Mocking the king, not the subjects

I’ve made it clear before that though I think that mockery and satire are a good and necessary thing, but only when applied upwards – by the relatively powerless to the powerful. Mockery by the strong of the weak is merely cruelty. Fred Clark gets this, completely. In this weeks installment of his deconstruction of the Dominionist Xtian apocalyptic wankfest Left Behind series, he posts on the Slacktivist blog, he sinks his teeth into a scene where the born-again protagonist wields his not-so-scathing wit at a woman who is not his boss. The mysogyny and stink of entitlement in the scene are palpable. Fred says:

Comedy is essentially revolutionary. This scene is counter-revolutionary. That’s never funny. Everything in these pages is about reasserting hierarchy and punishing anyone who challenges it. That’s never funny either.

Buck Williams isn’t the court jester, he’s the sycophantic court prophet. The court prophet isn’t funny. (Nor is he really a prophet.)

The jester is funny because he mocks the king. He deflates the over-inflated and humbles the proud. This is what comedy does. It’s what comedy is for. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

..That’s what makes it funny. That’s what makes us laugh.

Everything that Buck does in the Chicago bureau of Global Weekly is intended to tear down the lowly and lift the powerful onto their thrones, to fill the rich with good things and send the hungry away empty.

That’s not funny. That’s the opposite of funny.

Postmodernism in modern banking

Hmm… is this becoming a series of posts on ‘posts’?

(Not a bad idea… lends me to fond recollections of Julian Cope and I backstage at one of his gigs, both utterly stoned as could be and him looking me deep in the eye and describing my wives and I as “the most post-christian family I know”. Good times.)

No, this one is about modern banks and how their decline and fall started as a modernist movement, but soon fell into post-modernism as it got non-linear…

The original conceit comes from a New Yorker article (found by Letter From Here blog),

Melting into Air – Before the financial system went bust, it went postmodern.” by John Lanchester

Have a toke on this… it’s long, but satisfying.

There’s something almost nineteenth century about Buffett’s writing on finance—calm, sane, and literate. It’s not a tone you’ll readily find in anyone else’s company reports, letters to shareholders, public filings, or press releases. That’s because finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts—a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of “The Waste Land.” In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of “The Rite of Spring.” Jazz, dance, architecture, painting—all had comparable moments. The moment in finance came in 1973, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities,” by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.

The revolutionary aspect of Black and Scholes’s paper was an equation that enabled people to calculate the price of financial derivatives based on the value of the underlying asset. Derivatives themselves had been a long-standing feature of financial markets. At their simplest, a farmer would agree to a price for his next harvest a few months in advance—and the right to buy this harvest was a derivative, which could itself be sold. A similar arrangement could be made with equity shares, where what was traded was an option to buy or sell them at a given price on a given date. The trade in these derivatives was hampered, however, by the fact that—owing to the numerous variables of time and risk—no one knew how to price them. The Black-Scholes formula provided a way to do so. It was a defining moment in the mathematization of the market. The trade in derivatives took off, to the extent that the total market in derivative products around the world is counted in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Nobody knows the exact figure, but the notional amount certainly exceeds the total value of all the world’s economic output, roughly sixty-six trillion dollars, by a huge factor—perhaps tenfold.

It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. It is difficult for civilians to understand a derivatives contract, or any of a range of closely related instruments, such as credit-default swaps. These are all products that were designed initially to transfer or hedge risks—to purchase some insurance against the prospect of a price going down, when your main bet was that the price would go up. The farmer selling his next season’s crop might not have understood a modern financial derivative, but he would have recognized that use of it. The trouble is that derivatives are so powerful that—human nature being what it is—people could not resist using them as a form of leveraged bet.

And then, once the results of all these leveraged bets became clear (an awful lot of basically useless financial instruments and toxic debts) it all went a bit… postmodern.

The result is a new kind of crash. The broad rules of market bubbles and implosions are well known. They were systematized by the economist Hyman Minsky (a student of Schumpeter’s), in the nineteen-sixties, and their best-known popular formulation is in Charles P. Kindleberger’s classic work “Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises” (1978). Tulip bulbs in the sixteen-thirties, railways in the eighteen-forties, and Internet stocks in the nineteen-nineties are all examples of the boom-bust cycle of a mania leading to a crash. As Morris points out, however, a credit bubble is a different thing: “We are accustomed to thinking of bubbles and crashes in terms of specific markets—like junk bonds, commercial real estate, and tech stocks. Overpriced assets are like poison mushrooms. You eat them, you get sick, you learn to avoid them. A credit bubble is different. Credit is the air that financial markets breathe, and when the air is poisoned, there’s no place to hide.”

The crisis began with defaulting subprime mortgages, and spread throughout the international financial system. Thanks to the new world of derivatives and credit-default swaps, nobody really knows who is at risk from the wonderfully named “toxic debt” at the heart of the trouble. As a result, banks are reluctant to lend to each other, and, since the entire financial system depends on interbank liquidity, the entire financial system is at risk. It is for this reason that Warren Buffett was doubly right to compare the new financial products to “weapons of mass destruction”—first, because they are lethal, and, second, because no one knows how to track them down.

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

Give the whole piece a read, it’s quite illuminating. And while you’re there perhaps you can answer one of the great mysteries of our time – why are the cartoons in the New Yorker so uniformly shite?

Post-capitalism, and how to get it

Kim Stanley Robinson, one of SFs greatest ever world-builders and a passionate Green futurist, has a plan… and he calls it, becoming a post-capitalist society. Here’s a taste:

Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am. It should not be shocking to suggest that capitalism has to change. Capitalism evolved out of feudalism. Although the basis of power has changed from land to money and the system has become more mobile, the distribution of power and wealth has not changed that much. It’s still a hierarchical power structure, it was not designed with ecological sustainability in mind, and it won’t achieve that as it is currently constituted.

The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible. The global population therefore exists in a kind of pyramid structure, with a horizontal line marking an adequate standard of living that is set about halfway down the pyramid.

The goal of world civilization should be the creation of something more like an oval on its side, resting on the line of adequacy. This may seem to be veering the discussion away from questions of climate to questions of social justice, but it is not; the two are intimately related. It turns out that the top and bottom ends of our global social pyramid are the two sectors that are by far the most carbon intensive and environmentally destructive, the poorest by way of deforestation and topsoil loss, the richest by way of hyperconsumption. The oval resting sideways on the line of adequacy is the best social shape for the climate.

This doubling of benefits when justice and sustainability are both considered is not unique. Another example: world population growth, which stands at about 75 million people a year, needs to slow down. What stabilizes population growth best? The full exercise of women’s rights. There is a direct correlation between population stabilization in nations and the degree to which women enjoy full human rights. So here is another area in which justice becomes a kind of climate change technology. Whenever we discuss climate change, these social and economic paradigm shifts must be part of the discussion.

Given this analysis, what are my suggestions?

  • Believe in science.
  • Believe in government, remembering always that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and crucial in the current situation.
  • Support a really strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Institute carbon cap-and-trade systems.
  • Impose a carbon tax designed to charge for the real costs of burning carbon.
  • Follow the full “Green New Deal” program now coming together in discussions by the Obama administration.
  • Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.
  • Support the full slate of human rights everywhere, even in countries that claim such justice is not part of their tradition.
  • Support global universal education as part of human-rights advocacy.
  • Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as “free markets” and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.
  • Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.
  • Start programs at these same schools in postcapitalist studies.

Slumbering Albion – Philip Pullman, liberty and censorship

Philip Pullman has written a splendid and passionate rant, called “Malevolent Voices that Despise Our Freedoms”, about the way Britain is sliding into a state of passivity against governmental control.

“To mark the Convention on Modern Liberty, the children’s author has written this article for the Times Online”, the header reads. But not long after the piece was posted, it was removed from the Times Online site with no explanation.

Whatever the reason for the removal, such disappearances are treated as damage by the internet and routed around… the piece has been reposted in several places (I found it on Issac Bonewits’ blog). Take a moment to read it, please.

A sample:

We are so fast asleep that we don’t know who we are any more. Are we English? Scottish? Welsh? British? More than one of them? One but not another? Are we a Christian nation – after all we have an Established Church – or are we something post-Christian? Are we a secular state? Are we a multifaith state? Are we anything we can all agree on and feel proud of?

…The new laws whisper:

You don’t know who you are

You’re mistaken about yourself

We know better than you do what you consist of, what labels apply to you, which facts about you are important and which are worthless

We do not believe you can be trusted to know these things, so we shall know them for you

And if we take against you, we shall remove from your possession the only proof we shall allow to be recognised

The sleeping nation dreams it has the freedom to speak its mind. It fantasises about making tyrants cringe with the bluff bold vigour of its ancient right to express its opinions in the street. This is what the new laws say about that:

Expressing an opinion is a dangerous activity

Whatever your opinions are, we don’t want to hear them

So if you threaten us or our friends with your opinions we shall treat you like the rabble you are

And we do not want to hear you arguing about it

So hold your tongue and forget about protesting

What we want from you is acquiescence

To quote XKCD…

Fuck. That. Shit.

“a nicer fundamentalism”

I’ve mentioned here before that I find reading opinions that differ from mine to be stimulating.

Of course, sometimes the thought stimulated is “this person is a fucking idiot”. Such a person is Paul Spinrad.

In a guest blog post on Boing Boing called “Re-engineering fundamentalism“, he notes the following:

It seems to me that every so often, the dominant political and cultural machine grows so large and incestuous that it loses its connection to people and makes them feel powerless and irrelevant. When this happens, in the West anyway, there’s inevitably a revolution of words, of back-to-basics and idealism, against the image-conscious, superficial, wealth-obsessed Babylon. Because it’s based on words, people can place their trust in it fully and spread it, and it will continue to make sense over time. It doesn’t propagate through image, might, or personal influence. This empowers people again– perhaps simply by making them feel empowered.

Big examples are the formation of Christianity and Islam, and the Protestant Reformation. Today we see other fundamentalisms. But the inevitable next one doesn’t have to be intolerant and destructive. If we engage with the task of developing it, rather than avoiding it and leaving it to others, it can be a nice one.

This was my reply:

The last line of this piece is the stupidest thing I have ever read on Boing Boing, and a candidate for the stupidest thing I have ever read online.

The point Mr. Spinrad painfully fails to grasp is that *fundamentalism itself* is a damaging mindset. It doesn’t matter which text or set of ideas – the Bible, the Koran, On The Origin of Species – are taken as inerrant, it’s the act of declaring an idea as absolutely true and trustable which causes the harm.

Fundamentalism stops the questioning part of the mind from working. It is a failure of imagination. It leads the victim to believing those who do not share their beliefs matter less than they do. The results of this are rarely pleasant.

A ‘nicer fundamentalism’ is about as helpful a concept as a cheerful serial killer.

I would also note that at no time does Spinrad attempt to show how fundamentalism can be re-engineered, or even a basic grasp of either the history of thought and belief or any understanding of how fundamentalist belief works. And don’t even get me started on the puerile dualism of “back-to-basics and idealism” versus “the image-conscious, superficial, wealth-obsessed Babylon”.

This is not something I say lightly… actual fundamentalists make more sense than this shite.

(Oh – and anyone considering witty remarks along the lines of “you’re being fundamentalist too” can fuck right off. If I was in a better mood I would explain the difference between a passionately held opinion and an inflexible one. But right now, I’d rather offer you a spoon to eat my sick.)

HaHaHa… a little irony for UK’s snooping Home Secretary

There’s something about getting a political gig that, er, alters the moral flexibility of the recipient. The position of Home Secretary to Her Majesty’s Government seems to have an especially swift half-life for becoming a totalitarian dickhead.

Frankly, the (never) Right (also never) Honourable Jackie Smith hit the ground running. Massives of extra expensive and near-useless security theatre CCTVs, planned biometric ID cards, raising the level of general fear of everyone who isn’t quite like us – whether they be olive-skinned with beards or birkas, East European workers, and those of us who enjoy consensual sex and pictures thereof…

…and she gets PWNED by local people applying exactly her principles and mechanisms to find out she’s pulling expenses fraud to get her new house built.

Win.

As Caroline Cadwallr of the Guardian put it so well:

Hardly anyone actually shoots themselves in the foot or literally gets egg on their face, so it was a real pleasure last week, in so many ways, to witness Jacqui Smith being hoist with her own petard.

A petard was, in the original French, an explosion of intestinal gas which, in turn, gave its name to a small bomb, such as the one that erupted across the papers last week, when the neighbours of her sister’s house in Peckham, south London, came forward and told the press that she was only there a couple of days a week.

Because, in the small matter of whether she was right to pocket £116,000 of additional expenses by claiming that the back bedroom she rents off sister is her “main home”, as opposed to the house she owns in her constituency in Redditch where her husband and children happen to live, this turns out to be critical testimony.

Standards Commissioner John Lyon twice turned down requests to investigate the matter. It was only when some neighbours, Dominic and Jessica Taplin, wrote to him and repeated the claims they made to a newspaper, that she is there rather less than the four nights a week that she claims, that he agreed to open an inquiry.

It’s this that’s the real beauty of the story. Residents on the online East Dulwich forum (East Dulwich being what you call Peckham if you happen to live there) declared themselves outraged at the behaviour of the neighbours, with words like “snitch”, “curtain-twitchers”, “grassers” and “narks” being bandied about (apparently “Dominic and Jessica Taplin represent all that’s worst about the new smug arriviste elements of East Dulwich”). This is the world that Jacqui Smith has created. The only shame is that they didn’t capture her on CCTV.

If you want to rat out your neighbours, allow the home secretary to enumerate the ways. Do you know someone who claims more from the state than they’re entitled to? Who is “picking the pockets of law-abiding taxpayers”? Not politicians over-egging their allowances, obviously, but “benefit thieves”. If so, call 0800 854 440 now. “We’re closing in with hidden cameras. We’re closing in with every means at our disposal.”

Do they own more than one mobile phone? Then call 0800 789 321. “Terrorists need communication. They often collect and use many pay-as-you-go mobile phones, as well as swapping Sim cards and handsets.”

No mobile phones? What about if they’re “hanging around”? Or, as the Home Office-funded radio advertisement puts it: “How can you tell if they’re a normal everyday person or a terrorist? The answer is that you don’t have to. If you call the confidential Anti-Terrorist Hotline on 0800 789 321, the specialist officers you speak to will analyse the information. They’ll decide if and how to follow it up. You don’t have to be sure. If you suspect it, report it.”

It’s such a lovely turn of phrase, that. If you suspect it, report it. Don’t wait for evidence. Or question your own prejudices. If someone’s not a “normal everyday person” exactly like you, then they could well be a member of al-Qaida. What flawless logic that is. We’re already described as “a surveillance state” by Privacy International, one in five of all CCTV cameras ever made are currently in Britain, and Smith is drawing up plans to intercept every phone call we make and every email we send. The Taplins weren’t snitches – they were perfect citizens in her New Model Army.

And what was Ms. Smith up to while these shenannegans were occurring? Losing her temper publicly at noted drug expert (and my-Beloved-the-ex-neurochemist-shaman’s ex-boss) Professor David Nutt to order him to beg the forgiveness of the families of those who died from adverse effects of MDMA, which he had correctly pointed out is actually safer statistically than horse riding.

Of course it’s all about Nutt having the indecency to use an upper-class sport for comparison… nothing gets deeper in the craw of the ruling class than to point out their hobbies are actually less safe and often dumber than those of the hoi-polloi!

Well, slight exaggeration there. But don’t doubt that her deeply narrow mind will accept no disobediance, especialy over teh evuls of hot sex and drugs that can actually help people heal from thr traumas of both normal life and the deeper scars of abuse and post-traumatic damage. Just the sort of damage our modern life and modern wars produce.

People like that, when not able to recover through their own means, those Vachss calls The Children of the Secret especially, often fall into violent crime, usually as much as victims as perps. Relaxing the therapeutic use of MDMA and restrictions on BDSM play would both add to the possibility of some of these people finding their own recovery. You’d think the attendant lowering of violent crime likely to result would be of importance to the Home Sec. Shame she’s too busy making dodgy expenses claims to care, innit?

God and pasta, stoning and scorn

“They’re just your beliefs. They’re not real.” – Bill Hicks

“Death to all fanatics!” – Old Discordian saying.

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What people believe and how they act on the basis of their beliefs fascinates me. Consider the Flying Spaghetti Monster .

You know the story, I’m sure… a silly alternative to Xtian creationist ideas is created as part of a reductio-ad-absurdam defence against same, resulting in a wildly successful internet meme, a book, and a new ‘religion’ along the Zen-comedy lines of Discordianism and the Church of the Sub-Genius.

One of the truly great things about the FSM website is that they regularly publish examples of their hate mail. Shockingly, the vast majority of such comes from people who identify as Christians – and these missives can be roughly split into two types.

First are the straightforward haters – either vicious or condescending, they implore/cajole/heap scorn on the very idea of the FSM, having apparently undergone a satire bypass at an early age. Here’s a good example:

this is the dumbissst thing i have ever heard……..you think this is ganna make fun of christians then you are a fool! cause the god we worship is real…. and we dont eat him… by the way well pray for you your ganna need it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -brittany (sic)

(It seems ‘brittany’ is unaware of that whole transsubstantiation thing…)

The rest mostly consist of reciting Bible quotes and concepts in attempt to refute the position of the FSM ‘believers’. Like this:

“For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” (1 Chronicles 16:26). “You shall not make anything to be with Me – gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.” (Exodus 20:23). “What you have in your mind shall never be, when you say, ‘We will be like the Gentiles, like the families in other countries, serving wood and stone.’” (Ezekiel 20:32). “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:3 (Deuteronomy 5:7, Judges 6:10, Hosea 13:4″ -Jerry

(The comment threads on the hate mail are tremendous fun. Often the Xtian poster will attempt to defend their position, with high-larious consequences.)

Here’s the part I just don’t get… why do people think that quotes from their holy book will convince people who are not believers of that holy book? I know the theory – their holy book is The Truth and all those who deny The Truth can (and should, and will) be eventually convinced. The theological version of going to a foreign country and believing the natives will understand you as long as you speak English LOUDLY. I just don’t understand this mindset.

That sort of certainty about your beliefs might seem just funny, or naive. But it’s precisely that sort of fanatical certainty which leads to such ‘righteous’ actions as killing women’s health providers to ‘save’ foetuses. Or execution for apostasy.

Apostasy is a fascinating and horrible concept to me. Although it’s mostly known these days for quasi-judicial murders in Muslem (or Muslem-contested) countries, the less immediately fatal version – the outcasting and stigmatizing of those whose belief in the One True Truth of their family and culture slips – also has terrible effects.

(There seems to be a small spate of apostasy among the pagan community at the moment – several well-publicised examples of former pagan people converting either to Christianity or Atheism. I would note that the majority response of pagan commentators has been to respect these decisions and call for wider interfaith dialogue. No fatwas, no bombings. I prefer this.)

The entire idea of being punished for apostasy ignores (and condemns) the possibility that a person can have a genuine change of heart about what they believe. Of course those within the monolithic grasp of a single True Religion regard those whose personal beliefs change (and, dare I say, evolve) over time as having ‘weak faith’. I could get all Zen and say, “is the willow which bends in the wind weaker than the oak which breaks?” Or I could say, “fuck ’em”. Or both. Depends on the mood.

I have always thought the problem isn’t what you believe, but what you do about it. For instance, my-Beloved-the-ex-neuroscientist-shaman went to college with a Fundamentalist Discordian. Back in her college days, her email handle was ‘eris’. Another student complained that this disrespected his deeply held beliefs. (My Beloved’s reply was to send him occasional emails saying, “Hail Me, dammit!”.)

Dealing with fanaticism and the many differing ‘deeply held beliefs’ in modern society is not going so well. Rather than trying to find a middle ground where those of different beliefs (incluuding the belief that belief itself is wrong) can talk like grown-ups is being pushed aside in favour of a spate of governmental and international initiatives to classify expressing disbelief or satire of someone elses faith as a ‘hate crime’. Especially, by pure coincidence I am sure, those faiths where the believers in question has a habit of killing (or sueing or protesting) those who make fun of them.

Apostasy, criticism and satire are not hate crimes. They are part of a person trying to understand what they and others believe and why. Sometimes that means showing disrespect and scorn for another belief. For that matter, believing one monolithic system is automatically going to be blasphemy to a different belief.

Though I dislike scorn for no reason, or purely out of xenophobia, scorn of fanaticism is utterly justified. I even think it’s necessary. But it can also be a trap – it can easily lead to exactly the same level of fundamentalism as those one is scorning. The best route, I think, is to apply the same humerous and scathing approach to your own beliefs as much (or better, even more than) those you disagree with.

(Oh – and feel free to express scorn for my beliefs. Just don’t expect a free pass when we debate because you have The Truth.)

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“Our motto is: ‘Sincerity is not enough.’ We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it’s true doesn’t make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn’t mean you are not doing harm.” – The Unitarian Jihad

“Criticism is the only known antidote to error.” – David Brin

(Thanks to the Metapagan news service for some of the links.)

The fat of the land

It’s not that I mind the UK government spending millions of tax payers money to campaign against obesity, so much as I mind them using an ad campaign which shows our ancestors killing a dinosaur.

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=AH8zClozUV8]

Considering the drive for legitimacy by Young-Earth Creationists/Intelligent Design adherants and such, I can’t help but think they should’ve watched some Bill Hicks before commissioning the ad.

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=mrZcztxRquo]

I do mind that the drive is partly sponsored by Kellogs and Unilever, whose products have pushed sugary and/or fatty foods onto the British public for generations. And that the whole campaign is another attempt to foist the responsibility for dealing with a complex social and medical problem onto the public, akin to those ads which tell us to save the environment by turning off lightbulbs while the government supports major industrial polluters such as EON.

It also saddens me that the ad was made by Wallis and Grommet maestros Aardman Animation, who should know better.

The Woo, the How and the Why

I’ve long been interested in “Occam’s Razor” — the scientific maxim that maintains that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. But who gets the honor of defining “simple”?
It’s a lot like Carl Sagan’s “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What, exactly, is “extraordinary”? “Extraordinary” to who? Are the criteria subject to change?

Mac Tonnes, ‘Intelligence and the Cosmos’

There are few things more stimulating that reading an intelligent and well-written book whose author you disagree with.

The book in question for me right now is Christopher Brookmyre‘s novel, ‘Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’. It’s a fine tale, which proceeds from the basic principle that paranormal phenomena are not real and the Rationalist paradigm is the only truth – the book is dedicated to James Randi and Richard Dawkins, which gives you an idea. (‘The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ is a Randi term for us poor souls who will never be convinced in the non-existance of the paranormal, no matter how hard our betters try to change our minds…) In the book, Brookmyre does a very good job of showing the arguments of both sides of the debate – though it’s clear that he shares the Rationalist view in the end, he is not too scornful of the Believers of Woo (i.e. not all of us are actual frauds just in it for the money, some are just deluded or too emotionally invested in belief).

The book made me think a lot more about that point of view, and especially why many of those who espouse Rationalism as the One True Truth (not Mr. Brookmyre, I hasten to add) are so very harsh to those in disagreement. And whichever way I look at it, the answer is the same.

They’re Fundamentalists.

Oh I can almost hear their cries right now… “We are not Fundamentalists because that word doesn’t apply to us, because we’re not religious and preaching from a single text and declaring it as perfect and unalterable!”
Well, tough shit.
As Andrew Vachss said so well, ‘behaviour is the truth’. If you act like Fundamentalists, expect to be treated like them.

Here’s what I mean – Do Fundamentalist Rationalists;

Believe in a single inviolable truth?Yes.

(That the modern scientific paradigm is correct in all essential detail and merely requires minor adjustment until it is a perfect description of Reality.)

Insist that those who disagree with their Truth are less important or relevant or capable than them?Oh yes.

(Take, for example, Randi’s finger-poking at the evil proponents of Woo and Dawkins’ declaration that those who agree with him are ‘Brights’ – meaning the rest of us are dim…)

Desire to completely rid the world of opposing beliefs?Yep.

(Rationalist writings of recent years – those penned by Dawkins and Hitchins and such – have explicitly stated that anyone who disagrees with their version of Rationalism is a threat to modern society and strongly express the wish that they cease to do so… admittedly their ‘or else’ is not as unpleasantly explicit as that of Fundamentalist Xtianity or Islam, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they’d be happy bunnies if all us weirdoes vanished overnight.)

Have double standards around what constitutes ‘truth’?Fuck aye.

Consider for example these two looks at the ‘skeptical’ approach and that hallowed tool of scientific ‘objectivity’ the Peer Review. Also consider the amusing results of when the tools of field anthropology are pointed at the environment of a working laboratory, or when an actual skeptical mind looks at the paranormal and tries to share their results with the Rationalist set.

Refuse to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong or having any flaws in their own paradigm? Let’s see, shall we?

Drop in on Randi’s website forum, or the comments on the Bad Astronomy or Pharyngula blogs. There’s a lot of straw-man arguments, insults and ad hominem attacks (not the same thing), plus more than a little scorn, rejection of dissent and emotional manipulation of their followers – but neutral considerations of reported phenomena? Pointing their ‘skepticism’ at their own models? Not so much.

So… if that’s not a fundamentalist attitude, it’s real hard to distinguish it from one.

Here’s an illustration of Rationalist Fundamentalism in action…
A few years ago, neurologist and Rationalist spokesman Stephen Pinker wrote a book called ‘How The Mind Works”.
What colossal arrogance. And what a clever title – two false statements in a mere four words.
1. The book is a pop-science work on modern brain theory and research. It’s not about Mind at all… it merely assumes that Mind is a by-product, an epiphenomenon, of Brain. This is something other researchers would query, and even in some cases say is completely refuted (there is evidence for competing models about consciousness as a whole-body, or even a non-local, phenomenon.)
2. We’re an awful long way from knowing how the brain works – let alone the mind.
For instance, I can offer evidence that pretty much every single model of thought and consciousness which regards the brain as central and essential is incorrect – and I can do it with one word.
Anencephaly.

This is a birth defect where much of the cerebellum or other major brain structures are missing or severely deformed. Normally it’s fatal. But…
There are some people who grow to adulthood with this condition. Sometimes, it’s not even diagnosed until adulthood, due to a MRI for an unrelated condition. In short, there are men and women walking around the planet today who have effectively no brain – just a small bunch or strand of neural tissue and an awful lot of cerebro-spinal fluid in their heads.
(I’ve talked about this before, but the paper I linked to has changed location. Here’s another paper on the subject.)

These people, though rare, are conscious by any reasonable test of same – not imbeciles, they’re capable of thought and speech and movement (and are not, to quote Steve Martin’s classic movie ‘The Man With Two Brains’, “sitting in the corner and going tttthhhppp…”). Yet despite the existence of these people, the standard model of neurology has not, as would be the correct action in a true spirit of scientific enquiry, been binned.

The refusal of scientists as a rule to acknowledge such ‘black swans’ easily (if at all) is understandable to a degree. Their models work pretty well, most of the time. Modern neurology is a damn fine thing, has saved many lives and brought about remarkable understanding. But it’s also incomplete and in many parts contradictory. And its attempts to deal with the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness, with some noble exceptions, mostly consist of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la”. (Best example is Susan Blackmore – who merrily insists that consciousness is basically a delusion, but never quite manages to answer the question, “what’s doing the deluding, then?”, or wonder if her own Buddhist beliefs could possibly colour her views.)

Probably a good time (yet again) to state my views on Science…
I think modern science has made the world, on the whole, a better place. I certainly much prefer to live in this time and place rather than under any fundamentalist religious regime.

But… I don’t think science is complete or wholly accurate. I’m fairly sure it can’t be, by definition.

All science can do is make and test models, theories of how reality functions. (To nick from McLuhan – “The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.” And no amount of insisting will make a menu edible.)  Useful, but not necessarily completely true.
Plus, that which does the modelling is far from infallible.
I know (from working in labs myself, and knowing various professional scientists in fields ranging from neurology to astrophysics to psychology to particle physics) the actual process of scientific research is fraught with nepotism, political manoeuvring, hide-bound attitudes, bad intellectual habits and on occasion outright bribery and fraud… and if you think you’re going to get a Pure Truth that way, you’re more deluded than Randi’s minions would think I am!

There is a method within the scientific world for dealing with contradictions and oddities – it’s called the multi-model approach, was pioneered by Niels Bohr and has a lot going for it.
Trouble is, it pretty much denies the One True Truth idea… and thus is avoided by Fundamentalist Rationalists like the plague. It’s not a favourite of Fundamentalist Religious types either.
And if that’s not a recommendation…

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that science is completely wrong and mystical belief is always right. Or that all models of the world have equal validity. Far from it.

I’m just pointing out that absolute belief in any kind of One True Truth is a trap. As the old Discordian saying goes, ‘convictions cause convicts’. The same habit of thought which leads the likes of Dawkins to insist that modern science proves God doesn’t exist is pretty much the same one that has ‘Intelligent Design’ proponents both ignore all the evidence that contradicts their model and simultaneously miss the point that even if there is evidence for the universe having some kind of Designer, that doesn’t prove that said Designer was their God.

It all comes down, I suspect, to a very human decision. Choosing who to believe, whose word to trust. Who you choose as an authority shapes everything you think.

And we do not always choose wisely.

“Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, Nation

(Special thanks to ‘Dr. Jon‘ for several of the links, and of course to the late Robert Anton Wilson for inspiration.)

Past rants – On taking the veil

This is me wading in on the controversy about Muslem women wearing the hijab. From 8 October 2006.

On taking the veil

I’ve been mulling over this since Jack Straw’s recent pronouncement on the subject of veiled Moslem women There have been some good comments on the subject already – my good mate Cavalorn puts Straw’s words into perspective quite nicely.

Firstly – Straw is a complete wanker. Let’s get that out of the way and move on.

Secondly – the only practical reason to ask such women not to veil their mouths is if one is deaf and cannot understand them without lip-reading.

Third – if removing barriers to communication based on facial expression is so important, why doesn’t Straw ask for sunglasses, Botox and beards to be dispensed with also?

Lastly…

Well, the short version is, “your rights end at my nose”. But as I’ve been thinking about this, my view gets a little… ranty.

Bear in mind this is just my opinion…
…I find overt displays of Christian symbols not only offensive, but nauseating. I feel that xtianity is a faith comprised of roughly equal parts hypocrisy, arrogance, blind acceptance of outdated dogma and whining passive-aggression. Speaking as someone who has never taken the easy path to spiritual belief – constantly seeking and asking questions of the Universe, altering my beliefs on the basis of life experience and trying to never assume that I have arrived at The Truth – xtianity is nothing but a form of moral and spiritual laziness, of unquestioning acceptance of contradictory and repressive ‘truth’… and it sickens me to the core. I truly think the whole belief system is dangerous and demeaning both to those who espouse it and especially those who disagree with it on any level.

And I can’t escape from these symbols. The hideous concrete cathedral down the road peals its bells whenever it wants. Xtianfuckwits wave their faith like a greasy flag on every online forum I belong to, from PDA users to Lost watchers.
I would *love* to pronounce that these wanton displays are offensive to me, or as Straw put it, “make me uncomfortable”. It would give me endless pleasure to rip crucifixes from their throats, graffiti their posters, hack their websites, render unwatchable their cable networks…
…but I don’t. Because that would be intrusive, unnecessarily aggressive and grossly wrong. It would be an act of intolerance, based purely on my emotional reaction to something I do not agree with. There are many people for whom xtianity is a worthwhile and nourishing belief – and some of them are friends of mine.

I find any belief system where you can’t question the dogma, choose to leave, or are severely punished for breach of clothing or other regulations, distasteful. But I am very aware that many find my beliefs equally odious.

Thus it is with women of Islam choosing to display their tokens of faith. You may not like it, you may even be offended by it – but you have no bloody right to order them to remove it.

I know some will say that “the veil is a symbol of women’s status as second-class members of Islam, of their spiritual bondage to a repressive patriarchal system” – and I agree they have a point. I am no fan of the extremists of that faith either. Having spent some years studying Sufi mysticism, I know that there are many paths to Islam (which means, let us not forget, ‘submission’) which do not repress women. Mohammed himself said, “woman is the twin-half of man” – not the lesser partner, but equal.

If they have chosen to take that belief – be that belief xtian, muslem or whatever – to that level, it’s their choice. It would be crass to force them out of their belief on the basis of personal distaste – and anyway, it doesn’t work. People inside a repressive belief system have to find their own way out. You can’t “rescue” them until they are ready. And you certainly can’t assume a lack of consent without very good evidence.

It’s interesting to compare this to BDSM – where the submissive chooses their lifestyle, defines their relationship with the one they submit to and expects to be treated within certain defined parameters which they accept and consent to. The key word here is ‘consent’. A lot of people find such dom/sub relationships highly offensive – many of them are xtians. But to me, a nun is exactly the same relationship, without the fun bit. If a woman consents to wearing a veil, it is her choice – and I am unsure that feminists would be on strong moral ground to argue otherwise. If the woman does not consent willingly – does so out of fear of reprisal, being outcast or even physically harmed – that is another matter entirely. I would hope that there would be ways for such to be able to leave that state… I know that it is hard to deny the ties of religion and family that bind them. But exactly the same is true of those bound to xtianity, or scientology or any other restrictive belief.

The only sensible path I can see is tolerance and honest communication. And if some of that communication has to take place through a veil – whether it be of cloth or of hardened mental attitudes – then so be it. It’s better than just resorting to hatred and war.