November 24, 2008

Labels

I think it's funny that people like to label other people. Somebody called a friend of mine "intolerant" once. Another was called "closed-minded." And all because of their attention to another labeling issue: Marriage.

Because that's what marriage is, right? At least, in the eyes of the state, marriage is a label that says you and your partner have a certain set of rights. To the state, which is supposedly separate from religion (yet at the very least subscribes to the religion of politics), marriage is just another label. In other words, it uses the same word to refer to something totally different than what religions use it for. Christianity, for example, uses "marriage" to refer to a very specific set of practices between a very specific sort of people; two people - one guy, one girl - who have committed to live their lives together in (relative) harmony for the rest of their time on earth. So it only makes sense that the Christians and the rest of the world would get upset at each other over its definition at the legal level. It's a conflict that's been brewing since some girl decided another girl was worthy of her sexual attention, since one guy decided another was worthy of prolonged embrace.

What is it, exactly, that makes a couple want to call themselves "married"? Is it the committment to one another? Is it the financial benefits given by the state? Or is it the recognition by the government (and the people who vote for them) of the couple's legitimate, "not weird" status within society? I'd wager it's the third. People want to be accepted, and in the West, people want to be accepted no matter what choices they make. We Americans like to make a choice and have everyone tell us how amazing that choice was. We don't like it when somebody tells us "no, that's wrong," no matter what the choice is! It's just part of American DNA. We don't deal well with relational conflict; we can't take it when another person or group of people condemn us for being or acting in ways we believe are right. We want to do terrible things to those people like hit them or shoot them or call them names like "closed-minded" or "ignorant."

Two things to draw from this. First, for those of you that are gay/lesbian, please read this whole thing before you react - I'm trying very hard to be sensitive to you as I write this, but it's a hard subject to write on without insulting or offending people. I'd ask why you're insistant about the label - do you really need it? I understand wanting it for the rights to visit your partner in the hospital or get counted the same as a heterosexual couple would with their taxes, but ... why does the government telling you that you're "married" change anything about your relationship with one another? Speaking from my own personal experience, I don't really care about the marriage certificate I have from NY for Liz and me; what matters to me is the choice we made, the promises we gave each other in front of God that we would never leave or forsake each other. It's a very high standard, one that a LOT of Christians (and non-Christians, about the same number) these days are breaking, but a standard that no law or rule or declaration or piece of paper from a government - or lack thereof - will change. So why do you actually care that you get "married"? That's not supposed to be a dismissive question, it's supposed to provoke thought; so often we say we are doing things for one reason and never confront our deeper motivations, the ones that really drive everything. Forcing a law allowing marriage for gays and lesbians is just as much based on a belief in the same realm as that which forces a law prohibiting said marriage.

Please forgive all those Christians who are upset at you for wanting this; they don't honestly know any better. Most of them have been taught all their life that your lifestyle is a sin or evil, and whether or not that is true, they don't know how to separate your behavior from your personality, your sexuality from you as a person. In other words, they don't know what it means to love you despite your differences from them. Nobody has ever shown them how to do that. To be fair, it's really hard to do. We should all learn how that works, honestly. But if you think about it, most Christians who condemn homosexuality like this don't actually know any homosexuals. You can remedy this by getting to know the Christians! If you don't spend time getting to know the Christians that you condemn as "intolerant," then you are as much to blame for the disparity between the two groups as the Christians are! If you do not understand their perspective (and reading their articles isn't really the way to do this, sorry), how can you communicate with them in a way they will understand? I know it will be tough, but you should get to know a few Christians, if they'll have you.

Second, for those of you who are Christians, I'd suggest that getting up in arms about homosexual marriage is probably not helpful; you're not supposed to recognize the Government as the ultimate authority anyway - God's the one who legitimates "marriage" as a spiritual union, not the good 'ol USA. You believe that homosexuality is a sin - fine. You've a right to your belief, you may even be right. But that gives you no right
to treat gays and lesbians in a manner akin to enemies of the state. They're just like us, trying to make it through life as best they can; and for the record, God asks us to start wherever the people are. There is no "prerequisite" for a person to hear the good news and repent - the change part comes after they've met Jesus, and it's something that God will have to change in their lives. In the meantime, you're speaking two completely different languages; when you say "marriage," you're not saying the same thing as they are - they hear something very different. There's a difference between "state legitimated legal union" and "spiritual covenant," and it's up to you to know the difference and know who is saying what. Let's also remember that if homosexuality is a sin, it's no more a sin than, say, gluttony or lust or coveting.

And we all do those things on a regular basis.

I remember Jesus saying something about
specks and planks ... just be careful who you condemn and why, especially when your own life is far from perfect. And as I mentioned above, if you are a Christian who condemns them but you don't actually KNOW any homosexuals (and by "know" I mean "have gotten to know a homosexual in a personal way," like friends or colleagues), you have no right to condemn them, because you cannot possibly understand their perspective. And so you should go get to know some of them, however hard it might be for you. I will say this: homosexuals tend to be more accepting of your perspective than you are of theirs. While you may not accept their perspective, you still ought to understand it in a way that loves them. If you can't do that, maybe you shouldn't be writing articles in newspapers and blogs.

That goes for all of us: the question of "why" needs to be asked.

And honestly answered.

November 19, 2008

November 18, 2008

Economics, Part VI: Heuristics

An empire requires that human beings succumb to the illusion of dependence on the system. Without this illusion, the empire as such cannot exist. In a way, it is like this for every culture - the culture as a generalized whole has to buy into its own ideas, otherwise it wouldn't cohere. It is only by making processes unconscious that a culture or society can function; we call them "heuristics" in psychology.

The heuristic is a funny little idea noticed first in biopsychology. Somebody noticed that the human mind is capable of a whole lot of processing, but not enough to deal with every single stimulus that comes from the environment around us. Think about your perception for a moment; when you look at the world, what happens? You tend to focus on certain things, as opposed to others. For example, if you are sitting in class (as I am now), there are many options for your attention - you can focus on the professor, of course, but there are many other sights, sounds, and smells to notice. You can see and hear other students typing on their laptops (often in facebook, not powerpoint or onenote); you can focus on the sound of the air conditioning; you could focus on the feel of the chair beneath you; you could focus on the feel of your clothes sitting on your body; you could focus on the smell of the coffee of the guy a few rows down, or the sound of your laptop fan; you could focus on the constant shifting and sniffling of the guy behind you.

So why don't you focus on those things? Because you have heuristics - mental short-cuts - that tell you those things are not significant in the context of a classroom. Instead, you're supposed to focus on the professor, who is teaching. But ok, how do you know who the professor is? You have a heuristic for that too - it's the person who stands at the front of the classroom and tells you things from a notebook or a powerpoint. Usually the person is older than you, and usually the person is better dressed than you are. If this seems obvious to you, it's because your heuristics are working - they're those little unspoken assumptions that help you make your mental perception more accurate. Over time these heuristics become more and more unconscious, as the evidence in their favor mounts and the contradictions fade (as we get used to their use), and we become "set in our ways." They allow the mind the capacity to process higher functions, such as logic and emotions, because it doesn't need spend as many resources to process raw sensory information.

If heuristics are thus necessary to the human condition, it is their abuse that perpetuates Empire. When people take their heuristics for granted, when heuristics go unquestioned, they leave the heuristics open for someone else to take advantage of them. Heuristics are never perfect, and are meant to be dynamic rather than static; there are always "exceptions to the rule," as it were, but when someone does not allow those exceptions, he or she does not allow for the limited nature of perception in his or her tiny little corner of the world. However, if someone else were to convince a person that his or her heuristics were static (solidifying them into "stereotypes"), the person would then become trapped in an illusion of simplicity. For example, instead of allowing the category "professor" to include somebody wearing jeans and a sweater (which is less traditional), one might stubbornly maintain that professors ONLY wear suits and ties. It's too simple of a category that doesn't allow for diversity; "professors" (or whatever) become a closed system, incapable of change or addition. Amplify this to a large number of heuristics and add a dose of ethnocentrism ("our heuristics are better", as any human being does with his or her own perceptions, which is then amplified in community), and suddenly you are on the path towards Empire. When this large group of people believe the world to be starkly simple, they have given up their ability to critique themselves, and thus the ability to change for the better.

Since the heuristic element is an intrapersonal element, within the individual (although there are such things as "collective heuristics"), it is with individual heuristics that the problem of empire begins - and must end. Massive cultural shifts do not happen because of a movement that begins with the masses, with the collective, but rather at the level of the individual, with a few people that move beyond established traditions, heuristics, or cultural assumptions. Empire is thwarted primarily by individuals that then become a collective movement.

In other words, Empire is thwarted by choice.

(to be continued ...)

* * *

Attractive Girls Union

Ah, I am reminded of Junior High ...

November 13, 2008

Economics, Part V: Empire

It's been a little while since I posted to my economics series. But that's because it's a very hard series to write; the ideas are tough to wade through, the conclusions not easy to stomach. I'm going to keep working through this, and have a few more posts in mind already; here's the links back to the first few if you're just joining the conversation:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

* * *

We have seen that the inevitable result of both capitalist societies and socialized societies is the same thing: societies that, despite their philosophical differences, produce the same sort of fruit. Pure socialism, like pure capitalism, is impossible because of human nature; both evolve into a culture of oppression, created through the outworking of human greed in which some hoard the power, the wealth, and the resources. In both capitalist and socialist societies, poverty abounds, whether in its material form (lack of resources, the more common of the two) or in its social form. Social poverty is nothing to trifle with; the more disconnected a culture gets, when individuals gradually isolate themselves from one another (to maintain an illusion of independence), psychological and social tragedy is the result. If such a society is to maintain itself, it must isolate its constituents from one of two things: from the resources, or from each other.

If those few in power choose to isolate the many from material resources (which usually requires physical force, and thus requires a large military), the citizens tend to bond together out of necessity. In sociology we call this a "liminal state," where hard times (oppressive government, harsh environment, enemy tribes or nations, etc.) force a group of people to cooperate for their very survival. An interesting thing happens as a result, what Victor Turner calls "Communitas": communitas is a word that has an obvious relationship to "community" (a group of people cooperating towards a common goal), but it is far stronger than that. The community that results from this "liminality" is bonded for life. It's not that they happen to share common traits or feelings or hobbies, it's that they cannot easily undo the bond they share from overcoming an immense trauma or ordeal together. It is the thing they have in common - a shared experience upon which to base their relationships that will last through trial and tribulation.

Everyone has experienced liminality in some form. I have, several times. My wife and I moved to Australia for a while, a new place for us where we knew almost nobody, with which neither of us was familiar. The year we spent "confronting the odds" grew us together as a couple in a way that living in a place with which we were comfortable could never have done. We were far closer after a month in Australia than we were after a year and a half in New York. Another time, I went to India with some colleagues from the seminary. Every time I see them, we still laugh and joke over the experience - it happened nearly a year ago, and it was merely two short weeks, but great power for relational bonding was contained within those very difficult cross-cultural situations. This is one of the reasons that so many Americans who visit impoverished countries are amazed at the smiles on the faces of the poor; they are "happy" despite oppression. We must be careful not to mistake the amazement of the Westerner as unrelated to their own material wealth; he or she can afford to travel, which often indicates a dependence on material wealth for "happiness." Such people (myself often included) often equate material wealth (and good circumstances) with happiness, and its absence with misery; he or she cannot believe that one can be happy without material possessions or in the midst of hardship. Meanwhile, those in poverty are united by their suffering; but they still suffer. Communitas does not alleviate the material poverty, it provides an emotional and social outlet. Yet such societies take advantage of this as a justification for hoarding the wealth. The Socialized Empire decrees that it knows how to distribute the resources, who needs what, etc. Naturally, the government is "more equal" because they have the trying hardship of having to spend their time determining who gets what, so naturally they deserve a larger portion. Or something to that effect. Regardless, the government ends up keeping the collected resources for itself while allowing its people to remain "happy" in their suffering.

The (potentially) more dangerous of the two options happens when the society decides to isolate its "citizens" from one another. Now, I say "decides" (as if the society were its own entity apart from the people), but a society is both a cause of and a product of the culture - these are interrelated ideas. In some cultures (such as our own Western culture), individualism is a very strong value. The communitas of socially impoverished cultures does not come in a vacuum - these cultures are often communal in nature to begin with. Western cultures, however, are strongly individualistic. The individual is the endgame; he or she can handle things on his or her own.

The society can take advantage of this as well. By encouraging competition between the isolated units as a means of getting "better" ideas, technologies, products, etc. (and there is little doubt that competition DOES produce more enduring creative expressions), it can cause its constituents to self-motivate to work harder and harder. This works to the advantage of a priviledged few - those who have an initial edge or discover an edge in the course of their struggle - at the expense of the many. This, of course, is not really divisible into two groups, but rather is stratified into a continuum of advantage. However, the two largest groups are those who are considered in "material poverty" (those who work themselves "to the bone" to sustain themselves) and a lower-middle class that, though they have enough material wealth to live comfortably, STILL work themselve to the bone in order to achieve what the society begins to tell them is the society's dream - independence from financial burden.

And so the society is suddenly full of people working very hard to produce an awful lot, and yet none of them are a) happy, or b) helping one another. Instead, the competition gets increasingly more fierce. The few that can afford it go into politics (both Barack AND John are wealthy - don't think for a minute that either of them understand the concerns of the poor or even of the middle-class), and thus the leadership of the country becomes increasingly wealthy. What happens then? The same thing that happened in the socialist state - decisions are made based on the security of those in politics. [sidenote: yes, that goes for both parties - democrat and republican - who just approach it differently; the republicans supposedly give tax breaks to other wealthy power magnates and thus get elected by others in power, whereas the democrats make promises they can't keep to the poor, who elect them out of desperation]

Once again, how do the wealthy, now in power, maintain their lifestyle? By building up a defense network. This, of course, is where we get our military. The two parties in America rely on different means for this; the republicans want to maintain the right to bear arms, and so allow each citizen to defend his hunk of dirt (forgetting that the same armament is used to take said possessions by those in desperation or who don't adhere to societal rules), while the democrats want to ban armament (except from the hands of those they choose, which is suspiciously like a socialist military) so that nobody HAS to defend their stuff, it's just always safe (which is naiive as well; the criminals still keep the weapons - they didn't respect the law in the first place). The cycle thus circles around and around, the wealthy getting richer (now through legislation), the poor getting poorer. For sure, it does tend to take more time in this type of economy, but as we have seen, the inevitable result is a socialist state anyway, and thus as time progresses, the cycle begins to increase its speed.

This cycle of the maintenance of injustice has a name. Two flavors of society, both progressing forward in a cycle of dualism, end up in the same place: Empire. The poor are slowly pushed to the margins, and slowly made into the largest class, yet the most powerless; the wealthy, meanwhile, grow ever more wealthy at the expense of others. And nobody notices it happen until it's too late.

(to be continued ...)

Rainbow Politics

It's no secret that Howard Stern can be modestly troubling in his best of times, but this worried me for other reasons ... although I don't know that I can vouch for its legitimacy ...

November 8, 2008

The (Relatively) Magic Number

I'm not sure I understand the difference between these two numbers. Apparently, everything changes at 52% ...


November 6, 2008

The Parable of the House

Frank stepped off the ladder with a satisfied grunt. It had been a perfect day for painting; it was a balmy 72 degrees, the sun was up, and the occasional cloud made sure it didn't get too hot. Setting the paint can down on the ground and the paint brush atop, he folded his green-stained hands into his arms and admired his work. The house was beautiful, no doubt about it; he'd chosen a sober forest-green for the siding, while the window frames he'd painted a deep burgundy. It stood out from the many other houses along that street, many of which were an ordinary white or beige color. He shook his head and smirked.

"If only they'd invest and buy some paint for their houses," he thought, if only they'd put in a little elbow grease, then their houses could be as nice as mine!"

He sighed at the obvious absurdity of such thoughts. He often broached the subject with his neighbors (in fact, at every opportunity), but the opportunities seemed to be growing fewer as of late. Apparently, nobody had his superb taste in external décor, though a guy named Chin or Ching or something from a few streets over had come to him a few weeks ago asking for some advice. Frank had assured him that Navy blue was the latest style, trimmed with white. But times change, and Frank had realized that it wasn't blue, but forest green that was of better taste now. All his painting magazines said so. He'd mentioned this to his new acquaintance, whose eyes had gone wide at the thought of redoing his newly painted house. He said he'd think on it.

Moron. He just didn't have what it took to have the best house around.

Frank sighed and set about cleaning up. It was as he was putting away the ladder that he noticed the changing weather. Odd; the weather channel hadn't predicted rain today. Ah well, at least he could continue his painting indoors. He'd noticed that one room was getting out of sorts, and was time to paint again. He wasn't sure why he was painting so often lately, but to have a good house, one had to make sure it was kept in good shape. He even had a storage room full of paint cans just in case of a problem.

He went inside to the offending room, skirting around a spot in the floor he knew to make an irritable creaking sound, just as the first raindrops started to fall outside. Brush in one hand and paint can in the other, he walked into the dining room and took note of where he'd have to paint. Several long cracks had appeared in the wall, one which even ran from floor to ceiling.

"Must be those silly folks I bought this place from," he thought, "wallpaper, what were they thinking?!" The previous evening, when there was no more light left outside, he had spent several hours priming the wall bleach white. Now, he began generously applying the new paint, his brush making long strokes up and down the wall. Obviously the puce he'd originally used over top of the floral print wallpaper wasn't doing its job, so he had chosen instead to use a more dependable beige paint. But there was a knock on the door. He sighed, put down his paint, and wiped off his hands on his shirt, noting the moan from another floorboard. When he opened the door, it was none other than his friend from a few streets up.

"What a surprise!" he said, "do come in. It's Ching, right?"

"Kim, actually," said his friend, glancing suspiciously at Frank's work clothes. "Have you been painting?"

"Why yes," said Frank, "I was just starting on a room that needed some work. And before that, I painted the outside again – like I told you, Green is the new Blue!" Kim smiled, though Frank thought it seemed a bit forced. "Would you like to see?"

"Sure," said Kim, hesitantly.

"It's seen better days," said Frank, escorting him into the dining room. "I thought maybe a stronger color might do it some good." The surprised look on Kim's face told Frank more than he wanted to know. "You don't approve?"

"Well," said Kim, scratching his head as he stared at the cracks running through the wall, "it just seems to me that there's a bigger problem here than the color. Have you looked at the framing, or at least thought of replacing this drywall?" Frank was stunned. Kim had come to him numerous times for advice, why the sudden change of heart?

"Now Chan," said Frank, in a voice that hoped to impress upon him the vast experience he had with choosing paint, "I understand why you might think that, but this place really only needs a stronger color. It's always worked in the past."

Kim looked dubious. "Frank, I know you like to paint, but –"

"Like to paint?" interrupted Frank, "But I don't! I don't like to paint, but it simply must be done if I'm to have a good house!"

"But Frank, paint isn't going to fix those cracks!" Frank hesitated before replying.

"Jim ... what cracks? There are some black lines, certainly, but it's nothing a little paint can't fix."

Kim stared at him in amazement. Had he really not noticed the cracks spreading from floor to ceiling? A sudden thought hit him: did Frank do this with every household malady? Kim suddenly began looking around him at the walls and ceiling, then at the floor, half expecting his shifting weight to bring the whole place down on him at once.

"Are you sure ..." he began, then trailed off into silence again as Frank picked up his paintbrush and began painting the walls around the cracks.

"Ching, I appreciate your concern, but honestly, it's always worked before. Here, let me show you. Follow me." He put down his paint and headed for the front door. Kim followed nervously as Frank made his way around to the side of the house.

"Why, just this last week I repaired the siding with a good nice acrylic blue, and then again today with the green!" Kim looked to where he was pointing, and noticed a large ugly scar through the foundation of the house. "... sure it took some time," continued Frank, "but it was worth it in the end."

"How many coats of paint is that?" asked Kim, in shock.

"Oh, probably about fifteen or twenty, give or take a few."

It was worse than he'd thought. As Kim looked closer, he noticed that the green paint had begun wearing off in the cracks where the surface had dried, but the inside was still liquid. It gave the house the appearance it was bleeding. He brushed his wet hair out of his face before turning back to Frank.

"Frank ... can't you see that the cracks are still there?" Frank looked mortified.

"There are not, I already painted them!"

"Look, Frank, this is insane! How do you expect to make sure the house stays standing with only paint?!"

Frank glanced back and forth between Kim and the foundation. He could almost see what Kim was getting at, but then a new thought occurred to him; his eyes narrowed, and he turned on his heel and trudged back into the house. Kim followed him, worried.

"What did I say, Frank?" Frank whipped around in his face.

"You've been talking to somebody else, haven't you."

"What?"

"You have! I can see it written all over your face - you've been talking to somebody else about house maintenance! Don't lie to me – I detest lies."

Kim stared at him, speechless. He had talked to someone else when he’d noticed that Frank's paint strategy hadn't worked on the termites in his walls. He'd seen an ad for an exterminator in the yellow pages, whom he had hired for a very reasonable price. The termites hadn't yet returned. But how could he tell this to Frank without losing his friendship? His painting skills were legendary, and he was a genius with a color scheme.

"You know, Quan," said Frank, ignoring another creaking floorboard, "self-deception isn't healthy. I know you've talked to someone else, but they don't know what they're talking about. Paint is what solves house problems, pure and simple."

"But Frank, the exterminator I hired got rid of the termites! My house is still standing because of his help!"

"Ping, Ping, Ping. I too have had termites. They are a lovely shade of purple now, and it worked brilliantly. They even match the inside of the basement! Trust me – paint is the only way to go."

Kim had noticed the creaking floorboard as well, and it worried him, given this new information. It suddenly struck him that the number of creaks had been increasing since he'd arrived. He panicked.

"Frank, I think I'm going to get back home. We have some friends coming over for dinner tonight and the wife needs my help getting ready." Frank had stopped looking at him directly. "Maybe you should come with me," continued Kim, "why don't you grab some clean clothes and come over." Frank rolled his eyes. "We're having Lisa's stir fry, which …" Kim stopped as another creak, this time louder and perhaps even deeper, resonated through the house.

"Look, Song, I appreciate it, but I have painting to do. I don't know if I could eat dinner with people who don't think about paint the way I do, it would just seem wrong somehow. Besides, I don't have any clean clothes; they all have paint on them."

"That's ok Frank," said Kim, thinking about his new sofa, "just come over as you are, we don't mind!" He began backing towards the door. Frank had picked up his paintbrush again and was reaching for the can of paint when some dust from the ceiling began flaking into the paint.

"Oh, will you look at that, it's ruined! Now I have to paint the ceiling again too! I tell you, Quan, the work never stops. I'll follow you out as far as the shed so I can get another can." Kim didn't care, as long as he got him out of the house.

"Sure, Frank."

Kim had just gotten down the steps to the driveway when a sound, unlike any he'd heard before, resonated from the house and echoed across the hillside. He grabbed Frank, who had begun to turn around with a puzzled look on his face, and ran, the mud splashing his jeans as the rain fell harder than ever. As they reached the shed, the house collapsed in a cloud of drywall dust and a splash of green paint.

"My house!" exclaimed Frank, as several neighbors appeared on their white front porches and stared at the spectacle before them. He collapsed on his knees in the soggy lawn, green paint mingled with rain and drywall filling in the cracks around his knees. Kim put his hand on Frank's shoulder.

"Frank,” said Kim, “I think you’re going to need a lot more paint.”

November 4, 2008

Election Day 2008

I'm not sure that, thirty years from now, we'll all say "I remember where I was in the 2008 election." Whichever candidate wins, it's not a 9/11 sort of event. Just remember that in four years, if we dont' like him, we get to vote in somebody else. But you should all still go vote. Good luck choosing who to vote for, though; I spent hours agonizing over that question last night (as I stared at my absentee ballot, which arrived quite late on saturday), for this very reason:


Indeed.

November 1, 2008

Christian Agnosticism Series

I really wanted to put all of the links to my "Christian Agnostic" series onto one page for convenience. I've actually been thinking about turning it into a longer piece, maybe a book or something, since a friend of mine mentioned he'd like to hear more on the subject. It's been a dream for a while, to write a book, but so far I haven't had the time, with school and all. In any case, here they are, all six links (Part I had really nothing to do with the rest of it). I'd love to hear thoughts on these again, especially in light of the book project.

Christian Agnostic, Part II: Verb
Christian Agnostic, Part III: Scripture
Christian Agnostic, Part IV: Science and the Bible
Christian Agnostic, Part V: Forward
Christian Agnostic, Part VI: Doubt
Christian Agnostic, Part VII: Disciple