Monday, November 21, 2016

Treating People Like Museum Exhibits

Well, at least it is now generally agreed that it was wrong to display the stuffed body of an African Bushman.  That was not quite as bad as making lampshades out of human skin, but it was on the same spectrum, showing a massive lack of respect for the deceased person.  Why it is not also felt to be disrespectful to display the bodies of Egyptian pharaohs is not at all clear.

It is not only the dead who can be used as "edutainment" by first-world countries.  The attempt to maintain the isolation of "uncontacted" communities is likewise dehumanizing, treating the members of these communities as though they were monkeys in a zoo.  However much we may cherish the animals in a nature preserve, we would rightly bristle at the thought of anyone putting us, or anyone we consider to be genuinely our equals, in a preserve.  

It's one thing to protect indigenous peoples from being exploited or to allow them to continue in their traditional way of life, if that is their choice; it is quite another to withhold from them the information necessary to make that choice for themselves.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Donald Song

The Democrats are not the only ones who have made fools of themselves this past election cycle.  One thing many people have noticed is how prominent members of the Religious Right have made excuses for Donald Trump for behavior they would have rightly condemned from someone on the left.  They have, in fact, made an idol out of politics. With apologies to VeggieTales, they have sung the Donald Song:

The Donald, the Donald, whoa I love the Donald.
I don’t love my mom or my dad, just the Donald.
The Donald, the Donald, yeah I love the Donald.
I gave everything that I had for the Donald.
I don’t want no background when it’s time to vote –
His past indiscretions are nothing of note.
I don’t need the details of his policy.
He feels my frustrations, he’ll look out for me.
I won’t go to church and I won’t go to school,
That stuff is for sissies, but Donald is cool!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Order 66

Last night I was watching this video about "Why Yoda Should Have Prevented Order 66" in the Star Wars universe, and it occurred to me I had seen this same shock, stunned outrage, and denial not long ago:  I saw it on election night.  It was all there --  a group of people who considered themselves the elite heroes, having doomed themselves through over-confidence and having overlooked obvious warning signs, felt betrayed by people they considered scarcely human, their only function being to support the elites.  It must all be the result of a nefarious plan -- in a galaxy far, far away it was the Sith, but closer to home, Russia makes a convenient (however implausible) scapegoat.

Such melodrama is comical, in no small part because it is out of place.  Yes, Hillary Clinton's political career is as dead as Ki-Adi-Mundi, but no actual people died in this election.  The Democrats will be back, none the wiser for their defeat.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How Many Lights Are There?

Star Trek:  The Next Generation was certainly a mixed bag, but eventually the writers realized that having a great actor in Patrick Stewart opened up some possibilities that would not have worked with a lesser actor.  The story line leading to this scene is a great example of those enhanced possibilities.

In this scene, a Cardassian interrogator, Gul Madred, offers Picard what appears to be a final choice:  Picard can remain stubborn, in which case the Madred very plausibly assures him he will suffer continuing torment for the rest of his life, or Picard can give in to a "small" demand and reject the reality he sees in front of him, in which case the interrogator gives Picard a much less believable assurance of a life of cultured ease.  What is really happening is something that is, I understand, really done in ordeals of this type:  Gul Madred is trying to break Picard's will and spirit.  Because Picard has been subjected to prolonged physical and psychological abuse, he nearly succumbs -- but of course, being as he is one of the main heroes of the series, Picard ultimately bests his tormentor.

One thing that particularly strikes me this year is how much our election process is similar to Picard's test.
  1. Both involve similar combinations of plausible threats and implausible promises.
  2. Both involve not so much deception as the willful rejection of reality.
  3. Both are designed to break those to whom they are applied.
These last two points are the interesting ones.

The political left in America has been about the willful rejection of reality for quite some time.  Perhaps the earliest example, and one of the most morally significant examples, is abortion.  Maybe -- just maybe -- a person can have real doubt that an unborn child at two months of development is, in fact, a child, but an honest person cannot really be in doubt as the months go on.  That, ultimately, is why those who joined the Democratic Party for more traditional reasons -- support for labor unions, for example, or later an opposition to Jim Crow laws -- have been forced not only to back abortion, but to protect abortion at any time up to and including the moment when the child is actually being born.  It is necessary to be sure that they are broken.

There are other examples.  It's hard to forget the image of Jesse Jackson, who once perhaps was serious about being a Christian minister, counseling Bill Clinton that oral sex with Monica Lewinsky wasn't really adultery.  Another blatant example is the more recent insistence that first Democratic politicians and then the public as a whole accept that two men (or two women) can marry each other, and that there is no sense in which what has been traditionally been understood to be marriage is in any way more real.  Very likely the leadership of the left (like many others, to be fair) are moral nihilists who don't believe there is any reality to any marriage, just fictions people tell themselves and each other in order to achieve the desired effects -- but that does not suffice to explain their insistence that everyone else accept the "new reality".  Making sure that they are broken, on the other hand, does explain the insistence.

By no means is this limited to the left, though; the right has its own version, most prominently around Donald Trump.  Consider, for example, the leaders of the "religious right" who have endorsed and supported Trump while downplaying Trump's moral failings.  Yes, this has destroyed their claim to moral authority in a way that has not escaped public notice and seems certain to do lasting damage to the "religious right" as an institution, but it has done more than that; it has broken them.  On the other hand, maybe this will not do lasting damage to their institution (though it should); there seems to have been little consequence to them for their support of Newt Gingrich, who has many of the same flaws.  Perhaps it will make a difference that Trump has actually bragged about how broken his supporters are.

One way or the other, it bodes ill that this year's whole election process has been corrupted to break down the American public mentally and spiritually.

Understand that Gul Madred did not really believe there were three lights.  That was not the point.  The next day, perhaps the answer he would have demanded would have been five lights, and after that two light.  The point was that Picard was to allow him to define reality.  Only once Picard was fully trained to accept fully and unquestioningly Madred's definitions of reality would Madred begin to make full use of his power.

Toward what end are we being trained in 2016?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Most Important Election of My Lifetime

Every four years, the same tired claim is made:  "This is the most important election of our lifetimes -- maybe even the most important in American history!"  It is a very annoying claim -- firstly because it is obviously not the case that each election is more important than all the elections that came before it, and secondly because it should be enough that this is the only election we can affect now.

It does make me wonder, though:  What actually is the most important election in which I have been able to vote? 

It seems reasonable confine the question to presidential elections, and to base my answer on several considerations.
  • Was there a particularly important issue at stake?
  • Was there a difference between the stances of the two candidates?
    • Was the difference real, or merely rhetorical?
    • Was the issue really a priority to the two candidates, or was it at the bottom of their wish lists?
  •  Did the issue regard something that a president can actually have an important effect?
Let's go through a list of likely distinctions, then.  Abortion is a hugely important issue, but it is (a) largely outside a president's control, and (b) clearly not an actual priority of Republican presidents, however much they might hype it to certain crowds during fund-raisers and campaign rallies.  The whole "gay marriage" / transgender bathrooms / whatever spectrum of issues is likewise important, but, again, (a) it seems to be driven by cultural forces largely beyond a president's control, and (b) these issues have not featured prominently in the campaigns of Republicans this fall, in spite of the rapid and dramatic changes that have recently taken place.  How about the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11?  I think a US war in Afghanistan was an inevitable response from any president.  Also, although I could not have actually voted for Gore due to his positions on issues like abortion and family issues, he probably would not have invaded Iraq, and the Republican-controlled congress would probably not have given him the exaggerated powers that they granted George W. Bush.  So far, none of these elections are looking that important.

My best guess, then, is that the most important election I have voted in was my very first election, the one that elected George H. W. Bush.  The issue was the US behavior during the collapse of first East Germany, then the Warsaw Pact, then the Soviet Union itself -- and since nuclear war was a very real possibility, the stakes were amazingly high and the role of the president was absolutely essential.  I cannot be sure how Dukakis might have been different, but Bush had much more international experience, and the Soviet Union might have been more reluctant to react by lashing out with Ronald Reagan's protégé in office.  One way or another, that was a dangerous stretch of history, and it is something of a miracle that we got through it with no more violence than what happened in Romania, so I would not be willing to change anything about it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


The expression "If you can dream it, you can do it!" is wrongly attributed to Walt Disney, but it does encapsulate a very real part of his outlook, and of the American outlook more generally, and it must be admitted that when used in moderation, this perspective can have wonderful results. The proper understanding of this expression is as a hyperbole intended to free us from the shackles of stupefying habit.  It becomes a serious problem, though, when it is taken as a simple, unvarnished truth.

For one thing, it is clearly impossible for it to be true for everyone, because one person's dreams often contradict another person's dreams.  Jeb Bush dreamed of winning the US presidency in this year's election, for example, but he could not do it because enough other people had different dreams.  Likewise, some things are simply physically impossible.  The character Superman is after all the embodiment of the dreams of his creators and developers, but most of what he does is absolute nonsense.

It is a good thing that "If you can dream it, you can do it!" is false.   For one thing, it is good that our dreams are not limited to the things we can do -- "a man's reach should exceed his grasp."  Much more importantly, though, anyone who is able to look at himself at least somewhat honestly knows that absolute power would corrupt him absolutely, destroying his character, making him an enormous threat to others, and ultimately making him miserable.  This has been treated many times in fiction -- notably in the Star Trek episodes "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "Charlie X", the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", and even the Ring of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

Although we are not actually omnipotent -- and that is a good thing -- there remain two possibilities for those who cling to the idea that "if you can dream it, you can do it":  we can either prefer to live in a world of "pure imagination" in preference to reality, or we can reject the existence reality altogether and claim that we are compelled to construct our own "realities".  The latter approach has grown in popularity and seems to be the unquestioned metaphysical position of the millennial generation.  It is completely ubiquitous in society today; it is even the current metaphysical framework of our legal system, as exemplified by the "sweet mystery of life" passage of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.  America seems destined to be destroyed not by the bang of Armageddon, but by the whimper of Weirdmageddon.

This situation is not unique -- after all, it is just another version of the Serpent's ancient lie that "you will be like God", in this case creating our own "realities" -- but it is exceptional.  In another age, the fact that reality is better than unreality was considered so obvious and important that it motivated the center of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God.  (The fact that even most believers in God think the Ontological Argument is flawed does not negate the importance earlier generations placed on reality.)

Astonishingly, a good commentary on all this, and the origin of the term "Weirdmageddon", can be found in the cartoon Gravity Falls, which was produced by none other than the Walt Disney corporation.  Before I go any further, there are spoilers ahead.

The main antagonist of the cartoon is a strange "demon" named Bill Cypher.  The first time in the show's narrative he is summoned, he exits saying, "Remember:  Reality is an illusion -- the universe is a hologram -- buy gold -- bye!"  His whole motivation is a rejection of reality in favor of what he considers fun.  If that means that "[he's] got some children [he] need[s] to make into corpses", well, so be it.  He really is the perfect representation of the Zeitgeist.  The fact that "he" appears on the one dollar bill makes the correspondence all the better.

In order to defeat him, the main characters had to give up their pride and selfishness, which after all are the origins of this war against reality.  Even more dramatically, Mable Pines is captured by Bill Cypher and placed in "a world of pure imagination" apparently suited to her tastes -- though in reality, it is made up of disgusting and malevolent worms that remain disguised until the illusions they create are confronted.  Her twin brother Dipper goes in after her to find his own hopes falsely offered to him, including the opportunity for romance with Wendy, the girl with whom he is infatuated.  He sees through the deception and rejects it.  In the end, both twins have to explicitly accept that the real world, with all its flaws, is better than an "ideal" world of imagination and illusion.  

Gravity Falls would have been an entertaining program even without its relevance, but it turns out to be astonishingly on target, much more so than Walt Disney Inc. can have really wanted or realized, though I have to suspect it was somewhere in the back of the mind of Alex Hirsch, its creator.  I have to credit him with deliberate irony in having Disney pay for and distribute a cartoon that celebrates reality over the lies that the corporation cherishes so much.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A.D./B.C. or C.E./B.C.E.?

It is becoming increasingly common to find dates that have for centuries been described as, for example, "A.D. 1776" or "44 B.C." are now being described as "1776 C.E." or "44 B.C.E.".  Does this new usage demonstrate a greater sensitivity and a more careful, academic approach?

No.  To be perfectly blunt, it is neither more nor less than an anti-Christian bias self-righteously masquerading as intellectualism. 

That is a serious charge, but the facts back it up.  Advocates of the new terminology say that the older terminology is offensive to those who do not accept Christianity.  However,
  1. These same people make no attempt to rename the months of the year, many of which are named after Greco-Roman gods.  How is it that Christianity gives toxic offense, but not Greco-Roman paganism?
  2. The same is true of days of the week:  in English, they are named after Germanic gods.  Again, the people who find Christ offensive seem to think Thor and Wotan are perfectly acceptable. 
  3. Pay close attention to how foreign words and names are pronounced by the "C.E." crowd.  You will find that they go to great lengths to give the native pronunciations, or at least what they think are the native pronunciations.  They often over-correct for Anglicization, but they want it to be obvious that they are so solicitous for cultural sensitivity towards speakers of Arabic, or Hindi, or Japanese, or Mandarin Chinese.  They would not dream of behaving like a European colonialist and appropriating someone else's cultural artifact and then obscuring its origins.  With a few exceptions, that is -- because that is exactly what they are doing when they take the A.D./B.C. calendar system, which is a cultural artifact of Christianity, then try to obscure its Christian origins.  This inconsistency is part of what makes this not merely anti-Christian, but also pseudo-intellectual.
  4. The other thing that makes it only pseudo-intellectual is the contrast with the metric system that is used in all modern science.
    • For one thing, when the French Revolutionaries decided that every vestige of the French monarchy was offensive, they did not simply rename the toise the metre, rename the pinte the litre, and rename the denier scruple the gram.  They developed a completely new system that was intended to be both practical and as nearly universal as possible.  So, for example, the meter was defined to be one millionth of the distance between the north pole and the equator, the liter was defined to be one thousandth of a cubic meter, and the gram was defined to be one thousandth of the mass of a liter of water.  Because these units do not show favoritism or hostility to any people or culture, they have been universally adopted in the sciences.
    • As more and more precise measurements have become necessary, the metric units has been slightly altered so that they are defined in terms of experiments that yield consistent values at higher precision.  For example, the second is now defined not by the rotation of the earth, but from the frequency of light emitted by a particular transition in cesium atoms, resulting in more precise and accurate measurement of time.

Deodar section

At least the last two points can be fixed.  If it is decided to move away from the A.D./B.C. system for academic work, my suggestion would be to set year zero to A.D. 775, when intense solar storms left a distinctive mark in carbon-14 dating.  It has been suggested that this event could be used to calibrate tree ring dates from around the world, leading to much more precise dating of events in the ancient world.  This also has the advantage of corresponding to a world-wide physical event, so it is independent of culture and religion.  Also, for simplicity of calculations the years before A.D. 775 should be given negative numbers.  If this system were named the way SI (metric) units are named, it might be named after Andrew E. Douglass, the "father of dendrochronology".