Sunday, October 31, 2010

Two wicked tautologies.

The midterm elections in the United States are two days away. Unfortunately, the importance of these elections is not limited to inhabitants of the US and to its expats (such as myself). The interconnectedness of national economies and political systems that defines the modern world means that insanity in the country I call home can spread and upset affairs all over the world. Moreover, issues such as environmental protection know no such thing as political borders, and have consequences all the world over. Increasingly, the vast majority of the world has been effectively disenfranchised by the disproportionate level of influence wielded by the US in world affairs.

It is thus that I feel justified in saying that what I write of today is of the utmost urgency and importance. As I write this, a group of unqualified and militaristic right-wing candidates is poised to take power in the legislative bodies of the US, which would render the already too-moderate Democratic party completely impotent in solving the myriad problems facing the US and the broader world. The impact of this potential swing in political power has already been addressed by others, perhaps most profoundly by Keith Olbermann in his most recent Special Comment.

There is, however, a point that has largely been missed in much of the discussion so far. I myself have said that the Tea Party has no coherent argument, philosophical basis, policy position or political stance. This is, unfortunately, not completely correct, though. The Tea Party does indeed have a coherent basis; not one of politics or policy, but of theology.

To explain what I mean by this necessarily involves a bit of a tangent. In his beautifully written and profoundly chilling book The Family (affiliate link), Jeff Sharlet documents the rise to power of a secretive group of theocrats, both in the United States and globally. The Family (also known as the Fellowship) is largely characterized by their adherence to a theology of power. According to Family doctrine, the powerful people in the world today are powerful by God's will, and thus are to be followed implicitly in recognition of God's choosing them as his agents. This creates, as Sharlet so eloquently puts it, a tautology of power, in which the powerful are powerful precisely because they are powerful. Their religious belief is thus directly connected to their support of many of the world's most despicable men and women; would the people that they support be powerful if not for some quality that God had identified and chosen them for?

In the Tea Party, we see a parallel theology-- a similarly wicked tautology-- driving their actions. If one takes the efficient market hypothesis extremely literally, then the wealthy are rich because the Free Market has chosen them for some quality that they must possess, even if it is invisible to mere mortals. This tautology of wealth states that the wealthy are wealthy precisely because they are wealthy. This doctrine of the Tea Party betrays the faux populism to their movement. Indeed, adherents of this tautology of wealthy are perhaps better referred to as the Tea and Crumpets Party (TCP), as their every policy action seems driven towards accelerating the expansion of the gap between the wealthy and everyone else. For all their cries against the redistribution of wealth, that is precisely what the TCP wants: that as much wealth be transfered to the already-wealthy as possible.

The primary difference between the TCP and the Family, as far as I can tell, is that the TCP is not in the slightest secretive. It is, after all, not as of yet disreputable to put literal religious faith in the efficient market hypothesis, nor to support the whims of billionaires. That we have as a society progressed to the point of understanding that giving aid to genocidal maniacs (such as the literal Nazis that what would eventually become the Family protected following WWII) necessitates a level of secrecy on the part of the Family that the TCP has no need of.

Of course, wealth and power are not uncorrelated. These two wicked tautologies thus interweave in horrible ways, of which I fear we have seen but the shyest echoes. I would rather not find out the terrifying ends produced through such an interweaving by handing the reins of power over to the TCP.

On Tuesday, however, there is a choice put to voters in the US: whether to endorse a wicked hypothesis that parallels that of the Family's power theology, or whether to stand up for policies formed on a rational basis. Those outside the US also have a part to play in the next two days, for in speaking up and reminding your friends and loved ones what is at stake, a further crisis may yet be averted. Please do not allow these wicked tautologies to win out over rationality.

On an eccentric use of volcabulary.

I want to write another blog post later today, but found myself wanting to use a word that I feared would be misunderstood. Hence, I am breaking my sickness and paperwork induced blog silence by talking not about something grandiose, but rather minute by comparison to my usual topics: two words, and why I prefer one to the other.

The first word, "evil," is one that I try to avoid using as much as possible. Not, mind you, because of some sense of moral relativism, but rather because of the connotations of the word. To many people, evil necessarily derives from some external evaluation of the world, be it by a god or authority figure. To me, however, being a utilitarian (at least to a rough approximation) means that any evaluation of what is good or bad must come from a rational argument and not the decree of another. Of course, this sense of the word "evil" is far from universally held, but it would be truly unfortunate for my writing to be misunderstood by virtue of such a colored meaning.

In preference, I choose to emulate Richard Dawkins in his use of the word "wicked." Specifically, I call wicked that which is directly, intentionally and needlessly harmful to other intelligent beings, their bodies and their rights. Moreover, I call wicked those value systems and philosophies that compel their adherents to wickedness towards others. On this latter point, I likely deviate from others, such as Dawkins, in applying the word to what is inherently a matter of thought rather than action. My motivation is not to ascribe to any individual a responsibility for the thoughts in their heads, but rather to examine what could compel an otherwise decent agent to act in a wicked manner towards their peers.

By using this word in preference to "evil," I hope to avoid my meaning being lost in the noise of cultural connotations. (Plus, the word sounds cooler, anyway.) It is important that my meaning makes it though, as something wicked truly this way comes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Latest in the annals of false equivication.

If there's two things that the media loves, it's a good sex scandal, and a cautionary tale about how the Internet is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Bonus points if they can remind people that there's not really any difference between opposing ideological extremes. That's why I'm in no way surprised to find that NPR has hit all of these points yesterday.

Honestly, I'll make this a very short post. I don't have much to say about an article that compares gallivanting around as a Nazi with a completely harmless sexual expression. Rather, I must simply shake my head and wonder what kinds of mental gymnastics or twisted ethics are required to equate these two activities, to treat them as equally noteworthy and newsworthy stories. Frankly, I find Nazis to be much more intimidating and vile than dildos; it astounds me that this even needs to be said.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

On the emergence of an accidental narrative.

Good writers of fiction will sometimes refer to being surprised at the actions their own characters take. After all, once a story takes a life of its own, in the way that good stories so often do, why should even the author be able to foresee everything that happens?

A similar effect is seen in tabletop gaming, where a good dungeon master (DM--- more correctly, game master) will present a carefully planned adventure to her players only to find that they fixate on details that the DM had thought to be inconsequential. Out of that interaction, a new narrative is drawn from the fibers laid down by the DM. Background material moves to the foreground as the story finds its own vibrancy at the hands of the players and the DM.

Up until recently, I had thought these kinds of emergent narratives to be the province of fiction. On Wednesday, however, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Ben Schumacher on his experiment with teaching quantum mechanics to undergraduates from a quantum information perspective. In his talk, Dr. Schumacher described how the book that he and Dr. Michael Westmoreland wrote, Quantum Processes Systems, and Information (note: associate link), had a hidden narrative that emerged as they proceeded through the writing process. So as to not spoil the story, I'll refer interested readers to Schumacher's talk for details on the form that this narrative takes.

For my part, I have found that in writing this blog, I tend to write each post relatively independently, with little thought of how they fit together into some cohesive whole. Even the name, cgranade::streams, belies some of this approach. It seems plausible, then, that a narrative could emerge not from careful planning but through recognizing the common concerns which motivate me to write on disparate topics.

That said, I was still surprised to find that when responding to a comment by Sarah Kavassalis on one of my recent posts, a small narrative had started to emerge. In three of my last four posts, I have either alluded to or directly dealt with problems that children face in society, pointing out that they are told that their life experiences are less than real, that the authority figures that abuse them can be defended and even celebrated, and that their nascent sexuality is disrespected and disregarded. In all three of these cases, we see a common strand: children are not always seen as being fully human, and the effects of that are as real and destructive as for any group tarnished as being less than human. Their rights are trounced upon, just as with any marginalized group, illustrating the peril in this disregard.

In this way, a narrative about the disrespect of children by society at large serves as a poignant case study of why recognizing the humanity of those around us is so important. Whether the victims of our disregard by marked by sexual orientation, race, religion or nationality, the end effects share much in common.

I don't know if I'll carry this emergent narrative any farther, or if it has served its useful purpose here. Others write on the modern plights of children better than I do, so that my contribution is to entirely to tie it to other threads of thought. This mission, which I have accidentally worked at, is one of many worthwhile missions. If I have more to say on the topic, then, I will say it and will otherwise be content to hunt for other emergent narratives.