering destroying so many lives. In 1648, after a century of wars, mostly over details of how to worship Christ, a peace treaty was signed that created the modern nation-state. Some argue that the wars were actually over territory and resources, and of course all wars include those goals, but the treaty specifically stated religious freedoms as part of the deal. The King could have his territory, but he couldn’t punish people for worshiping differently than him.

I tell this story not only to explain where religious freedom comes from, I’ve been over that. I want to point out that something that appears to be the natural order can be changed. The natural order that is accepted in the modern Western nation-state, dominated by capitalism is, that if you are rich, you deserve it. Because we are free, we can gain and accumulate wealth freely. We can use our intellect and energy to create value and be rewarded for it. If you work hard, you will be rewarded. Sounds good.

It is good. But it only works if people are honest, if they don’t lie and cheat their way to fortune. We know people do it, but we so want to believe in the power of the free market to select the best people and reward them accordingly, that we ignore that. We dismiss those who are caught as outliers. We punish the little cheaters, the starving boy who steals an apple, and let the bankers charge outrageous fees and the insurance companies deny benefits.

This corrupts the system and wealth accumulates at the top until all of our politicians are millionaires because it takes millions of dollars to get elected and laws get passed that you can spend billions on an election because the thing that is supposed to measure your value in a free market is now a commodity that can buy more freedom. “More freedom” is not a lie like “more equal” was in George Orwell’s 1984. Freedom can be bought at the expense of others. But as we did with kings, we can change that.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

AJ Stephens Birch Beer

I don't remember the last time I had a Birch Beer, but I think it was better than this one. The sugariness was fine, the fizz was fine, but the flavor left something to be desired. Maybe I was expecting more rootiness, this was more like barkiness. I'll have to find some other Birch beers for comparison.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What Are We Doing?

I’m not the first one to notice this, it’s really nothing new. There are some recent books covering it if you want more details. I’m not sure what got me thinking about it in the first place. Possibly the book I’m reading by Howard Buffet, son of billionaires Warren and Susan Buffet. His father made sure he got a regular job first, he’s now a farmer, but his parents also funded his non-profits. On top of all that, he volunteers as a local deputy and at local food related charities.

What are we doing?

The average amount of time spent watching television in America is 4.8 hours every day. That puts us firmly in first place in the world. For me, that’s all of my free time on a week day. Which means I’m bringing the average down and someone out there is doing virtually nothing but channel surfing. I bring up my average a bit during football season but generally I don’t lay around watching TV on weekends. Also on average, I sleep an hour more, and I’ll bet that hour less of sleep is spent watching TV for many. Only on occasion do I watch TV while eating, so there’s another hour or so that could be affecting the average.

But the question is, what else are we doing? “Social networking”, a nice name for watching cat videos is up to around 3 hours per day. Again, either people are laying awake doing this, or multi-tasking.

We read 19 minutes per day. Those who are in monthly book clubs, think about how many non-readers it takes to bring that average down.

I couldn’t easily find numbers although they are out there, but I suspect physical activity and attending civic events is also quite low.

Karl Marx had a theory that capitalism is designed to keep some people in poverty. It provides a pool of labor to draw from when needed and keeps lower income people afraid of slipping into that group, so they work hard and put up with bad management. If he were alive today he would see a relatively stronger and healthier work force but he would also note that once people get far enough away from that feeling of slipping into poverty, they quickly forget about it and do nothing to work on changing the system.

It was easier then to rally the proletariat to action because they could see the benefit and understood their solidarity. I joined a union a few years ago, and most of the work of organizing is convincing people that have a common cause with people in basically the same situation but slightly different job function.

The good news of this is we now have a pool of volunteers to draw from like never before. I don’t like fear tactics, but as more people slip from middle class into poverty, more will understand that it’s time to turn off the TV and take control of the world they created. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Courageous Pastor

I'd like to walk you through another post about one of those liberal pastors that I often write about. This one does not end with me being disappointed about how much like a fundamentalist she is. She takes a step beyond any pastor that I ever met. She is not afraid to let us know what she actually learned in seminary school. She's not afraid to challenge her leaders to move forward with her, even if it threatens her career.

In a letter to those leaders, she says belief in “the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined...” can lead to violence. There's a little more to it if you read the full article, but even in her more nuanced form, it's pretty strong stuff. She says something, that if I say it, I'm told I focus too much on the negative aspects of religion, and that Christianity has “reformed itself”. She says, “This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory.”

That's going pretty far, admitting that religion still has work to do to bring itself into a modern world where wars must be justified on grounds other than a difference in theology. Unfortunately this rather obvious statement has to be made by someone who is considered progressive and when she says it, someone calls for her resignation just for saying it. I think Christianity and all religion needs to go a lot further. She goes a little bit further with this statement, “If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.”

First, in case you don't recognize it, or don't know much about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, she is saying, all religions can't be right. Dawkins and Hitchens take this a step further and say, therefore, most likely all of them are wrong. But without going there, we are left with the choice of figuring out which one is right using some sort of method of discernment that we can all agree on, or killing anyone who disagrees. The latter has not worked out too well and the former is now called science. Like it or not, meditation and divine revelation are increasingly unacceptable in government or any institution, except theocracies and churches. When governments or businesses need a question answered, they turn to science.

But put that aside if you must and consider the implications of what she says. She is asking you to consider the consequences of choosing a supernatural explanation. By definition you have no natural explanation for that. You can't prove it, except by personal experience, and you are giving up the need to prove it, it's a choice made on faith. If you can do that, how can you turn around and deny someone else the right to do the same? Obviously you don't deny your fellow parishioners that right, but how do you feel about someone from a different religion, a different denomination, or someone who just doesn't understand Jesus like you do?

Greta simply asks that you extend the same courtesy to all believers that you would to your grandmother. I don't know enough about Greta, but my guess is she is calling for this level of tolerance because she believes it is a request that religious people will consider. I don't know if she sees it as a step toward something else, or as an end in itself. We all know that asking people to not believe at all is very unpopular.

But what is she trying to accomplish? This article was written right after a couple major events of religious violence. We look to the purveyors of reason and peace at those times, but is that the church? The argument is that if we lose the churches, we lose the holders of the rules, the houses of ethics, the ones with the soup kitchens and the shelters. Without them, it's anything goes. This works when the religion is in complete control. People do survive without it as history as shown with religions that have collapsed, but the culture is lost.

But look again at what she's asking. She's asking, let me choose my system of ethics based on nothing but tradition and I will leave you to choose yours based on a completely different tradition. Traditions that are well known to include justifications of violence. She is saying she has the right to choose an institution simply because it exists and has some history of doing some good. Well, Nixon opened negotiations with China and Clinton reduced the deficit, but I have a lot of other reasons for thinking which one of those is the better president. But I'm not arguing with her right to make that choice. I prefer a free world where such choices can be made and I'm willing to live with the consequences of that.

It's a bit ironic here that in her attempt to promote a world of reason, she suggests that anything goes. She ends up allowing for what all religions say about atheism. They say that if you are choosing atheism, you are choosing hedonism. Religions say they have the right set of rules to live by and they have the moral authority to set them. Some go as far as to say it is impossible to base moral rules on anything except their god. Without their god, there can be no basis for morality. Most at least claim a long standing tradition or the authority of many generations who have refined those rules.

We now have better ways of determining rules. We listen to the voices of not just those with land or weapons or those who happened to be born where the ground is more fertile or the animals could be domesticated or whose parents were in positions of power, but to everyone. These new systems still have some of the old problems, but solutions for them are not coming from the old voices.

Oddly enough, although I believe in freedom, I also believe in holding others accountable for their actions, in requiring explanations for actions. I don't accept someone else's moral system with the agreement that they will accept mine. If they are going to share my government, my schools, my health system, I expect some pretty complicated negotiations about just what is agreeable. I'll defend everyone's right to be free, but that doesn't include the right to restrict my freedoms without reason.

In a separate interview, Greta said her church has stopped most of the traditional rituals of a church. They stopped teaching the children the Lord's prayer because the parents said they didn't want them learning that they should believe those things and have to figure out for themselves later if they choose not to. If you have ever thought this, I encourage you to bring it up with your church leadership. If they aren't supportive, ask around, you might find out there are more just like you.

Interestingly enough, around that same time, a different pastor posted a statement that went quite a bit further. Greta even links to him via her blog page. I can't evaluate what this guy is doing, or if I'd join his “belief-less church” without spending some actual time there. But it's starting to sound like something that is truly workable in a tolerant pluralistic world.