Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Defending Democracy: Next Steps

Here's one history professor's list of things to do to prevent an even worse situation.  It gets patriotic at the end, but I like these bits:
"Look out for the expansive use of 'terrorism' and 'extremism.' Be alive to the fatal notions of 'exception' and 'emergency.' Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. . . . When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it. . . . . Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them. . . . Make eye contact and small talk. . . . Be as courageous as you can. . . . Be ready to say no."
And turn off social media to READ books and longer articles:
"What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What Exponential Growth Looks Like

It's a mesmerizing 6 minute video:

It's interesting what they focus on and what they leave out.

Here's where we're headed:

Monbiot's Impossible Crises

George Monbiot lists 13 crises, but warns you should only read the list if you're feeling very strong. It's an appropriate warning.

He's barely even talking about climate change here, so this list could be so much longer including the degradation of the oceans, poisoned waterways, messed up ecosystems...  His list is more political in nature: Trump and his new team running a country with a powerful military and unbreakable corporate ties. On the other side of the pond, there's concerns with the effects of Brexit, the financial stability of Italy, and the French election.
If Le Pen wins, the permanent members of the UN security council will be represented by the following people: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Theresa May and Marine Le Pen. It would be a stretch to call that reassuring.
Everywhere, there will be fewer jobs as automation takes over, and with the Paris agreement likely trashed, the new landscape will create "a mass movement of people that dwarfs current migration" and an accelerated increase in the extinction rate of mammals. The scariest one in my books is that soil loss alone relegates us to only sixty years of harvests left.

So even if we can keep the politics working, without intervention we have six decades of food.

But we're so totally blind to all of this. I don't think there will ever again be a good time to have kids, yet my daughter's doctor still won't let her get her tubes tied because she might change her mind later. There are so many little things we do that reveal a profound disconnect with the way the world is headed. We're keeping this information in a different place in our heads and not letting it seep in, protecting our emotional core from knowing about it gnostically.

Monbiot says his goal is not to depress us, but to "concentrate our minds on the scale of the task," but without power to effect change, I'm not sure what he hopes focusing his readers will do. At Standing Rock they have a task, stopping the machines, and that task carries the symbolic weight of stopping the power of big business, exploitation, environmental destruction, and the pursuit of profits over people. It's a vitally important fight on the ground. Those who aren't near there don't have a task. We can donate to them, and then write our letters, but it feels impotent. We could drop everything and join them. In a movie, hundreds of reinforcements marching up over the hill would be the climactic point where the music swells, but there have already been problem with white people joining only to use it for their own means. Man, we suck!

I think one thing we really need to be proactive about, that unfortunately might be more possible than being proactive about climate change, is to generate an influx of books and articles and teachings and preachings and an entire marketing scheme / mythology on getting along during a crisis. If we're lucky, we'll only need it to learn to be kind and respectful shopping for bargains on Black Friday. Well...we can keep telling ourselves it's about luck.

At this rate, we're likely to go out fighting, like in so many extinctions and collapses of the past. I'm not sure that can be changed, such is our nature. But while we're continuing to work on convincing the powers that be to implement solutions already, we can continue to work to foster more connected and inclusive lives, vigilant with our own character when we might waver and our drive for survival tries to override our compassion. Can we do this with grace, kids?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Standing Rock Resistance

Chris Hedges is in Standing Rock, back to his original career as a war correspondent. The natives there are preparing for winter, and I'm struck by the contrast to the Occupy fight that dwindled away when things got cold. I'm curled up on the couch as I write that, so I mean no disrespect. But the world needs the kind of activists that can batten down the hatches for the long haul, so I'm so grateful we have such a strong contingent on sight for this battle.  You can donate easily here.

Try to take 15 minutes to watch. They get into an excellent bit on environmental racism and climate justice: how poorer areas are disproportionately targeted by fossil fuel industries, and the strong ties between fossil fuels and cancer, and the problem with accepting the methods of the colonizers - the master's tools.

The Onion also has a perfect bit that's only a 2-minute read!

ETA - Sorry, the embed video was taken down, but here's a link to a full version. It's longer, but the first half is an explanation of what's happening.

More on Critical Thinking

Owen at Northern Reflections wrote about Crawford Kilian's recent article in the Tyee about the need for critical thinking in schools, which referenced Jeet Heer's twitter essay on Sartre where I found this nugget from Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew:  (And somehow I wonder why my house is such a mess.)

This one passage isn't reserved solely for anti-semites but for anyone who doesn't want to do the work of arguing their side with facts and data and strong supporting points. I commented recently on the number of people I know, educated people, who aren't into all that logic and argumentation stuff. They want to throw out an opinion without it being contested, and then they stumble, perturbed, if they're questioned. There seems to be a belief forming, a new myth we live by, that intelligent people don't have to back up their ideas. If I question someone who just tosses out a claim without supports, they're most often angered by my lack of faith in their every word. But we need to think critically of the opinions of our friends and enemies and ourselves alike. That's what critical thinking is all about.

Kilian added a few more quotes from Sartre and Adorno that are frightening in their accuracy, and then closes with these words:
"Donald Trump may delight the ignorant and bigoted with his clowning, but his rise is the signal for Canadian and American teachers to teach reason as if their kids’ lives depended on it. Because they do."
Kilian's quite confident that at least critical thinking is taught to every student in BC because it's in the curriculum. I was excited to see what wonderful things they do, but was disappointed by the typical rhetoric, wrapped in eduspeak, inside fancy graphic organizers.
"Students use criteria (explicit or implicit) to draw conclusions.... Some opportunities for analysis and critique are formal tasks; others are informal.... Students learn to engage in an inquiry and investigation where they identify and explore questions or challenges related to key issues or problematic situations..... Student apply critical thinking to create or transform products.... The Critical Thinking Competency Profiles emphasize the concept of expanding and growing."
To self evaluate, student check boxes labelled, "I can explore," and "I can ask questions and consider opinions." It's all well and good and relatively harmless in itself, but it says virtually nothing useful to anybody trying to enlighten people towards a better analysis of media sources.

I'm going to let my worlds collide here and link to my classroom website. We just need people to learn pretty simple steps to check the veracity of a source, summarized in brief like this:
Try to find the primary source of the information. If that's not possible, make sure the source is peer reviewed or fact checked, and check for any connections that might be a conflict of interest for the publication or author. 
It's not brain surgery, but it is more work than basing your judgment of a situation on a stranger's description of a headline of an article from god knows where.

And then once you know it's an accurate source, it just take the right attitude to think critically and form a reasoned opinion, massively condensed to this:
Don't focus on trivial errors, but on the main point of the claim. Don't let big words fool you into complacently deciding they must be right, either. Then scrutinize the evidence for accurate and inaccurate data and well-reasoned and fallacious arguments. Look for points of consensus and contention with the same effort. Make sure you accurately understand the argument before agreeing or disagreeing. Then make sure to use accurate facts and well-reasoned arguments to back up your own claims in supporting or opposing their ideas. Whether you compliment or criticize an idea, you have to be able to say why
It takes significantly more time and energy in the short term to sculpt a finely-tuned opinion rather than just vomiting one out off the cuff. But in the long run, it's the only thing that can save us.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Water as a Human Right

In a recent article in my local paper, Peter Shawn Taylor says that anyone who wants to stop Nestle from draining aquifers doesn't understand economics and is hostile to capitalism. He implies that we can't just label water a human right above the fray of the market without doing the same with food, clothes, and housing. And "this sort of knee jerk hostility toward capitalism inevitably raises prices and reduces availability."

I don't understand the implications he suggests of that last bit. If we stop Nestle from taking groundwater to sell, which it's paying municipalities for at less than the going rate, then water will be more expensive and less available??

Taylor makes a false analogy implying that if we expect water to be free then we must also expect housing to be free because they're both human rights. The water warriors he refers to want to ensure that no company can take something essential for survival, get it for less than citizens pay for it, and then sell it back for 1,000 times the cost. So I think a much better analogy is, if we're going to allow Nestle to take water needed by a community, at a discount, then sell it at an enormous increase, then we must allow companies to take housing that's currently needed by people, get it at less than market value, and be allowed to sell it for 1,000 times the cost. See the problem with that version of capitalism now?

That's not something we worry about legislating because it'll never happen: nobody's going to buy a house that's so overpriced. Unfortunately, we still have a ton of people brainwashed by the cleanliness myth of bottled water who will continue to buy the product regardless the harm it causes to watersheds and communities. Free market principles suggest that the consuming public is the problem. If it's such a bad thing, then people just won't buy it and everything will equalize beautifully. But people don't work like that. We're a lazy and thoughtless lot. So sometimes we have to stop problems at the source in order to ensure longterm benefits to the people.

We already treat water like food, like apples for instance, as we pay for the labour mixed with the food. Farmers take the time and energy to grow the apples, pick and package them, and stand at a table in the market. We pay for all the people working down that line. In our parts, water is just there, under the ground, and we pay the city to treat it, monitor the quality, and pump it into our homes. Nestle is a company that wants to rip off the farmers by taking all the apples off the trees at a fraction of the cost so there's virtually none left for the local market, advertising them falsely as significantly superior, then selling them at 1,000 times the cost. It's right up there with WalMart for lowering prices by exploiting people along the way. We don't want to stop capitalism, just crony capitalism.

Furthermore, working to stop the control Nestle has in the area is imperative to impede any potential industry-influenced-government moves towards preventing citizens from collecting their own water in barrels or cistern like has happened in some jurisdictions in the U.S.

He suggests that native reserves run out of water because of gross incompetence by governments, not businesses. But when native reserves suffer from a lack of drinkable water, the blame often absolutely lies directly on the shoulders of industries like the Dryden Chemical Company and Reed's Paper Mill for poisoning the water with mercury and other toxins.

Finally, suggesting that "water is the most renewable of all resources" because it just keeps raining over and over shows Taylor's ignorance of the crisis we currently face. It's NOT continuing to rain in the same ways as it used to. Some areas are flooded and some are in drought. Groundwater is a different quality of water than surface puddles, and we need rain falling at the right intensity to be soaked into the ground to recharge our water table. Clean drinkable water must be protected. It's not something we can cavalierly use up expecting more to come tomorrow. That's the real irrational mysticism here.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Is This the Sixth Estate?

The "Fourth Estate" is an antiquated term for unofficial social and political forces, primarily the media. Use of the term recognized, over two centuries ago, that the media affect social change. But once that became clear, it became a tool of the establishment. The church, politicians, and corporations started using the media to sway the public. Then the "Fifth Estate" was born. This is alternative media that often work against newly labeled "mainstream" news sources to show a level of truth or depth not seen. We came to assume that these sources, unaffected by the man, could actually be trusted.

But the new fake news (that's not billed as satire) is a different beast. It's not from the establishment or the counter-establishment. For the most part, it seems it's from individual mischief-makers who want their time in the sun. It's not a means to show truth; it's anti-truth. It's total crap. It's not propaganda for any side so much as it's childish fibbing that plays on whatever people hate. More anger equals more clicks. Whether for ad revenue or just a base desire for popularity, it feeds the individual who can create convincing stories. It's the ultimate in individualism for a single citizen or small group of citizens to be able to influence the masses through a little creative writing.

It's not new as a concept; there have always been snake oil salesmen. When the internet first got going, I discounted so many claims from students about things like KFC raising headless chickens and people selling human meat online. It took many lessons to convince them of the inaccuracy of the sites and to be wary of what they read. And way back then - it must have been about twenty years ago - we started talking about digital literacy. Somehow it didn't take in the way it should have. And before we were on solid ground, ready and able to recognize accurate new sources for ourselves, this new breed of misinformation came out: better disguised and less outrageous. It could be true, and we're way too busy to fact check it to find out.

This reality is important enough to be discussed by Obama, but he didn't say much more than "If we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems....In an age where we have so much misinformation, and it's packaged very well....then we won't know what to fight for." Well, yup. So what do we do about it?

Some people blame Facebook for allowing fake news to be published. But Facebook isn't a peer-reviewed journal. It's supposed to be an open arena for views. (The algorithms that feed us news in a self-perpetuating bubble is a different problem that runs counter to the open forum idea.) They're not going to allow ads on sites with misleading information now, as a bit of a concession. But if we want it to stay relatively open and uncensored, then we have to be able to filter crap ourselves.

Snowden got in on the discussion suggesting Facebook shouldn't be our only news source, but Facebook isn't one source, it's a collection of news sources that varies dramatically depending on who you like and follow. Most of us already filter our own information by reading from select journalists or publications or only following people who we think will provide accurate news. A quick glance at my own Facebook feed has a Politico article followed by a New Yorker, then NYTimes, and Counter Current News, and CBC Newsand IFLScienceand Climate Reality forwarded a Guardian piece. I find Facebook, like Twitter, to be a great venue for news because I've set it up to be. I don't use it as much to connect with friends, and I'm pretty brutal about unfollowing people who post pictures of their meals. Lots of people are reading crap because they want shorter reads with more pictures and lots of drama. People want news to be entertaining.

Neil Postman
 (who was quoted at length by Chris Hedges - h/t Owen] recognized the prescience of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Huxley predicted that we've have so much information, it would render us passive, and we'd be "drowned in a sea of irrelevance." We have become the trivial culture he feared, ruined by our own desires. But Plato warned of that too, suggesting that our inability to properly measure short and long-term desires would be the end of us. We've been warned over and over for thousands of years. This is a frightening part of our own nature that seems virtually inescapable. We're largely idiots: self-centred and easily amused. I'm not sure we can be saved from ourselves.

But we can try, dammit!

Most importantly, I believe, who we think is reputable varies dramatically. What I see as the real source of the current problem it that any disagreement with outrageous claims is seen by some as a mere bias against that side rather than an argument against the claim. The most important and often the most difficult concepts to teach are "bias" and "opinion." It takes a lot of work to teach that at the grade 12 level, and it would help if it could be taught and reinforced earlier. It would help if it was a significant part of teacher's college lessons to ensure that all teachers are fluent in the terms.

I'd argue in favour of calling out bogus claims, and I do think that's important, but often it leads to bizarre accusations and hateful replies. I'm the first to jump on misattributed quotations, but moving beyond that requires a significant level of courage to be willing to stand up against an army of irrational detractors. I don't always have big enough balls for that. It would be so much easier if we all had basic skills in the dialectical method.

We have a push towards teaching critical thinking in schools, but most critical thinking discussions seem to focus on metacognition instead. It's to the point that I wonder if the board actually wants us to teach critical thought. Metacognition has us acknowledging what we're thinking as we're working through a problem. Critical thinking has us evaluating every claim and every thought we have as a response to each claim. It takes a depth of thought few want to explore. Difficult skills can be boring until we hit a baseline level of success. A few people dropped my philosophy course this term, as they always do, and I asked, "How much more time consuming is this course that people choose it to be the one to ditch?" Students answered that it's not any more time consuming at all, it's just a different level of thought that nobody's used to accessing. It's a whole new skill to question everything - in grade 12. That's more disappointing to me. I want them to question everything from kindergarten! Not just randomly arguing for the sake of being contrary, but clearly developing a line of reasoning that would have us accept or deny a claim.

I've had many arguments with educated people who get annoyed when I dismantle their arguments using the tools I learned in philosophy. That argument is a mere assertion; the other one an ad hominem; this last one an appeal to consensus....  People don't like their views questioned. They don't want to provide supports or reasoned arguments. They just want you to nod your head and admire their brilliance. I had one friend recently tell me he's "not into all that logic stuff." To me, that claim is similar to someone discounting his corrected grammar because he's not into all that grammar stuff. There are specific tools to be used when examining factual claims and arguments that we can all learn in grade school to ensure that what we're saying makes sense. But then it takes a bit more effort to develop arguments, and that's not as much fun (well, for most people).

The President of Ireland agrees:
The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world,” Mr Higgins said. “A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not ‘like us’ requires the capacity to critique, which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring.”
I'd like to live in a society full of people willing and able to thoughtfully examine ideas - their own and others'. But an educated society is difficult to placate and pacify. Beer and circuses for the masses it is!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Back to Work Boobless

I'm really glad I decided to go back to work part time for a week. I highly recommend that path for anyone getting this surgery. I thought I'd be completely fine the first day, but I underestimated my level of exhaustion. Being home by noon was a godsend. Some people online recommend SIX weeks off. Two full weeks off felt right, but three might have been better. This was a good compromise.

It didn't help that Sunday night my cats either found or brought a mouse into my bed at around 2 a.m. I woke to them pouncing in unison right next to me with my chest a barely closed wound inches from all those razor sharp claws. Yikes! I kicked them off the bed then heard the squeaky chirp of some kind of small animal. A mouse, a bat, or maybe a bird? I wasn't up to an investigation, so I took my clock to the living room couch for the rest of the night. 

When my alarm rang, I turned it off and promptly fell into a deep sleep until my daughter got me up about the time I should have been walking out the door. I have never fallen back to sleep after my alarm's gone off. I made it on time, but ill-prepared for the first day back, and with my classroom keys forsaken on the kitchen table.  

I'm not in too much pain, although it's there, pretty steadily. The cold really gets to me, and I'm sitting with a scarf doubled around my chest. The biggest issue is that I feel like I've run a marathon by ten in the morning. I just need to close my eyes a little. 

I dove right in to my regular clingy clothes without prosthetics, and nobody noticed. I guess my boobs weren't as spectacular as I imagined! I feel like someone with hair down to her waist pulling a Sinead O'Connor. It's horrible when people are upset with you, "How could you do that? You had such beautiful hair!" You never really know how much people love your hair until you cut it all off. But it's also a little weird when nobody says anything as if that's how you've always looked.

But clearly this is a little different. It's uncomfortable for people to notice a change like this. It means that they noticed that I actually had breasts at one time, and that's right up there with admitting we noticed someone's skin colour. Of course we notice, but our fear of appearing sexist or racist makes it's tricky to admit that we're able to see body shape and skin tone. 

I feel a little more bottom heavy, and my little belly is more front and centre. I might never exhale again. I feel slightly out of balance and square-shaped rather than hourglass. It's not quite like I'm ten-years-old again because I didn't have hips back then, but it's not too bad. 

ETA: It was a huge mouse (or maybe a baby rat). I finally found the carcass four days later!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Charles Taylor on the Crises of Democracy

Charles Taylor gave a lecture on the "Crises of Democracy" two years ago, as part of a "Civic Freedom in an Age of Diversity" program where he explores the very complex situation we're in. He says we're not in a period of democratic stagnation, but in a downward spiral that has to be actively stopped. He takes up the same thread as in his Sources of the Self, that we have to go back to retrieve our past, our trajectory here and all the assumptions we brought with us, in order to understand our current situation. There's is a summary of his ideas below condensed in a way that I can best understand it all.

He's critical of John Rawls's veil of ignorance theory for ignoring an important part of politics. It's correct at the core, but it misses the reality that, at any given time, the capacity people have to put together common actions is limited or augmented by their culture. Whether or not a revolution succeeds or fails has to do with the state of the democratic repertoire, or what Taylor calls the "social imaginaries" of the people. During the American Revolution, people ruling already had a purchase in the habit of electing assemblies, so the notion of what it was to set that up was already familiar. That wasn't the case for the French Revolution, so a lengthy battle ensued.

If people can do something active within institutions outside of democracy, like credit unions and trade unions, then people can learn to act together and accomplish something. But we need a critical mass of people who are able to work together in this way before we can do it as a society.

Taylor prefers Tocqueville's focus on the political culture of a time, and Arendt's notion of the collective power of the people. Social imaginaries allow for collective action. Then he heaped praise on the current work of Jim Tully in the field of global communities.


We have a naïve belief that the world is becoming democratic. Underlying that belief is the idea that democracy is the most stable, most legitimate form of government, but this belief undermines other forms of government. It might be a true belief, but it's a limited truth. There's an earlier understanding of democracy that's important to recall that goes back Aristotle's idea that the Demos is the rule of the non-elites over the elites, which is why the term wasn't used favourably for centuries. When the common people take over, the economy is destroyed because everyone's in debt. The Republicans came up with checks and balances but kept the common people out of this. Democracy has evolved into a rule by experts but with a turnover policy that the Demos can affect. That's very different than the original notion.

Demos is a term with a double meaning. We can't afford to lose the original sense of the word Demos referring to just the non-elites. Western democracies are in danger of a regression because we don't think of it in those terms. We glorify the notion of every voice and idea having equal value. This notion, the longstanding struggle whose ultimate achievement is when the elites and non-elites fade into one another, hopes to see the Demos becoming the equivalent to the people as a whole. When that becomes our view, then we see a sliding back. The moments when democracy is most vibrant are moments when the Demos (the non-elites) are moving ahead in economic prosperity, but not when they're the policy makers. In the 20th century, this was "Les Trente Glorieuses," the period from 1945 to 1975 in which we saw the development of the welfare state, a high marginal tax rate, and the development of trade unions. After 1975, the situation rolled back again.


In order for democracy to work, there has to be some sense that we as a whole people can act together. For example, in 1917 Russia, there was no understanding of how people could work together, so the revolution produced a dictator. If the people can't make it happen, then a small group or individual will rise up to lead, and it can be disastrous. A repertoire of ideas that lead to collective action is needed. And there must be a social imaginary that allows for democratic conflict, that allows for the legitimacy of really different interest and demands within the limits of non-violent discourse.

During Les Trente Glorieuses, there were certain operations that ensured progress, but they were undermined by good and bad forces that created a downward spiral that we're still trying to deal with. The nature of citizen efficacy offered us is through broad party programs with issues that mattered and the offer of a free vote. That understanding is being profoundly lost for good and bad reasons. A good reason it's being lost is that the system of large parties that puts all the demands into force doesn't cope well with minority demands. We end up with an epoch breaking out. Large parties can't back smaller idea like ecological movements or feminist movements or occupy movements. A bad reason it's being lost is a negative self-feeding reason. The large party system weakened other forms of political struggle. There's a lack of trust in the parties and a decline in the level of voting, a rise in the importance of cash, a media controlled by money, and a spiral downwards in the sense that the political efficacy of the whole is declining. We're still trying to reply to that.

The occupy movement (and similar smaller movements) and the left need each other, but there's a degree of alienation that makes it difficult for them to work together. Smaller movements like that get new things on the agenda that weren't there before, but needs some kind of party mechanism to put these things into effect. The Arab Spring shows the difficulty of going it alone with a movement without party backing.

But, one reason it's best for parties not to back the movements is it can be a great concern for the internal democracy of the party. It offers new techniques for broad discussion, but at the same time, it can then mean difficulties for leaders to disassociate themselves from acts of vandalism and violence. The most negative factions of the smaller movement can destroy any party that backs them. The problem becomes how to move beyond the stalemate in order to bring the two forces together to make democracy vibrant again.


We recognize that our situation has grave problems. There's tremendous inequity. There are lots of cases in which the existing repertoire allows some kinds of collective action, but not anything that can satisfy our basic demands. We're in a zone of arrested power that makes our situation highly unsatisfactory. It will take work to change it. There's a general despair of the Demos. The non-elites feel like nothing can be done.

One great strength of our current set of repertoires, though, is an understanding of ourselves as a people who can take collective action through procedures. We can understand and relate to that. We have a common cohesion around principles. There's a powerful sense of belonging together. Taylor argues against Nussbaum's cosmopolitan idea because we must have a sense of belonging to a group to have any solidarity. We must accept and trust each other enough to help each other with a redistribution of taxation. We have to imagine ourselves as citizens working with other citizens. If some are gated and other ghettoized, it's harder to imagine being equals. We used to have things like baseball games to bring us together, but even that has seen a 'skyboxification' of American democracy.

But there's a dark side to this; an ethnicization can develop around solidified groups. Mann refers to it as the dark side of democracy. It can lead to an exclusion or destruction of smaller groups, and we have to be mindful of that in order to watch for the first signs (like we're now seeing in the U.S.). There are two dominant imaginaries right now, that move us forward and back. There's a moving to bring in people who are different, which is a great achievement to create a viable repertoire for common action that includes everyone. But then there's a push back through a fear of what that common agency will look like. It's a battle about what the identity of the agency is.

We need to ensure egalitarian participation - a situation in which people, when they enter into common action, have a sense that we're creating something together as equals, that nobody's telling us what to do. There's a ritualistic element to enacting citizenship which helps deepen repertoire. People enact citizenship when they make a ceremony of voting. But there's a perpetual danger of exclusionary narrowness built into the sense of solidarity. It can turn into rejection, so people can be reluctant to join.

[I've seen this in my own city where community neighbourhoods have gotten significant support to develop their own name and brand (some with glossy mags about their homes), and now there's a competitive element that makes people in one neighbourhood disparage those in another. It was a means to develop city-wide community that devolved into nasty little factions. I've seen the same thing in my school when people solidify by departments in a process that erodes the school as a collective. It's classic Tajfel in-group / out-group mentality, and it takes a careful process to prevent it.]

Another way people get alienated is through a sense that policy is developed and applied by elites, and we don't understand it, but we get the idea that if we don't go along with it then we're not reasonable. There are people speaking on our behalf. And often it's a matter of media misinformation that allows for lunatic decisions to be furthered. This fear is played up by irresponsible governments. We try to get the truth out there, and we must go on doing that. There's a trough developing between how people understand each idea. They're often not necessarily differing in ideas, but in basic facts.

There's also the inability of people to get at international issues that can't be handled by one government, like planetary disaster. We need a collaborative citizenship that crosses boundaries and expresses non-violent forms of resistance. We need repertoires working within societies and across societies, but working at one and the same time.

There's a mythology that we're all middle class now, but we're not. The middle class is dying out. The old dream that kids will do better than their parents can't be envisaged anymore. This has altered our consciousness, which might create significant potential for action.

If populism is stymied, we get little movement. The success of parties and the success of the Demos are inversely correlated. We have to attend to exclusion, disempowerment, and nationalism together. In a sense, parties never did it alone, they were backed by trade unions, cooperatives, women's movements, and later corporate lobbyists. Can we have a functioning democracy without political parties? We can't really live with them or without them. They cause problems, but they're necessary. The issue is how to recreate the contemporary version of the kind of symbiosis that existed before, and recreate that in the world in which we have parties and movements. We have no viable model of that yet.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Genius Kvetching Ring

An article, three years old, was in my facebook feed today. But it was insanely timely. It's a little lifestyle piece about how to talk to people who are sick or experiencing trauma. It's just plain common sense, but it needs to be circulated regardless!  The idea was illustrated thusly:

Beautifully illustrated by Wes Bausmith
If someone in your life is sick or traumatized in some way, then their name goes in the middle. Then closest people next, and somewhat close, etc. further and further out. Wherever you are in the circle, you're welcome to bitch and complain and lecture and ask possibly offensive questions or talk about how it's affecting your life only to people who are towards the outside of the circle (from you, out). So, if you're in the middle, you get to basically say anything! If you're on the outer circle, then keep your trap shut.

The only things that should be shared to people closer to the centre (from you, in), are words of encouragement or offers of help. What do you need me to do? How can I help? Here's a list of things I'm more than happy to do...  That kinda thing. If you're thinking of sharing your troubles or the secrets of your success inwardly, then bite your tongue.

Most people have been exceptional to me during my recovery. Most people. And I've been guilty of kvetching in myself, mainly when my mother was dying of cancer, and I was on my own with an infant and a 2-year-old, and my mom was the only person in the world I could talk to about all my troubles. Luckily she was so drugged up on morphine, she didn't really notice my self-centred ranting. But, I'm sometimes an insensitive clod, so it's definitely something I'll be checking in with myself in future!

On Being Useful: a Necessary Shift in Radicalism

"Oh, what can we do in a case like that? Nothing to do but sit on your hat, or your toothbrush, or your grandmother, or anything else that's useless."

Those are the butchered words of a Burl Ives song I sang as a kid until my sister corrected me. The last word is actually helpless, not useless. But it made so much more sense to think of my elders as full of vim and vigour, but just spinning their wheels. They're not helpless, but they don't effect anything significantly either. You can't go to them to try to make a difference on anything significant. It probably got meshed in my head with my dad's gentle refrain beaten into my head, "Do try to be useful," whenever anything was happening around me, like groceries or housecleaning or dinner.

I have no memory of the song being about a whale. To my young mind, it was about the sad incompetence of the older generation, and it I was the first protest song I sang as I pictured the youth suffocating their elders in order to make shit happen. But then I became a useless elder and the cycle continues.

I've been thinking about my uselessness lately, and then I watched HyperNormalisation and listened to an interview with Adam Curtis, who said that radicals started giving up the fight in the 1970s. I felt a little vindicated as he lamented the movement towards self-absorbed obsessions with working out; I loathe exercise for its own sake. But that was quickly replaced with a bit of shame as he turned to the radicals that retreated into their art and writing as a quieter form of protest that's essentially useless. Okay, that hit a nerve. He argues that what we need is for people go to protest sites, whatever cause is near and dear, and don't tweet about it, but just participate. And participate until it's fixed. Don't just make an appearance, take a selfie, then congratulate yourself on the way back home, ummm, like I do with the marches I attend. (But doesn't making lengthy documentaries fit in with making art?)

And that reminded me of a great book I was fortunate to be forced to read in university: Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor (listen to a shorter version here), a Canadian philosopher who happens to be in the news everywhere right now since winning the Berggruen Prize for advancing humanity. His sudden wave of publicity gives me great hope that we're on the verge of actually paying attention to his ideas. His extraordinary tome traces philosophy from the beginnings to now and suggests that we've gotten ourselves into a muddle because we've shifted from asking questions about human nature (philosophy) with an interest in furthering society, to thinking entirely about ourselves and the ordinary life (psychology, particularly of the self-help variety) with an interest in developing our personal potential. The way to end our malaise is to go back to the source to figure out what we're all about. It's a call to reject the notion that values are subjective. That's a tiny nutshell for several hundred pages, but I'll get to the rest of it another day.

We've shifted to soft relativist positions that don't really allow us to have ideals. Instead of getting into the nooks and crannies of right and wrong, thinking and figuring out which really is the best action for the greater good, we largely look for ways to justify doing what we want. And a general attitude that says "your way is just as valid as mine" encourages us all on our merry way, ignoring atrocities along the path. But many think the opposite slides down a slope towards totalitarianism. If I imply your reasoning is questionable and your choices immoral, then I'm telling you what to do. And what give me that right?? I'm labeled arrogant and the argument is dismissed. People need to be willing to discuss these things in a learned way until we get to some discovery of essential values.

And at the same time, I've been reading a book on Sartrean Ethics, which argues for the opposing idea, that values are completely subjective and we can all be useful if we choose values that we can live up to: "It is up to man himself to give meaning and use to his choosing to value and seek goals that are attainable" (53). Sartre is exciting to read because he's not at all judgmental about people's lapses into bad faith, and his version of the virtuous life is so possible. It feels good to read him. But, as much as I like much of what he says, I believe it's part of the reason for this mess we're in.

If I have to choose a path, then I'm with Taylor on this one. There are some values that exist outside ourselves and that can't be ignored even if it's uncomfortable for us to face the reality of our selfishness and the errors of our ways up to this point. I also agree with Curtis that we have to change the way we express ourselves radically. A personal expression isn't going to do jack shit to change anything. We need to focus less on ourselves, on our art and music and writing and on our bodies, and actually take some risks and suffer a bit to promote real change for the future. We can't change the world from the comfort of the couch. These views take us into far more difficult terrain that's not rewarding in the ways we're used to. It means working for something that will benefit the next generation knowing we might never be remembered for our efforts as we get lost in a sea of protesters, but we can't continue to do so little if we want the next couple of generations to survive. Especially now that Trump is at the helm.

Taylor writes, "We want our lives to have meaning, or weight, or substance, or to grow towards some fullness.... But this means our whole lives. If necessary, we want the future to "redeem" the past, to make it part of a life story which has sense or purpose, to take it up in a meaningful unit" (50). Nietzsche uses these words, "To redeem the past and to transform every 'It was' into an 'I wanted it thus' - that alone do I call redemption" (TSZ-161). We get caught up in linear progressions. The present has to be better than the past, and it all has to add up to something that makes sense to us. When we're in a lull in our life, or hit a crappy part, it's disconcerting that it was all for naught. But if we want our lives to have real substance, then it will only happen if we add our voices to a collective call to action beyond our individual pursuits. The internet makes us feel connected, but it's just an illusion. We have to leave the house and come face-to-face with other human beings willing to go the distance with us.

It's not necessary to succeed, but we have to begin.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Pie and Goldblum on Trump's Win

Two videos for a Saturday:

Jonathan Pie argues that the left is responsible for this result because they've given up putting up any argument at all: "Clinton...a candidate who's been dry-humping corporations for years....They didn't vote for her because she offered no palpable change whatsoever....She represented very little."

But more importantly, he argues for arguing:
"Our argument isn't won by hurling labels and insults...the key is discussion. If you're unwilling to discuss, then you're creating the conditions where Donald Trump and people like him can thrive.....The left is responsible for this result because the left have now decided that any other opinion, any other way of looking at the world is unacceptable.  We don't debate anymore because the left won the cultural war. So, if you're on the right, you're a freak....When has anyone ever been persuaded by being insulted? If you're against the pervading view, you're attacked for expressing your opinion. That's why people wait until they're in the voting booth. No-one's watching anymore, and you can finally say what you really think."
And then something I've always told people who disagree with me: "Being offended doesn't work anymore... Engage and debate me and tell me what I'm getting wrong!"  (ETA but check out this analysis of the clip as well.)

Then Jeff Goldblum reminds us the best way to react to it all:

He's got a Jungian or Taoist element to his talk:
"When you engage in this othering business - there's a lot of that going on - where you're separate from me and it's your fault instead of 'we're stronger together' business, you look to the person who's the focus of your disgust and outrage, and you know what? Sometimes you go, "The reason I'm so outraged at that person is because I need to look at those elements of personality in myself."
And his words for moving forward:
"Being inspired, encouraged, brave, and active into the progress of your own future depends on YOU; that's within your circle of influence. I'm not going to be uninspired by this. That's stupid."
His philosophy of life is comforting at least:

Friday, November 11, 2016

On Missing the Girls

"Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
- Leonard Cohen  (Everyone's using that bit today, but they always skip the first part of the verse.)

As I started down the road towards mastectomy-ville, I wondered how weird it would feel suddenly not having breasts. I mean they been sitting there, right under my face, for decades. How would I cope with such a drastic change? It doesn't count as an amputation, but still... it's something. I mean, many MTF Trans don't feel complete without top surgery, yet here I go still being female. I've actually always wondered if it's insulting to women with minimal breasts when people insist they can't feel female without getting implants. And it's covered if it's sexual reassignment surgery, but not if you're born female but have a pretty flat chest. Curious. Anyway...

I do miss them at times. When I lie on my side at night, they're not cushioning the space between my arms. When I'm standing and I move to cross my arms, the down-scoop-up motion that nestles them atop my folded arms is now for nought. When I'm in the shower, I look straight down at my belly. When I run up a flight of stairs, I still reach up to hold them in place. When I'm waking around, if I catch myself in a reflective surface I notice the change: I seem longer in the torso without them. But the rest of the time, when I'm just milling about doing my thing, I mainly don't think about them at all. Once in a while, when I see a celeb in a beautiful outfit that accentuates their breasts, I have a tiny pang of grief, but I can still get that look as desired with external prosthetics. Except, once I'm released from this pressure camisole in another week, I expect to be excited to never again wear a bra!

At this point, two weeks post-surgery, there's just a tightness in my chest and a weird tingling sensation like a band of dull needles pressed against me whenever I get a chill (which I seem to get a lot there), or when I think about it all (because I'm still pretty grossed out by the thought of it), or maybe just randomly. From time to time I get a sudden little stabby purple-nurple feeling that usually subsides quickly. When I roll on my side at night, it's a bizarre sensation like it all shifts just under the surface. It's not really painful, but it's intense enough that I wake up every time.

I don't look that strange. I've already started to get used to it, however I've been lounging around the house in loose-fitting tops. That might be my go-to outfit for school for the first while as well. At work, I never dress to look attractive - that's subtly discouraged for teachers. I've had students ask me what to do if a teacher is wearing revealing clothes that the class finds uncomfortable: "When she bends over, we can see right down her top!" They say that in a revolted way. Teenagers typically don't want to see middle-aged booty. I'm in awe of older women who wear anything that acknowledges them as sexual beings; it's so far removed from my own experiences as a school marm. But I do try to avoid being a distraction in other ways. I don't want to gross anyone out.

I push the boundaries of taste already by having hairy legs and pits, and I wear sundresses that showcase both. I also have eczema-type areas of bumpy scaly skin that most people are good about largely ignoring. But some students are brutally honest - well, sometimes they're cruel really - and I feel like I might need to be at the ready with a comeback that's just subtle enough that I'm able to deny any intended sarcasm and insist I was giving straight-up advice. God forbid we ever take students down a notch and inadvertently hurt their self-esteem in our quest for developing a moral centre in them.

But there could also be some kind souls in the room who find it all a little unsavoury. I'm reminded of the beginning of Pay It Forward, when Kevin Spacey's character first turns around to greet his new class and his face is a mass of scars. The class is taken aback, but he soldiers on. Generally we expect that people just have to cope with our disfigurements, but I wonder if sometimes there's a call for a bit of a compassionate attitude to help people ease into radical changes.

When I was a kid, I was sometimes embarrassed by my mom because she'd do groceries in a pink pantsuit with a yellow raincoat. She didn't care what she looked like. Well, I'm not even acknowledging the idea that she might have thought she looked good!  And, as a world-weary teen, I once wished to be dead rather than care so little about how I present myself in public. Many teenagers are very concerned for people who aren't optimally attractive, sometimes to the point of anger that the broken won't better hide their imperfections.

But now I'm at the age of not giving a shit, and it's a significantly better place to be. It's not to say I've given up or grown apathetic, but that I've grown less self-absorbed. Or, at least, I'm less absorbed with how I look and more interested in what I can do.

But I still don't want to freak anyone out!

In more revealing clothes, I worry a bit about disturbing people on the beach or around town if I'm in a form-fitting tank top or bold enough to go topless. The surgery didn't leave me completely smooth. There's weird shit going on: bumps and ripples and blobs, not to mention the horizontal scar dividing the terrain in half. A buddy keeps saying it'll look better when the muscles fills in, which is baffling to me. What muscles will fill in?? If I don't suddenly start to work out (which I won't), then I don't expect to find more muscles there any time soon. I'll have to work with my tattoo artist around the new peaks and valleys of the canvas.

But then I think that maybe we're all freaks in one way or another, it's just that some people hide it better than others. That could be a rationalization on my part, but it seems to me that it's more than just for aesthetic reasons that it bothers us to see people who are a bit off. Perhaps it bothers us because it reminds us of our own broken or twisted parts that we've made such an effort to sequester and smooth over. Someone refusing to hide their flaws is like a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti. We avoid the walking wounded to keep the pack animals from noticing us too, noticing a little lump or limp or lisp that could give us away as ripe for chewing on. It takes a measure of bravery to be a bit off in this sometimes scared and mean little place. But it also takes some courage to stand with the marginalized, and that deserves acknowledgment. It might be expected of us all, but, unfortunately, it's rare enough to be praiseworthy.

Caitlin Rosberg

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

HyperNormalisation or Welcome to The Age of Absurdity

I added the subtitle above because this is one trippy film, but it's important to see (or read this summary in about 15 minutes) after last night. It actually helps explain Trump. After Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self, a very straight-forward documentary (albeit 4 hours long), this one, at just shy of 3 hours, is absolutely bizarre by contrast. News footage is mixed with feature film content and inane YouTube videos all with a soundtrack mix of NIN, 80s techno, discordant carnival music, and creepy singing children. It has the intentional effect of a funhouse mirror. It was perfect to watch as the votes came in last night.

We’re living in strange times. Huge superpowers have no ability to deal with extraordinary events and no vision for the future. And the counterculture is also sucked into this make-believe world, so they have no real effect on anything either. Most of events in the film were outlined by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine a decade ago, but Curtis adds in some further connections (like Trump’s involvement) and takes us on a journey through it. It's not just that politics have changed, but the way we've been trained to think has shifted dramatically.


Two ideas about how to run the world without politics took hold in 1975: intentional political negotiations of old were being replaced by a market driven trajectory and an absurdist fabrication of government.

New York was on the verge of collapse from politicians borrowing too much and the middle class exodus eroding the tax base. The banks were expected to buy bonds in return for loans, but one day they refused. This started a significant shift in power as banks insisted that if they’re protecting the loans, they must be allowed to take over the city. A committee was formed made almost entirely of bankers, and the financial institution took control, kickstarting neo-liberalism. They enforced austerity and many teachers, police, and fire fighters were fired. In the old system, politicians solved crises with negotiations; now bankers were letting the market run society, and the market can’t be negotiated with.

Nobody opposed this shift. The counterculture retreated. It was concurrent with a rise of individualism that doesn’t support collective political action, so radicals just watched the destruction with cool detachment and criticized it with art and music. Capitalists took advantage of it. Donald Trump recognized he couldn’t get state funding for housing, but could get cash by refurbishing old buildings. He got the biggest tax break ever and huge bank loans because the city was desperate. He transformed NYC at virtually no cost to himself.
David Levine's Kissinger

By contrast, in Damascus, the capital of Syria, a conflict was brewing between the president, Hafez al-Assad, and Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State. Assad wanted to negotiate politically in order to unite Arab countries to be able to stand up to the west. Assad believed there could only be peace if Palestinian refugees were allowed to return to their homeland. They never integrated in host countries, like Syria.

Kissinger leaned towards running the world as a stable market system. He had been an expert in nuclear strategy's "delicate balance of terror" and aimed to keep the world in balance through turmoil, the birthpangs of a better system. Dislocation provides opportunity for a global society. A strong Arab centre would destabilize his ideal balance of power, so he set out to fracture the Arab world by breaking their alliances. He played a double game, "constructive ambiguity," and at once persuaded Egypt to help Israel while he led Assad to believe he was helping the Palestinian situation. When Assad found out, he was enraged and stopped trusting in the global political system.  [The grandson of Salvador Allende is currently calling for the arrest of Kissinger.]

The doublespeak of these negotiations became the norm. In the Soviet Union, technocrats pretended everything was running smoothly even though citizens could all see the economy was falling apart. The people became hopeless and apathetic. Everyone just played along with the fake version of reality; they couldn't see a viable alternative. The people were so much a part of the fake system, that they couldn't see outside of it. This façade of life became hypernormal. (Listen to Curtis discuss the word - why we want change but it never happens.)


Reagan was voted in with a vision of a moral American society, but he was stuck with Kissinger's legacy and the fury of Assad.

In 1982, Israel was determined to destroy Palestine. In Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees were living in refugee camps, the Israeli army allowed the Christian Lebanese militia, Phalange, into the camps and then watched as a massacre took place. Reagan was forced to react and sent marines to Beruit claiming to be neutral. Assad saw the troops as an attempt to divide the middle east into factions, and focused on getting the US out. He formed an alliance with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. who created "the poor man's atomic bomb" as he convinced his followers to join a suicide mission in order to save the revolution (even though suicide is prohibited in the Qur'an), and mobilized 10,000s boys to walk through minefields to create gaps so the Iranian army could get across.

Assad took this idea of an unstoppable human weapon further and had followers strap bombs to themselves. They drove trucks into US marine barracks in Beruit, killing 241 Americans in October 1983. Hezbollah was formed with Iranians but under the control of Assad [something I've not heard before], and was used to attack America. In February 1984, Reagan became paralyzed by the complexity of the situation and retreated.

But an important part of this is the mythology of the martyr that was created. It has become firmly entrenched. It has to be; it's the only way families of the suicide bombers can cope with their loss.

The origin of cyberspace.


The power of the banks in NYC spread, but it was all covert. Banks and corporations were linked through computer systems that were invisible to citizens AND politicians. The networks gave them extraordinary powers of control. With no laws or politicians to intervene, brutal corporate power could flourish.

Others saw the internet as a platform for a new utopia, a safe place for radicals. Instead of fixing the world, they entered an alternative reality online. This has its roots in Leary's 1960s "LSD country" when the counterculture first looked to be liberated from politics. This is another myth we live by - the mythology that we can live more freely ignoring the political world. It was advance in the '90s by John Perry Barlow who focused on protecting the independence of cyberspace from politicians. He paints of picture of the internet as borderless, anarchist, independent of tyrannies, and free from hierarchies.

But two hackers, Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak, found and uploaded Barlow's credit rating online to demonstrate the hierarchies that exist already. The financial powers online can now know far more about us than ever before and therefore control us far better with less effort. The utopian rhetoric is a convenient camouflage hiding the emergence of the corporate powers.


Reagan created another mythology, that of the good Americans fighting against evildoers. He created an imaginary villain in Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. He was rejected by other Arab rulers and without global influence. But in December 1985, when terrorists attacked a Rome Airport, Reagan announced Gaddafi was behind the attacks even though all evidence pointed to Assad. There were far fewer consequences to the US to attack Gaddafi than Assad.

Gaddafi turned the crisis into a global drama and threatened suicide attacks against the US. He promoted himself as a revolutionary to liberate the repressed worldwide including blacks in America. He hired German engineers to build him a rocket to explore space, which gave him the capability of attacking Europe. He became a super-villain at the head of a rogue state. He was blamed for other attacks that he likely had nothing to do with, and he accepted the blame. He wanted an audience for his Third Universal Theory of a utopian socialist state.

Reagan prepared to bomb Libya using Gaddafi's rantings as fact regardless evidence to the contrary. In April 1986, the US bombed Tripoli, and their aim was so inaccurate many children were killed. Gaddafi stood on the rubble and denounced the US.


In the '80s, the US started testing weapons to conquer the Soviet Union, but when spotted, they promoted a fake conspiracy that they were misleading the population about aliens. They chose select people to find fake documents proving contact with UFOs. But the tactics fueled wider growing belief that the government lies and conspiracies are real. The blurring of fact and fiction became a central part of US government's "Perception Management" that aims to tell graphic stories to grab citizen's imagination as a way to distract them from dealing with the complexities of the real world.

The counterculture gave up revolutions and started making workout videos. The population, no longer able to have any effect on politics, focused their energy on something more important: controlling their bodies through a created obsession with workouts and diets. [I knew it!] The old system was dying, and a new system was about to be born.


The Soviet Union collapsed and it was the final failure of a dream of politics being used to create a new world. In the new system, politicians stopped trying to change things and focused on managing a post-political world. Ulrich Beck was first to describe this change.  Politicians hoping to make changes are suddenly seen as dangerous. Their new job is to predict dangers and avoid risks. The political class has been reduced to trying to steer society, putting out fires rather than doing anything actually effective. The new heroes will be the ones with the most accurate predictions. Larry Fink started BlackRock and built a huge supercomputer, Aladdin, which he used to predict with certainty the risk of any investment or event. He now manages 7% of the world's total wealth. His town is also where Prozac became most popular: everyone's brainwashing each other to be happy.

Other computer programmers were trying to develop artificial intelligence programs. As a joke, Joseph Weizenbaum created a computer psychotherapist that responds like Carl Rogers (by just reflecting back whatever we say) in order to parody the hopeless attempts at AI. But people found talking with Eliza helpful - even people that knew how it worked. It makes us happy and secure to have ourselves reflected back at us. The programmers started making systems to do that - intelligence pages - that gather data about people, look for patterns, and predict what they might want to see or hear or buy. It ordered the world and reassured the anxious. And it was highly profitable.


There's a dangerous flaw in the system because not everything can be predicted from data. Trump discovered that at his own cost in Atlantic City in 1990. His casino was losing money from a "whale" - a top gambler - Kashimagi. Trumped hired a different whale to set him up. When Kashimagi lost everything to the house, Trump thought he'd get his money back, but then mobsters got to him before Trump could. Banks saw that Trump couldn't pay the interest on his loans, and Trump went bankrupt.

Back in Damascus, Assad wanted revenge against the US. In December 1988, a plane was bombed over Lockerbie. Investigators pointed the finger at Syria, but the US focused on Gaddafi. Some journalists thought it was because the US and Britain needed Assad as an ally in the war against Hussein. Assad had released forces he couldn't control though, and his ideas jumped from Sunni to Shia Islam, and Hamas was formed [but many other sources seem to suggest Hamas is entirely Sunni?]. Shia are seen as the more brutal faction. They used suicide attacks in the heart of Israeli cities and went much further than Hezbollah ever had, which shocked the Sunnis, apparently. [I watched this bit twice, but I'm still confused because it runs counter to every other article I can find. Anyway...] The whole thing worked against Assad's original plan which was to join all Arab countries together to defeat the US.


Any optimistic vision of the future disappeared. The film has a crazy long montage of all the apocalyptical films created before 2001. Media provoked an intense fear of terrorism in the west. Then 9/11 happened.

In 1980, Reagan had a moment when he could have confronted the complexity of Syria, Israel and the Palestine crisis, but retreated and left Syria to fester and mutate. He went for Gaddafi instead because it was an easier battle to wage. But it changed the way people understood terrorism. Instead of violence being a result of complex political struggles, we got a simplistic image of an evil tyrant at the head of a rogue state and a sense that toppling the super-villain will save the world.

Blair and Bush set their sights on Hussein in Iraq. They believed stories about him instead of investigating reality. This is legend now, but the primary source that he had WMD was taken from the movie The Rock.

Then in 2003, Syria, under Bashar al-Assad (the younger son of Assad), sent Shia suicide bombers to attack Americans in Iraq as the first step in a plot to take over the Middle East. Within a year almost all foreign fighters were coming across Syria. Then things really got out of control as jihadists in Iraq joined Al Qaeda and turned to kill Shiites, and suicide bombers started to kill Syrians. Blair and Bush needed a way to show that the invasion had been a good idea, so they got Gaddafi, the fake super-villain, to become a fake global hero. They got him to publicly state his intentions to dismantle his WMD (which he didn't actually have) as a direct result of the Iraq invasion, and he took credit for the Lockerbie bombings. It was all new lies on top of old lies - the highest achievement of perception management. PR companies were paid millions to go to Libya and "reframe the narrative." As a world thinker, Gaddafi got to explain his Third Universal Theory to the United Nations and Trump offered to let him lease his land for the night, and made a fortune even though Gaddafi never stayed there.


The west has turned away from politics and deeper into cyberspace.

Judea Pearl worked on Bayesian networks which could predict behaviours even with incomplete data. They created software to mimic humans. With our current technology, we can upload millions of images and videos and the web feels much more like the real world. Then his son became the first journalist captured in Pakistan and beheaded on video.

Governments used Optic Nerve to take stills of people to look for terrorists, but mainly found amateur porn. The internet allows users to present themselves as they want to be seen. People are mesmerized by themselves. Social media sites created filters to see what people like and feed it back to them to the extent that people move in bubbles isolated from opposing information. Algorithms ensure that newsfeeds don't challenge preexisting beliefs. A few corporations are shaping everything we see and think. [We're like the robots in Westworld. We feel real, but we've all been programmed.]

BUT, another utopian version emerged when people realized they could use the internet to start revolutions. After the crash of 2008, Occupy Wall Street emerged. It was Barlow's dream incarnate. And then Arab Spring started with the "Facebook Youth" out in the tens of thousands. With social media, a revolution can be created quickly to take down a fascist leader.

But it ended up causing chaos instead of democracy. Radicals thought this new way of organizing was key to real change, but they didn't have a clear vision of the future. They were too focused on how to manage the people because that's what we're all swimming in - management. [I wrote a bit about this trend before, and I think one place to look for leadership with a real action plan is here, but that's just me.] In Egypt, social media brought people together, but once there, they had no clue of what new society to create. When the movement stalled, the Muslim Brotherhood rushed into fill the vacuum, and the left ironically turned to the military for help.

Strugatsky film
In the west, politicians have given so much power away to the banks that they have no real power to effect change themselves. They're just managers with a simplistic vision of the world, which is truly dangerous. In Russia, Putin saw that the lack of any belief in politics could work to his advantage. He turned politics into a strange theatre, which kept his power unchallenged. He was influenced by the sci-fi writings of the Strugatsky Brothers who wrote about the ease of manipulating the masses once we can shape reality to be anything.  Putin's technologist advisor, Vladislav Surkov, went further to take avant-garde ideas from the theatre into politics, to not just manipulate the public, but play with them and undermine their perception of the world to the extent that they're never sure of what's really happening. He turned politics into a bewildering spectacle. The key to this was to let it be known that they were backing opposing groups and clearly lying to keep constant confusion in the air.

That brings us to today and Trump's entire campaign. None of his policies are fixed; everything he does and says shifts constantly. He attacks all sides to perpetuate confusion so we can't quite tell precisely where he sits. Exposing his lies is irrelevant. Liberals are outraged, but algorithms made sure they were only heard by people who already agreed with them. Their wave of angry messages benefitted only corporations who know that "angry people click." Anger is good for business. Trump's strategy is to counter himself constantly. He realizes that the version of reality politics presented is no longer believable. Stories politicians tell don't make sense. In the face of that, we can play with reality and further weaken old forms of power.

Look at how the west dealt with Assad. He's evil, but Britain, America, and France bombed terrorists which had the effect of keeping Assad in power. And Russia sent troops to support Assad. This is Sarkov's strategy of non-linear warfare. The underlying aim is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a state of destabilized perception in order to undermine and control the masses. In March 2016, Russia announced it was leaving Syria, and held a concert to celebrate, but never made any motion to actually leave.

And now we have stirrings of fascism in the US.

Curtis leave no sense that we can actually do anything to get out of this mess in any way, but at least we can be aware of the absurdity of it all. And dance.

ETA: here's an interview with him by the Economist

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On the Nature of Gifts and Help

Being helped so much by so many has led me to thinking about the idea of help and of gifts and Derrida's idea that gifts are impossible in that, in part and very briefly (he wrote a whole book on this), once we give to someone it sets up a debt, which is poisonous as it becomes just an economic exchange. Even if the gift is abandoned, if it's essentially garbage we're getting - something the giver wanted to toss - then the gift has no actual value, and they're giving us nothing. So, either it has value and then it creates a sense of indebtedness - try as we might to avoid that scenario, OR it has no value (garbage) and then it isn't valued as a gift. To give to someone in a way that's heartfelt requires a loss of something to the other. A sacrifice. And then there's a little sacrifice back to even it out and sully the relationship with a subtle tracking system of who gave what, when, and for how much.

If it's all anonymous, then that doesn't work either. Part of the reason we give gifts, as can be seen by how we try to keep economics out of it all, is to create an emotional bond between the giver and receiver. Whether it's anonymous or all tit-for-tat, or we later google for the price, then it ruins the spirit of giving.

I used to think about all this when my kids were younger and they would make lists for Christmas, and I felt like I was out shopping for groceries. It doesn't feel good to give something expected, or to feel like you have a duty to give back in kind, or to not give back in kind avoiding the call to track. It's really tricky! As it slips closer to a demand, then it's clearly a payment of affection instead of a gift. That can be a very subtle line to cross.

I'm thinking about it now because I feel horribly indebted to people who have helped so much.

I wonder if giving the gift of time when someone needs help is any different. The fact that time is given might change the scenario because it can be an automatic exchange of time for the pleasure of my company. But it is almost immediately sullied by an attempt to be entertaining so as to clearly reciprocate. I tried to take a primary caregiver to lunch today, but the place was closed, and now it really feels like I'm indebted to her. I almost paid the invisible debt, but failed. That nugget will sit in the back of my head until it's been cleared.

It's not much different from the exchange between a friend and me after I accidentally knocked a picture frame off her wall. I called for the dimensions the next day so I could replace it, but she preferred I buy her beers next time we're out. But it's been a while, and that debt is still in my mind, waiting to be erased from the account books with payment rendered.

My dad used to tell me to let people see what you struggle with and let them help you. It's our job here to find ways to let others shine. Helping others raises the helper's value to themselves and others, so it's an act of kindness to let people do things for you; they'll feel better after the exchange. But it still doesn't relieve the feeling of indebtedness on the part of the receiver, unless, perhaps, the help wasn't useful. If we're helped in such a way that it's disastrous to us, then we feel no need to reciprocate even though people might still think you're a douche if you just say thanks and do nothing else. It's understandable why some people hate to be helped.

I have a friend who always picks up the tab when we're out. I've even snuck a word with the waitress, but somehow he undercuts me. So now I'm significantly indebted to him, and he makes it impossible to reciprocate. But it's now to a point that I might stop hanging out with him. The pain of that inconspicuous bill ever growing is perilously close to outweighing the pleasure of our time. I have a hard time heeding my dad's advice.

But that feeling of duty to reciprocate is not such a bad thing. We want to keep economics out of our relationships, but it's necessary to have feelings of indebtedness or else we might just suck kind people dry. Some are already used up by narcissists happy to take them for all they have. This subtle, covert economic tracking is useful to keep kindnesses in balance. It's not necessarily poisonous. It doesn't make gifts any more possible perhaps, but we can give and receive anyway. It only works to ignore that payback urge if we're all pretty equally driven to give to one another, which almost never happens.  People's desire or ability to give is far too variable. I have very limited acceptable ways to give to others much as I'd like to offer a show of affection or thanks. I suck at it. I can write them an essay or build them a deck; I fail epically at shopping and cooking.

In comparing gifts and help, it's hard to find much that differs. They both might be one way to prove love or affection with the significance of the gift signalling the extent of affection. As a symbol of caring, it can be wildly inaccurate, which is a problem. We can care tons but give little, or care little, but want to present the appearance of caring for an ulterior motive - to be perceived as caring or as tightly bonded or as a martyr ever suffering for others. This is the real commodification of affection that should raise concerns.

Gifts and helping both might prove our value to others (to the receiver, bystanders, or ourselves). For some, the favoured payback is to tell others about the wonderful thing they did. We give out of duty based on the occasion or affliction, and the significance of either tells us how much we have to do: Christmas warrants more than Easter, and surgery warrants more than a cold. Last night my youngest was beside herself in tears because she wants to take care of me but she's been really sick, so I've been taking care of her. It's killing her! She wants to show how much she cares and to underscore how close we are, but she's incapacitated. I tried to assure her that her company in front of movies is the best thing ever!

We give and help for the joy of giving. But what is that joy if not the thrill of being showered with gratitude (even if it's our own private self-delight) or power or a boost to the self-esteem when we see ourselves in a better light. It adds to our karma-value. We can show off what we've done and impress others or ourselves with a moment of generosity or kindness. This gets into the question of whether or not altruism is possible. Is it possible to give without hope of getting something in return - even just a warm feeling in the belly? It doesn't mean giving is selfish if we take pleasure in it, but that it's never solely about the recipient.

With both, some people get angry at not having an opportunity to give or help, and they'll bombard the receiver with unsolicited aid. And sometimes it's really clear that it's not because they want the receiver to be more comfortable, but because they want to join in. They missed their turn. They didn't get an invite to the birthday party, so they showed up with a gift anyway. Awkward.

And sometimes people ask for something specific. With gifts, this is fairly common - many of us at least leave hints around Christmas and birthdays when we know things we be thrust at us. Hints are another subterfuge to hide the economics of the whole affair. But it's so much harder to do when it's for help.

A surprising number of people have offered help, but it's typically in the form of taking me for groceries or driving to appointments or bringing over food. What we can ask for is limited. I guess it's no different from gifts, actually, it's just different terrain. In gifts we match the general price to the closeness and salary of the donor. My son might ask for a pricey camera, but my friends wouldn't expect more than drinks. With help, instead of money there's a hierarchy of jobs. The O.R. waiting room is for family. Driving to appointments (and filming them) is for close friends. Bringing food to share comes next, followed by bringing food to drop and go. It's all very lovely and all - I'm not questioning that - but the boundaries around it are also interesting to me.

Because there are some jobs I don't feel like I could ask anyone to do: the dirty jobs with no entertainment value. I'm not supposed to do housework or lift much of anything for six weeks (although I've been doing dishes and laundry with my daughter's help). But the cats' litter box is overflowing. The whole house needs a scrub down, but that's that box is my biggest concern right now. Even if someone specifically offered, I wouldn't let them. It feels like a debt too big to repay - or something.

I called a cleaning service, and they said they'd come clean everything, but they don't do litter boxes. They'll vacuum around the box, but they won't actually touch the thing. My cats won't be enticed to dig through old crap just because the pathway there is tidy. They're going to start looking for cleaner corners for their toilette if I don't find a means. My older two are back at school, and my youngest is sick, and that's a level of friendship I haven't fostered sufficiently.

The cleaners also won't do my kitchen floor because I let it slip that, the day after surgery, I spilled a beaker of blood on the floor. I was draining my tubes and knocked over the container. I wiped it with paper towels as best I could, and it looks fine, but I'm really wanting that floor scrubbed good and clean. But how does one go about asking a friend - that one's not sleeping with - to get on hands and knees for them?? It's like really needing a new car, but having nobody to buy it for you. Except it's not really a luxury item I'm desiring. It's more like needing a new fridge. It's the kind of thing a partner would do, but few else. Not just do, but it's the kind of thing one can ask of a partner.

It occurs to me I might have better luck with a local teenager than a cleaning agency. This is a situation that's beyond generosity and works better as a purely economic exchange (from a less regulated entity). It's not a matter of needing to be close enough, maybe, but that there's no joy in giving something so practical that can't be delivered with a personal flourish. It's at once too personal and too divorced from the personal.

It helps me understand something else. When I'm on the giving end of things, since I don't have a car and can't cook, I always offer services. I can paint or build or clean toilets and scrub floors. But people don't want this kind of help. It's possible they don't trust my ability with the former (regardless my track record), and don't feel comfortable with the latter. It's not that it's embarrassing to have dirt, which is what I always suspected, but that it's too difficult of a debt to repay.

Something like that.