Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Is that the tolling of cognitive dissonance?

The Vatican has published guidelines regarding homosexuals and priesthood. I have no idea why anyone who is a homosexual would in this day and age even consider becoming a priest, given the Church’s antediluvian attitude, but what I found interesting was an apparent dissonance in what the Vatican is saying. Thus, quoting from BBC News:

The document, drafted by the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education and approved by Pope Benedict on 31 August, describes homosexual acts as "grave sins" that cannot be justified under any circumstances.

So, anyone who is an active homosexual is committing grave sins that cannot be justified under any circumstances. But then, a couple of paragraphs later the same report states:

But the paper also stresses the Church's deep respect for homosexuals, who, it says, should by no means be discriminated against.

So, the Church has deep respect for people who commit grave sins that cannot be justified under any circumstances and thinks that these people should not be discriminated against?!?

What is this supposed to mean? Would the Church say the same thing about multiple murderers? About anyone who, in their view, commits grave sins? Is this just a way of saying “Hate the sin, not the sinner”? Or is the dissonance symptomatic of how homophobia arises from an irrational fear that simply can not be dressed in the cloth of reason?

What's so great about the EU?

That it actually stands for something. That’s what. So it is good to see that it is going after the secret CIA prisons and treating them as exactly what they are. As the BBC News report states:

[The EU Justice Commissioner] said a suspension of voting rights would be justified if any country is found to have breached the bloc's founding principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Rogue states like the US must be made aware that international opinion will not accept their actions and that there are consequence to their actions. Similarly for any other government that co-operates with their activities. As such, I hope that the EU manages to find the prisons and whoever is responsible for their existence ends up spending very public time in prison.

A cowboy might say “There’s them that talk and then there’s them that act.” And when it comes to human rights the US has long been the biggest blowhard I ever did see.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Where is my pumpkin?

The other day my daughter pointed to herself when asked where the pumpkin was. She’s not even fourteen months old and I hadn’t expected her to do that for another four months or so, as it seems to me that being aware of its own existence isn’t something that comes till a child is about eighteen months old. Another example of my pumpkin’s brilliance is how she picked up on plastic container and then poured non-existent liquid from it and into the container. I hadn’t thought that at her age she’d be capable of that kind of advanced make believe game. She has been copying a lot of what she sees us doing (including trying to type on the computer) but this seemed to go beyond just aping the action as she then proceeded to mix the non-existent liquid in the container she had just poured it into. Of course, her passive vocabulary is very extensive as she shows by being able to follow all kinds of instructions and being able to point to dozens of different things. And not just in one language but in two different ones, depending on whether she’s listening to Dada or Mama. I really should look into getting something to read on developmental psychology as the changes she’s going through are kaleidoscopic.

The other day I e-mailed her photo to some of my friends and wrote, “All fathers think their daughters are the most beautiful and most intelligent in the world. In this I am no different. The difference between me and the other fathers is that they are wrong.” You could say that I’m not being objective but it seems to me that the situation does not call for objectivity. Indeed, that it would be inappropriate of me to be objective under the circumstances.

How about the south of Spain?

It’s dark most of the time, it’s cold and there is snow everywhere. I really wish that I was somewhere more southern, brighter, warmer and with a bigger range of colours in the palette. At least the sky is beautiful today – a light blue that it only gets on cloudless winter days. O.K. So if you just look at the snow on the trees and the icy blue of the sky it actually is quite nice. Especially if you can stay inside and sip your warm tea.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Is tolerance enough?

Tolerance is an interesting word. At first it seems to be a very positive word which is all about what is necessary for different people to get along together. After all, if society lacks tolerance, it punishes being different in any visible way. Doesn’t it? Well, the thing is that when I think about it I do not tolerate homosexuals. What do I mean? Much the same thing as I mean when I say that I do not tolerate Indian food, world music or, to give perhaps the clearest example, when I say that I do not tolerate my daughter. I do not tolerate my daughter because I love her. I don’t have to tolerate her since I find nothing in her that calls for me to be tolerant. Similarly I am very fond of world music and Indian food. Now, some homosexuals, as individual people, I may find annoying or interesting or fun to be around, but this has little to do with their homosexuality and everything with their specific personalities. So, I do not tolerate homosexuals. Nor do I tolerate feminists or any of a number of other groups that one hears calls for tolerating. The thing is that ‘tolerance’ is a two-edged sword. It means that you do not like something but that you will not do anything about that. To ‘tolerate’ something means to wish that it didn’t exist but recognising that, in the circumstances, it is best to do nothing about it. But circumstances change and what is tolerated one moment may be persecuted the next. So, tolerance isn’t really enough. Still, there will always be things that we can only tolerate just as there will always be things that other people will only tolerate. In that context a solidly pluralist society is an absolute necessity.

What about things that shouldn’t be tolerated? The anodyne answer would be to say that we should be tolerant towards everyone, but that doesn’t really cut it. No society can accept everything if it is to safeguard the wellbeing of its members as well as its own continuation. I don’t think that people feel we should tolerate it if parents kill or maim their children - a number of cases of such child abuse having recently been publicised where I live. The hard question becomes what ought to be tolerated. And, just as I observed in my previous post, there is no easy answer. And giving the wrong answer will mean that people will get hurt. Indeed, even giving the right answer will probably lead to some suffering.

So, like I said, ‘tolerance’ is an interesting word – neither as anodyne nor as straightforward as we might wish it to be.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Shall we do what comes naturally?

I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond and I can heartily recommend it. Here’s what he has to say about copulation:

Whatever the main biological function of human copulation, it is not conception, which is just an occasional by-product. In these days of growing human overpopulation, one of the most ironic tragedies is the Catholic Church’s claim that human copulation had conception as its natural purpose, and that the rhythm method is the only proper means of birth control. The rhythm method would be terrific for gorillas and most other mammal species, but not for us. In no species besides humans has the purpose of copulation become so unrelated to conception, or the rhythm method so unsuited for contraception.

This may sound counterintuitive at first glance and, therefore, is just the kind of comment that some rabid shock jock might pick to try and show how ignorant anyone who doesn’t fall into step with his beliefs is. However, Diamond is pointing out a very important fact. Unlike other apes, human females do not advertise their being fertile, indeed, generally find it difficult to tell when they are fertile and, again highly unusually, humans have sex not only when the female is fertile but at any time of the month.

So, one might ask, why is the human sex drive set up in such a wasteful way. Why aren’t we like gibbons who have sex once every couple of years, generally leading to a pregnancy? Well, this is the hard question but it seems that this is linked to just how hard it is to bring up a human child. On the one hand this requires a strong long-term bond between the parents so that two adults care for the child and, on the other hand, it requires co-operation between these parents and an even larger group of humans. The human pattern of sexual activity seems to be aimed at cementing pair-bonding while minimising tensions caused by jealousy within the group.

Of course what I have mentioned is only a rough summary of the arguments that Diamond looks at. By doing this I have made them sound much more univocal than they are. Still, the general point that human sex isn’t primarily for conception holds. Which all brings me to another topic – the way in which Catholicism often makes use of the idea of something being ‘natural’. Their use of this word, however, is a case of false advertising. The reason is linked to the Vatican shuffle I mentioned previously and has to do with the question of how, according to the Catholic Church, we should find out what follows what they call natural laws...

Here’s some of what the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say on the issue:

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law.” The eternal law is God's wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action.

So, how do we find out what the natural laws are? One might think that the way to do it would be to look at the world, find out how people and animals behave and to generalise from that. So, for example, we would find out that homosexuality is natural for both males and females as our closest cousins, the Bonobo chimpanzees, practise it with relish. Well, that would be altogether an unsatisfactory way of finding out what is natural, wouldn’t it. The reason Catholic thinkers give for their avoidance of what may seem to be the rational thing to do is, apart from centuries of tradition, the fact that their use of ‘normal’ is supposed to be normative. Looking at how people behave only tells us what they do while the natural laws Thomists look for are supposed to say how we ought to behave. The difference arises because of our having the free will to act in ways other than we ought to.

This immediately leads to three problems.

The first is what about the gay Bonobos? They, according to Christian beliefs, are brute animals with no free will. This seems to imply that when they have it off with another member of their sex they are doing exactly what God willed them to. Gay sex is O.K. for animals but not for us?

The other problem is that according to this view God gave us free will but, if we are to do what he wants us to, we shouldn’t use the free will we have but, instead, just do what he wants us to. It’s kind of like opening a cage and then punishing the animal for trying to leave it! Which, come to think of, is exactly like the perverse feeling one gets when reading the Eve, Adam and apple story. If the Catholics are right then God is one sick puppy.

Finally, the third problem lies in how we are to tell what is natural. Of course, for the Catholic Church this is where the Catholic Church comes in. Which, again, is all too convenient. The end result is that to find out what is natural for people you shouldn’t even consider looking at how people actually behave but, instead, should ask guys who make public vows never to have sex with a woman and, instead, all to often end up forcing their sexual needs upon children. You’ll pardon me if I remain sceptical.

Not that any of this undermines the basic problem of the difference between what we do do and what we should do. This is just as real a problem for an atheist like myself. For example, humans are moderately polygynous animals in that a fair number of males have children by more than a single female, this being very often attained by committing extramarital sex – Diamond says that research shows that something between 5 and 30 per cent of all children in the US are being brought up by guys who only think that they are the fathers. However, this does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that extramarital sex is a fine and right thing to get into. Just like a Catholic, I have no intention of justifying an action on the grounds of how commonly it is performed. Unlike a Catholic, however, I do not have the false comfort of being able to just be told what to do by a priest. Instead, I have to fall back upon my own wisdom, the advice of people in general and a factual understanding of what humans are actually like to chose the correct course of action, and I have to face the very real possibility that I may err even when I think I am in the right. Unlike a Catholic I can not hand over responsibility for my actions to another by simply doing what the bishop or even God wants me to do.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Stateside places I miss the most?

I am glad to have managed to put some of my thoughts about what is happening in America on paper but I feel somewhat drained having done so and, at the same time, concerned that I am becoming as one sided as the so called ‘debate’ in America. So, I should mention just two of the many wonderful places in America that I have had the pleasure of visiting.

The first is MoMA in New York. The place is quite simply one of the greatest museums in the world. When I walked its halls I found myself constantly smiling to see works that I had seen reproductions of on hundreds of occasions and finding that, yes, in original they are far more powerful than the reproductions. I could list many names but I will try to limit myself to three: Hopper, Mondrian, Rothko. I had never liked Mondrian and Rothko and had only barely heard of Hopper. MoMA changed that for me. I often find myself yearning to go back to MoMA.

The other place is the Mount Wilson observatory above Los Angeles. When I went there I got to walk around inside the dome of the 100 inch telescope and to look over the shoulder of astronomers at work. The place is beautiful, the dozen or so telescopes spread out among the trees that cover the mountain top and one has the knowledge that one is standing where some of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century were made.

Even though I have only glimpsed a tiny part of it I realise that America is an amazing country with more things to wonder at then one can fully appreciate in just one life. So, I hope for better days when I will go back there; back to New York, back to Pasadena and back to the thousands of places that lie in between them.

America's other religion?

Over the last few months I have been reading a lot of different Americans. I have read blogs, I have read magazines, I have read online papers and journals. And everywhere I have been struck by one thing above all others – the tenor of discourse has grown so vitriolic as to disallow any communication beyond what is offered by chest pounding. Now, I have my own load of vitriol but I try to save it up for the Bush administration and, apart from them, attempt to understand what those who disagree with me in even the most profound way have to say. I guess the thing is that in Europe people are used to a different standard of public debate than one meets in America. There it seems like most people most of the time are writing off anyone with whom they disagree. I could well mention some of the clearest cases of this but I do not think that is the point.

When I was in Los Angeles a few years ago I spoke with a number of people there and many seemed to be saying much the same thing. It went much like this...

“We just love everybody!”

“Well, except the homosex people, of course.”

“And the dykes and other feminazis!”

“The druggies are a bunch of crims and we don’t like crims either.”

“Course, we know that they’re all blacks so we can’t love them either!”

“Oh, and the damned hispanics who come and take our jobs!”

“The effing chinks...”

Well, you get the picture. By the time the list of exceptions was finished it seemed sheer luck if all of the members of the speaker’s closest family remained on the list of “Everybody”. And all this was likely being said by someone living in a suburb that is enclosed by high walls and guarded by armed security, where the biggest danger was that some member of their family would accidentally shoot another with the handgun that is ‘hidden’ in the bedroom dresser.

The basic problem seemed to me then, and still does now, that Americans have forgotten the idea of society. In any society the basic glue isn’t the law or the economy. Neither of those are visceral enough to keep a society going. No, the most basic glue of any society is trust – the basic expectation we normally have that the other people around us will generally do the right thing by us. Without that expectation the fundaments for the functioning of legal regulation or economic exchange do not exist. Unfortunately, trust appears to be very much lacking in America.

I am not sure whether it is cause or effect but this loss of trust seems to be linked to what seems to me to be America’s other religion. The first religion is, of course, a gerrymandered, Americanised Christianity. The second religion might be characterised as anti-communism – an anachronism, of course, but one that still guides how Americans see the world. Being a dogmatic viewpoint it lacks enough subtlety to be properly justified, open to discussion or capable of making distinctions other than in black and white (or red and white as the case may be). Thus, communists, socialists and social democrats all are seen as one and the same. Individuals such as George Orwell or Bertrand Russell who were among the earliest critics of Soviet Russia, not in spite of their leftist views but because of them, become impossible to understand for Americans. This is evident in the way that Orwell is known as the anticommunist author of 1984 and Animal Farm and it is not appreciated that 1984 was actually about the rise of authoritarian tendencies in England while Animal Farm ends by showing that communists and capitalists are indistinguishably bad. A far more instructive read in a way would be A Homage to Catalonia in which Orwell shows clearly both his socialist views and his appreciation of the threat that Soviet Russia represented.

The dogmatic exorcising of any whiff of left-wing thought or policies has meant that America is unable to build any of the social structures which are necessary for the functioning of a modern society such as socialised medicine, worker protection and a proper public educational system. Without them and without the necessary faith in public institutions the States are falling apart. And any attempt to change this decay is deemed to be communism.

Just how inbuilt this reaction is has been made evident to me by the number of times that Americans have seen fit to lecture me on the perils of communism. People who have lived their whole lives in the most rapaciously capitalist society in the world deem themselves expert on the nature of communism and all left-wing views and hold forth on the matter for hours. This is the case even if they know that I grew up in the old Eastern Block and lived my life under the system they, in fact, never sighted. Just like the movies Americans made about what life was supposedly like behind the Curtain, the picture drawn by these people is shallow and grossly mistaken, the cut of the costumes too natty, the actors too bright-eyed and earnest. The reality was, in more ways than they can appreciate, worse than they think. Yes, my grandfather only survived being taken prisoner by the Russians during World War II by having managed to escape from the train that travelled to the killing grounds. Yes, a friend of our family who was in the opposition was killed with a poison-tipped umbrella in the main railway station. Yes, my mother and I, when I was only eleven, were on the run from the secret police. But these seemingly heroic moments, ready for being put on the big screen, were drowned out by the universal greyness of a daily existence where meaning was purposefully drained from life. What heroism was there existed, for the most part, in the Sisyphean persistence necessary not to lose oneself in the system. Life in the Eastern Block was not a Bond movie but a Kafka play.

It is because of this experience that I find it laughable when, in a pique of vitriolic rage, one right wing American calls another right-wing American a “Commissar” or some other term drawn from the pages of some B-grade spy novel. As if the whole society was suffering from Tourette’s, the words carry no meaning, their message being that what we are dealing with is an illness of the society’s heart. To blame individual Americans for this would at this point be just as wrong as it is to blame the person who suffers from Tourette’s.

What is perhaps most fascinating is how Christianity and anti-Communism manage to gel in American hearts, best seen in the self-righteous force of the Christian right. Two belief systems that might at first seem to be foreign to each other have been brought together by hypocrisy and a lack of self awareness – epitomised as all of these traits have been by the current administration. In truth, the anti-Communism seems to run deeper as it is its ethic of “Every man for himself” that is exemplified by the policies pursued both on the national as well as on the individual level. Of course, hypocrisy was already brought to the level of a Baroque art by the Popes but they lacked the other religion to give their actions a rationale.

Friday, November 18, 2005

What do pudus and Star Trek have in common?

I have mentioned Bob Harris’ blog on a couple of occasions. Another person with a blog, whom I haven’t mentioned though have been meaning to, is Wil Wheaton. Wil’s name ought to be familiar to anyone who, like me, spent his adolescence watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as he played the role of Wesley Crusher, the somewhat annoying wonderboy that all of the trekkie nerd boys were supposed to identify with. I know I did! Well, I am not mentioning Wil here because of past television glory, such as it was, but because he has grown up to be an insightful writer with a gentle sardonic sense of humour that suits me and, strangely enough, the times we are living in. As such, Wil’s blog shares some of the best characteristics of Bob Harris’ blog (the address is temporary while he straightens out data base issues with his regular blog address). The one thing that Bob’s blog has that Wil’s is missing is pictures of cute miniature deer called pudus. That and lots of references to cricket.

A couple of years ago now Wil wrote a great post in which he talked about how he’d become full of himself and unbearable while playing Crusher and was then brought back from the brink of self-absorption by a painfully honest letter from a girl who decided that she didn’t want to spend time with him anymore. As he put it, if it weren’t for that letter and the fact that he was willing to own up to its implications he might be ‘dead or drug-addicted or in trouble with the law’. He compared himself to America and expressed an earnest desire that some friend of the USA would write such a painfully honest letter and that the States would actually have the courage to face their own demons. As I mentioned earlier, his archives are offline so the URL is not likely to work, but the post very much captured the powerlessness, anger and concern I felt seeing a country that had once offered hope to others become a tragic caricature of itself. Unfortunately, what is difficult for people seems impossible for societies – America seems destined to reach bottom before it may start to come back up again. What is even worse, however, is that a country that size creates a vortex as it goes down and much of the world is likely to get dragged down into it as well. Of course, it does seem that Shrub is finally compromised politically but we should not think this the beginning of the end. At this point Dubya is more dangerous than ever as he is more likely to act even more irresponsibly and, even once he is safely out of the White House, the illness that has gripped the States will remain, as will the damage his administration has done to the democratic fibre of the nation and of the world.

In the meanwhile, I am adding Bob’s and Wil’s blogs to my list of links.

How should one rise to a challenge?

I sometimes write messages on various discussion lists and, when the topic comes up, do not stop myself from making comments about the disaster that is the Bush administration. The other morning I got a private message from a person on one of these lists challenging me to go and look at a film that someone had done which tries to show that Fahrenheit 9/11 was biased. When challenged like this the natural tendency is to say, “Very well, I will see that movie” and, then to do it with, hopefully, something like an open mind. I thought about this for a while, however, and have come to the conclusion that I have no obligation to see that specific movie. There are several reasons. The most basic one, though, is that our time is limited – we can not afford to spend it on just anything that someone who disagrees with us challenges us to see. I would not watch a film that aims to show that Earth is flat nor will I watch a film that tries to rehabilitate Bush from the charges laid against him by Moore. In fact, there is even less reason to see the anti-Moore movie than one by the Flat Earthers. The reason is that even if the anti-Moore movie is absolutely right on every point it makes, the fundamental situation does not change one iota. This is because since Moore’s movie came out George Worst-ever Bush has failed on so many levels and in so many ways that his administration is utterly bankrupt politically, morally and historically – I mentioned in my previous post just some of the things he’s managed to fall over. So, I can let my interlocutor have all of his assertions and Shrub and Co. are still shown to be irredeemably awful in every way and that, after all, is much more significant than whether Moore is a good film-maker.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

How hard is it to say that one was wrong?

President Bush is to be commended on his successes. Though I was somewhat critical earlier, the ever growing list of brilliant policy decisions and bold moral stances his administration has taken has convinced me that it is a pity he can not run for President again.

Allow me to give examples:

His dogged insistence on not taking more than minimal time off in what he sees as a crucial time for the country and the world.

The way he always listens to a broad range of opinions and is willing to change his mind and his policies based upon the informed views of others.

His principled stand on the separation of state and religion. Though a religious man he has never tried to gain political mileage out of his faith nor seen fit to base policies upon what he sees as his private religious opinions.

A policy of making government as public as it is possible to show that absolutely no favour is given to any special interests such as the businesses his friends and family are involved in. This has been mainly pursued by making sure that all government procurement proceeds by open tender. Of course, Bush’s decision to automatically exclude companies with close links to members of the administration was controversial but, in the end, correct.

His commitment to a balanced budget has not been easy politically. However, thanks to a refusal to allow pork-barrelling on any level, it has been made possible.

A unfailing support for the rights of citizens as well as for human rights in general which has been enshrined in the Patriot Act that expands the scope of these rights. As Bush said on the occasion of signing the act into law, “If we fail to support these rights we fail to support what makes America worth fighting for.”

His insistence that political campaigns must be fought on the issues and never allowed to involve personal attacks upon the opponents. How seriously he treated this commitment became clear when, during the presidential debate, he called Senator Kerry a ‘war hero’ whose hand he is proud to shake.

The way he has been up front with his own failure to fight in the Vietnam War and the way his father used family connections to bring this about.

His refusal to condone anything but fully humane treatment of self-avowed terrorists and his insistence that they be placed in facilities which the International Red Cross and the International Red Crescent monitor round the clock.

The way he publicly berated and fired the Head of the CIA the moment it was suggested by that man that the CIA could run secret prisons in foreign countries or hand over prisoners to states that have been accused of torture.

Bush’s untiring personal involvement in the effort to first ensure that everyone, including those too poor to afford transport, left New Orleans before Katrina struck and then to ensure the minor breaches in the recently strengthened dykes were quickly filled. Thankfully hurricanes are becoming more of a rarity thanks to the stringent environmental standards that Bush brought in upon becoming the President. Just like the waters of the Atlantic that for a time threatened the low-lying regions of Florida, the threat of global warming is falling.

The all-round success that is Iraq is another of Bush’s victories. After the initial enthusiasm with scenes of Iraqis throwing flowers at the soldiers who had come to free them with the backing of the UN some had foreseen a harder time. However, Bush’s insight into the nature of Iraqi society allowed him to plot a course which has brought about quick stabilisation and peace. Firstly, the forces made sure to protect Iraq’s historic treasures, public amenities and populace. Then they destroyed the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, including the nuclear warheads and the fleet of long distance drones that had been readied to attack cities around the world, including the US. Finally, they handed over much of the administration to an international body which respected Iraq’s Muslim culture while building a democratic nation. The old Abu Ghraib prison that was a symbol of Saddam’s dictatorship was immediately destroyed, the place turned into a public park of remembrance. What little opposition the international forces met after the initial period was dealt with by the international police force that was brought in to ensure safety and by dealing with the root causes of the disaffection. A prime example of the success story is the city of Falluja which is now a thriving metropolis, the centre of which has seen a burst of construction by international companies that have come in to build their regional headquarters. In the years since the international forces have left Iraq the democratically elected government has managed to unite the Iraqis behind a shared goal of building a secular democratic society, just as it was predicted by Bush’s advisors.

The only ones who have opposed the changes in Iraq have been the region’s undemocratic rulers. Thankfully, however, we have seen a number of them overthrown by peaceful revolutions. Indeed, in a move mirroring that made by the government of Iraq, several of them have been handed over to the International Court in the Hague.

Bush has also shown his mettle by pursuing the corporate criminals within the US. After the downfall of Enron and Halliburton he created a number of bodies whose task it was to root out other such examples of illegality and to find ways to ensure such things could not happen in the future. The resulting legislation has clarified the way business is done in the States.

A similar approach focussed upon the rule of law in the international sphere has brought peace and prosperity to ever greater parts of the world with the result that the US is now almost universally honoured and loved.

One could keep listing the many reasons (peaceful Afganistan, democratic Pakistan, successful economy, etc. etc.) for thinking Bush the greatest President the United States of America ever had. Still, I find that it is to September 11th 2001 that I think back when I have to justify my view of Bush. The way that, thanks to the administration’s support for effective anti-terrorist measures, the nation’s secret services stopped what would have been a catastrophic attack upon New York and Washington was an early example of just the kind of man that George W. Bush is.

Monday, November 14, 2005

How many fingers can you see?

Just recently some people in Russia celebrated the anniversary of the October 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power (according to one site, 200,000 people in all). Some of those people are still willing to walk out in public holding up placards of Stalin among whose many achievements were:

The Great Purge



So, when I hear about people who still support Bush I have to think about the amazing ability humans have to persist with utterly preposterous beliefs in the face of crushing counterevidence. As Bob Harris explains, managing to insert a cricket reference, the thing is all about “the sheer damn power of cognitive dissonance, the human mind's incredible inability to see anything other than what it expects.”

There is a famous experiment where people are shown playing cards and told to quickly say what colour and suit the cards are. The people say things like ‘ace of spades, black’. The trick, however, is that the cards they are shown have been doctored so that some non-standard are included. In fact, the card they had been shown was a black ace of hearts and, somehow, they added the missing leaf stem to make it a spade, with numerous other such possibilities of fitting what is shown to what is expected being possible. To a degree such post hoc modification of the information provided by the senses is a good idea. The senses, just as any other source of information, are error-prone and it is possible to avoid a lot of errors by carefully auditing what they tell us. However, it does open the avenue for us to make our preconceptions evidence-proof – the price being that the more our beliefs become disconnected from reality the more likely it is that we, or others, will suffer for it. This, of course, is the fundamental weakness of any dictatorship. As every dictatorship makes an enemy of the truth it becomes less and less capable of dealing with reality and, finally, collapses under the accumulated weight of the lies it needed to justify its existence.

Sooner or later, Bush’s supporters will become as relevant to the progress of this world as the tired old men who walked the Moscow streets on the 6th of November. Until that day comes, Bush’s lies will be a great threat to us all.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

What all-good being would let this happen?

Here’s another argument against the existence of God. It is now three thirty in the afternoon here and it is starting to get dark. In an hour it will be as dark as midnight. The short daylight hours are starting to drive me insane. I will soon be the batty neighbour who sits outside his house sunbathing stark naked in the middle of winter, all just to catch the few hours of light we do get here. And if any bloody Pangloss turns up to try to convince me that this is all to the best I’ll tie him into the sun-chair next to mine.

O.K. So that probably isn’t as good a reason not to think this the best of all possible worlds as this, nor indeed, this.

What princess could be more fun than a caterpillar?

My daughter is now 13 months old and her favourite book is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. She’ll come up to me, point at the book shelf and say “Boo, boo.” When I take out two books she always points to Carle’s book and when I start reading she insists on first turning to the page where the caterpillar turns into a butterfly and then sticking her little fingers into the tiny holes the caterpillar made in the various fruit. She has even learned how to say ‘caterpillar’. Well, sort of. She just says “Peh, peh” but we know what she means.

As I had already previously mentioned, I far prefer these kinds of books to most of the so called ‘classic’ stories that are just adult stories that have been sugar-coated and dumbed down for children. Here’s to stories that open children’s eye to the wonder of this world instead of trapping them in adult idiocies like who is a princess (once you find out, avoid her) or whether the toad is a prince (doesn’t matter, he’s a toad so avoid him, too).

Sound policies for a better USA?

I’ve been thinking about the fact that well over a third of all Americans think that the US government has been contacted by aliens. This means that the promise to reveal secret government files on Area 52 might be a very good political platform. In between that and revealing the truth about Big Foot someone might get the numbers to start moving into Pennsylvania Ave. Good thing that voting machines don’t believe in such silly things and – as a solid voting block – will back the candidate who promises to do the most to bring about Armageddon and Rapture.

Friday, November 04, 2005

How low can it go?

So, Bush’s popularity has fallen to 35 per cent. As Bob Harris (a long-time favourite read) points out, this means that there are now fewer Americans thinking that George is doing a good job than think that the US government has been secretly contacted by aliens. Well, that may be so but I still think George is too popular. Of course, there will always be people who think that the Earth is flat but I will not be happy till we have a mob with pitchforks on the White House lawn and Bush, Cheney and the gang lifted out by chopper on the way to some third-world country with no extradition treaty with the US. I hear that North Korea is very uncooperative in that respect so, perhaps, it is time for George to be making nice with the evil midget. Hell, if Cheney takes along the money Halliburton ripped off, the country's economy would more than double in size overnight.

Ever talked to an alien?

Communicating with them is very difficult. This is because, normally, a conversation is underpinned by a wealth of shared implicit knowledge and values. Thus, when someone asks you where the station is you know to give directions to the closest one and to explain which streets to follow, rather than providing the geographical coordinates for Timbuktu Central. When you can not take anything for granted, conversation becomes almost impossible or, at the very least, frustrating and slow. Sometimes, it really makes you wonder what planet they’re from. And I’m just talking about Americans.

An elderly cousin of mine is over from California and I had a most frustrating but, at the same time, revealing conversation with her. We talked about a number of things but two things struck me in particular. The first was her telling me that her grandson, who had been unable to find a place for himself, joined the Marines. She said that he was very happy with his choice after he’d finished the gruelling basic training. Then she explained that he was now likely to be sent off to somewhere though she did not mention the name of the one country that he’d be most likely to go to. Finally, she added that all sorts of things happen in civilian life also and, anyway, at least he was doing what he wanted to do.

Later on the conversation moved on to illegal immigration in the US. My cousin talked about how these Mexicans are just running across the border and then using up all of the welfare money in the States so there are not enough services for Americans. It particularly stuck me how she said that the problem was that, of course, you couldn’t just throw them into the garbage. She also mentioned that the worst thing was that along with the illegal immigrants came drugs and terrorists. She suddenly averred, “I am absolutely against illegal immigration.”

Listening to those two seemingly separate bits of conversations I was struck by the dissonance in her mind, made evident by non sequiturs and contradictions in what she said. She was clearly trying to think morally and rationally about both situations but was disabled by the effective misinformation and indoctrination. It all made me think of another possible get together, this one with a non-existent cousin from Riyadh:

Her grandson had been unable to find himself and decided to join al-Qaida. She said that he was very happy with his choice after he’d finished the gruelling basic training. Then she explained that he was now likely to be sent off to somewhere though she did not mention the name of the one country that he’d be most likely to go to. Finally, she added that all sorts of things happen in civilian life also and, anyway, at least he was doing what he wanted to do.

Later on the conversation moved on to the American presence in Saudi. My cousin talked about how these Americans are coming in droves and destroying the moral fibre of Saudi society by drinking and whoring. It particularly stuck me how she said that the problem was that, of course, you couldn’t just cut their heads off. She also mentioned that the worst thing was that along with the Americans came drugs and terrorists. She suddenly averred, “I am absolutely against Americans.”

As I said, talking to people like these makes me wonder what planet they’re from. Unfortunately the answer is, “This one.”