Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Beauty and the Beast

I saw the newest version of this classic, which was close to being very good. There were a few long boring bits, and the CGI of the beast was hard to watch, but I liked that they added a little subplot about LeFou. I'm not talking about how inclusive it was, how in 2017 the Disney Corporation finally allowed an explicitly gay character (as opposed to the slightly less overt previously slipped in). I'm more interested in one particular line LeFou speaks: "Meh, I've decided to switch sides," which wasn't a double entendre. He just suddenly, flippantly, realizes that he's wasted years spending all his time and energy supporting a cad, and he changes teams in the middle of the final battle. There's not a moment of guilt or shame becoming a turncoat. He flipped from 100% for him to 100% against in the bat of an eye. He made it look so easy.

And I think of Trump's closest minions, and what a delightful plot twist it would be if one of them would turn on him. The problem is that many of them are far worse. But maybe Spicer could suddenly start speaking truth to power as he stands at his podium. Maybe some kind of realization would hit Conway enough to lift her off her knees from that couch and suddenly help her see the bigger picture, brush off her allegiances, and take to the streets with the protesters. What a fairy tale that would be!

Maureen Dowd has written a beautifully caustic piece about the sycophants on the hill:
Maybe if these elites-pretending-not-to-be-elites deigned to talk to some knowledgeable elites in government once in a while, they might emerge from the distorted, belligerent, dystopian, Darwinian, cracked-mirror world that is alarming Americans and our allies. They might even stop ripping off the working-class people they claim to be helping.
Of course Belle is Angela Merkel being courted by Trump (We were both wire tapped!) who is outrageously sexist and has no respect for her education or intelligence. He has no respect for anyone's education or intelligence. But who is the Beast? Who is the good guy that has tolerated a spell making it look hideous, making it behave cowardly, but with some bit of goodness beneath, and with the strength enough to destroy Trump if it can only regain its former glory?

The fourth estate.

If Trump's henchmen don't have the wisdom to turn on him and his lies have people carrying pitchforks to ignite crosses on lawns and fight their neighbours, then the only beast that can stop him is knowledge. Once the fog lifts and the angry mob starts to see their neighbours as people again, then maybe, just maybe, Trump's reign will crumble.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Moving Your Money

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead (maybe)

Here's a little video by comedian Sarah Silverman that suggests you can do your part to oppose Trump's gains in the DAPL mess by, in part, switching to a credit union.

But I was more fascinated by the arguments going on in the comment section that's verging on 2,000 comments. Here's a tiny random collection:
"Everything around her has to do with oil...what a hypocrite. When she lives off the grid completely and has sourced her own food, clothes, shelter, etc from nature..then she can talk. Silverman Newsflash: "People are trying to make money"..omg I had no clue, those monsters! Guess she gives all her away?"
This is a claim made against Suzuki and many other environmentalists who continue to live like the rest of us while they try to make some changes in the world. Political activists have to be perfect in deed and attitude before they should expect anyone to listen to them. This is unlikely to happen; therefore, we never have to change our own behaviour.
"I'm sick of FAKE NEWS, this pipeline shit isn't not a big deal at all and yet they have to make it look like one just to get people angry for something that isn't true at all....white people pretty much invented or mastered everything."
Lots of people have radically different ideas about the pipeline, and about the history of Indigenous relations with the earliest settlers, and about history in general. It's a struggle for people to identify what real news actually is. People are skeptical of all news outlets and textbooks to the point that I predict rampant ignorance to come. How do we begin to teach anything to anyone anymore?
"We don't need oil? You're to dumb to even understand how dumb you truly are!...It doesn't matter how you power your car. Unless you plan to do away with all hoses, wires, plastic, cushioning, oh and still need petroleum-based products to make cars."
One way or another, this too shall pass.

On Bannon's Propaganda and Why It Works

Check out Abby Martin's brief doc on Steve Bannon. It's on his love of war and his passion for making propaganda films that primarily focus on the story of society in collapse and are largely unsuccessful. Then gaming became his thing with IGE, which was run by a team of men that had each been charged with sexual assault of young boys. It morphed into Affinity Media with Bannon at the lead. He tried to glom on to Sarah Palin, but won the lottery with Trump. Breitbart, which Bannon heads, went from an audience of 8 million to 18 million with Trump. He consorts with lots of people who say openly bigoted things and is generally pretty terrifying. According to Martin, we'll likely be at war with China within five years.

What's interesting to me, though, is one particular line, a protection against claims of racism that's gaining some traction: "White Americans are in a position where they have to prove they're not racist."

People are sick of being politically correct, watching everything they say and do to avoid being called out for some kind of -ism. Some, like Jordan Peterson and William Deresiewicz, go as far as suggesting that people are being oppressed by the PC police. We heard a lot about the PC police in the early 80s, when some men said they were afraid to open a door for a woman for fear of the reprisal it might provoke. It took a while to figure out the door-opening situation, but we managed it. But it's very easy to see how Bannon's lament is a great one to use to rally people around the evil forces forcing us to watch what we say, and, of course, stripping away our rights to free speech.

Deresiewicz expresses concern about dogmatic thinking in universities:
"There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern....If you are a white man, you are routinely regarded as guilty until proven innocent, the worst possible construction is put upon your words, and anything you say on a sensitive issue is received with suspicion at best."
But I don't think this is a university issue, and I also don't believe it's a liberal issue nor "an invocation of Stalinism" as he suggests. This type of thinking happens in high schools and general communities and, as far as I can tell from my own observations, it always has. It hasn't always been this position that's at the centre of concern, but there's always a group who dominate, and their opinions are louder and more often repeated by the masses. It's not a liberal-driven conspiracy, but a dominant view of the world that has an arsenal of pat arguments, homilies even, that make it easy to defend by the laziest thinkers. Oppression is only felt by those fearful of expressing dissenting opinions because they might face a strong opposition. It's hard to muster the courage to go against the grain, but religious views and anti-environmental views are definitely heard regardless the perceived consensus. He wants to invoke the First Amendment in the classroom, but are students nervous to speak up because they fear litigation, or because they fear opposition? They might be opposed, but, as far as I can tell, they're neither banned nor punished. That's an important distinction to make, and we need to work on helping our charges to feel strong enough to speak up. Deresiewicz raises the concern that school administrators are aligning themselves with students against their own faculty, but that's a different issue that requires some strong union backing, and it somewhat runs counter to the rest of his argument that students are victims of the PC police.

Vlogger Jay Smooth responded to this kind of anti-PC argument ages ago here, mimicking the thought-process that leads to the lament:
"Respecting each other's humanity is such a pain in the ass! Do we really have to do this forever? Can't you all just lighten up so I don't have to respect you anymore?" 
He explains the burgeoning idea that being 'post racism' means no longer considering how our words affect each other, and he makes it clear that this is just crazy. The closer we get, the more we need to be concerned with our effect on others.

BUT, of course we also want to be respectful of the person who's made the offending remarks, whether they're intentional or accidental. Some get gregarious promoting their position and can end up being aggressive. Only by challenging claims without insults and attacks can we get to the other side of this. Like Asam Ahmad says in this article (a few years old but reanimated here),
"No matter the wrong we are naming, there are ways to call people out that do not reduce individuals to agents of social advantage. There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit."
AND, there's a different issue around what attacking looks like. Someone can feel attacked after being told, "You need to choose a different word for that because the one you used is offensive." Is it the case that those are offensive words because it's in the form of a declarative statement rather than a request? Or is it the case that some people are too easily wounded when they're told they've done something wrong? It can get really tricky, so we all need to tread gently.

But back to Bannon. The anti-PC lament is a brilliant way to gather allies who wouldn't have considered themselves racist before, but they're just getting so tired of being so darn thoughtful all the time that some of Bannon's concerns seem like they might make sense. It's not just PC exhaustion; it hurts to think badly of ourselves, and it can be easy to make a mistake and accidentally offend. This is difficult terrain to manage.

I do my best to be respectful, and I usually do a good job of it, so it was a learning experience to offend recently. I asked my kids for the name of "that black guy on that show..." and my kids were horrified. "Oh, my God, mum, you can't just say someone's black!" I've been referring to people with black skin as black for some time now, and just recently found out it's deemed racist (by the current white university student demographic at least). I tried googling the most appropriate nomenclature, but couldn't come up with anything solid. My kids inform me it's "African American," which sounds old-school to my ears, and what if we're referring to someone Canadian or British? I'm suddenly so confused. It shouldn't be this difficult to be appropriate. Like I said with the transgender identity issue, people most affected need to make it clear which words are most acceptable, but it's easiest for the rest of us if it's not in flux.

The easiest thing to do when we feel badly about something we've said or done is to lash out. It's easiest to defend our position, insist we're not wrong, and attack our accusers. Most of us recognize that it's a ridiculous tactic, but, in the moment, saving face is often so much more important to us than doing the right thing, which is to apologize for any offence we might have caused and try to change for the better.

It's an effort to continue to avoid causing offence, but it's a necessary effort. We can't let flourish the ideology that we're all wounded by the social drive to stop any truly offensive words and ideas from creeping into our vernacular. We have to acknowledge harm with care and with the level of respect we hope to be given in return, but jumping on the anti-PC bandwagon is a mindless and thoughtless response to it all.

Friday, March 17, 2017

If We Could Be as Smart as Frogs

I regularly tell students about our likely future. It's often met with skepticism, so I provide lots of citations from the IPCC and NASA. Then I sometimes get a lecture on being so doom and gloom. Denial is our go-to defence against reality. But for whose benefit? It's just for our own short term enjoyment at the expense of our long term survival. But we can so easily enjoy our lives without so much of the crap we've come to take as necessary to our happiness. Well, some of us better than others, I suppose. People don't want to think about the effect their choices have on the future. It feels uncomfortable to think about how bad it might be. And our culture is awash in the view that anything that causes anxiety is a bad thing. But it's so much easier to cope with knowing, to cope with some anxiety over it all today, than trying to figure out how to cope with the burgeoning ravages of climate change.

Denialists, and those who believe yet continue to hush the messengers because they're not quite ready to hear it (There will be time, There will be time...), are the frogs that refuse to budge from the boiling pot.

Rupert Read, British philosopher and politician, recently gave a grim opening address to a group of first year students but added the message that frogs in gradually warming water actually jump out! He's hopeful that we can be so smart.

He has a two-point plan to change our culture of recklessness.

1. Use the precautionary principle that state where there is a risk of serious harm, then you don't need to wait for full scientific proof to act on that harm by taking strong, precautionary action. We're wasting too much time waiting for categorical proof when we need to act now. If this becomes a guiding principle, then the world and its prognosis will begin to look very different.

2. Create a Guardians of Future Generations panel. We're stuck in short term misreasoning (and have been for 2500 years according to Plato). Politicians have even shorter time horizons; they don't think past the next news cycle. We need a change to make it necessary to think long term. Imagine if your children and their children were here with us now, and consider what they would tell us to do and not do. We need a proxy institution to create that idea - a third house of parliament with representatives of future generations with the power to strike down any idea that could recklessly damage the future. Plato would say it should be made up of the philosophers. Reed thinks it should be a random selection of the population to maintain the democratic system.

With the number of people I know who are just beginning to recycle because the new garbage restrictions have finally forced the issue, and the number who want me to stop talking about the problems with GHGs long enough for them to effectively re-sheath their lifestyle in ignorance to their own effects on the world, I'm with Plato on this one.

The Tao cautions that we should accept the trajectory of the universe because it's arrogant to think we can fix it. George Carlin says the same thing. It's a calming philosophy. Hope that we can do something makes me anxious. Hope means we have to keep fighting, keep doing our part in how we live, in how we vote, in the letters we write, and in our attempts to get others to do the same, to join the quest for a better world - a survivable world. Accepting that we can't change means accepting the end of our species. I'm not ready for that yet.

Anyway, here's the video of his talk. It's only 12 minutes.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On the Philosophy of Mr. Money Moustache

A friend pointed me towards this podcast in which Tim Ferriss interviews Mr. Money Moustache (MMM), a man who retired from work in his 30s to live on the interest from his investments and then got a significant following as a blogger.

The podcast describes the kind of life I've tried to live (except for that early retirement bit), and MMM talks about ideas I've been writing about for ages. I'm successful in actually following some parts of this lifestyle and horribly disappointing in others. Like me, he loves to build things, and I'm going to have his explanation for why he doesn't love travelling at the ready next time I'm asked why I don't travel: he gets his joy from creating, which isn't travel-friendly. Absolutely!

He hates cars as much as I do, and cautions, "You should never get a job that requires you to drive to it." Once I started a permanent job, I moved closer to it to cut my daily travel time down to a ten minute walk. People don't do things like that anymore. He thinks walking is the best medicine in the world. Tim adds, "We've evolved to be able to walk very long distances. Humans are better humans, less neurotic, when they walk a lot."
MMM's billboard of choice.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

On Rising Anxiety Rates

A couple weeks ago, CBC ran an article about a high-school guidance counsellor, Boyd Perry, concerned with the increase in anxiety in students, and I've been dwelling on it ever since. This is crazy long as I'm just figuring all the angles here. Perry thinks we need to assess anxiety differently because these kids, some of them in kindergarten, aren't disordered but merely ill-equipped due to the bubble parenting that's become a trend, the swooping in to fix every little thing rather than letting kids feel the pain and learn to cope. According to an annual survey of counselling centres, the most common issue raised by students used to be around relationship concerns. In 1996, anxiety took over as number one spot, and it's stayed there gaining a wider lead ever since.

I agree parenting trends and misdiagnoses are an issue, but I also think it's more complicated than that.

I raised a similar concern a year ago; maybe mid-winter is the season to discuss our discontentment. My students last year were quite sure school is significantly harder than ever before regardless my claims to the contrary backed up with binders of old assignments and exams spanning the decades. I don't think they felt like it's harder just because life has been too easy for them because of overprotective parents, though. At the time I said it's also because of their parent's anxiety over the job market, the demands social media have on their time, and everyone's heightened expectations of themselves and their lives including, but not limited to, the quest for a gratifying career that allows them to work to their potential in a field they find fascinating. Today, I'd add the decrease in face-to-face interactions and feelings of community, the umbilical cord of cellphones that prolongs separation anxiety (with friends as well as parents), unceasing change that keeps us in a state of perpetual turmoil, concern with the state of the world, and even pollution. There are numerous societal, environmental, and personal factors intertwined that are pushing this trend.


But what does anxiety even mean? A separate issue is that 'anxiety' is a word like 'cancer.' Decades ago I saw an interview with an oncologist (and sometimes comedian and philosopher), Robert Buckman, who insisted that we should use the word 'cancer' the way we use the word 'infection'. Both are very broad terms that could mean someone needs a minor procedure or they're on death's door. You might need a benign mole removed or a blister popped, or you might have pancreatic cancer or AIDS. We don't generally gather family together to tell them "I have an infection" because that's meaningless information. We're more specific about it. We need to apply that specificity to cancer discussions always including the location, the spreading potential, and the stage. The word has become too loaded, typically cueing people to think the worst.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Resistance in the Age of Trump

Just 25 minutes:

On Becoming a Woman - Mid-Life Edition

When I was around ten to fourteen, we were all inundated with information about our bodies - all the ins and outs of the magical, wondrous things that were just around the corner for us. It happened at school, but it was also the purview of some of the After School Specials that everyone watched, intrigued, then later mocked. We only had twelve TV channels to choose from, and most of them were soaps at that time of day, so they had a captive audience. And then there were dogeared copies of Judy Blume books to help us get our heads around it all. We were well-prepped.

Now that it's far more socially acceptable to be alive in a female body, some moms have parties when their little girls become women. I can't help wondering if it's all just to spin something kind of annoying into something beautifully natural so people don't start complaining or get weirded out by it all. Nature can be pretty nasty sometimes. I didn't throw any parties because my girls just wanted to go on with their day and not think about it too much.

But at mid-life, there nothing to warn us of our changing bodies, of the miraculous transformations unfolding day by day on our special journey towards becoming... what?