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|Tuesday, June 27th, 2017|
|Fresco's lost century
I just found out today that Jacque Fresco
died last month. He was 101 years old. A lot of people will probably react by saying "Who?", which is sad because Fresco was a guy full of ideas and a passion for those ideas, and yet he died without ever really getting these ideas into the public awareness. For those of you who know who Fresco was, the news of his death is also sad because he died without ever really realizing any of his ideas. Fresco is best known for the Venus Project, which is often presented as a vision of a futuristic city design, but is actually more like the design of an entire political, economic, and social system. If that sounds ambitious, well, it is, which might help to explain why Fresco never attained any mainstream level of fame or success in his life. Sometimes you have to start small, but Fresco never did. He was a genius who went straight to the top, trying to design and build the most ambitious projects he could think of, and this is why he consistently failed.
Indeed, if you read through that Wikipedia article, it becomes apparent that Fresco's entire life is a history of repeated failures. First he worked at an aircraft company, and created designs which were so radical that they were considered unviable and thus never built. Then he got drafted into the army and did the same thing, creating aerodynamic designs which the army did not see as useful, resulting in Fresco being discharged since he was of no use to the military. Then Fresco designed houses, a project which also failed because it did not attract significant funding. Fresco tried being a teacher, an inventor, an engineer, and a psychologist. All of these projects failed, partly because Fresco lacked formal training in any of these fields, meaning that he was basically going forward and advancing his own ideas as professional opinions when he was wholly unqualified to do so. It's clear that Fresco was a highly intelligent and ambitious man, but he just couldn't get it together because he refused to scale down his ambitions to the point where anyone else could work with them. Ultimately, he became a "researcher", which in his case is a kind way of saying that he fantasized about designs and tried to get money for doing so.
If it sounds like I'm being unkind to Fresco, I want to make it clear that I have a lot of respect for the man, because it's clear that he was a big thinker who had the best of intentions. I identify with Fresco in a way: I, too, tend to think big because I get bored with small projects that are not ambitious, and I also tend to do a lot of writing and speaking about things that I am not professionally trained to be an authority on because I lack the money to study these subjects formally. I can understand Fresco and what he tried to do with his life, a brilliant guy with a lot of ideas and a lot of dreams who just couldn't get those dreams together into something concrete. Fresco died without ever bringing a single project to real fruition. And that's a real shame, but the thing is, there is really no one to blame for this but Fresco himself.
Jacque Fresco was not a guy who would compromise on his visions. He was not a guy who seemed willing to scale down his ambitions to a manageable size. It's all very well and good to draw a design for an entire city or an entire economic system on paper (Karl Marx also did the latter), but making it work in reality requires two big things which Jacque Fresco never did: first of all, it requires the collaboration of other people, because no one person is ever going to build an entire city or an entire government no matter how much they want to, and secondly, it requires keeping your plans realistic and being willing to work on something small-scale as a starting poing or a proof-of-concept before bringing in your whole design of the universe. It's nice to dream big sometimes, but if you never dream at a more manageable level, your dreams are going to remain just fantasies for the rest of your life.
That's what ultimately happened to Jacque Fresco, and again, that's a great shame. A brilliantly talented guy who lived more a century wasted all that potential and all that time because he wasn't willing to humble himself enough to do something small, wasn't willing to take the time to work on small projects as a stepping stone to something larger. Was this deliberate arrogance on Fresco's part or just him being too naive to really understand how little effect his grandiose designs of entire civilizations were having? I don't know. Whatever the case, the sad truth is that we can learn more from Fresco's failure than from his success: if you just want to draw nice-looking designs on paper, you'll get some praise from some people whom you've managed to impress, and then you'll die without having ever really done anything. If you're willing to compromise your designs sufficiently that they can actually be realized to some meaningful degree, you'll be able to do more within a shorter span of time than Fresco was able to do in a century. Do you want to be an autistic kid drawing air castles in your room, or do you want to go out and actually do something?
Don't forget about the collaborative aspect either. New artists who attain any measure of success do so through networking. They meet people and make friends in art school, they go to gatherings where they make connections in the field, they go to the effort of establishing themselves and their names and their reputations as talented, devoted people who want to make a difference in their field. You cannot do this on your own; you need the support and the opportunities that come from being within the community. If you don't have this, again, you will never get anywhere. No one is going to invest in someone who is not willing to work together with others.
Sometimes life has a sense of humor. As a world starts to forget Jacque Fresco more than it remembers him, the greatest lesson we can learn from this man's lifetime of great designs, great ideas, and great ambitions is not from anything of the work that he actually did, but from the things that he didn't, the fact that his entire life failed to produce anything material or lasting. Don't make the same mistakes; if you really want to do something, don't waste your entire life trying to promote the most radical, impractical thing you can possibly come up with. Propose something feasible, something that you and your team could actually build. Then go out and build it. If you manage to do that, you'll have achieved more with your life than one of postmodernism's most recognizable visionaries achieved with his century of life.
|Saturday, June 24th, 2017|
|The people defending democracy are also proving it wrong
The so-called "Russian hacking controversy" has remained in the news for months now, perpetuated by people who remain outraged that Trump was elected president and the desire to find a scapegoat to blame for the election of a politician whom people voted for.
This particular controversy has remained a fountain of misinformation and confusion since even before the election. In an election already so full of misinformation and a resulting presidency which has not exactly been crystal-clear on what is happening or what this administration intends to do, this is probably not surprising, but I still find it surprising and distressing how people commenting on the situation, even people who should know better, are using their own brand of misinformation and media-manipulation to muddy the picture and make things even more confusing for the average member of the general public.
We could begin with the name itself: the name "Russian hacking controversy," as far as I can tell, was chosen to give the general public the impression that Russia got Trump elected to the presidency by hacking into some computer system and enabling the "Trump = president" option there. In reality, of course, there is no such option on any computer that could actually make Trump into the president: the election was conducted by paper-based polls which were tallied after voting was completed, whereupon it was discovered that enough people voted for Trump to make him the president. Technically more people voted for Clinton, but the fact that Trump won the election despite this is a result of the much-maligned electoral-college system in the United States, which does not award election victory to the candidate with the most votes nationwide, but rather the most electors, which are broken down by state. The existence of this system is something inherent to the American election process itself and not something which could be blamed on Russia or any other foreign power, so to find a scapegoat, other excuses needed to be made.
Because Russia has long been the Big Bad
in the American narrative of world events, it was therefore ideal that Trump's election be somehow represented as a malfunction of the American democratic process rather than a legitimate election result, and that Russia somehow receive the blame as the saboteur in the political machine who brought about this glitch. The phrase "Russian hacking" brings this idea into the imagination of the non-thinking and non-reading public without getting too specific as to what exactly Russia did or how.
Once again: in reality, Trump won the election because enough people voted for him. If Russia "hacked" anything, it is possible that the widespread claims that Russian agents penetrated a system of the Democratic National Committee are true, but if this is indeed true, it should be kept in mind that the only information released in this hack was factual
information; once again, considering how much mis
information characterized this election, it hardly seems like a nefarious act to publicly release factual information to the people who would cast their votes in a few months, even if that information was secret and helped Trump's cause. People are angry that the information helped Trump win because they don't like Trump, and so they went on what Trump has repeatedly called a "witch hunt" to try to find someone to blame for Trump's victory. Here we see a significant breakdown of the democratic environment in the United States: when there's an election and people don't like the results of the election, they make it their mission to try and find someone to blame for the results of the election when in fact, there is no one to blame for those results but the American voting public.
The people trying to blame Russia know this, of course. They even publicly deny that Russia could have somehow directly interfered with the poll counts, insisting that the numbers which came out of the election are accurate and were not manipulated in any way by foreign or domestic agents. Because it would be too dangerous to claim that election numbers were directly falsified (since this would require some evidence to legitimate such claims), the anti-Trump crowd instead claim that Russia got voters to vote for Trump by "influencing" voters with propaganda (which, again, was factual information
) which caused them to swing their vote. This may in fact be true: it is highly possible, even likely, that the people who voted for Trump did so because of media influence, but if people are claiming that the election was rigged because voters were influenced by the media, this means that every single election that happens in our world is rigged, because every election receives significant media coverage which influences the public perception and thinking regarding the candidates. Every politician who runs for president maintains a media campaign in which they try to present their views and influence voters to vote for them, so if this kind of thing makes the results of an election illegitimate because voters voted under media influence, then it is literally impossible to have any kind of a legitimate election. People will always be influenced or affected by something they have seen or heard.
The people who are defending democracy are thereby proving two things:
1. If voters can really be so easily manipulated into voting for a particular candidate by a foreign state through nothing more than a news story which focuses on a relatively minor issue, this just proves that democracy is inherently faulty because it depends on the whims of a voting populace who are easily swayed by inaccurate, misleading, or irrelevant information. The people defending democracy through this argument are not only proving that a vote is basically a meaningless statistic because it represents nothing more than a fickle sentiment which is not grounded on anything meaningful, they are demonstrating that democracy is actually a risk to a nation because it places the power of the vote in the hands of a group who can be easily misled into misusing it by hostile parties, or parties with an ulterior motive.
2. Even the people who most vehemently defend democracy do not actually want democracy, because when they are dissatisfied with the result of a vote, they scream and protest and do everything in their power to discredit or disempower the candidate who won the election. A true democrat would, after the election victory of a candidate whom they dislike, say "Well, I did not want this candidate, but the voting populace voted for this candidate, which means we must accept them." How many "Democrats" in the United States are celebrating Trump's election victory because it represents the result of a democracy? Democracy is, by definition, a government which caters to the desires of the majority, but there will always be minority groups who dislike the results of a democratic election. When people who love "democracy" speak about it, they often seem to think that it somehow means "A government which gives me personally whatever I want." That's not what democracy is; democracy is a mob mentality, a government which gives the biggest and loudest group whatever they want. It does not care about you personally or what you want.
Ladies and gentlemen, when even the people who most strongly and visibly demand and defend democracy are proving, in a very public and obvious fashion, that democracy is faulty, fragile, and even undesirable, I think the message is clear: end democracy now.
|Sunday, June 18th, 2017|
|The new inflated numbers
One thing which was commonly observed in the West as characterising communist states during the Cold War was the inflation of production statistics. Figures describing how much agricultural or industrial output was produced in the last statistical period were routinely inflated by the government to make things seem better than they really were. The purpose of this, of course, was to assure the populace that everything was okay, that production was keeping up with people's needs, and that the situation was in hand. People may have sometimes suspected that these figures were somehow off, but it was difficult to prove anything since obviously, no single person could independently verify how much was actually being produced nationwide.
Things are different today, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, in the West, a country's agricultural and industrial output are now secondary concerns at best, because Western countries are all either "post-industrial" or on the road to becoming so, meaning that they do not actually produce their own goods but rather import these from poorer countries. In theory, this should mean abundant cheap goods for everyone in these Western countries, since all goods are sourced from cheap sources, and since those cheap sources are nearly the entire world outside of North America and Europe, there's no shortage of places to import from. The problem with this approach, however, is that people in those Western countries still need to have some kind of income in order to be able to afford those imported goods. Cheap goods may be cheap, but they are still not completely free of cost, and so some amount of money is required to buy them. Yet if jobs are outsourced to low-income countries, where are Westerners supposed to work?
Unemployment in communist countries was rarely a problem. In many such countries, people did not even need to look for work; they were assigned
jobs which they were required to do, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. This often meant that people had to do jobs which they didn't like, but it did mean that a lack of jobs was hardly ever a problem. Indeed, since communist countries produced most of their own goods, a lack of work was rarely a problem; quite to the contrary, there was often too much
work to be done in those countries.
Once again, things are different today, because the shifting of physical (agricultural and industrial) work to other countries means that Western countries employ mainly people in office jobs, and there is a limited number of these jobs needed. Sure, any business needs some number of administrators, customer-service reps, marketers, and salespeople, but the need for these types of workers is limited compared to the number of people needed to perform physical work, and this has resulted in a labor crisis in the West: there are too many people, and simply not enough jobs to provide employment for all the people who need to make a living.
As far as I can tell, this has led to a new set of inflated numbers which the current Western system uses to justify its policies in much the same way that communism once did for the same purpose. The difference here is that instead of providing numbers which represent national agricultural and industrial output, we are told that agriculture and industry are for losers, only things done by inferior, underdeveloped countries, whereby those figures are thrown out altogether. Instead, we get figures relating to employment and unemployment. What percentage of the national populace is working, and what percentage is unemployed? This is a serious concern to the populace since being unemployed is tantamount to a death sentence, but what all governments have in common is that they are unwilling to publicize information which would reveal the weaknesses in their structure, and so to help assuage concerns about problems relating to employment in the West, numbers are manipulated to make the situation seem better than it is.
I say this partly in response to news reports this week that the U.S. national unemployment rate decreased to 4.3 percent, cited as a 16-year low. This year also marks the 16-year anniversary since the September 11 terrorist attacks, so if you put these two pieces of information together, you might get the impression that after more than a decade and a half, the U.S. job market has finally recovered from the damage done in the aftermath of September 11, and employment has finally reached something close to "full employment." This term used to be officially defined in the United States as 3 percent unemployment, since 3 percent was considered the ongoing amount of unemployment caused by factors like people being "between jobs" or engaged in seasonal employment. I don't know if the term is still defined this way, but in any case, it is true that compared to figures from most other countries, even European countries, 4.3 percent unemployment is pretty low. Proponents of the American system, then, are glad to trumpet such numbers, because they seem to suggest that the American system is working, that while Europe continues to struggle with persistent unemployment (in France and Italy, unemployment is still above 10 percent; in Spain, incredibly, it remains well above 20 percent), the American system of economics is working at keeping people employed.
There's a deeper story behind these numbers, however. The problems with the way that the unemployment rate is measured in the United States have been widely understood and commented on for years: the nominal unemployment rate only counts how many people are looking for work and have no job at all. It does not include "discouraged workers," meaning people whose job prospects are so limited that they have stopped applying for jobs. Among other categories, this presumably means that homeless people are not included in these figures. Furthermore, the unemployment rate does not include the very large proportion of barely-employed and "underemployed" people, people who are working part-time jobs that pay minimum wage, or something close to it. If you work 1 hour a month sweeping floors somewhere, technically you are "employed" according to the U.S. government and not counted in the unemployment rate. Finally, the employment rate has no relation to people's wages: although the nominal employment rate in the U.S. looks pretty good right now, workers' wages have been chronically stagnant since the year 2000. So the nominal employment rate is not to be taken as an indication of prosperity, a figure of how many people benefit from supportive employment. It is really nothing more than a piece of propaganda, a figure the U.S. uses to make itself look good. It's not surprising, then, that the numbers relating to the unemployment rate are advertised by the governmet, but not the figures relating to underemployment or wage growth.
This situation is not limited to the United States, either. Keep in mind that Europe has based much of its current economy on the American model, under the assumption that if it works for the Americans, then it can work for any country. In most European countries, workers who lose their jobs can't have their unemployment benefits cut off as readily as they can in the United States, so it is more difficult for European countries to hide their unemployed people: obviously if someone doesn't have a job and is therefore collecting unemployment benefits, that must mean they are unemployed. Yet despite this, I still regularly hear advertising and news articles which claim that the government and various industry organizations are complaining about a labor shortage. The other day, I saw a news article claiming that here in Bavaria alone, millions of euro in lost productivity are expected for businesses this year due to thousands of job positions that will go unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers. This is similar to propaganda I used to hear in the United States claiming that millions of technology positions were going unfilled due to a lack of workers, despite there being more university graduates with degrees in Computer Science every year than open positions in the IT field.
Just as it was during the communist times, it is difficult for individual, everyday people to verify information for themselves, since obviously no one person can independently survey the thousands of businesses and millions of people in a country. Yet in communist times, there was always a sense, a feeling based on intuition if not verifiable fact, that something was off, that something was fishy or fake about the numbers that came out of the official statistics offices. If they were really producing that much food, if there was really that much output from the nation's farms, then where was all this food? Why were store shelves not any less empty than they had been previously if there was more food to go around? Similarly, in our present-day economy, there is something amiss about the numbers we keep hearing that more workers are needed. If there are really that many people needed, then where are the job openings? Where are the companies hiring? Why do you only see a handful of small firms holding stands at job fairs and posting jobs on Internet job boards? A modern business is not an entity which would allow its productivity to be hindered by a lack of a workforce; if there were really that great a need for workers, we would see businesses recruiting people with much higher visibility. The fact that most businesses are not actively hiring people contradicts the propaganda we hear that thousands of people are urgently needed to fill positions.
Here in Germany, the official government office of labor operates a "job market" search site here
where you can search jobs in Germany nationwide. The site helpfully provides statistics at the top which tell a compelling story: as of this writing, the site declares "2,631,992 applicant profiles, 1,378,114 positions". That means there are about twice as many people in Germany looking for work as there are job openings. Okay, admittedly these numbers aren't the whole
story: not all of those 2.6 million people with profiles on the site are unemployed, and there are other job sites which host job openings besides this one, but job openings on those other sites usually number in the thousands at most; nationwide, none of them host more than a few dozen thousand jobs, not nearly enough for those 2.6 million job seekers. Again, these numbers only tell part of the story, but given that there are known to be millions of people in Germany actively seeking work, it's hard to believe that companies are burdened down with a lack of available workers, that they have thousands of open positions which they can't fill due to a lack of a workforce. Even when you allow for the idea that some of the people looking for work may not be qualified for the jobs that need to be filled, there's something that rings false about the idea that companies can't find workers. It comes off very strongly as a ruse, a way for companies to perpetuate the illusion that they can't find workers.
It has been widely understood and acknowledged for years that businesses in the West have a vested interest in cultivating the public impression that there is a labor shortage, that companies can't find qualified workers, because this gives them a better basis for importing cheaper foreign labor. If businesses can get the public to believe in the idea that they can't find qualified workers domestically, it makes it easy to justify the act of bringing in workers from impoverished countries who will work for less money. This isn't just a conspiracy theory, of course: it has been widely observed and documented that businesses have been doing this for decades. Again, I realize that this isn't the whole story, that there is not any one single explanation for the discrepancy in the numbers, but it's hard for me to believe, after what I've seen as both an employee and a job seeker, that there is a real labor shortage in any Western country. Yet we continue to be fed numbers that would have us believe in this idea, because that is good for the government and the current going system of economics: drive down wages through foreign competition, undercut worker rights, and make workers redundant to the greatest extent possible under current laws, or modify the laws in cases where the workers are too well protected. As the communist era fades from memory, we're entering a new era of inflated numbers, a whole different system of statistical propaganda that the governments use to convince us that everything is okay and the situation is under control. And just like back then, we the people have no way to independently check this information, but our gut tells us that it's wrong, that there's something they're not telling us, because when you lift up your head and look around you, you can see that the things they're telling us just aren't true.
|Saturday, June 17th, 2017|
(Partly inspired by Rammstein's "Engel", perhaps the best song ever.)
In des Lebens Eisenketten
Betet den Tod um dich zu retten
Blickt nach Himmel, wo dein Herz liegt
Sei dankbar wenn dein Schädel biegt
Erst wenn das Blut zum Boden gießt
Ist man bewusst, dass er das Leben genießt
Wir weinen wegen was wir sind
Gott weiß ich bin kein Engelkind
Leben in dem Sonnenlicht
Was uns verbrennt, aber wärmt nicht
Wir müssen den Tod gut erwerben
Damit wir nicht umsonst aussterben
Erst wenn das Kind geboren ist
Legt dann sein Schicksal fest
Wir weinen wegen was wir sind
Gott weiß ich bin kein Engelkind
I am really very tired of people complaining that information on Wikipedia is unreliable because everyone can edit it. This was a concern when Wikipedia first started about 15 years ago, but history has sometimes shown events to play out differently from how humans predicted them to be, and time and experience have demonstrated that Wikipedia is a reasonable information source. Several independent studies comparing Wikipedia to long-running sources considered authoritative, such as the Encyclopædia Britannica
, have found that the information on Wikipedia is comparable in terms of both extent and accuracy. Information on Wikipedia is regularly monitored and checked by so many people (including automated anti-vandalism programs which react immediately to suspicious edits) that the likelihood of seriously false information existing in articles on well-known topics is low. More obscure topics which do not get a lot of attention may be more subject to malicious or simply false edits, and Wikipedia articles on these subjects should not be taken as authoritative--in fact, Wikipedia should not be taken as authoritative in any case, since it in itself is not a primary source, but rather relies on other primary sources for its information. All of this being the case, however, there is no information source in the entire world which comes even close to present-day Wikipedia in terms of the extent of the information available, and yes, it is true that information somewhere there could potentially be false because anyone can edit it, but by the same token, anyone can also be present on public streets, meaning that anytime you go outside in public, anyone could attack you or kill you. Does this reality prevent people from going outside? There is a difference between what people could
do and what people actually do.
That being said, the public attention devoted to accuracy on Wikipedia has actually been good for Wikipedia because it has demanded that Wikipedia take its own accuracy seriously, but in a larger sense, it's also been good for public awareness of information accuracy in general. If information on Wikipedia can be false, this also means that information from other sources can be false, and this has led to a greater general public awareness of the need to verify information we hear from anywhere, including from media sources once considered reasonably authoritative, such as news outlets. Whenever you listen to a media broadcast or pick up a newspaper or magazine, you're getting information which was produced by human beings, and human beings are inherently prone to making errors or harboring personal bias.
It occurred to me recently in a rather personally-dramatic way that this same holds true for books. For hundreds if not thousands of years, humanity has tended to regard books as somewhat sacrosanct: libraries and larger bookstores are respected places full of the collected knowledge and wisdom of countless scholars from countless generations of human history, collecting all that our species knows into a place where the public can avail themselves of this information. Yet there is no requirement for a book to be accurate. A book is usually written by one person, and the only requirement for a book to appear on a bookstore or library shelf is for a publisher (usually a for-profit company) to be willing to invest the money in producing physical copies of this book for sale. Authors certainly are not bias-free; even qualified researchers with vast knowledge of a subject tend to have their own personal perspectives and feelings on subjects and will usually make these personal aspects apparent when they write at length. In fact, because a book is almost always the work of a single person (or at most a very small number of like-minded people), almost any book that exists is actually much more
susceptible to the writer's personal bias than anything you are likely to find on Wikipedia, because books, even non-fiction books on factual topics, are rarely peer-reviewed to any great extent, but rather depend on the author's own diligence to ensure that the information in the book is accurate. This is in contrast with a Wikipedia article, which is never the work of just one person, except perhaps for very small, niche articles on topics of interest to an extremely limited number of people. Anything which exists on Wikipedia has been read and re-read by so many people with extensive knowledge of the subject matter that it is far less likely to contain errors or bias than a book which was written by one person for the sake of them publishing their own views on a subject.
We regard books as authoritative because they have been around as a form of media for so long: before the Internet, before television, before radio, there were books, and so there is this sort of implicit mental assumption that if something got published in a book, it must be correct. When we are in doubt about something, we go to the library to look up a book, and when we find something written in a book, we conclude: "It must be true, because it says so in a book." Yet this is far from the truth: literally anyone
can publish a book; there is no qualification for anyone to do so. The fact that someone took the time to write and publish a book does not mean that the information in that book is true any more than the fact that someone took the time to write and publish information on the Internet means that that information is true.
We've heard for years about the problems with books in the Internet Age: books are environmentally unfriendly because they are printed on paper, they're expensive, bulky, and static, meaning the information in them can't change to become up-to-date. As a person who has moved overseas several times and lacks the money to live in a large residence, I can confirm that since book collections are physically large and heavy, they are not appropriate for people who live in small residences or frequently move from one residence to another. It's also true that since books are static, they are not very good at covering current events or things which are subject to change quickly, but I don't think that this is what books are really for: I tend to dislike books on "current" topics which are in the news, because these books become obsolete very quickly. Books are not for covering such subject matter: that's precisely what newspapers are for. Books are for storing static information that is not likely to change soon in a long-term, archivable format. The rise of the Internet has called the utility of such books into question. It's true that I am also one of those people who enjoys the physical presence of a book, the feel of the pages against my fingers, the smell of the ink and the paper, but I appreciate, too, that environmental concerns mean that cutting down on paper consumption is a good thing. I do find that e-books are a reasonable facility: with a good e-reader that offers a highly readable screen (no backlighting, please), the pleasure of curling up with an e-reader is comparable to that of a paper book. The problems with books which people have addressed have tended to focus on the physicality of books, the problems associated with the process of physically making and distributing paper-printed books; there has been less attention paid to the larger question of what purpose books serve and how they fit into the human world.
It's unlikely that books will ever disappear completely. I certainly don't want them to, and there are enough people who feel similarly about the matter that it seems likely that books will always retain a presence among us. What needs to change, however (and indeed, is changing), is our thinking that whatever is written in a book must be true, that surely anyone who could publish a book must be an authority on the matter and so we must treat anything in a book as the whole truth. A book has historically existed without commentary: when you read a book, you read only the author's words in the book, but you do not see the reactions of people who have read those words. In this sense, the Internet forms a good supplement to books, because it allows you to see this commentary, the follow-up reactions from people who've read the book and might have reason to contradict or to add something to the material in the book. Some years ago, there was a lot of talk about "Web 2.0", the process of expanding upon an Internet of static websites (Web 1.0) and changing the web to be more dynamic so that other users could add their own commentaries and information to what was there. This development has met with limited success: because the Internet is open to the public, much of the commentary from its users has amounted to people typing "lol" and similar thoughtless drivel, but there has also been some real insight and some genuinely useful commentary from people who took it upon themselves to contribute to a public discussion. This kind of thing is obviously not possible with a book alone.
One thing which is lost with the "crowdsourced" approach to information used by sites like Wikipedia is, of course, the artisan's touch: within the various fields of art and creativity, there are some people who are so unusual in their personal style of creativity, so outside the realm of the typical, that their creativity becomes notable for the unique touch which they as a person can lend to their work. This person becomes an artisan: not merely an artist, but a person who retains full control of all aspects of the creative process and produces something which they alone could have produced. Obviously when something is produced by a whole group of people, the possibilities for one inspired genius to lend their own personal touch to the work is diminished, and so there have been concerns that large-scale information processing like that performed by the Internet will erase people's individuality, but I think most people would agree that there is a need for both in the world. There is a need for thorougly-proofread information to serve the public need for factual information, and there is a need for individual artistic expression. These two should not be mixed; they serve completely different needs. Individuals have places to express themselves, but a compendium of bias-neutral, factual information (such as an encyclopedia) is not one of those places. Different books, too, serve different ends: there are books which are art, books which serve to express the writer as a human being, and writers can put whatever they want into these books since those books are a reflection of themselves, but when a book purports to be a source of factual information and not something which came fully-formed from the writer's own imagination, then that book should not exist in a vacuum (meaning an environment where it is not subject to commentary and criticism), since that makes the book untrustworthy and useless. We need to rethink the role of books in the world. With these words, I do not by any means suggest that the role of books should be reduced or diminished; I mean only that we have certain cultural assumptions about books which are not accurate, and we need to understand that the problems and restrictions which apply to any form of media apply to books as well, and so we should handle this media and think about it accordingly.
|Thursday, June 15th, 2017|
|Humanity cannot conquer itself
For years, I have had a marked aversion toward escapism as a lifestyle. It's all very well and good to make stories and dream of other realities; I too sometimes enjoy watching a movie and disappearing into its fantasy world for a couple of hours, but when those couple of hours are over, you emerge from the movie and find that the world is as it was before, and it has not changed. Sometimes people need a break, a rest from things, but there is a difference between taking a break and hiding oneself from reality as a lifestyle choice, filling one's life with endless stories in order to shut out the world we live in. And the stories on hand really are endless: there are more than enough fantasy novels and movies in the world for a person to easily fill the rest of their lives with pleasant musings about imagined worlds that attract us because they are preferable to our reality.
Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox said in 1946: "Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." As an executive of a film company, Zanuck was speaking of television as a rival to his movie business, but if we take this statement as a simple commentary on human nature, and allow that the "plywood box" which television once was has been technologically compressed into a flat screen, it is clear that Zanuck was wrong: not only is television still with us today, but in fact, it has become clear that people do not, and will not, get tired of staring at a screen. Many people spend most of their free time staring at a screen of some sort. The human capacity and will to stare at an electronic picture screen is nearly infinite and lifelong: from babyhood to old age, people are mesmerized and entranced by the picture screen, and could gladly stare at it for their entire lives.
And indeed, why shouldn't they? In an era when even lower economic classes can afford a video screen which will show them whatever they want, whenever they want, and an Internet connection through which they can load nearly any kind of media content ever created by humanity, why would people look at anything else when the whole world is on display for you at the push of a button, for very little money? When everyone can have that, how could reality ever compete? At one point in time, that was a theoretical question, but there is now enough history behind us to answer that question: it can't. Reality will never be as interesting as the imagined stories which people have created to entertain themselves with. Human beings will never focus, as a whole, on reality; they may glance at the real world occasionally, as much as is necessary to survive, but in their private time they will always prefer to turn away from reality and immerse themselves in fiction. This is just human nature; we can never change this.
In the light of this reality, then, it's perhaps not surprising that many people choose to define themselves in terms of what media they like. Think about it: if you were to describe a specific human being, how would you do so? How would you describe anyone whom you know in a way that really differentiates them from other human beings? You can say that a person is nice, or friendly, or smart, but most people fit these labels to some extent. You can describe a person in terms of their physical attributes, saying that they are tall or short or fat or thin or possessing a mole on their nose, but this is not really meaningful as it does not give you a sense of the person's character and personality. Most people, when prompted with a phrase like "So, tell me about yourself" will freeze up, unsure of how to describe themselves in a meaningful way that makes them distinct from other people. A human being is a human being, and most people do not regularly perceive things about themselves that make them very different from others. So people tend to define and describe themselves in terms of their media tastes: what TV shows, movies, and music they like. These media preferences are often seen, more than any other personal factor, as defining how a person sees their own life and how they get along with other people in their personal lives.
These media preferences have become, for many people, a sort of shorthand for describing themselves when they are otherwise at a loss to describe themselves. Speaking for myself, I have historically resisted defining myself in terms of my media preferences: I am not defined, as a human being, by what movies or music I like. Yet my tastes in these matters probably does say something about me. If you think about most recognizable media brands, there is often a subculture associated with them: people who listen to a lot of heavy-metal music tend to be skinny white people who dislike religion and other forms of authority; people who like dance-pop music tend to be young at heart, carefree, gregarious, and politically leftist; people who like classical music tend to be upper-middle-class and somewhat snobbish. Although there are not many movies or music bands which I would strongly identify myself with, I suppose the fact that my favorite movie is Falling Down
does in fact reflect something about me: yes, I suppose I do identify with the vision of the down-and-out urban warrior desperately trying to claw some sense out of a life full of apathetic human beings who stubbornly refuse to show decency. Likewise, the fact that I always preferred Soundgarden to Nirvana does say something about me as a human being as well: as much as I understood and sympathized with Kurt's nihilistic, self-destructive antics, I was always more drawn to the intensity, earnestness, and sadness of Soundgarden songs like "Head Down" and "Overfloater". Yet even I could not, and would not, use Soundgarden as a shorthand to describe my personality, or suppose that I would have much personally in common with other Soundgarden fans. (Since I mention this subject, I might mention, in passing, that while I am obviously saddened by the recent suicide of Chris Cornell, I have the sense that he'd said everything he had to say within the sphere of music, and quit when he ran out of things to say, just as Bill Watterson did with Calvin and Hobbes
When I look at the world and its people, I see a planet of decaying civilizations, a world of people who might once have lived for something but now no longer know what they could live for even if they wanted to live for anything. What is there left for us? Even if we ignore the existential understanding that climate change, war, or something else might wipe us out in the next hundred or thousand years, even if we suppose that our descendents will still be here, alive, a thousand years from now, what would we want to leave to them? What could be important for them in a world where meaning has been lost?
I know I'm not the only person in the world asking questions like this. The fact that no one has yet come up with satisfactory answers suggests that there is nothing left, no message left for us to bear, no cause left for us to devote ourselves to, nothing left for humanity to do but entertain itself to death in its last decades as our planet comes apart at the seams. The dinosaurs like me, who are unable and unwilling to be caught up in this swelling wave of endless entertainment and fantasy, will die out and disappear, our relics a cause for occasional curiosity but mainly left locked up in storage somewhere. All that we will be remembered by is that occasional sense, that faint niggling which some people will feel sometimes, that there might be something else, that there might have been something else at one point in time, that it might have even been worthwhile, under different circumstances, to pursue something else, but that those times are now gone forever. There must be something else, there must be something good, far away.
|Sunday, June 11th, 2017|
|Living for an impossible task
There are many things which people might accuse me of, and while I might not agree with all of them, some of them are certainly true. One thing which people would probably be right to accuse me of is the charge that I am living for something impossible. It's all very well and good to have life values and goals, but if you're living for something impossible, the thinking goes, then why bother?
In my own defense, it should be noted that nearly every life goal a person can have is either impossible or self-defeating. Particularly fragile are goals which can be reached. If you make it your life's goal to cure cancer and then actually developed such a cure someday, what would you do with the rest of your life? As I've written in the past, for this reason, most people need to live not for goals which can actually be finally achieved, but ongoing processes, lifestyles which you can carry with you through your life rather than specific targets which leave you without a life's purpose when you actually reach them.
Most lifestyle choices are actually also self-defeating if you follow them through to their logical conclusion, however. For example, many people make it a life's goal to simply be as happy as possible, or experience as much enjoyment as possible. It is difficult to remain constantly happy, however, because the human being naturally goes through emotional cycles, and a person who experiences joy or pleasure for an extended period of time will eventually grow numb to these feelings and stop understanding or appreciating them. There's also the practical reality that most people need to work for a living, and so people who want to make it their business to live for anything will probably have to work much of the time to stay alive, which negates much of the possibility of being happy in life. (Unless your job makes you happy, but most people's jobs don't.) Generally speaking, the more often people are "happy," the less they appreciate happiness or even realize what it actually is.
In a recent post
, I declared that "for me, the most important thing in human life is for people to want and try to live and think philosophically." I chose this phrasing carefully; you may notice that I did not specifically state that it is important for people to actually live
philosophically, because I realize that this goal may be impossible. Considering that the very first principle of philosophy is that you should question everything, because reality may not be what it seems and therefore we can never be certain about anything, philosophy itself is a self-defeating mentality, because if nothing is certain, then we can never come to any firm conclusions, and a person who can never come to any conclusions is doomed to smother themselves in endless, twisting folds of indecisiveness. Philosophy, then, is the process of pointlessly going through ideas, just so you can say at the end "But really, we can't be sure about any of this." Philosophy has no answers. A person who lives within that mental framework would die quickly if they did not make some concessions to our practical, physical reality. So we degrade our philosophy with imperfections, allowing ourselves to work and eat despite knowing fully well that there is no rational cause for us to do any of these things.
I realize that all of this is true. I realize that philosophy is a sort of death of the self, and that to avoid actual physical death, we must compromise this philosophy on some level. It's not possible to live like a true philosopher, a pefect idea floating in a void of nothing but other perfect ideas. But that existence isn't really the goal of philosophy anyway; philosophy doesn't exist in order for us to understand perfect ideas, because perfect ideas aren't very useful most of the time. Philosophy exists to help us live our human lives with more thoughtfulness and wisdom. In this sense, then, it's actually helpful when we degrade our philosophy with concessions to reality (or what we perceive as reality), because coloring abstract ideas with reality helps make them more relevant and useful to us. Some philosophers scoff at the down-home folksy sort of "philosophy" written by grizzled old peple whose writing comes off more as a set of memoirs than a set of actual philosophical principles, but I have always had a respect for that kind of philosophy, because it gives us more that we can benefit from than a set of rules of formal logic that people seek to govern life with. I don't find it very enlightening or useful to say "You should always be honest and never lie." I would rather understand what the negative effects of lying are, and how to avoid these negative effects.
If being a pure philosopher is impossible, then, one cannot expect that anyone should attain this status. That's why I said it's not important that everyone should be
a philosopher, but rather than everyone should want
to and try
to live and think philosophically: even if these efforts are not successful, they will be fruitful in what they bring. Many goals that can never be attained are nonetheless worth striving for. In our world, because of human nature, we can never reach a state where all people across the planet are healthy, educated, and free, and yet are these not goals worth striving for even if we cannot reach 100% success? Is it not worthwhile to try and make people healthy, educated, and free even if we know that realistically speaking, there will always be people who are not? I think it is. Indeed, this is a goal which people can carry with them throughout their lives, specifically because
it is a goal which can never be reached. As I mentioned, goals which can be completed are not goals that will lead you through your life; once you reach that goal, there is nothing more to work on there. A goal like being philsophical and promoting philosophical thinking in other people, as an impossible task which you can never fully finish, is a lifestyle and a purpose which you can carry with you for the rest of your life.
, the theme of people acting with the hopes of reaching results beyond their lifetimes occurs more than once. At one point in the book, one character declares: "I don't imagine that we can alter anything in our own lifetime." Despite this pessimism, the character then declares that they may be able to leave behind traces of ideas, "so that the next generations can carry on where we leave off." Later on, a different character says something similar, openly admitting: "There is no possibility that any perceptible change will happen within our own lifetime. We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. We cannot act collectively. We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation." For Orwell himself, these words were prophetic: he died mere months after 1984
was published, and so although he might have enjoyed some brief surge of popularity in the aftermath of the book's release, he did not live to see it become one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
I see something similar for myself. I live in a time when most people dislike me and my ideas or are completely indifferent to them. I doubt that my words will ever be "popular" within my lifetime. Indeed, they may never be popular even after I die. But perhaps sometime, somewhere, someone will find my words at a moment when they are significant for that person or their world at that point in time, and it will mean something then. I do not know if this will ever happen, of course. But meanwhile, I just write as best I can, with the quiet hope that perhaps someday, these words will not be wasted.
|Wednesday, June 7th, 2017|
|A more unequal world than ever
There once was a time when the wealthy had to share a city with the poor. Even royalty needed the peasantry to do their dirty work: any kingdom or empire could not function without farmers to grow food for the populace, craftspeople to construct buildings and other objects, and cleaners to remove garbage and waste. Because cities tended to be smaller and transport networks less developed in those days, it was typical that rulers would live in relatively close physical proximity to these peasant workers, and everyone knew it, meaning that it was in the best interests of the royalty to keep the peasantry happy, since an uprising of the lower classes could potentially result in rioting that might spill over into the places where the upper classes lived. The danger to the elite from a dissatisfied underclass was dramatically demonstrated in the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, an event still celebrated by the French today (who celebrate any opportunity for the poor to destroy the wealthy, unless they are wealthy themselves).
Here's a relevant question to ask, then: is the situation different today? And if things have changed, have they become more egalitarian, or less so?
People generally believe that the world has become more democratic and liberal in modern times. People are much more educated and aware because in developed countries, all people receive an education which teaches them about the dangers of tyranny, totalitarianism, nationalism, and so on. In the entire Western world, royalty hardly exists anymore, and in countries which do still have kings and queens, these serve a largely ceremonial function: there are no longer monarchs with the "divine right of kings" to do whatever they want. Political decisions are made by elected officials, and the public has the opportunity to regularly vote on which officials they want. Censorship and other restriction of information hardly exists, all people accused of crimes are to receive a fair trial, and people can choose what religion they want to follow (or even to not follow any religion at all). That's a perfect world, right? We have a complete set of freedoms that empowers the general public and limits the powers of the elite, right?
Well, no. It's all very well and good that people get to vote, but in most cases, people can only vote for politicians
, not actual policies
, and this is useless when all politicians are the same. When all politicians want to do the same thing, then it doesn't really matter whom you vote for; indeed, in such a situation, the "right to vote" is actually a gimmick, a trick designed to get people thinking that they have some political power when they really don't. Similarly, "freedom of information" is useless when people don't communicate or receive the information that they need. If, in a particular country, people can
say what they need to say, but don't
, then they are not really benefiting from that freedom of information, are they? Likewise, that liberal education which people get doesn't tell them about the problems with their own system: we're all educated growing up on how bad and evil the Nazis and the slave owners were, but how often were you told in school about the similar problems with globalization?
And then there's the Internet. The Internet, that vast information network which levels the playing field by giving all people all over the world access to all the world's information. Surely such a network makes all people equal, right? If knowledge is power and everyone can have all the world's knowledge, then the whole world's people are empowered, aren't they?
Again: no, they aren't. Knowledge alone isn't
power. Just knowing something doesn't necessarily mean you can change it. If you have terminal cancer, reading 100 books about cancer isn't going to help you. Not even reading 1,000 books. No, not 10,000 or 100,000 or a million books either. Information is sometimes powerful, but it's not omnipotent: it can't do everything. Even with information, you still need physical resources to make any use of that information, and if you have no resources, no physical capital to do something with, then that information is useless to you. Even today, in the age of the Internet, the power is still held by those who own and control physical capital.
In many ways, then, things haven't changed much. There are still politicians who misuse their authority, exploiting the populace for power and money, people are still indoctrinated from childhood to believe in whatever ideology their country wants them to believe in, and the only real power is still in the hands of whoever holds the money. (Or the physical capital, but these people are always one and the same, since people use each of these things--money and physical capital--to acquire the other.)
What has changed, however, is the sense of scale in the world and how nations perform trade with each other. It wasn't that long ago that the thought of a single company doing business across an entire large country like the United States was improbable, let alone a company doing business across the entire world. Travelling from one country to another, even for the wealthiest people, took days, sometimes weeks. People lived close to their workplaces as a matter of necessity. And international trade was mostly limited to trinkets and luxuries, spices and silk and other things which the wealthy amused themselves with, but nothing which people really needed. And for these goods to make their way from one continent to another was the work of epic journeys that lasted weeks.
What current technology has made possible is the act of workers doing their jobs far away from their employers or customers. In the pre-modern era, a person who made a living from creating things hardly had the opportunity to sell outside of their local town or region, but today even the smallest business can sell to customers around the entire world. This makes it easy for businesses to geographically separate themselves from their workers. Not just businesses, either: anyone in any position of authority or power can easily isolate themselves geographically while still communicating and distributing money to the people who work for them. A modern-day storming of the Bastille seems unlikely, as your Bastille today is probably in a separate country from where you are, and very likely even on a separate continent.
This has likewise led to the phenomenon of separating workers by category per country. It is no longer necessary or even desirable for a country to have all manner of workers, artisans, and craftspeople living within one local region. It is more effective to isolate the workers from the administrators. Again, this prevents the workers from turning against those who control them: when mistreated factory workers can't or won't take the abuse anymore, there is no one for them to turn against, because whoever owns the factory is so geographically distant that those workers will never be able to travel there.
In literally every Western country, "post-industrialization" has taken over. People who do physical work are no longer wanted or welcome; these jobs are performed in the world's poorest countries. In the wealthy countries, since physical work no longer exists, all people must become businesspeople, folks with unlikely titles such as "Procurement Coordinator" or "Channel Lead," jobs with no description and no purpose. People in these wealthy countries who want to do real, useful work are obsolete and will die out from unemployment. Likewise, many people in poor countries will want to take on the higher salaries and easier work conditions that come from being something like a "Process Manager," but this work is not available for them. They exist only to work as animals.
What of the small handful of jobs which can't be offshored because they specifically involve doing something local in wealthy countries? What about the janitors, garbage collectors, and truck drivers of the West? These people almost invariably come from countries where conditions are so poor that they are more than willing to endure the most horrible work in inhuman conditions for starvation wages, because they are so grateful to be in a "First World" country that they will do anything to be able to stay there. This is why letting in immigrants from the world's poorest countries is hot right now: it's good for business. It certainly doesn't cost the wealthy anything to allow these people into a country and then leave them to rot on a sidewalk somewhere, but it does make for fantastically low payroll costs since those people will work for nearly no money.
We've created a more unequal world than ever. The things which we're told make us free and empowered are actually meaningless, empty symbols that we've been told have power. The things which actually make people powerful are kept from us, guarded carefully by a small group of people who really like doing business. While ghettos and slums were once part of a city, they have now become entire countries. In one relatively small area of the world, there are people who hold all the money and are incapable of doing anything except acting like businesspeople all day, every day, because there is no other lifestyle for them. The rest of the world suffers in absolute poverty, brokenness, destitution, and ignorance. The Internet has served only to further separate these classes from each other, creating a geographic divide that is broader than most of the global peasantry will ever have the money or physical resources to cross.
|Sunday, June 4th, 2017|
|Selling the Nordic dream
I recently got back from a vacation in Scandinavia. I have previously written in rather negative terms about the Nordic countries (for example here
), but for some reason I keep returning to these countries, probably because they have a certain atmosphere, a certain mood, a certain experience like nowhere else on Earth. The Nordic countries are, of course, legendary for their natural beauty. No one can doubt the beauty of the forests and the other miracles of nature which characterize all of the Nordic lands; the Nordic people are distinguished by their deep-seated love and respect for nature, and this is a trait which has served them well. Even in Stockholm, the largest city in the Nordic lands, the efforts toward maintaing a close relationship with nature throughout the city are apparent. The Nordic countries are world-famous for having among the highest levels of happiness, per-capita GDP, and human development in the world. How could you go wrong there, then? Why doesn't everyone live in the north? Why would you ever choose to live somewhere else?
Some answers to these questions can be seen in the previous posts I linked to. In general, every time I go to any Nordic country, I see the appeal of them, I understand why some people love them so much, but the problems with these countries are simultaneously all too clear. I understand the dream which the Nordic countries are trying to sell: the fantasy of being able to escape from life's cares and disappear into a fairy-tale land, a land where people live among the trees of the forest in peace and harmony. What people who love the Nordic lifestyle don't quite seem to realize is that there is no real-world fairy tale, no actual perfect life on this Earth.
As the United States has spent the last 17 years busily vacating its position as the world's shining beacon, the place where everyone else wants to be, the popularity of the Nordic countries and the attention focused on them has increased as people start looking for other utopias to idealize. Yet what's interesting is how similar the Nordic countries are to the United States in many ways. Obviously not in terms of the all-important public health care system which is famous in the Nordic countries (but actually not that different from similar national health care systems which exist throughout most of Europe), but culturally, it is remarkable how closely the Nordic countries mirror, and indeed have taken inspiration from, American culture. In a very real way, particularly when compared to their Central and Southern European cousins, Nordic people are hicks, a country folk with country mentalities. People often perceive the Nordic people as amazingly educated and advanced because of their extremely liberal attitudes toward hot-button issues like gay marriage and foreigners coming to their countries, but this is not due to any kind of greater "awareness," but simply the consequence of having grown up in such a belief system. Americans often paint the world with an American brush, assuming that since farmers in rural American regions are opposed to gay rights and foreigners, therefore all rural dwellers must be the same way. Actually, Nordic people grew up in a society which tells them that they should accept gay rights and foreigners, and so they grew up within this idea with the same ignorance that an American hillbilly possesses, only in the opposite direction. If asked to explain their ideas, these Nordic people would be as unprepared to defend their beliefs as an American redneck who believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old but has never read a book of science in their entire life. I believe it is not accurate in any way, then, to see Nordic people as more educated or having reached a further state of cultural "progress" than Americans; they simply grew up with a different set of dogmas. The Nordic folk remain wild and uncivilized, animals gazing uncomprehendingly at a world they only experience, but do not understand.
There are real parallels, then, between the Nordic countries of today and the Germany described by Tacitus in his seminal manuscript Germania
, an account from the perspective of Ancient Rome on the people who at that time inhabited what is now modern-day Germany. Today's Germans are far removed from the uncivilized barbarians Tacitus wrote of, yet the picture seems to have merely shifted somewhat north. Today's Germans are a mix between the Scandinavians and the Romans: genetically (and therefore, physically) they derive mainly from what is now called Scandinavia, but their position along the edge of the Roman Empire imbued them with an understanding of advanced civilization, and so just as Britain flourished into a world-leading nation thanks to being part of the Roman Empire for a long time, Germany likewise learned how to be civilized while still retaining some of the rustic attributes inherited from their Nordic predecessors. Meanwhile, the Nordic people today still bear traces of those bizarre Germans which Tacitus wrote of. The Vikings are still very much a visible cultural figure in the modern Scandinavian lands, and one can still see traces of this lineage in the people today: physically, the Nordic people tend to be tall, robust, and sturdy, a people well-suited to seafaring and harsh weather, while culturally, they are often hairy, bawdy, and barely tamed. Indeed, the people of Northern Europe are not an urban folk for the most part, but still thoroughly rural, and this can be seen in their architecture and their society. This is not a bad thing, to be sure: I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with a society and culture remaining in tune with nature, as the Nordic countries have done. Quite to the contrary: I have a tremendous respect for how the people of the Nordic lands have maintained their connection with nature and sought, in all they do, to protect the environment even as they modernize and adopt new technology.
I think it is fair to say, however, that in terms of cultural development, the Nordic folk are not on the same level as the rest of Europe, and have not been for the past several hundred years. This can be very readily seen if you ever go into a bookshop in any Nordic country. I have mentioned in the past that my technique of judging countries by their bookstores is cheating a bit, as I realize that you cannot paint an entire country with broad strokes just based on surveys done of their bookstores, and yet it is a general rule of business and economics that stores will only sell what people are buying, meaning that looking at the books sold in a place will give you some hints as to what topics are considered important to the people who live in that region. Dramatic revelations about the nature of Nordic culture become apparent when you go to any bookstore in any Nordic country. Books on philosophy, psychology, economics, and even science barely exist in the Nordic countries except in university bookstores which very specifically cater to an academic crowd who are studying these subjects. At most, you may see a handful of books on current political issues and the most famous (usually Nordic) history, but this is about as deep as books in the Nordic lands go. In all but the most extensive bookstores, non-fiction books in the Nordic countries revolve almost exclusively around "home and garden" subjects like interior design, cooking, personal health, gardening, hobbies and crafts like knitting, raising children, and travel. Novels are mostly of the science-fiction-and-fantasy genre, nothing that bears too close of a reflection to reality but rather fictional fantasy worlds for dreamers to lose themselves in. Other shops reflect this focus as well: nearly every store in Scandinavia seems to be just selling curtains, tablecloths, and other items for the home. It's not that there is anything wrong with these items, of course; not at all. It's just a bit disturbing when these kinds of trinkets for the home become a national obsession, when all
of a nation's culture and industry centers on making the cutest accessories for your household.
It's perhaps not surprising, then, that the people who live in the Nordic countries, although good-hearted, honest, generous, and fair, are also arguably the most ignorant and naive people in all of Europe. If wisdom about the world comes from adversity, then the Nordic people, who generally have barely had real problems in their lives (by which I mean problems relating to poverty, illness, war, or any other non-first-world problems), have retained a childlike cluelessness about, well, everything. The Nordic people live in a little bubble that they have carved out for themselves, and the Nordic dream endures for as long as this bubble is not burst. It's also perhaps telling that the biggest export of the Nordic countries seems to be their design. This is somewhat surprising, too, because Nordic design is so minimalist that it seems like almost anyone could create it: think of Ikea furniture, structures made out of the most basic, flat, minimalist wooden shapes that could possibly exist, and that's basically Nordic design. You could make that anywhere. But people buy into it, and producing stuff like that is big business for the Nordic countries, because it speaks again to that desire for simplicity which people have, the desire to get away from the complexities of reality and escape into a world of simple geometric shapes. Just as people will pay a premium for bottled water from France and say that it's better than other water just because it's from France, people will pay extra for a flat piece of wood from up north because it's Nordic and therefore it's great. It's a scam, but a lucrative one considering that business in the Nordic countries is vastly over-represented by design companies. Selling the Nordic dream is working out for those Nordic countries.
Some people may say that I am trying to build a similar escape plan, that my historical emphasis on small communities built around small rural or semi-rural settlements is likewise a fairy-tale dream that attempts to create a way for people to escape from reality, but I do not think this is the case, for the very simple reason that rural settlements do not attempt to conceal any kind of reality (in contrast to the idealized fairy-tale dreams people concoct about Nordic countries), and have existed sustainably in a way which is well-documented and well-understood for thousands of years. Furthermore, my vision of semi-rural, self-sufficient communities does not encourage or embrace the idea of people escaping from reality; ideally, people living in such communities would be well-read and aware of what's going on in the world around them. Even in such communities, it would be not only possible, but in fact desirable to have scholars who read books on philosophy, economics, politics, science, and world events so that they would have a greater understanding of how the world works and what humanity is like. Rural life is not escapism; it rather creates a place where people have the necessary peace and stability to understand the world. Some people will say that in general, you understand a culture better from within it than from the outside, but this is not always the case. Modern life is such a constant cacophony of distractions and illogicalities that a person living within that system will tend to not see how hopelessly insane and unsustainable it is. When you live within madness, you become a part of that madness, and you lose most of your ability to understand it. You can't understand the madness when you're in it; you need to escape that madness somehow and be able to view it objectively from the outside to understand it thoroughly. That's why I try to withdraw from the world: not to escape from it, but to be able to benefit from the perspective afforded by distance.
And indeed, for all the purported health benefits of living in unspoiled nature, the Nordic countries tend to be plagued by problems with mental health. For all the statistics and reports which claim that these are the happiest countries on Earth, these are also countries with above-average rates of depression and suicide. Here we can see something else the Nordic countries have in common with the USA: the deep-seated loneliness and alienation that comes from living in a highly individualistic society. The Nordic countries are perhaps the least "community oriented" and the most "indidividual oriented" in all of Europe, and while this grants people personal freedom, it also isolates them. This picture illustrates something of the paradox of modern society and its exhortation that we should be ourselves: as human beings who suffer from loneliness, we naturally want to be with other people and share our lives with others, and yet as free people who want to be unique individuals, we also want to pursue the things which make us different and unique, which creates divisions between people. Even when people come together and communicate, there is a wall between them, because they don't really understand each other, or themselves. Alienated indeed is the person who does not understand their own humanity, their own psychology, their own human wants and needs. The alienation of not knowing your own self as a person afflicts people the world over, but in the isolated, surreal dreamworld of Northern Europe, this alienation is particularly strong, and pulls people away from each other even as they make visible efforts to build communities with each other.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Given how many people have bought into the Nordic dream, it seems like plenty of people feel otherwise, but for me, I could not live with myself without trying to understand things. The Nordic lands are beautiful, and their beauty is enchanting, but they can never be home for me. I need a nation with culture, a place which makes the effort to ask serious, difficult questions and actually pursue answers to those questions. I need to live among people who are not content to just live in a simplistic, superficial existence but who actually continuously look within the human soul in an effort to understand it. Germany is no utopia, to be sure, but for me, the most important thing in human life is for people to want and try to live and think philosophically, and while not all Germans are philosophers either, at least Germany has a real philosophical base for its people to build on, a genuine national ideology and perspective which allows the people to simultaneously draw on and contribute to their country's rich body of literature, a literature which does not aim to merely entertain or distract people but tries to draw them as deep as possible into the depths of real understanding, real penetrating comprehension of the universe, our world, and ourselves as a people. That is what matters in human life, and that is something I have not been able to get anywhere else the way I get it in Germany. Without a national ideology, without a national philosophy, there is no nation, no folk, and no sense to human life. Beautiful though the Nordic lands may be, as much as I sometimes wish I could escape the stress and worry of everyday life, it is clear that the northern lifestyle is not really an escape route, but simply a sort of act of burying one's head in the sand in the hopes of not being able to see the problems developing. I cannot in good conscience do that as a way of conducting my life. I cannot forgo Germany, the land which has become in no small way the land where my heart is, a land of intense, diligent thinkers who wish to follow any idea they come across through to its end, because the understanding which comes from doing so is worthwhile to them. I hope that perhaps someday I can also contribute to that understanding, and in so doing, give something back to the land which gave me a home.
|Thursday, May 25th, 2017|
|A fair milk price
"A fair milk price," my carton of milk which I bought at the local supermarket informs me, "is the basis for the income of farmers, supports the preservation of the natural and cultivated landscape in the Alps, and sustainably ensures you the continued enjoyment of the best milk."
Here, I think, we can see something of the difference between the American and the European approaches to consumer goods. The American way is generally to hold the view that the cheaper the goods are, the better this is for everyone since it means that people can pay less money for what they buy. This is the consumerist mentality, the mentality which places all emphasis on the consumer, the buyer, and ignores any effects that might exist for suppliers or other people caught up in the process of manufacturing or otherwise supplying those goods.
By contrast, the European view is somewhat more holistic in that it considers not only the price consumers pay at the cash register, but also the effects of this price, both the effects that lead up to setting that price and the after-effects of consumers paying that price. I think it is safe to assume that in general, you won't see many Americans saying that it is worth paying a higher price for milk (or other groceries) if it supports farmers and the preservation of the natural landscape within which farmers work. The American perspective, as mentioned, tends to be that lower prices are always the most important thing (indeed, in many cases, the only
important thing), and any negative effects that come from that price being low are of secondary importance at most.
The other day, I spoke to a man who complained to me that here in Germany, prices for groceries are too low. "The farmers can barely make a living," he declared, "and the quality of their lives and their output suffers as a result." To be fair, this man was not actually a German, but a Swedish expat living in Germany, but I think it's fair to say that the Swedish mentality is not markedly different from the German one in this regard. I don't think I have ever once heard, in all my life, a North American complain that prices which they pay for groceries are too low.
Americans who say things like "You get what you pay for" or "Quality over quantity," but this is not quite the same thing, because that is basically saying that they would be willing to pay more money for something which is better "quality," where "quality" here often equates to a more prestigious brand. This is often rooted in a vanity-oriented consumerism which allows people to feel better about themselves by paying more money for what they believe to be "classier" goods (this is the basis of most luxury goods, of course), but there are very few Americans who care about (or even think at all about) the economic effects of the prices they pay and who benefits from prices being higher or lower. This is one more aspect of why I believe the European perspective, in general, is better overall. Pay a fair milk price, my friends. It may not seem to bring you anything in the near-term, but in economics, where the flow of money forms a circle, what goes around comes around, meaning it will benefit you indirectly someday.
|Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017|
|A guy with a cat
The other day, I saw this picture:
Besides the sign, the other obvious feature of this picture is the fact that one of the guys is holding a cat. The link between women and cats isn't restricted to women who spend all their time on the Internet; even back then, guys knew what would draw women. It was this thought that led me to write the following (with apologies, of course, to ZZ Top
Norwegian Forest, Siamese
You can get lucky with any of these
Even with a Manx, you'll get some tail
They all come running, just like that
'Cause every girl's crazy 'bout a guy with a cat
Get a kitten and you get it all
Persian, Havana Brown
Now you're ready to go to town
They all come running at the drop of a hat
'Cause every girl's crazy 'bout a guy with a cat
Siberian, Russian Blue
She knows she likes it and you know it, too
Scottish Fold, Maine Coon
I'll get that pussy, and I'll get it soon
They all come running to wherever I'm at
'Cause every girl's crazy 'bout a guy with a cat
|Sunday, May 21st, 2017|
|How capitalism builds monsters
I once knew a co-worker who did not like authority. He was one of those people who does not much care for the police, because he saw the police as infringing on people's natural right to freedom, and he was also not particularly fond of any government. Although he was realistic enough to realize that in a practical sense, true functioning anarchy is probably not realizable in our world, he held the theoretical vision of anarchy, of a lawless society full of self-governing people who don't make problems because they are responsible enough not to, as the human ideal. (At one point in time, I did as well.)
But this gentleman whom I knew had other interesting life experiences that, to my mind, seemed to clash with these ideals. For one thing, he had been in the military, not as a conscript but as a volunteer. Now, I have never been in the military, so I can only speak about it as an outsider, but I think it's safe to say that discipline is enforced quite strongly in the military. This co-worker of mine stated that he once spent two weeks in military prison because he forgot to lock his locker where his personal effects were stored. I commented to him, upon hearing this, that this whole notion of his being in the military seemed to be at odds with the notion of a person who disliked authority and could not tolerate people telling him what to do or how to do it. He acknowledged this apparent discrepancy but explained it thus: "I volunteered
to join the military. Everything that happened there was something I signed up for. That makes all the difference."
There is a human tendency to desire personal agency in one's life: the ability to control one's own destiny by making one's own decisions and thus determining their course in the world. This desire for agency is so strong that people are willing to endure significantly negative effects in their lives as long as it means that they can choose
what those effects are. It means a lot to those people to be able to say: "I chose this path for myself. Maybe there are some problems in my life, but I chose my fate, and that is what is important: not that I attained a good outcome, but that I chose
that outcome." I must confess that I do not really understand or empathize with this mentality, but I have seen it in a great many people: that self-destructive wish to do something that asserts your control over your own life, even if it harms you, because doing this makes people feel "human." I don't feel this same way: I would rather have good things in my life than do negative things just for the sense that I am able to choose what happens in my life, but different people are different from each other, and this is one thing which divides people.
One other thing which I noted about this particular co-worker of mine was how devoted he was to his work and his employer. I sometimes speculated whether this was a remnant of some of the military discipline that he had picked up as a soldier: when he received instruction from his higher-ups in the company, he would follow these instructions dutifully, even with a sort of intensity and a sense of focus that might sometimes alienate his peers. I talked to him about this as well, and indeed, he explained his devotion to his employer as a sense of duty: the company was the one paying him, and so he was obliged to serve them and follow their direction. I can understand this, of course: I was an employee of the same company, and I too was obligated to do what my bosses told me, but I have always maintained that even when they are on the job, a person is still a human being, and should be conducted by human principles rather than robotically following whatever they are told to do.
It can be seen, however, that people often have a strong desire to serve, to be told what to do because this absolves them of personal responsibility for what they do. An often-cited example is what the Nazis did in World War II: time and time again, people who committed atrocities cited the same excuse, the simple line that "I was only doing what I was told to do," and that this meant they could not be responsible for the things they did or the results of those actions. The general consensus around this, among people discussing these historical events, has been that "following orders" is not a rationale for committing atrocities, that even people with jobs to do are not absolved of their responsibility to act like human beings who are part of a functioning society, but this seems obvious to us, as outsiders looking back at World War II through the hazy lens of more than 70 years of history. It was not necessarily so obvious to the Nazi soldiers at the time, many of whom did not really know what was going on and were simply following what the people around them were doing.
One thing which does tend to characterize oppressive societies is the illusion of choice: the sense, carefully cultivated, that people are "free" to do what they want and that whatever they are doing is the result of their own self-made choices. Philosophically speaking, it is not clear whether human beings have free will at all, since the decisions they make are the result of their environments, but in a political sense, it can often be very clearly seen how people are put into situations where they really only have one option, one choice to make, but they are told
that they can refuse this choice. The technique is very simple: if you want someone to do something, tell them they can choose between either doing that thing, or doing something else which is visibly worse. When they capitulate and do what you want as an alternative to the threat of even worse consequences, claim that they freely chose the thing which they ended up doing. This is an old trick, one used not only at a national (or international) level by governments but also in personal relationships. This is, in fact, a frequent characteristic of abusive relationships: one person will give the other a choice that isn't really a choice, telling them to do something and then threatening them with all manner of regrettable consequences if they don't obey. If the person does obey, however, then the abuser will repeatedly insist that they chose their path, that they willingly did what they chose to do and thus should not complain about it.
I believe that this is, to a large extent, how capitalism builds monsters. (As usual, when I use the word "capitalism" here, I mean this
.) If you try to force
someone to do something, under intimidation and threats of violence or other negative repercussions, they will resist. Even in the most oppressive societies, where entire families are killed because of political reasons, people often resist these oppressive elements and are hailed are heroes for doing so. That kind of oppression doesn't work: it creates discord and rebellion. Much more effective is a system in which people are not explicitly forced to do anything, but in which they are given a single choice, one single thing which they are allowed to do, and then simply left alone to make that choice. In the majority of cases, left with one choice to make, people will voluntarily make that choice because there isn't anything else to do. When they do this, you can easily claim that they chose to do it, that they have no reason to complain because they voluntarily took whatever course of action led them to their present state.
Modern capitalism does this by setting up a system in which everything, including human beings, has a price tag, and everything can be bought or sold for money. The only way to get anything in this big capitalist game is to play along, to play by the rules which have been written by someone else. And the thing is, playing by those rules seems rewarding at first: you get money if you follow what they tell you to do, and with that money you can buy so many things. But the thing is, if you don't want to play by those rules, there is no alternative: there is no other game to play. The entire system, the entire country, the entire world has been structured this way. You can either play by the rules which they've established for you, or you can quit the game, which usually means starvation and death since there is no way to acquire food or shelter without playing by those rules. The situation is clear: you can play along and play by our rules, in which case you will have the life you see other people living, or you can refuse and die quickly. But if you choose to play along with us, then don't complain, because you chose to play our game.
The thing is, after people do this for a while--after they have been playing that game for long enough that it starts to feel normal and usual for them--they start to identify it. Because they chose
it, they develop the sense that it is good for them since they exerted their own free agency in choosing to play along, and it becomes a part of their identity: the job they have is the thing that they do, the thing that gives them a sense of personal self, and since they chose it willingly, they will embrace it and make it the focus of their life. Even if that job requires them to do something that might negatively impact other people, it doesn't really matter too much: your job is what you do and who you are, and you follow it because they tell you to, and because you chose to.
One other popular trick which these systems use--by which I mean systems with only one choice to make--is to create the appearance of choice by giving multiple choices which are all the same. In the United States, a well-known example is the Demopublicans/Republicrats problem: there are two political parties which have the possibility of winning elections, but for years now, it has been observed that these are nearly the same, or so nearly the same that from a political and economic perspective, there is not much point in differentiating between them. Here again, we see the phenomenon of forged choice: people are told that they can choose between X and Y, then told that they should not complain about what they chose since they chose it of their own free will, but in fact the two choices are similar to each other, and neither choice would have given people any real new options that they didn't have before. This phenomenon is also observed in supermarkets where fake brands are created to give consumers the appearance of choice: it is a well-known practice that many companies will produce the exact same product under different brand names, then flood supermarkets with these to give people the appearance of choice between different brands, when in fact they are all the same option. This kind of deception lies at the heart of modern capitalism.
Jon Ronson has become something of a public expert on the specific topic of psychopaths and psychopathy, appearing in several TED Talks on the subject as well as in other media. He often makes the point that in the general population, about 1% of people are psychopaths of some sort, but among executives, in top-level management in large business corporations, this rate increases to about 3% or 4%, which is quite a large increase in statistical terms, enough to suggest that there's a correlation there. Ronson concludes that capitalism in its most extreme form is a system which rewards psychopathic behavior and thus attracts people who have the sort of mentality that psychopaths tend to suffer from (and cause others to suffer by).
You don't have to be a top-level executive to be a monster, though. Modern capitalism builds monsters by putting people into an environment where they have only one choice--which eliminates the people who refuse to follow that choice since their refusal usually causes them to die of natural causes--and then rewarding people who follow that choice, giving them enough of a motivation to continue following that choice all the way through to its logical conclusion. And if you ask what that logical conclusion is, well, you can just look at the world today, a world in which good people can be made to do evil things through money.
|Friday, May 19th, 2017|
|Will you be there when the going gets easy?
I recently read this article
about relationships, which seems to have gotten a reasonable amount of media attention at the time that it was published, but which I only became aware of now, nearly three years after it was published. The article is actually quite interesting and has been reprinted several times in several different sources, and it really does have some good information about what makes or breaks relationships, so if you're interested in this subject at all, I would recommend that you read the article for yourself. I'm not a relationship expert and so I don't have much to say beyond what the article already says about its main subject, but within the more general field of human sociology, there is one line from the article which sticks out for me and which I wanted to highlight: "We’ve all heard that partners should be there for each other when the going gets rough. But research shows that being there for each other when things go right
is actually more important for relationship quality." What an incredibly insightful thing to recognize; I think that this idea strikes at the heart of a lot of the problems with human relationships, not only romantic relationships (which are the focus of the article) but also relationships in the more general sense of friendship or acquaintanceship.
Often when a disaster like a hurricane or earthquake devastates some populated area, you hear news stories where local residents talk about how everyone is coming together to help their neighbors in a time of need, and people in these situations often say that it's in times of disaster like this that a community really comes together. It's all very well and good that people are helping each other out, of course, but if people only come together in this way when there's a disaster, then that isn't really a community; human relationships are not characterized by how they function in times of crisis, but rather how they function in the mundane, everyday circumstances of normal existence. It's nice to come to someone's aid in an emergency, to help someone out who is having a moment of difficulty, but a real, lasting human relationship is characterized by how people interact with each other in average situations. If people aren't reacting positively to each other in normal, everyday circumstances, they don't have a good relationship with each other and are not part of a community together.
People often want to get involved when there's a tragedy or disaster, because they want to feel like heroes. This demonstrates the selfish nature of human assistance in general: the act of helping out is at least partly motivated by a person's desire to appease their own sense of self-esteem. This doesn't mean that helping out is bad; it just means that it isn't necessarily as selfless as people sometimes make it out to be. But when things are okay, when there are no disasters happening, "being there" for someone doesn't feel useful, helpful, or productive in any way; people start to develop the feeling that their efforts could be better used somewhere else. Particularly in today's productivity-focused world, where human value is only established by some bottom line which measures how much "useful work" they produced, nurturing relationships may feel unfulfilling because it feels to people like they are not "doing anything." People may even feel useless or lazy because they are doing something as frivolous as nurturing a relationship instead of doing "real work." This is a wrong way to think about human relationships, of course, but I believe that there are many people who really do think this way, because this is a message which is subconsciously enforced in our thinking by the modern live-to-work culture. So if you're in any kind of a human relationship, whether it's a romantic relationship, a friendship, or otherwise, if you value this relationship, think about it and ask yourself: will you still be there when the going gets easy?
|Thursday, May 18th, 2017|
|Whatever people say they are, that’s what they're not
The first album from the Arctic Monkeys was titled Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
. I suppose that the message of the title is clear: it seems to be about being misunderstood, about being falsely branded by people who don't "get" you and try to put labels on you that don't really apply to you. (At least, I assume that this is what the title is about.) It occurred to me when thinking about this recently, however, that one of the biggest problems which humanity faces is not only that people misunderstand each other, but that they even misunderstand themselves. In fact, I might go so far as to say that in most cases, the things which people believe themselves to be are actually not what they really are: whatever people say they are, that’s what they're not. The reverse may be true as well: people are often the things they are least likely to associate with themselves or think of themselves as.
There are a few reasons for this. What I notice in observing human behavior is that the things which come most naturally to people, come so naturally to them that they don't even notice these things. Speaking for myself, I can certainly attest that this is the case: when other people tell me what they think of me or what character traits stand out in their perception of me, they usually say things which I don't perceive in myself, because those things are so natural to me that I never notice them. If you were to describe yourself, you would not likely describe yourself by saying "I am a person who breathes air," even though this statement would of course be true, because the act of breathing air comes to you so naturally and is so constant in your life that you rarely notice it. The same is true of our unique behavioral quirks: the things which are most natural to us, the things which are most closely associated with our unique psyches and mental states, are so closely bound to our mindstate that we don't even notice them. We only take notice of them when they are pointed out by other people. The things which most define us, then, may well be things which we never acknowledge in ourselves because they either seem so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, or so natural that our minds don't even consciously notice them.
Conversely, I usually find that when people describe themselves, the words they use to describe themselves aren't really very accurate. First of all, when people attempt to describe themselves, they very often naturally describe themselves as they would like
to be, not as they really are. If someone wants to be generous and kind, for example, there is an overwhelming human tendency for that person to describe themselves as generous and kind, even if they are not, because they perceive themselves that way in their mind, regardless of how they actually behave in everyday life. Furthermore, if a particular trait or activity in a person's life is only rarely exhibited, it may stick out in their memory because it is so unusual for them, and because this specific trait thus stays so prominent in their memory of themselves, they may describe themselves using this trait, even though it only rarely surfaces. For example, a person may have tried going bowling once or twice, which is not often enough to really claim that bowling as a hobby occupies much of their life, but because these instances of going bowling were so unusual for that person, the person will naturally think on this as something unusual or remarkable about their lives, and describe themselves as someone who likes going bowling despite having only done it a very few times. This is what I mean when I say that whatever people say they are, they're not: people will naturally seize upon the most unusual and most atypical aspects of their personalities or their lives as a way of trying to differentiate themselves from others, but these attributes will often not truly reflect the essence of the person being described, because they are specifically choosing the most unusual and least characteristic parts of their lives to describe themselves.
What all of this leads me to conclude is merely to reinforce something which I have already written about previously: the idea that because people are not good at understanding themselves, their own self-descriptions will often be quite inaccurate and give a wrong impression of who they are as a person. When communicating with other people and listening to them express what they want, it is often necessary to interpret their words somewhat, to read into what they're saying, because often people don't know what they want, or misunderstand what they want, requiring others to recognize that what would really
satisfy a person is different from what they claim would satisfy them. Even when people are not specifically trying to hide or misrepresent their personalities, they often do so unintentionally through their own failure to perceive themselves (or other people's view of themselves) clearly.
|Tuesday, May 16th, 2017|
|France and the right to not vote
I don't have a lot to say about the recent French presidential election. Given how overjoyed I was about the Brexit, some people might have assumed that I likewise wanted to see France leave the European Union, but the thing is, France is a very different country from the UK. The UK is not geographically attached to continental Europe and has always held itself a bit distant from the rest of the continent, culturally and politically. Although I am somewhat "Euroskeptic" in that I think the European Union makes less sense than it used to, there are some countries that benefit from being in the EU, and France being what it is, it probably makes sense for France to remain in the union for the time being. So I'm not disappointed that Le Pen didn't win, although I wouldn't have been saddened by her winning either. In any case, my congratulations go to Macron, and I wish both him and France all the best.
What I do want to comment on is an interesting facet that arose out of this particular election: the number of people who voted "white," meaning they submitted blank ballots, literally voting for nobody. Voting in this way has long been a sort of a tradition in France, a protest vote stating that the voter in question does not support any of the available candidates. This does not affect the outcome of the election in any way, as it does not affect who ends up winning, but some people do this as a way of making a statement. About 9% of voters in this election voted in this way, which is the highest percentage for any election in the history of the current French republic (meaning the "French Fifth Republic," founded on October 4, 1958). You know that graffiti you sometimes see declaring "Vote for nobody! Nobody cares about you! Nobody will keep their election promises! Nobody tells the truth! If nobody is elected, things will be better for everyone. Vote for nobody!" next to a Slenderman-like figure? It seems that French voters took that advice to heart (though not enough of them, obviously).
I bring this up because it so clearly refutes an idea I hear so often: that if someone doesn't vote, that means that they are politically inactive or ignorant. Particularly in North America, one regularly hears these stupid exhortations to go and vote in every election, with people declaring: "If you don't vote, you have no right to complain!" This is such an obviously stupid and thoughtless idea that it amazes me when I see supposedly educated, thinking people expressing it. If you don't vote in an election, that doesn't mean that you don't know or don't care about politics; it simply means that you do not support any of the people in the running and don't want to see any of them gain political power. Nothing more, nothing less. It's as simple as that.
I have long maintained that while the right to vote is important, the right to not
vote is just as important. Do we really want to see "democracy" reduced to a ritual in which voters are forced to exercise their "right" to vote by nominally expressing their support for whatever figureheads have been chosen to represent the government? That is not democracy; that is in fact a mark of a totalitarian dictatorship, in which the populace is usually required to come out and show their support for the political leaders or else risk negative consequences. Democracy includes the right to not vote, if a voter chooses that option.
In the United States, a country of lazy, ignorant egocentrists, there is a stupid stereotype associated with not voting which purports that anyone who does not vote is politically ignorant and has no will to do anything that might serve the greater good. The election in France clearly shows that this idea is not true: if there is any nation of people in the world who are politically active and motivated, it must surely be the French, a nation of political complainers if there ever was one. When the voters of such a country go to great lengths to cast ballots that literally vote for nobody, the reality of the situation is clear: the decision to not vote is not merely the path of ignorant or lazy people, but a very conscious decision to not support a political establishment which does not deserve the public's support. Can we please, once and for all, cast off this atrociously stupid idea that people who don't vote lose their political rights? Thank you.
|Saturday, May 13th, 2017|
|Hello out there
It seems that some people who read my blog have gotten concerned over a recent trend of negative commentary which has permeated my writing here for a while. I am generally an unhappy, dissatisfied, and negative person anyway, so if people have found that my recent sentiments have been even more so than usual, then it must have been pretty bad. I wanted to take a moment to clarify to my dear readers that the negative things which I write here are not meant to be alarming. I'm going through a difficult period in my life, and I hope it is understandable that my thoughts, and by extension the things which I express, would reflect that. I'm not writing these things because I am suicidal, nor is this a cry for help. I write these things because I am in a moment where I feel these things, and I want to describe them, to get them out in written form so that I (and also other people, if they want to) can look back at them and get an idea of how I was, what my thoughts and feelings were, at that point in time. These words are a time capsule, nothing more.
Similarly, I should probably clarify once again, as I think I have in the past, that my negative comments on humanity should not be interpreted as me planning some kind of shooting spree, terrorist attack, or other instance of mass murder, nor is anything I write here meant to be a personal insult to anyone. It's not that I actually hate all people or want to kill everyone. It's just that I am frustrated beyond words with the egocentric, self-serving lifestyle which most people in the world are entrenched in. I am surrounded by people exhibiting this lifestyle every moment of every day, and I've had far more than too much of it.
I realize that as of late, my writing has become obsessive and one-tracked, perhaps (again) even more so than usual, which is saying a lot for a guy like me, who tends to fixate too much on small details. I realize I should probably write less. Not stop writing altogether, but at least stop the torrent of negativity and hopelessness which infects everything that I write. I just don't have anything else; I have no other way to express myself except with these words. This blog is all I have in terms of a format for self-expression, and so when my mood and my thoughts are negative, that will naturally be reflected here.
Human beings naturally gravitate toward certain thoughts and away from other thoughts. Which thoughts we have an affinity for and which thoughts we try to avoid plays no small part in defining who we are as people. I try, as much as I am able, to turn my own personal thoughts and feelings into rational, coherent, constructive words which I then post here on this blog. At the same time, I do want the things I express to be an accurate representation of what I think and feel; these words are an expression of who I am, and I don't see much point in changing the sentiments to something which I don't genuinely think and feel, because then that would be something fake, artificial, not a real representation of myself as a person.
I am sometimes surprised by how many people seem to read my blog; I really never expected to have so many random strangers on the Internet express an interest in who I am, and I'm grateful that so many people have found me interesting enough to read about in this way. I hope that anyone who reads my words understands that if you've come here for the purpose of reading what I have to say, the one thing which I think I owe all of you is genuine honesty. I'm not here to say something positive to brighten up your day; I'm not here to make you feel better, to improve your life, or to give you some secrets which no one else in the world could reveal to you. I am here to give you the truth as I see it, the most honest expression of my heart and mind which I could give. That's not much, but it's all I have. I realize I am an ignorant fool, but the thing is, all human beings are ignorant fools, because we have no real knowledge or understanding of the universe, so ultimately, all we can really do is express the things we know how to express. As Henry James famously wrote: The rest is the madness of art.
|Thursday, May 4th, 2017|
|When something reaches its natural end
If a process isn't part of a never-ending cycle, it will eventually reach a natural end.
People sometimes try to make things last forever. Things which they want to keep in their lives, they try to maintain and nourish in such a way that that thing can be sustained indefinitely. It doesn't actually work, though. Again, if the thing you want to keep in your life isn't part of a never-ending cycle, it will end sometime.
Never-ending cycles in our lives mostly center around eating and sleeping. These things can never end, because as long as you live, you will constantly need these things on a fairly regular basis, at least every few days, and anything you contribute toward these acts will be undone in a matter of hours or days. These are the things you can count on to remain with you for the rest of your life: the need to eat, and the need to sleep.
Everything else will end. Things which people want to keep in their lives often center around career and family, and these things will also eventually reach a natural end for most people, but this idea applies especially to other things which people try to fill their lives with: any kind of personal hobby, interest, or activity will eventually reach a natural end, a point at which it doesn't make much sense to carry that activity any further.
Imagine that you are working on a project. Regardless of what the project is, any project, by definition, has an end goal, which means a point at which the project will end. If you are building something, this can be a rewarding process, but it should be apparent that any object in the universe has a finite size, meaning that at some point in time, assuming you have planned the final structure which your project should have, you will reach a point at which your work matches what you planned to do. When this happens, the project has reached its natural end: there is no longer any point in working on it, because it is finished. There is nothing left to do.
This is a bittersweet moment when it happens. On the one hand, there is a sense of accomplishment, the feeling that you have done something worthwhile, achieved something through the devotion of your time and effort. On the other hand, the question arises of what there is to do next. Depending on how long the project lasted, it may have actually defined a significant portion of your life and given you purpose and direction through that phase of your life. Once the project is over, that phase of your life is also over, and you need to start thinking about what you're going to do with your life next. For some people, there is a desire to keep going in the same direction--in effect, to keep working on the project after it has already reached its goal and there is no work left to be done on it. Some people continue doing this just because they don't know what else to do. (I fear I may be one of these people.) Most people, however, have the sense to realize when a particular activity is over and that the time has come to move on.
Some people work around this problem by choosing hobbies for their lives rather than projects, hobbies which can never truly end because once you've finished with them, you can simply do it all over again. Sports are an example of this: if you are an avid soccer player, for example, you can play a soccer game through to completion, but once this is done, nothing prevents you from playing another game of soccer on a later day, or even on the same day if you really want to. This is perhaps one reason why sports fans are so devoted to their sports: it is something which can entertain you for the rest of your life, as either an athlete or a spectator, as long as you don't get bored with it.
Unfortunately for me, I am the kind of person who tends to get bored with repeated activity. I had a fairly brief phase when I was a kid where I became interested in sports, but I eventually got out of this because it was just too much of the same for me. After you've played a few games, you have a pretty good idea of what kinds of strategies and techniques you can use to help you win, and then it's just a matter of doing those same things over and over, endlessly. If people never get tired of that, then maybe that's fine for them, but I just lost interest after a while.
Unfortunately for me, the more intellectual pursuits I later devoted myself to turned out to be something with a natural end as well. How many different ways are there to tell a story? I don't know how many books I've read and how many movies I've seen in my lifetime, but I can't remember the last time I read one which really felt somehow original, not unlike a book or movie I'd previously experienced. The same is true of other forms of media: painting, poetry, video games, music albums... after a while, it all seems to be an exercise in repetition. The threshold figure seems to be about 1,000. One thousand. After you've gone through about a thousand of something, it becomes basically unviable to find something which doesn't feel somehow derivative of another work.
The same is true of human beings. I don't know how many people I've met and spoken to in my life, but subjectively speaking, I feel like it's a lot, and it's rare that I meet someone who has something original to say, someone who doesn't seem like basically another specimen of another type of person I've met somewhere before. Relationships between human beings, whether friendly or romantic, also seem to have a built-in shelf life: after a while, you've done and seen and said basically everything you can with that person. There is a natural end to life itself, as well. People who have lived long lives often say that they have done everything they want to do with their lives, and when you've done everything that you want to do with your life and there is nothing left for you, then what is the point in continuing to live? John Mellencamp sang, in one of his best-known songs: "Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone." When you start to experience this state, you start to understand why the idea of eternal life is considered a curse by some cultures. (Here I am once again reminded of philhellenes' brilliant video "1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years in Heaven
It was partly in recognition of this inherently limited nature of our everyday lives that I embarked on something of a philosophical journey which began in my late 20s, during which I attempted to explore the nature of humanity and the universe itself at a sort of fundamental level, with the idea that if one could establish a set of first principles, then everything could follow from there. Unfortunately for me (and perhaps everyone else in the world), it turns out that even the basic study of reality, humanity, and thought is kind of a dead end. Philosophy, as a field of study and thought, is actually surprisingly limited in terms of the kinds of questions it can ask, and even more limited in terms of the answers it can provide. (Philosophy, as any educated philosopher can tell you, is not so much about finding answers as learning how to ask the right questions.)
Likewise, the study of human nature is more of an errant amusement for bored people than something which you can make a serious learning experience out of. At first, it seems fascinating to study the things that people do and ask yourself "Why did they do that?" and try to search for answers to this question. It doesn't take very long, however, before doing this reaches a sort of natural wall: most people don't actually have reasons for the things they do, because they act irrationally and without a thoroughly logical process, but even when people do have a "reason" for doing something, the reason is usually so simple and superficial that discovering the reasons for human behavior quickly becomes boring. Human beings are actually motivated by a very limited and usually very simplistic thought process, generally focusing on the pursuit of pleasure. Think upon the famous phrase "Bread and circuses" and you can quickly explain well over half of all human actions: people do things either for survival, or for entertainment. The remaining actions may sometimes have deeper motives, but it's rare that you will actually be able to observe these actions, even if you know the person well, and even if you do observe someone doing something that can't be explained through "bread and circuses," the chances are good that there is simply no articulable reason for why a person did that thing, because again, human behavior is fairly random and arbitrary, governed not by any set of rules or principles so much as by the random noise that exists in a person's brain and which manifests itself sometimes in physical activities when a person loses control of (or chooses not to control) their physical reactions to that noise.
I have reached what feels like a terminal point where I literally cannot do anything without feeling physically ill from the sense of repetition, the sense that whatever I am doing or experiencing, I have done and experienced before. It is difficult for me to read a book, watch a movie, or play a game without a psychosomatic sense of revulsion at the feeling that I have done all this countless times before. It is difficult for me to talk to people, go anywhere, or even to eat food without the nauseating sense that I am gorging myself on experiences I've already had but which I eat again anyway. Even this blog post itself, and most of the other things I've written lately, have the same effect, the sense that I have written ideas very similar to these before. My own thoughts and feelings go in circles, returning to me in exactly the same form I have already experienced them countless times before. Everything I eat makes me wants to vomit. Everything I do makes me want to do nothing. Every person I meet makes me want to never see another person again. Everything I think makes me dumb, everything I feel turns me numb.
Whatever state my life is in, whatever stage of life I have been in, is reaching a natural end. The question which remains unanswered for me is whether there is a new stage of life coming to replace it, or whether my life itself, my half-lived life, is already to be considered finished.
|Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017|
|Cabaret and Kabarett
The French word cabaret
, as with many other French words, made its way into the English language wholly untranslated and with the meaning that France had given it. The word originally described a small establishment combining features which today are associated with bars, restaurants, and cafés: the cabaret, in pre-modern Paris, was a place where people would get together to eat and drink while simultaneously writing songs or poetry together, typically featuring lyrics focusing on social and political commentary.
As time went by, however, the practice of cabaret in France became less about this social and political commentary and more a form of entertainment. By the modern era, French cabaret had relegated such commentary to a side role at most, and was primarily focused on putting on a show, with the emphasis on dancing and singing, both done in the grand fashion of a staged performance rather than the intimate, causal setting which cabaret had started from. Explicitly sexual and hedonistic themes became increasingly common in these shows, resulting in the modern reputation of cabaret as something bawdy, decadent, and even obscene; this meaning and impression of cabaret was then imported wholesale into the United Kingdom, and by extension, into the United States, since the latter took most of its cultural and political understanding from the former in its formative years.
There was another place, however, where the idea of cabaret took on a different meaning, where the focus on choreographed dancing and titillating sexual displays was minimized in favor of the concept of discussion upon matters of social and political relevance. That place was Germany, where the word is usually spelled in the Germanized form Kabarett, often spoken in the German way as well with a hard "t" at the end but also often spoken with the original French pronunciation. Although German Kabarett originates from Renaissance-era Paris cabarets that gave rise to the word in our lexicon, it developed in almost completely the opposite direction from the French development: rather than focusing on entertainment that tries to entertain by being provocative, German Kabarett is a combination of stand-up comedy and journalism, usually featuring well-read intellectuals who, rather than putting on a "show," present a sort of spoken-word performance in which they mix wry observations about the sociopolitical Zeitgeist with a subtle sort of humor. Most German Kabarettisten
are not just random jokesters who decided to step in front of a microphone, but actually serious professionals who consider it a mark of their profession to only comment on known facts rather than speculation or intrigue. In fact, most of them publish lists of citations and sources to indicate where they got their information from, similar to what is seen at the bottom of a scholarly academic paper or Wikipedia article.
I must confess that it is difficult for me to not feel a sense of national bias when I think upon thoughts like this. How differently the two forms developed: from a small and localized form of social gathering in Paris developed two forms that we know today, one based on morally and intellectually vacuous and offensive decadence, the other based on thoughtful and observant commentary on human society which goes so far as to cite its information sources. Contrast this with the style of stand-up comedy known in the United States, which is usually based on some random person with no qualifications just getting in front of a microphone and expressing their opinions in the most caustic, offensive way possible for cheap laughs. All of this clearly illustrates how very differently Germany developed through the Middle Ages and into the modern era as compared to the development in other Western European countries. (And yes, I am aware of the famous American film Cabaret
, and no, sorry, its simplistic efforts at good-guys-versus-bad-guys drama based on appealing to the lowest human desires and fears does not change my opinion on the matter.)
But of course, these are only the thoughts of a person who clearly has no idea what he is talking about. Anyone who has read my words has long ago made up their mind about me, and for those who are convinced that I am an evil person, a hateful and cruel person who would seek the destruction of all that makes life joyful, I don't think there is anything I could say that would really change that opinion at this point. I don't wish to have any enemies, but a person who takes a stand for something will always inevitably collect them, and there is no solution to that problem. As Rudyard Kipling famously wrote: "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Human beings will always fight among themselves, as long as they live on this Earth, because they are just too different from each other to get along. I know which side I'm on, though.
|Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017|
|Capitalism and multiculturalism
It always surprises and puzzles me when I see people who are against "capitalism" (by which they mean not actual capitalism, but rather the takeover of our government, society, culture, and economy by big business
) but simultaneously want to promote "multiculturalism," by which they really mean multiracialism. Do these people not realize that the two are one and the same? It is an ideology as ignorant and short-sighted as contemporary "feminism," the demand that women assert their freedom by conforming to a narrow set of ideas and expectations.Capitalism
cannot be satisfied with only one country's economy, because it is an insatiably ravenous beast which would devour the whole world if it could (some would say it already has), and indeed, it is not satisfied with only one planet either. The scope of its desire is truly infinite. In order for capitalism to work, then, it is a requirement that an ideology of multiracialism be instilled in the people, because in the modern world, human beings are physical resources to be bought and sold like any other material objects, and capitalism would be hindered if it were not possible to readily import people across international borders. The modern doctrine of "freedom of movement" is part of this ideology: the idea that human beings are goods to be bought and sold. Capitalism, the takeover of our lives by business, can only function when borders between countries are erased. Serious capitalists consider this blending of different nations and races to be necessary to their ends, because human beings are not important; only business is important.
Similarly, for people who want to see the lines between different races erased, is it not obvious that this is only achievable through global capitalism? Throughout history, there have been various movements and attempts to erase racial boundaries between people, and none of them have been successful until the modern world. It is only
capitalism that can achieve this multiracialism, only
global capitalism that can truly create this "one world" that these people dream of. Any other system will necessarily categorize people in such a way that classes and divisions are created between them; it is only
capitalism that has made all people equal by telling every person on Earth "You have no worth as a human being, and the only value your life can ever have exists in whatever financial value you can produce." This is true equality: a system in which all human beings are equally worthless except in terms of their financial potential. This state of true equality has only been practically achieved under globalized capitalism.
So the next time you hear someone declare, in the same breath, that they are opposed to "capitalism" but support "multiculturalism," don't be fooled: that person is confused and has no idea what they're talking about. You can try to educate them, but that is all one can really do.
|Saturday, April 22nd, 2017|
|Open-minded, not tolerant
For most of my life, even before I became legally an adult, I've considered myself a fairly "open-minded" person. The quotation marks are not just for show; what indeed does this phrase (which I am in the habit of hyphenating, as I hyphenate all multi-word adjectives) really mean?
I have always interpreted this phrase quite literally: to be open-minded means to possess a mind which is open to new things, new ideas, new ways of thinking, new opinions and perspectives and worldviews. A mind that is willing to change its mind, to think differently, if it makes sense to do so. I have always welcomed opinions or views which were contrary to my own. I have always been willing, I think, to listen to people who disagree with me, to consider their opinions and their reasons (if reasons are given) for why they think the way they do.
Here is an important point, however, a thing which defines my understanding of the concept of being "open-minded": I do not necessarily agree with
the new opinions and views which are offered to me by others. I am willing to consider
and to think about anything which is presented to me, but once I have done this, I still have to make up my own mind, because I need to form my own opinion about whatever I have regarded.
Being open-minded doesn't mean being weak-minded and just accepting whatever you are told. It might even mean the opposite, being strong enough to challenge your own ideas and assumptions for the sake of reaching a better state of understanding.
I mention all this because it seems to me, in our world today, that "open-minded" is commonly used as a synonym for "tolerant," in the sense of being willing to endure people who have different opinions or lifestyles from your own. I do not like this equivalence; being open-minded and being tolerant are two very different things.
An open-minded person can still be judgmental. An open-minded person may not tolerate people who disagree with them. Being open-minded just means you are willing to consider
alternative viewpoints; an open-minded person may still, after due consideration, reject these alternative viewpoints, and even speak against people who hold such viewpoints.
Speaking for myself, I see myself as a very open-minded person, but not at all a tolerant person. I am quite judgmental, with a tendency to denounce behaviors which I do not approve of or people who engage in such behavior. I am tolerant of people who do what is right and just and proper; I wish to eliminate people who do not.
Truth be told, I do not like the word "tolerance" as it is used today, and I would like to see the discontinuation of the use of this word for this purpose, for several important reasons.
The first and most obvious reason why we should stop using "tolerance" as it is used today, I think, is because even people who claim to want tolerance don't really want it. What they really want is tolerance for a very specific set of attributes. People who preach "tolerance" want us to tolerate people of different ethnic races and sexual orientations, but that's it. A truly tolerant person who tolerates everything would be willing to tolerate racism and homophobia as well. When people talk about "tolerance," what they really mean is "I want people to tolerate anyone who agrees with me, but not anyone who doesn't agree with me." To call that "tolerance" is ridiculous; that is the opposite of tolerance. That is being narrow-minded and closed-minded, only willing to communicate with people who agree with your own opinion.
Another important reason why I dislike the current use of the word "tolerance" is because it sounds somehow negative. When you "tolerate" something, that means you don't like it but endure it because you feel like you have no other choice. If you really think that we should "tolerate" gay people and people of foreign races, that sounds like you are saying "We don't really like those people, but there isn't anything we can do about them, so we just have to try and be patient and put up with them." I don't think that that's the mood which people who preach "tolerance" are really trying to create. I actually can't think of a one-word noun to adequately describe what those people want; "acceptance" still suggests that someone is quietly coming to terms with something they can't do anything about (it is, after all, the last of the classical stages of grief), "indifference" sounds like people just don't care (which is obviously not the case since people are actively promoting
tolerance), and "welcomingness" is not a word.
A final reason why I'd like to see the cessation of the use of the word "tolerance" in its current sense is that it is yet another example of what was once a relatively normal and neutral word being re-appropriated for use in a very narrow and politically-motivated sense. This is similar to how the use of the word "pride" has come to be irrevocably associated with the gay-rights movement. If you see a person wearing a shirt with the word "pride" on it today, there is an immediate assumption that a sense of gay
pride is probably meant, even though the word, in its literal meaning, could mean any other kind of pride as well. There was a time when the word "pride" had nothing to do with being gay. (The same is true, of course, of the word "gay.") While it is common for people to take words like this and use them as badges in such a way that the word becomes a political slogan and loses its neutral, dictionary definition, I would prefer that people avoid doing this, because it reduces the ability of our language to use its own words without implied connotations which may not be intended. This was, indeed, a goal of Newspeak in 1984
: to reduce the ambiguity of words so that they could only mean what they were narrowly defined to mean, without allowing people the freedom of interpreting those words in broader and more general senses.
I'm open-minded, not tolerant. And you probably are the same way.