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Archive for June, 2014

Watch this music video. It’s lovely. You may know the song.

If you don’t find that beautiful and moving, then either you’re dead inside, or I’m way more of a hippy than I give myself credit for.

(Or possibly your tastes in music and art just diverge substantially from mine. I suppose it needn’t be anything dramatic.)

What still strikes me about this video is how little happens in it, and what a disproportionate effect it has.

The music itself is rather lovely, and although I’m paying as little attention to the lyrics as I generally do, no doubt they’re also very sweet. But the video is wonderful, charming, delightful, inspiring, adorable, heartening. If you were ever inclined to doubt that world is capable of beauty and kindness, seeing this will put any such fears to rest in just a couple of minutes.

Which is odd, because all you’re seeing is some people you don’t know, sitting on a sofa, listening to a song on some headphones. Sometimes they smile at each other, enjoying a shared joke, or chuckling at the artificial nature of the situation. There’s the odd glance of recognition between them, perhaps after a particular lyric connects in some way. One person just sits and holds a framed photograph.

That’s all there is. It’s barely anything at all. It’s a simple, unremarkable series of snapshots of perfectly ordinary people doing something perfectly ordinary for a brief moment in their lives. And it’s one of the most moving things I can think of.

Which I think means that, somewhere, a small bunch of musicians and filmmakers have tapped into a staggeringly important and borderline magical power of the human mind.

Seriously. I mean, how can it not be? The world is fucking horrible, you guys. Terrible things that should make any sane person want to abandon this whole spinning space-rock and go live on an ice moon somewhere are happening every day, all over the place. Citation utterly superfluous. Pick any half-dozen comments at random from basically anywhere on the internet. Watch an American news channel for as long as you can stand. Learn a single fact about the international arms trade. Everything is so far from optimal it’s terrifying.

But then you can look at some people being people for a couple of minutes while a man plays guitar and sings a nice song, and it all seems okay.

Even a shared experience as small and easily attainable as this, is enough to make us feel connected. It lets us feel like those people we’re watching are happy and splendid and that everything’s alright because the world is full of happy splendid people just like them. (You have to assume that they’re listening to the same song that we are, anyway. It probably loses its impact a little if you turn the sound off and imagine they’re spacing out to some dubstep.)

My threshold for having my perspective shifted to allow me to see the world as a place of beauty and love and joy and potential and hope is phenomenally low. The littlest, simplest thing can remind me of so much good, and make me feel like it’s all so valuable and important and wonderful.

That sounds like a fucking superpower to me. And it’s made all the more powerful if, as I strongly suspect, billions of other people share it.

There’s a lot that goes on in the world which is horrible and frightening and sad. But it can’t truly be without hope, or beyond redemption, while it can so easily seem wonderful again.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Ugh. Just how much of a drip am I?

2. Yeah, but go watch that video again. I’m going to.

3. Life’s not so bad, eh?

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So a lot of Republican politicians are hypocrites.

I forget what prompted me to bring that up. It’s the kind of self-evident truth I think it’s okay to just throw out there, and take it as a basic, axiomatic principle. Saying “citation needed” seems redundant over something so blandly obvious.

With some regularity, some Republican politician will do something pretty messed up in a tiresomely familiar way. One thing that often happens, while their fans are busily sweeping it under the rug or denying its importance, is that their detractors will point out how much of a fuss those same Republicans and their supporters would be making, if it had been a Democrat pulling this kind of shit.

The exact nature of the shit doesn’t matter. A governor buggering a bridge in revenge at a mayor. A committee on reckless spending blowing $10,000s on a cocaine and strippers party. You know, normal politician stuff.

And the whole “you’d be throwing a fit if the tables were turned” argument often looks pretty sound. Republicans grabbing any opportunity to score petty political points over the supposed misdeeds of their opponents? Once again, citation surplus to requirements. But people mostly seem to draw entirely the wrong conclusion from it.

Because the accusation tends to be hurled at the opposing team in exactly the kind of point-scoring tactic supposedly being decried. Not nearly enough blame is apportioned to the tribalistic party political system as a whole, in which we’re urged to pick a coloured hat to wear, fanatically join forces with anyone else wearing the same colour hat as us, and dedicate ourselves to proving the superiority of our particular colour of headwear. This last duty is generally engaged with more zeal than we end up applying to the job of representing the people, or doing anything to improve the world.

Observing that “Republican politicians suck and are hypocrites” is not especially challenging or interesting. Refining your observation to “Republican politicians, finding themselves quagmired in the system we’ve currently decided to use to make our decisions, are massively incentivised to rationalise ludicrous double-standards and to defend their base at the expense of any kind of logic or basic decency, if they want their careers to survive” is a slight improvement.

As soon as you identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you start veering toward these kind of defensive thought processes. You start giving your in-group the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the worst of the outsiders. You start filtering what information makes it through to your consciousness, until it becomes easy to believe that some bunch of assholes got together over there and decided just to be bad, you guys, not like us nice folk over here, who are very similarly entrenched on the other side of the battlezone but are good for totally legitimate reasons that don’t require any selective or motivated reasoning whatever I’m sure.

Once you pick a side, that’s the path you start going down. And it’s not because you’re a terrible person. You’re smart and witty and thoughtful and you look great, you’ve been working out, I can tell. It’s because this is how humans are hard-wired. There is no escaping these traps. The best we can do is to be consciously aware of them, and notice when they might unconsciously be swaying us.

Yeah, you’re right. Republicans probably would have gone crazy if a Democrat had pulled that kind of shit. That’s what you get when a species that’s been building these patterns of behaviour into our brain for millions of years insists on still living in tribes.

People are not generally the antagonists of their own narrative. Very rarely do you find a group genuinely comprised of self-identified baddies intent on committing foul villainy upon the land. Only one springs immediately to mind – and whatever you might like to think, the GOP is not Slytherin.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Why’d I have to pick the Republicans as the purported antagonists here? Isn’t that too easy and crowd-pleasing? Aren’t I giving away my own tribalistic biases there, as I denounce them in others?

2. So what’s the solution, if we don’t like the two-party system? Just add more tribes? Isn’t that just going to distribute the problem over a wider area?

3. Honestly though, can you think of anything to spend $10,000s of taxpayer money on that’s better than a cocaine and strippers party?

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Astonishingly enough, it turns out that, if your strategies for saving money are inhumane and uncaring, you’ll just end up making things more difficult, more painful, and more expensive for everyone.

In this particular case, spending a little less now to help people with mental health problems means we have to spend a lot more later when those mental health problems become more serious.

(See also needle exchange programmes, which demonstrably reduce harm caused by compulsive drug use in a remarkably cost-effective way, but which have an iffy history of interaction with government at best, and are rejected by many politicians on some kind of moral “principle”, regardless of how much they help.)

I guess there’s no inviolable natural law as to why, in theory, governments mightn’t be capable of rising above this kind of short-termism, and responding to a troubled economy by taking actions that would actually save money rather than making everyone’s lives worse. But it’s not how things often seem to work in practice.

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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Rik

Death’s a right b’stard, eh? Actually, no. B’stard was still lovable. Death’s just a cunt.

Time for the ritual sharing of favourite memories, then. Grim Tales will always be near the top of the list for me.

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Just a quick reminder that, in the world that Peter Hitchens lives in:

– marriage is dead;

– weddings mean nothing;

– a decision to commit to a romantic relationship, and ask the government to formally recognise your family unit, must be absolutely and indefinitely binding for everyone involved, no matter how much about your own or your partner’s personality or behaviour or preferences have changed in the ensuing years and decades;

– and anything which loosens the law’s iron grip on you, once you’ve entered into a voluntary agreement with another human being, and allows you to reconsider the terms, is a totalitarian abomination.

Oh, and from a different section of that same article, all violent criminals are probably on drugs and the base rate fallacy doesn’t exist.

If I lived in a universe quite so miserable, my face might look like that too.

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So, this, absolutely and in its entirety.

(image from the Women’s Rights News Facebook page)

But people object to this. It wouldn’t need saying if there wasn’t a widely prevalent train of thought which takes “boys will be boys” to the level of smiling endearingly and seeing no problem with these behaviours before children have reached a certain level of numerical maturity.

And I think a partial explanation is that, if you’re not bothering to think about it much (and let’s face it, thinking is hard), you might assume that the only alternative being proposed to complete indulgence is wrathful tyranny. That the only way to instil in your child the notion that hitting or insulting other people isn’t okay even though you’re six must necessarily involve shouting or spanking or some other form of vicious authoritarianism.

Which seems tragically unimaginative. People seem to concoct the least reasonable opposition imaginable to their own established view on something, dismiss it on its face, and conclude that their own stance must be unassailable. (See also: “Russell Brand’s ideas are a bit vague and ‘revolution’ is a scary word, so let’s keep trying this representative democracy thing which I’m sure will starting working in everyone’s best interests any decade now. I agree with Nick!”)

Is it not at least worth investigating whether kids can be taught not to bully other kids, and encouraged to carry this lesson into adulthood, without implementing some ridiculous imagined Demon Headmaster scenario?

Is there any way it might be possible to steer children away from certain negative behaviours, without crushing their spirits and condemning them as monsters for their crimes?

It’s worrying how many parents who already have children seem to assume the answer must be no. What do you every time you and your kid disagree over whether they should have ice cream for dinner, or whether your new curtains would look better with a more interesting pattern snipped along the edges with scissors?

Do you yell at them until they’re browbeaten into capitulation? Is their every mistake corrected with a clap of unforgiving thunder?

Or have you managed to find some way to tread a happy medium between loving them and teaching them the rules that society expects them to live by?

And if it’s the second one, how hard can it be to extend that principle to times when they’re tempted to pull other kids’ hair?

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Argument against the human body being the product of intelligent design #234978: lack of progress bars.

I’m bad at a lot of things I’d like to be less bad at. Now, the part where that takes hundreds of hours of effort to make tiny incremental improvements to your skill level, I get. But I’m also painfully aware of the possibility that, after putting hundreds of hours of effort into something, I won’t have achieved anything worth crowing about at the end of it all. That has to be possible as well, right?

My base level of talent at, say, drawing, is so low that, even if I worked really hard at it, to the same degree as other people who’ve practised long enough to get really good (which, let’s face it, is unlikely), I’m not convinced I’d make anything like enough progress for it to be worthwhile. Because that incremental improvement is basically just a rumour at this stage. It’s an urban legend about something that’s happened to other people but never been directly observed.

If I could just watch that progress bar slowly, slowly ticking forward toward my next level-up as I work at it, I wouldn’t keep deciding that my latest pet project is futile and giving up six times as a day.

Again, I’m not objecting to the fact that learning new skills takes a long time and a great deal of effort. Progress is allowed to be slow, and hard work is the most rewarding kind. I’m young enough that it’s not like I don’t have thousands of hours available to try getting good at a few different things, but the suspicion that my achievement level is remaining at precisely zero despite my actions is inescapable.

Just blindly hoping that it’s all going somewhere, anywhere, isn’t enough. My brain needs an XP-counter implant, dammit.

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Other cultures are weird. You know it, I know it, Austin Powers’s dad knows it.

Come on, don’t be coy. There’s no need to worry that the PC brigade are going to come along and make this whole blog illegal under human rights legislation (thank you, Brussels). We’re all friends here, us British and North American folks, with a handful of varied Commonwealth types maybe dropping by from time to time. Sure, we don’t always get along with each other. There are times we confuse each other a bit with our local pronunciations, like when someone from Leicester tries to write to their penpals in Mackinac Island and Natchitoches. But at least we all speak English, like decent, civilised human beings. The people who don’t even do that much, the really foreign ones… well, they have some pretty strange ideas.

And some of them are bad ideas, too. Not just different, but dumb. I mean, it’s fine when they want to eat their own weird food, or sleep for half the afternoon, or run away from some giant angry cows for no reason – that last one probably balances out all the extra sleep, by being the direct opposite of a quiet lie down. But sometimes they do stuff that’s just ridiculous on the face of it.

Like, look at the caste system they have in India. It’s not like social class isn’t a concept much abused in the West, but it’s nothing like the formalisation of the idea that you see over there. You’re born onto a rung on the ladder and you’re stuck there; even if it’s not legally recognised, there’s apparently a widespread social acceptance that this is how things are. The recent rape and murder of two “untouchable” teenage girls is just one incident highlighting the effect that caste has on people’s perceptions of others.

Or look at this Chinese Keqi thing, essentially a form of courtesy taken to extremes. Actually, the author of that article puts it better: “less about being polite to people because you don’t want to hurt their feelings and more about being polite so you don’t look bad”. They’ve taken a benevolent concept and turned it into something unhelpful and egocentric. Being polite to people is obviously basically good, but surely the cultural approach apparently popular in China is objectively worse than, say, Canada’s take on the same subject?

Hopefully the casual xenophobia in my opening paragraphs was broad enough that it’s clear I’m not actually talking about billions of other people as if they were part of a homogeneous mass objectively less awesome than my own. But it’s easy to think this way, when you read about phenomena like these from far outside the cultural context. And it’s not like such culture-specific memes can’t ever be judged on their merits; the death penalty’s a cultural phenomenon of the US which I don’t hesitate to criticise and call barbaric. So why not assess some less harmful but still problematic cultural concepts, like the above, and conclude that other people’s ways of doing things aren’t such a great idea?

It’s probably okay to try it – so long as you remember to finish the thought, and complete the picture. How would somebody who isn’t me, but might read about me and my people in an article online, complete the following paragraph?

You know, those middle class white boys from the south of England have some funny ways of doing things, right? It just seems stupid the way they always…

There are surely any number of ways you could go with that. I’m a prime candidate for falling into thoughtless patterns of behaviour, and letting my biases keep me stuck to damaging ideas, just like any other human. That’s the important thing to understand if you don’t want an interesting cultural comparison exercise to turn into tedious “us and them” blabbering. Someone from outside my bubble could point out any number of things which really ought to make me take a long hard look at myself.

There really are some behaviour patterns, which are the familiar and comfortable norm in other societies, and which those societies would surely be better off adapting or abandoning. The same is unquestionably true of my own, but I’m less able to identify those. I’m too rooted in my own concept of normal. So maybe what we need is some kind of cultural criticism exchange program. Some venue where we tactfully bring up things that seem weird, messed-up, and sub-optimal about each other’s cultures, in a non-judgmental, friendly, constructive way, and all do some learning about how the traditions came to be that way, the possible advantages of attempting to shift them, and so on.

The emphasis does need to be on understanding the role that these cultural oddities play in the societies in which they’re found, and the purpose they serve, so that we’re not attempting to deprive anyone of something meaningful without providing the tools to install an adequate replacement. This is especially true in cases like the ones I’ve talked about here, where someone like me is in danger of delivering condescending lectures to individuals whose country my recent ancestors invaded and basically decided was ours. I don’t want to let imperialism or Western paternalism be any kind of driving force to this… but I would dearly like to encourage Indonesians not to cut their own fingers off as a sign of mourning.

And I want to hear their ideas about the things that are wrong with the stupid way I’m living my life, too, because Christ knows that goes both ways. We badly need some gentle advice from an impartial observer over here. You can start by tearing your hair out over everything we ever think, say, or do about sex. It’d take some truly bewildering cultural narcissism not to recognise how fucked up my people are on that score.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is there something intrinsically offensive about this cosy Westerner telling people he doesn’t know, and whose ways he doesn’t understand and has never experienced, what they’re doing wrong with their lives? Is it more okay if I ladle on enough context, make it clear that I don’t just want other people to be more like me, and acknowledge that I’m in need of this “service” as much as anyone?

2. This should totally be about stealing other people’s great ideas, too, like throwing a party to celebrate a baby’s first laugh. What else is cool like that which we just haven’t figured out we should all be doing?

3. Seriously, what is it with literally every society that’s ever existed and sex? How are we still so far from getting that one right, after all this time? Those bonobos, man, they know what they’re about.

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Here’s one of them “half-assed and barely worth it but at least I’m typing” posts I promised you. Clearly I need to work on the self-promotion at least as much as the writing itself.

The Co-operative Bank has been greatly “troubled” in recent months, to put it euphemistically. There’s been no shortage of opportunity to read about what a nightmare they’ve been having, especially from the BBC.

There have no doubt been some serious management problems which need addressing. Much of the criticism thrown Co-op’s way, even if it has been largely dealt out by superfans of one narrow and specific conception of capitalist economics revelling in apparent vindication of their own ideology, is surely valid.

And yet, for all the public dissection of this failure of the ethical investment model, it does make me wonder why, when HSBC – a bank with a more rigorously capitalist doctrine – made a killing over the course of decades by laundering billions of dollars for drug barons and terrorists, I had to read about it on a comedy website specialising in dick jokes.

After wondering this for a while, I decided I may have just not been paying much attention.

***

So that was just a thought I had in my head, and so I got it out of my head, as per yesterday’s new policy. It’s not much, but it’s a thing. As it wasn’t much, here’s another one.

I don’t know by what piecemeal process something becomes so twisted, distorted, wasteful, counterproductive, and utterly unfit for purpose as the current US healthcare system. I suspect it takes many minds, spread over many different layers of competing bureaucracies, all at differing levels of competence and malevolence, and all failing to communicate with each other meaningfully, acting largely in whatever short-sightedly self-interested way will best keep them afloat in the immediate future without making too many waves.

What’s the purpose behind a healthcare system? Something idealistic and obvious like, I don’t know, making sure people’s health is cared for? Look at the state of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries in the States. That’s not even in the top five.

Maybe it doesn’t matter how things got this bad. Or maybe it’s important to understand so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes next time. I just know that my gut instinct when I read about shit like this, that inner voice which burns with furious, urgent need, is howling burn it all to the fucking ground.

That’s not “just a metaphor”, by the way. Saying that would make it sound like my anger at this is some momentary thing, that I’ll be thinking more clearly once I’ve calmed down, that sure I’m frustrated but I’m not actually advocating dramatic and severe and complete change in a way that annihilates the status quo.

Possibly the worst part – because it both gives me hope and also makes the whole thing so unbearably tragic – is that the system is filled with well-meaning people working hard to do good. And the structure they’re working in is built in such a way that anxiety, misery, destitution, and immeasurable unnecessary suffering are the direct result of their commendable labours. We’re trying so hard to make it better and it’s still completely fucked.

Now I’ve just made myself sad before bed. I knew this writing words thing was a bad idea.

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