specious pretexts

People will only be as empathetic as they need to be. I'm reminded of this by an Atlantic article I'm reading:

But most of these women say their thinking evolved over time as they weighed the foibles of the president against sins of the elites, whom they viscerally distrust. For instance, during the focus groups I convened throughout Trump’s impeachment, few of the women had anything nice to say about Trump’s actions. But their real contempt was reserved for Democrats and “the media,” whom they viewed as unnecessarily adversarial to Trump. And the plain fact is that they were unwilling to give much weight to an argument about the rule of law and abuse of power, because it didn’t have a visible impact on their lives.

That last phrase, which I emphasized, stood out to me. Many of us humans contain a seemingly bottomless reservoir of empathy for others — we're the ones who see a hurt or struggling animal or person, and forget the rest of the world as we feel a bit of the pain they're feeling. We leave our ego for a second to think about someone who's not us, and we feel some kind of foundational bond in that nameless void that connects all living creatures.

For the rest of us humans, we (I assume) merely lack the tastebuds, eardrums or photoreceptors that can perceive distant anguish in others. We feel no empathy because we can't even detect anyone in need of some empathy; so why expend the energy looking? We're literally blind to it, as the pain has never come close enough to us to enter our sensory field and thought processes.

This is why these people find Trump palatable — they don't perceive the pain and humiliation he inflicts on others, because they aren't close to any of the people his actions affects. They don't think about any abuses of power because they're generally on the “happy” side of those abuses. They don't really care about how the law is enforced or not because they're never on the receiving end of law enforcement. They don't care about inhumane immigration policies because they've never had to flee their home and migrate to another country. They don't care about a concentration of wealth by the elites they claim to distrust because, hey, enough of that wealth has also accumulated in their pockets. They don't care about healthcare for others because they don't have any chronic health conditions; they can afford the medications they need; they've never had to worry about access to health professionals. The list goes on.

We lose the plot when we talk about the ignorance and moral failings of Trump and his supporters. It's elementary and only the first step to changing anyone's mind. If they're ever going to change their minds, they'll need to experience these pains first-hand — otherwise they're simply too far from it. They need to care up close, like the rest of us already can from afar.

Knowing why you believe what you believe is important, especially in today's political climate. I'll delve into that more in my next post.

For me, there might be a single word to describe how I know what I know and how I decide to change my mind on something. But I don't know that word, so I'll sum it up thusly:

  • I trust what I already know, because I've somehow arrived at that conclusion (whether through experience or upbringing or repetition or overly convincing argument, it doesn't matter). I trust in it enough to get through the day simply because it's all I know, and that's just my limitation as a mortal being.

  • I'm not quick to change my mind, because then I would be forever changing my mind with each new piece of information or convincing argument that ever comes my way. Default skepticism keeps this in check, and isn't a random subjective choice — it's an evolutionary necessity to keep me from going insane.

  • But I still want to change my mind (it's the only way to truly evolve in life). However, it only happens in the presence of enough reasons to do so, weighed against my past experience and the knowledge that there are people in this world who are motivated to dupe you.

I read an article today that talks a bit about this “epistemic learned helplessness” (linked from an excellent idlewords talk, Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People). Essentially it's the understanding that anyone can convince anyone of anything, so truly knowing what to believe based on others' arguments isn't a good way to know what you know or not.

It might work equally for people who either believe that the world is round or flat, but again, I'll get into that another time.

#philosophy #knowledge #epistemology

Just found out via Facebook news feed that an old friend died yesterday. No explanation. Just friends and family talking about him. Sad emojis, “feeling sad” Facebook-prescribed statuses, and then actual words elucidating their sadness. “See you on the other side” messages.

I don't have that comfort.

Just the reality of this person I knew for a couple short years gone, just like that. I didn't respond to the last text he sent me several months ago. I haven't talked to him in a few years, since I moved an hour down the road. I don't have heaven to wait till and talk to him, nothing to lighten the surprisingly immense weight of his death. The first one I've ever cared about in the course of my life.

Why the fuck didn't I text him back? Why is the world around me suddenly devoid of fuzzy illusions, suddenly crisp and plain and truthful?

A man I knew died, and with that fog lifted I see I cared about him more than I consciously believed. My busy, foggy mind decided not to text him back that day I was on vacation across the country. That same mind never gave weight to the thought that I should text him later. A clearer head might've asked how he'd been, made plans to visit that trailer in the woods and bullshit over a can or 10 of Natty Light. I could've met his new son.

Why the fuck did I think my thoughts were more important than someone else?

Later. And we always want to know how it happened, don't we? It's like death has struck close to home, and we just hope to avoid the same fate. We constantly play ignorant of the infinite ways our fragile lives can suddenly come to an end, so we clamor to hear about these first accounts so we can quietly say, Oh, I definitely wouldn't go out that way. How ignorant we are of the perpetual situation we're in. How ignorant I've been.

Though I don't subscribe to any one organized religion, I think many people would find me to be more spiritual than many people who say they're “believers.”

It's not that I need to talk in new-agey terms about astral planes and chakras — such talk, while better than the cliches of Abrahamic religions, still majorly turns me off.

Rather, I can explain life in simple language; language we use every day — because life is what has taught me, and it's spoken the language I speak. And to be able to learn its secrets today (not from a 2,000 year old book), I think, is the best way to learn about eternity. I don't need to read an ancient book to understand life today. Of course, reading texts from history helps put things in context, but for the rest, this very moment tells me everything I need to know. And comparing the old and the new shows that existence itself doesn't ever change. People are still born and eventually die. They breathe the same things; eat, drink and reproduce to survive.

There's nothing that tells me I can't rely on my current, real, live existence happening right now to tell me all I need to know about how to live a good life or be a good person — by living with a bit of wonder I can learn it all.

And I think that's how it should be. Man, woman, dog, cat, bird, dolphin shouldn't have to “believe” that something exists (e.g. the afterlife, good and evil, etc.) as a prerequisite for eternal wisdom. If the wisdom is true, it will be evident in our very own live consciousness, right here and now.

After a few conversations tonight, I understand why people like being authoritarian-leaning. Today was a “free speech” rally in Boston that, despite constantly coming with quotes on cable news, actually was a free speech rally — not a euphemism for white supremacist rally.

It was hard to tell, especially since over 40,000 people showed up to protest white supremacy and Nazism. If they're the counter-protesters, well I guess the others are the protesters in support of white supremacy!

So after I started arguing with someone on the internet, I found out it wasn't actually a white supremacy rally. I had to admit I was wrong after really digging my heels in to my very righteous argument, and that was my moment of realization.

This shit is hard.

Especially in this political climate, and as someone entirely unaccustomed to the political world before this last election, it's hard to keep your head. There's no doubt this administration skews reality and gaslights us all to a new extreme, but it really is tough knowing who to trust, where to fight, who's the real enemy, what the real facts are, what the argumentative frames are, etc. As a non-Trumper we have no leadership telling us what to think, really. The right has their dictator, and all the talking points nailed down and widely distributed. They're all on the same page.

But us others are left to crawl and feel our way out of the dark. We have to decipher what Russia is doing, and how the administration is employing their tactics to dismantle the country. We have to parse propaganda from Fox News, Sinclair-backed local news, online blogs, social media trolls, right-wing personalities, Trump supporters, crony capitalists, and the White House itself. We have to know what ball to keep our eyes on. We have to know what tactics are going to work to fight the enemy-of-the-day (e.g. do we punch Nazis? Use non-violence? Mockery? Compassion?). We have to not chase every enemy ball thrown our way.

I have no doubt we're all figuring these things out as we go, and no one group has all the answers. That's what happens when you don't have a demagogue, I guess — you're all on your own, out in the middle of nowhere, in infinite gray instead of a world of comforting black and white. You are forced to dig deep and search and refine and discover all the nuances to all the issues so you can reach a conclusion that provides and codifies some core American values for everyone. The answers aren't simple, like the authoritarian followers trust and believe they are.

You have to invent democracy, I guess.

And maybe that's what we're doing right now. My complaint is that we're all spread out — I can barely find groups in my area that I feel are tackling the big, overarching issues. They're all focused on smaller subsets of problems. But I guess that's how it should work — the bottom-up. Diverse groups of people addressing their particular issues and then coming together into larger and larger groups, until it reaches the top.

But finally seeing what true democracy looks like (or needs to look like) has me concerned for all these distractions we have right now. Obviously democracy has been on the decline in America for long before Trump, but the White House agenda and constant drama is making it seriously difficult to build a stronger democracy at the very moment we're all realizing how badly we need one. We know a weak democracy is Russia's goal, but how much our own regime is assisting in that weakening is especially ominous to me.

Things have been messy this year, for the country and for me. I've struggled a lot to grasp what the hell is happening, and have put myself out into the world more, often to get smacked in the face by missing facts or overlooked points or inane arguments or realizations of my own emotions getting the best of me. But it's served to stretch my mind and teach me, and I think finally I'm starting to see what prize to keep my eyes on.

Today I read “My Party Is in Denial About Donald Drumpf,” and it shows how far gone many Republicans are, including the article's author. He starts out like this:

With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Drumpf.

See, that sounds like a nice admission, but to anyone paying attention, starting an article like that proves you have no potential for self-reflection.

I personally didn't know much of anything about politics before Drumpf was elected. These past several months have been a crash course in history and politics for me as I've read more and more to try and comprehend what's going on. But many people who have been studying or living politics for years saw this coming. They knew the conditions were right for an authoritarian figure to rise up, and they knew that any group of people getting deals out of the situation would be along for the ride until the bitter end.

Michael Gerson, a con­servative columnist and former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, wrote, four months into the new presidency, “The conservative mind, in some very visible cases, has become diseased,” and conservative institutions “with the blessings of a president ... have abandoned the normal constraints of reason and compassion.”

Yes, and abandoned the normal constraints of ethics, public duty, patriotism, moral decency, and common courtesy.

But then the period of collapse and dysfunction set in, amplified by the internet and our growing sense of alienation from each other, and we lost our way and began to rationalize away our principles in the process.

Hint: you're still shifting blame.

At the end, of course, this senator proposes some “solutions” while taking no verifiable steps to practice what he preaches. People like Mr. Flake are just the first few to look around and have a minor realization of what they've done. Now they're taking to publishing books and bewildered op-eds as they scramble to find any remnants of their principles laying around somewhere. The optimist in me hopes they'll eventually remember that defining moment when they abandoned any sense of decency or duty — and maybe use their egregious mistakes to turn a new leaf in their lives; maybe turn to a new god that isn't money and power.

On one end of a spectrum of beliefs, they say life is guided by an anthropomorphic deity in the sky. On the other, the universe is cold and indifferent. I'd say both miss the point.

It became clear to me early in life that organized religion (or at least Catholicism) was snake oil: a poor remedy for man's (sometimes invented) problems. I wasn't raised this way; I was born into a family of believers. But the day the possibility arose in my mind of religion being not a law of nature, but a myth man made up, a funny thing happened. I didn't become anti-religion or an atheist. I didn't turn to satan or start thinking that life had no purpose without a “big man upstairs.”

No. Instead, I became free. Free to discover for myself what life was, and what it was about. Free to learn about the world and how to do right by myself and others. Without pre-selected “authorities” on the subject of existence who gave answers like “because God said so,” I could ask all the questions I wanted. And unlike a priest, the universe would answer.

And it's taught me a lot since then.

But there was, of course, another camp waiting for me when my mind left religion's loose grasp back then: the “cold and heartless universe” camp. The comedians like to joke about this, and the way they tell it shows the subtext in this thinking: basically, “The universe doesn't care about me, so why should I care about it?” And when you consider that you exist within the universe, this easily translates to “why care about existence?” Or colloquially, “life is shit.”

While I bought this general idea for a while, I quickly found it got me nowhere in life, and much later found out why. The revelation happened while I was hiking on the John Muir Trail in California. We'd been out in the woods for about 4 days. As we passed through Ansel Adams Wilderness and approached our next ascent, the skies were growing darker. The world rumbled. We waited under some trees for a bit, but without any apparent nearby lightning we kept going, and made it over the pass to our next campsite without getting struck.

Soon the skies cleared up, and I went to the edge of our site to look out into the valley below. Here I realized how easy it would be to take a wrong step and go tumbling down the rocky mountainside, breaking and bruising things along the way. Of course, there were also trees along the way that might stop my uncontrolled descent — or maybe a small plateau that would provide a little break from the steep slope. It was there I realized that the universe really does provide for me. Sure, some epic hand might not descend from the clouds to grab me before I fall to my death or get a bad boo-boo. But the trees and boulders might save my life, even if it hurts a bit.

In fact, trees are the quintessence of a caring universe, if we had to pick one. You or I didn't invent trees — no human did. Yet they grew and contributed the air on this planet to help create the perfect conditions for us and other animals to be born and thrive. Now, their hanging branches and leaves provide the only natural relief on a sweltering July day. They breathe opposite us, inhaling every time we exhale. They together continue to grow, even when we chop them down, turn them into paper, and use them to wipe our human asses — never holding a grudge.

Put simply, to think that the universe is uncaring is to invent an ideal universe in your head and be mad when reality doesn't match up. It is to say, “Don't strike me, lightning!” while standing tall in the middle of a field in a thunderstorm. It is to leap off a cliff and expect to fly, merely because you believe it. It is to ignore your senses and the world you are a part of.

If you find yourself despairing over a cold and heartless universe, stop. Look at the trees. Listen to their leaves blowing in the wind — really listen. See what they tell you. Find a river, lake, or ocean and listen to the water. See what you discover — not about the universe, but yourself.

If you pay attention, you might hear the truth you've been looking for.

If you're like me, aging and mired still in our political climate looking for answers — not drinking Bud Light and shooting off fireworks — you might like these two speeches that Americans have given on July 4th's in the past.

Thurgood Marshall accepting the Liberty Medal, 1992. Read it.

Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. In the chill climate in which we live, we must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust. We must dissent from a nation that has buried its head in the sand, waiting in vain for the needs of its poor, its elderly, and its sick to disappear and just blow away. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.

 “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass, 1852. Read it or listen to James Earl Jones read it.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

I watched a documentary about the Egyptian revolution recently, and the conviction of those revolutionaries reminded me of a past me, an otherwise comfortable me worried about the world, more than myself.

There are few revolutionaries to converse with in white collar adult life.

Now, there's only revolutionizing a first-world issue with computers or revolutionizing industrial processes or someone's ability to extract profit from the masses.

Like everything else, commercialism has hijacked, fucked, and softened “revolution” to provide a friendly consumer-friendly notion of great change enacted at the hands of brilliant business and tech “revolutionaries.” Surely all our lives will improve with more central services, more devices, more connectivity, they promise. They encourage us to all surf on the bleeding edge of tomorrow, to pioneer new territory where quaint notions like personal privacy are left to the 20th century. This is 2017! they cheer. Just click “Agree” and start transferring your fucking data!

Revolution isn't easy when you're still getting something nice enough for you to ignore that you're getting fucked. Even with hard evidence, like Snowden's, of private companies sleeping with the government, there aren't enough people angry enough to revolt.

And I get that. You don't bite the hand that feeds and you get to keep your endless supply of Twinkies.

These people aren't at fault.

It's the ones keeping this machine chugging on its clear trajectory of having us all by the balls; they're the ones enabling, encouraging, and maintaining the conditions necessary for this world I would never want to be a part of. That there are so many corruptible humans in the world would be utterly disheartening if I didn't know in my muscles and bones that it is simply not enough to destroy the incorruptible among us. There will always be wise forces at play to abate the corrupt's advances on our psyche. And if more people saw the dramatic contrast between a corrupted government and an individual that stood up to it, I believe they too would feel emboldened to stand up.

But there is an issue of communication when it comes to this. We get our ideas of heroes from the movies but our ideas of real life from the media. And the neutral stance that journalism attempts to take rarely changes the minds of people — especially compared to those taking a stance, like the movie hero. It is a race to the bottom, but perhaps a necessary one, that outlets present a strong opinion for readers to either agree or disagree with.

This is how people normally work.

To call something “neutral” and worthy of praise isn't journalism, it's bullshit. People don't work on neutrality, and editing human events down to raw “facts” gives us something ultimately irrelevant to us all.

I re-read some news from around June 2013 about the revealed government surveillance programs, and while the gravity of the situation was apparent in the language, the implications were not.

And this is what people need to know to start getting animated. And that is where we should be right now.

The media's stated purpose is to report the news. But what good is reporting if no one understands it? The news can't simply seek to entertain or even “inform” if it doesn't provoke action. If the media exists to truly keep pressure on the government, to hold them accountable and expose wrongdoing, it cannot simply point it out — it must incite actionable solutions.

I've heard several people recently say they're “not a big fan of political correctness.” The first few times I heard it it simply confused me, but then it became an unfortunate blemish on my respect for whomever said those words, because it sounded like they were saying “I have no interest in either empathy or getting with the times.”

My understanding of “political correctness” was that it meant using words that don't offend certain people that don't have it as good as others in life. I thought it meant being well-spoken, and not discrediting yourself by using archaic words and language, like racial slurs. Avoiding words your southern grandma says, to me, just means talking like you're from this cultural era, and not the mid-20th century (or earlier). And as an individual of this era, I like knowing how the best of us speak, so that maybe I can speak that well too, and eliminate self-detracting vocabulary. Because it's not just that “non-PC” language can speak poorly of your character; actively rejecting modern language exposes a truly selfish mindset — that you can't put aside your ego for the smallest of things. It's the verbal equivalent of walking down the sidewalk, seeing another person approach head-on, and not moving slightly out of the way so it's easier for both of you to pass. That person isn't “encroaching on your rights”; you're just not the only person that needs the damn sidewalk. Even New Yorkers understand that. (Come to think of it, the way you walk down the sidewalk says a lot about your personality.)

After hearing “I'm not a fan” again, I decided to Google “political correctness,” and came across a great piece of writing from The Guardian about “how the right invented a phantom enemy,” which describes the propaganda machine funded by billionaires like the Mercers and Kochs for the past few decades in an effort to get voters on their side, which included this “war on political correctness.” Suddenly everything made sense. The opinions and worldviews of friends, family, and acquaintances that “hate political correctness” were seemingly prescribed by some billionaires a few decades ago, including another bewildering viewpoint a friend shared with me: his distaste for “academics.” From the article:

The right had been waging a campaign against liberal academics for more than a decade. Starting in the mid-1970s, a handful of conservative donors had funded the creation of dozens of new thinktanks and “training institutes” offering programmes in everything from “leadership” to broadcast journalism to direct-mail fundraising. [...] Their stated goal was to challenge what they saw as the dominance of liberalism and attack left-leaning tendencies within the academy. Starting in the late 1980s, this well-funded conservative movement entered the mainstream with a series of improbable bestsellers that took aim at American higher education. The first, by the University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom, came out in 1987. For hundreds of pages, The Closing of the American Mind argued that colleges were embracing a shallow “cultural relativism” and abandoning long-established disciplines and standards in an attempt to appear liberal and to pander to their students.

It was just one of many eye-opening examples. That article led me to the long history of these billionaires, and unfortunately a shorter patience for the people I know holding these views. It's easy to give people the benefit of the doubt when you don't fully know why a stated opinion sits with you so badly. Not so much when the opinion was paid for, and stubbornly refuses to leave that person's mind.

Luckily, at least, with this new knowledge I can be more confident in my original assumption: to be “politically correct” means to not be a selfish asshole. I like not being an asshole.