Archive for February, 2013

And now, a musical interlude

I guess I don’t take that many breaks from atheism or social justice or whatever’s interesting me this month and just blog about cool stuff I’ve been enjoying. Except for grand occasions like getting a cat. Have you seen my cat lately? She’s awesome.

But, speaking of awesome, have some songs. Two tracks spring to mind lately, which give me some hope for the young people of today, with their hippity-hop rap battling and their refusal to get off my lawn despite my numerous protestations to that effect. I’m sufficiently old and out of touch that I don’t know who any of the people I’m about to link to are – I have no idea whether “Avicii” is a person, or a bunch of people, or some other construction entirely – but not so old that I can’t enjoy a thing they did.

This is Avicii, apparently:

Not really troubled about the song, but the video is joyous. I need a to-do list like that.

And here are some other people, one or many of whom may be called Macklemore:

I don’t know why any of this appeals to me. Musically, it shouldn’t do. As much as I don’t tend to focus on lyrics, I think if the subject matter here were just more of the usual rap fare I wouldn’t be remotely interested. But something about the celebration of anti-bling makes it fantastically catchy.

Also, an accidental common theme to both these videos: curvy girls who don’t give a fuck are totally hot.

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I’m opinionsourcing this post again, which I think is what I decided to call that thing where I save a bunch of links about a topic, intending to write something cogent and insightful and full of citations later on, but then give up and just post a bunch of links and say “Here, all of this, that’s what I’d have said if I were a more effective human being.”

For instance, The Onion had a thing at the Oscars. (I’m so articulate, you can see why I’m keeping my own creative contributions to a minimum here.) I somewhat agree with Charles at Popehat, also think Matt Kirshen has a point, and am on board with a great deal of the Flick Filosopher’s thoughts.

I’m less interested in Seth McFarlane’s performance. Greta Christina has good words on that. The idea that jokes can’t be powerful and never make serious points is obviously ludicrous; what I keep coming back to is that the implicit premise of the joke is crucial in determining whether it’s worth taking offense at. I get most frustrated about this among discussions of “rape jokes”; the simple fact that rape is the subject matter of a joke isn’t enough to determine whether or not it’s funny, or offensive. If the premise, when you unpick it, is that rape is whimsical or comical, then it might be worth raising a fuss; Louis CK, meanwhile, provides an example of how to joke around the theme of rape without any horrendous or abusive subtext. (That wasn’t even the routine I was looking for when I typed “louis ck rape” into YouTube, but it’ll do.)

Anyway, I’m not meant to be opinionatifying my own thoughts tonight. Onward.

It’s also important to note that workfare continues to be some serious bullshit. The government are still pushing to force unemployed and disabled people into unpaid work, despite legal setbacks, increasing evidence that the scheme doesn’t work, and Iain Duncan Smith being an unutterable shit.

That was my own opinion sneaking in there again, wasn’t it? Sorry.

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The video below is of a recent Saturday Night Live sketch.

In case it’s vanished by the time you read this, like several other versions have, it’s a trailer for a fake movie called Djesus Uncrossed, a suitably over-the-top parody of several Quentin Tarantino films, featuring Jesus Christ as a merciless, sword-happy, gun-toting god of vengeance. The juxtaposition of two ideas that don’t obviously mesh well together isn’t a ground-breaking comedic construction, but it’s nicely done. It plays on Tarantino’s style of film-making and directly takes off a few specific scenes, and seeing the lamb of God played by a psychotically violent Christoph Waltz is jarring in the sort of way that makes things humourous. There’s nothing revolutionary about any of this.

Some Christians have decided that it’s the worst thing ever.

And I’m not even exaggerating to make them sound ridiculous.

NBC has produced the worst possible attack on the person and character of Jesus Christ.

Never be surprised at the level of evil man can devise.

If I were a better writer or any sort of cultural analyst, I’d have something to say about this sort of thin-skinnedness, and this capacity for such stupendous missing of the point. Rather than just pointing it out and inviting you to join me in staring in dumb bemusement.

Bryan Fischer, director of the American Family Association, felt the need to obliquely threaten the makers of the sketch with Jesus’s actual vengeance. Other people cried at that sketch because of how mean it was to their omnipotent overlord. Good grief. Nobody tell them what the Romans did to him two thousand years ago; they might have an attack of the vapours from which they’d never recover.

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Worst title ever. Let’s forget my poor, fatigued brain even come up with it and move on to the important stuff.

Two grand-daughters of Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church (famous for loudly and unwaveringly Hating Fags on God’s behalf), have left the church they’ve grown up in and been part of their whole lives.

For decades, it was all they knew, and now they’re outta there.

I am fascinated by shit like this.

I mean, the Westboro Baptist Church is a bewildering and hypnotically fascinating phenomenon in itself. They cheerfully revel in the contempt they inspire in almost literally every single person who encounters their message of hate and intolerance. They seem to sincerely take any publicity as good publicity, and their obsession with deviant sexuality and persistence in making as obnoxious a noise as possible are central to their monumental feat of unwaveringly trolling the entire country.

But some of them really seem kinda nice.

I mean, did you see Louis Theroux’s documentary about the time he stayed with them? It’s not the only time they’ve happily invited media scrutiny and been entirely candid about just what a small-minded shit their god is, but it’s one of the most accessible. If you’ve read much about the Church already, the show probably won’t contain a lot of astonishing facts, such as that most of its members are not easy people to like. Grand Patriarch Fred, in particular, is twisted with genuinely unsettling fury and disgust at the world. Watching the children being indoctrinated with dementedly homophobic dogma isn’t easy, either.

But some of the young adults – possibly including the two girls who left, I think, but you know how I feel about research – seemed much more personable. Louis genuinely seemed to get on with them at times, and not just because he has a superhuman patience. They were friendly with him, engaging, chatty. They didn’t seem to act unkindly to him at all. They believed he was an appalling sinner whose depravity in the eyes of God was such that he was destined to suffer deservedly in eternal hellfire… but that isolated belief didn’t seem to impinge on the rest of their worldview.

And now it seems like that worldview’s getting left behind.

They’ve not suddenly become devoted skeptics, or even atheists. The “revelation” they’ve had isn’t one of rational enlightenment; it’s still a fundamentally flawed logic that’s led them to their new conclusions. But despite remaining orthogonal to reason, some glimmer of compassion has overcome a lifetime’s inculcation of hate.

If things were how I was taught, God would be cruel and unkind; God cannot possibly be cruel and unkind; therefore, things are not how I was taught.

That’s the basic gist of how it goes. It’s still an obviously faulty argument, but the motivation driving the cognitive biases in play here is fantastically different than what you tend to see in the Phelps clan. And it seems they feel it strongly enough to take their leave of their entire family, who they must have known would shun and publicly disavow them if they strayed from the path – they’d seen it happen to other family members, after all. And yet from somewhere has come the determination to stick to what they believe to be true, even now that it’s actually costing them something meaningful.

I don’t want to get too celebratory and prodigal-son-ish here. It’s a long road from the Westboro Baptist Church back to decent society, and most of it’s still ahead of them. But still… it’s a heck of a first step to have taken.

More on this from JT, Hemant, and much of the rest of the internet.

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Here’s another of those things where I read something that bugs me and I want to write about, I make a note of it, I completely forget to take down any citation or contextual link or reminder of where it came from, weeks pass, and then I find it again and can’t remember what the hell it was about but I might as well blog about it because I’m here now anyway. People love those, right?

This was the quote I had opinions on:

Anarchists: your utopia will never happen. People are too crap.

I’m still dithering on what label best suits my half-baked collection of political ideas. “Libertarian socialist” I’m pretty comfortable with; “anarchist” I have a lot of sympathies with, but I’m not sure. I’ve read enough about it, though, to pick up some obvious objections to a claim like this.

It’s something anarchists respond to quite a lot, the idea that people’s inherently crap nature is an absolute limit on how lovely and free of authoritarian ruthlessness the world can ever be. (Sometimes it’s couched in more fancy philosophical jargon, but “people are crap” is something everyone can understand.) And it doesn’t take more than a cursory look at the history of human behaviour to see where this claim is coming from. From genocide to that dick on your bus who plays his music too loud, human crapness abounds.

But if this crapness is hindering our positive development as a society, we have to ask: who, exactly, is crap?

Is it you? Or is it those other people, the ones you can pick out and identify as being especially crap? Or is it just everyone?

Are other people so crap that you need to control their lives?

Or are you so crap that you need someone else to control yours?

But for the sake of argument, let’s go with this premise for a while. Yeah, people do kinda suck, in ways that really inconvenience the rest of us. (Or, y’know, in ways that leave innocent millions dead and dying.) So maybe it makes sense to rein in that inherent suckitude, by giving some extra power and authority to the best of us – those with the most wisdom and foresight, the kindest and strongest hearts – so that they can counteract our collective crapness, with their sensible diplomacy and intelligent, benevolent leadership.

That sounds like it’ll make things much nicer.

Either that, or it’ll put George W. Bush1 in charge of everything.

People of Britain, we’re all crap, we could never get by on our own, we’d cock up any attempt at society we tried to put together… so let’s put David Cameron in charge. He’ll delegate the Work and Pensions bit to Iain Duncan Smith. And the hospitals to Jeremy Hunt. And the schools to Gove. Hurrah, we’re saved!

Oh wait.

Anarchy isn’t about abandoning all the rules and letting everyone run amuck and make it all up as they go, totally ad hoc, and just trusting in humanity’s better instincts. Well, probably it is for some people who wave the black flag, but that’s not how it’s seen by those serious enough about this philosophy to have written essays on it. It’s about organising ourselves in ways that don’t allow humanity’s worse instincts to take over and start institutionally harming and destroying us.

Trying to inspire and nurture the best in us should be an obvious course anyway, and some people have decided that this is best achieved by abandoning all hierarchical authority, so that nobody is in a position to abuse it, or to be abused by it, or to use it to gather ever more authority to themselves and start a cycle of tyranny, or to start infringing others’ rights and justifying it as part of their remit to defend the “greater good”, and so on. Perhaps that form of organisation is, inevitably, one that does more harm than good.

I mean, if people are crap, why do you want to keep giving them so much power over you?

If we’re too crap for anarchy, but the best makeshift solution we can come up with is putting a ruling class in charge of everything, then I’m not sure I want to live on this planet any more.

1I use Bush instead of Obama as an example of executive power gone horribly wrong, because I suspect my audience is still largely left-leaning, and so the memory of Dubya with the nuclear launch codes will invoke a more visceral reaction of horror and disgust. It’s still true that Obama’s worse in most of the ways that allegedly matter to his supporters.

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Kirsty and I stopped in on the Wellcome Collection’s exhibit on death a while ago, on our way to a comedy gig about sex. And I wish my whole life was as awesome as that one sentence kinda makes it sound.

Anyway, it was interesting. The ubiquity and variety of art which focuses on our mortality wasn’t really a surprise, but made me think consciously about just how much of everything we do is motivated by the fact that we’re all going to die.

There were a lot of skeletons. A skeleton makes sense as a symbol of death, I guess, because the bones are the most resilient part of the body to decay, so once rot sets in, that’s all that’s going to be left before too long. And pictures like this are used to say all sorts of things about death’s inherent connection with life, and how it’s entangled with our everyday existence despite our efforts to deny or forget about it.

I can see the value in reminding ourselves that life is fleeting and we’re all going to die – not least the simple fact that it’s true, and believing true things is preferable to any alternative. But I can’t shake the feeling that our efforts to “confront” or “face up” to the idea of death, particularly our own, often just obfuscate or ignore the reality.

Our skeletons, and the bones of which they’re constructed, are just as functional and essentially lifeless a part of us as our hair, teeth, skin, or lungs, after all. But in art, they rise up, they walk about, they dance. They’re lively. They do most of the things that the living do, without death seeming to act as any impediment. One of the pictures I saw at the exhibition was called frolicking skeletons. These emblems of death are still sufficiently full of vim to frolic.

It all seems to obscure and evade the point that death is the end. It’s nothingness, it’s an absence, the ceasing of something that was. I know evading this idea happens all the time with stories of an afterlife, but skeletons aren’t in the same genre as loved ones waiting for us in the next world. If death isn’t the end, but just a moving on to another place, that’s one thing – but all this art about death was ostensibly intended to force us to recognise that it is the end. And yet, how can we do that if decay and decomposition gets to seem so bouncy and fun?

(I’ve just reminded myself, incidentally, of the LucasArts game Grim Fandango, where you play a dead guy ushering other unfortunates into the Land of the Dead. It’s a sort of limbo most people pass through before being sent on their way to some sort of eternal reward, but all the dead people still have personalities and walk around and such, much like they did in life (though they’re all skeletons now, of course) – and, relevantly here, you can still die. Or at least, you can be “sprouted” – shot with some kind of dart gun, as I recall, which makes you lie down and stop moving while plants grow out of you. It ups the stakes and adds some tension to the storyline, sure, but it also re-emphasises that the “dead” characters are really still alive, in every sense aside from the label describing their mortal condition.)

It could be that I’m missing the point. Maybe it’s just a way to align the deathly nature represented by the skeleton with the living world, and I’m just looking at art wrong. As someone who’s never studied the humanities in any detail (and barely ever notices things like metaphor in films or art unless I’m well and truly bashed around the head with it), I’d hazard a guess that the physical energy of these lifeless beings represents the machinations of life itself which seek to drag us ever closer to the grave. It’s this which is imbued with energy, not truly the dead themselves.

And yet a lot of this kind of art seems insistent on imbuing the dead with vitality. I suspect creating a truly provocative display, which actually confronts the real blank, empty, ultimate, irreversible deletion of personhood that death really implies, isn’t easily done. But we really are all going to die, however oblivious or unable to conceive of such a thing we might be. All the more reason to be good to each other now, while we still can.

I should really play through Grim Fandango again. That game was awesome.

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Something that often comes up, in discussions about providing financial aid for those on low incomes, is the idea of a “payment card“.

Rather than handing out cash, this would be something that looks and acts rather like a credit card, which is topped up every so often with a fixed amount of credit, but which can only be used to purchase a limited set of goods. Food and other essentials, for instance, but not booze and cigarettes and other things that simple cash money might be frittered away on.

This may, at first, seem like a worthwhile way to make sure that those we’re trying to help are actually being helped; that, if some people have naturally unreliable spending habits which have led them to a situation where they need help, those habits can be curbed by not giving them the chance to spend their funds unwisely.

It’s understandable if such a scheme doesn’t immediately strike you as unconscionably heartless, cruel, and dehumanising.

But it’s an idea that’s been tried before. A couple of years ago, for instance, the Azure card came into use in the case of some asylum seekers. The “countless horror stories” touched upon in that CiF article – kids going without clothes, parents having to walk miles to a supermarket which might accept the card because they aren’t allowed to buy a bus pass – speak for themselves, as well as highlighting the incompetence of the government’s implementation of the scheme.

Or, if individual tales of embarrassment and degradation don’t move you, just look at the stats. A majority of card users were unable to attend essential health appointments, were turned away from supermarkets they’d been told would accept it, and found the experience of using the card humiliating and a source of anxiety. These aren’t just teething issues or a handful of isolated problems; this is the standard result when you take disenfranchised people and further remove their autonomy and dignity.

Government has amply and repeatedly proven its complete lack of ability to run such an operation in any morally justifiable manner. Yet it persists in keeping huge swathes of the public under the thumb, and going to great lengths to make sure nobody gets a damned penny more than they’re deemed worthy of, for the sake of meagre financial savings, while imposing a tragic and needless oppression on those who’ve already had the most opportunity stolen from them.

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