Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween video countdown: #1

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween video countdown: #2

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween video countdown: #3 (NSFW)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween video countdown: #4

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween video countdown: #5 (NSFW)

Friday, October 23, 2009

In General: The Dangerous Problem with ‘Everyone All the Time’ Thinking (Part Two)

A week ago, a story broke about parents in Nigeria — encouraged by their church pastors — accusing their children of witchcraft and torturing them. Some of the tortured victims have died of their injuries. Forum comments, of course, immediately painted "Christianity" as the source of this evil, and "Christians" as the evil people driving it. Even when Nigerians themselves pointed out that the "pastors" behind the witch-hysteria were just demented privateers using the job title as a way to collect exorcism fees from deluded parents, and that Nigerian culture itself has been dangerously superstitious for decades, and that poverty, not religion, was the driving factor in these atrocities against children, the "Christianity did it" generalizing continued. What should have been a protect the children outpouring became an attack the Christians movement instead — leaving the children twice as damaged, twice as neglected. First by the torture itself, and then by the misplaced attention in response to it.

Thus the subtitle of this post: the dangerous problem with generalized thinking.

The famed linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf made popular the concept of language shaping thought, and so shaping reality. “The dog is by the back door,” for example, is neutral; we might find that statement written on a friendly family note asking us to feed the household pets. In contrast, “the huge, dangerous dog is lurking by the back door” brings a whole new world of reality along with it. And so does “the dead dog is lying by the back door.”

Pretty obvious, right? Now consider these statements, which move from a generalized everyone all the time thought pattern to some very precise and specific revisions of that original thought. Keep track of the italics:

1. Christians are judgmental hypocrites with ridiculous beliefs.

2. Christians tend to be judgmental hypocrites with fundamentalist beliefs.

3. Some Christians are judgmental and hypocritical, and certain denominations within Christianity are more fundamentalist than others, but not all Christians have fundamental beliefs in the Bible as a literal collection of God’s words..

4. Some demented individuals calling themselves "Christians" carry hateful signs at military funerals, and some homicidal Nigerians calling themselves "pastors" advocate the torture of children for a fee. All of these lunatics should be dropped into the middle of a desert to cannibalize each other.*

*(This one doesn't really fit the thought-progression pattern, but we just had to put it out there.)

5. Some Christians, unfortunately, are judgmental and hypocritical fundamentalists—but others fit none of those definitions and instead strive to be like Jesus: tolerant, forgiving, helpful, and hopeful.

6. "Red letter" Christians follow the teachings (highlighted in red text in many Bibles) of Jesus, just as a Buddhist follows the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. And they ignore all of the other stuff, because Jesus didn't say it.

7. Christians, like atheists, can be both judgmental and hypocritical, and atheists can be just as vocal about their belief system.

What? Atheists? In a discussion of Christianity?

Well, sure — who do you think it is that gets the most value out of calling Christian belief “ridiculous”? We mentioned Sam Harris earlier. Let's add the names Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, too. Harris authored The End of Faith, Dawkins wrote The God Delusion, and Maher, thinking for a moment that his name was Moore (as in Michael), made a "documentary" called Religulous. Harris, in person, seems a nice enough guy, and Dawkins is charming. Maher, on the other hand, presents himself as a happy funster in his film, but comes across as a condescending, officious, egomaniacal schmuck on his HBO show, Real Time.

All three men should be smart enough to avoid generalized thinking. But all three slip into it in their arguments, bigtime. Harris, in his zeal to slam Islam and Muslims (all of them), makes sure to slam Christianity and Christians, too (all of them). Dawkins pits Christianity — all of it — as the foil of science (and all scientists), and Maher, whom we've written about before here at WB, is just an asshole whose zealotry is the opposite of Harris's. Out to roast Christianity, Maher throws Islam into the "ridiculous" mix out of fairness.

And it's not just men. Hanna Rosin, on Slate, writes about "evangelicals" and "Christians," too — all of them. And the one time she's careful to qualify, it's in the phrase "most non-Christians."

South Park, probably the most brilliant cultural critic the world will ever see, has done several takes on the Christians (all of them) vs. Atheists (all of them) wars. In one episode, Mickey Mouse derides Christians (all of them) for delusional thinking (all of it) — but does it over a PA system for everyone to hear:

Oops, end of the magical world of Disney — because some atheists (in this case, those in mouse ears) come across as haters.

In an earlier, two-part episode featuring Richard Dawkins, the boys' fundamentalist Christian teacher, Mrs. Garrison, slams evolution as a theory that makes modern humans "the retarded offspring of five monkeys having butt sex with a fish-squirrel." But Dawkins, the brilliant evolutionist, is too stupid to realize that the "Mrs." Garrison he falls in love with was once Mr. Garrison — pretty much looking the same as Mrs. but without the breasts. South Park skewers everyone equally, of course, but the skewering (and one of the boys' moral lectures at every episode's end) always points to the fact that there are exceptions to any "everyone all the time" rule.

But didn't the Christ himself speak in generalities? It depends on how you use the comma here:

GENERAL: Do not pray like the Pharisees, who pray loudly in the temples where everyone can see them.

SPECIFIC: Do not pray like the Pharisees who pray loudly in the temples where everyone can see them.

In the first version, "who" sets off a descriptive clause attached to its preceding noun — all Pharisees. In the second version, there are some Pharisees who do not pray that way, making them exempt from the example Jesus is giving. The syntax structure is the same as Don't hire painters who use red paint. The ones who use yellow or blue, on the other hand, are no problem.

Coincidentally, the example* continues with Jesus saying, essentially, to leave the "look at me" Pharisees alone, because they've got the reward they want: attention. They're not interested in an afterlife among the angels, so let them be. Elsewhere, of course, the same Jesus says that those who aren't "born again" (into faith) won't see heaven. But here, he acknowledges that quite a few folks simply won't care. And the way to deal with this is to love them and tolerate them and not emulate them — and to be at peace with it all.

*(Yes, the whole Pharisees passage is paraphrased; let's not get distracted by translation issues.)

The murderous, deluded Christians who led the Inquisition and the Crusades — atheists' favorite examples of faith gone wild — neglected to follow the directions spelled out by the Christ they allegedly served. The Crusades to control "holy land" were about territory, not faith, as foolish and misguided as Hamburger Hill was in Vietnam. And the Inquisitors followed Thomas Aquinas, a logician who served the Catholic Church, which was a world power. And how did world powers maintain their authority back in the day? (Hint: not with diplomacy or financial aid.)

A church is not a deity; it's a building. A collection of churches? Still not a deity. It's an organization. Inquisitors killing "in the name of God" found a handy slogan to justify their organizationally sanctioned, socially destructive actions toward preserving political power. (We see a similar dynamic today when Republicans vote against giving rape victims full legal rights, or against protecting gay citizens from violent hate crimes.)

To invoke John Lennon, imagine what life on earth could be like if fundamentalist Christians could stop condemning nonbelievers, evangelists could stop insisting on converting the unchurched, atheists could stop attacking Christians for their "superstitions" and illogic, and everyone could collaborate on getting important social-good work accomplished in this life, on this world.

Christians (all of them) could enjoy that as service to God, and atheists (all of them) could enjoy it as service to fellow people. Either way, it's a break from isolated, selfish, paranoid name-calling that gets nothing done.

Unfortunately, no one cares about any of this anymore. Everyone just keeps doing what they've been doing, and nothing will ever change.

But those last two sentences, of course, are generalized crap.

When language reflects tolerance through careful exception and clear understanding, social practice can follow. It all just takes a hell of a lot of work.

Let the retraining in re-thinking begin.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In General: The Dangerous Problem with ‘Everyone All the Time’ Thinking (Part One)

“Liberals want to see the country destroyed.”

“Socialized medicine doesn’t work.”

“Capitalism is evil.”

All of these should sound familiar, because each one has been “ripped from the headlines.” They represent the way far too many of us think now, which is to say, they represent shortcut thinking. It’s a lot easier to say “liberals” than to say “a certain segment of far-left activists,” isn't it? And it's easier to simply use the word we than to say “far too many of us," which is still abstract — but more precise.

The problem is, we means we all. One hundred percent; no exceptions. And logic dictates that in a society of three hundred million people or a world of nearly seven billion people, at least one person will not be part of that hundred-percent group.

Fringe haters and Sam Harris want to argue that “Muslims are dangerous.” Al-Qaeda leaders want to counter that “Americans believe everything their President tells them.” The kid with the bent bicycle rim complains that “Chinese bikes are junk,” and the white tourist who sees one tribal representative leaning unsteadily against a wall decides that “Indians are drunks.”

It’s not just that all of these are dangerous—and, for sensitive readers, uncomfortable—ways of thinking, but also that none of them is logical. Or, if you don’t care too much about logic, then none of them is realistic. Granted, some people don’t care about reality, either, but most do, and if it could be proven that you prefer to exist in a fantasyland where everything comes in a neat, convenient package, you’d want to prove otherwise, right?

Luckily, it doesn’t take money to mount a strong defense against charges of dangerous, illogical, unrealistic thinking. But it does take time. And it takes… well, more thought to correct old thought with new thought. We'll pick that point up in Part Two.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Since we did so well with the first "new world"....

According to NPR and the BBC, there's a flurry of activity and excitement this week over the discovery of nearly three dozen new planets ("new" in the sense that we've never seen them before, not that they never existed before). Enthusiasm levels have been building for quite a while over this kind of stuff, and not just by Trekkers (a.k.a. Trekkies) — NASA itself has predicted that it's only a matter of time before humans on Earth discover life somewhere else. In fact, NASA has created a list of "five holy grails" that will need to be found, and after that, we're all set.

But all set for... what, exactly? To boldy venture forth into uncharted seas and discover new lands where we can thrive? Just like, oh, that time we left Europe, overcrowded and filthy, and piled onto boats to come to America — where we immediately began to turn that (largely) untouched wilderness into overcrowded filth, too?

All of the telescopes and rockets and unmanned probes on the planet, together, might be able to find the next Earth. But they'll never be able to change the basic mindset that turned life on the original Earth into an unsustainable mess.

That part, we gotta do ourselves. Here, on this planet.

Kirk out.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Energy policies

While perusing the DVD shelves at a local video store the other day, WB glanced at a disposable fin du monde movie about the death of all humankind. The title was obvious and instantly forgettable, but the tagline stuck: Extinction is inevitable.

These days, with the History Channel stuck in a one-note chant of doom and disaster, online discussion boards filled with cynical optimism that an extinction-level event will happen sooner rather than later, and hordes of jaded 14-year-olds announcing to parents and teachers that they're looking forward to the world's ending, one question needs to be asked:

What the hell is wrong with everyone?

Tell someone that their car will be stolen, and they'll park under a light and lock the doors. Tell them that their house will burn down, and they'll install alarms and replace frayed wiring. Tell them their hard drive will crash, and they'll run a backup. But tell them that wildlife are going extinct at an alarming rate, water supplies are drying up, and weather patterns have gone wonky, and they'll invest billions of dollars in tacky straight-to-DVD movies chronicling the end of days, TV shows focused on computer-animated disaster footage and crumbled civilization, and stronger antidepressants to cope with it all.

Even Discovery's Animal Planet tells kids that "extinction is inevitable," while little stories saying the exact opposite are tucked away on niche publications (our apologies to Wired for labeling it that way). Not to be too obvious, but what if all the money going into ad campaigns for shows like After People were redirected to publicizing something like How To Bring The Bees Back? What if the DVD shelves were filled with titles like Preventing Overfishing? What if Discovery and History invested millions not into CGI disaster footage, but into informative programming that told kids how species can be protected rather than wiped out? What if all the money Sony has put into its upcoming disaster movie, 2012, had been put into public service announcements informing the public that the whole 2012 "the end" scenario is utter bullshit?

You know the answer. And it's not pleasant. At heart, humankind prefers suicide over redemption, darkness to light, ignorance over intellect. Becoming informed is boring. Becoming jaded and hopeless is entertaining. Doom sells.

WB would fall into the same trap if we said that nothing will ever change, and that the masses are marching happily off the cliff, having been entertained to death by a pop culture obsessed with death and destruction. But it doesn't have to go that way. Investing the same energy into fighting disaster as goes into celebrating it would be all it takes to start backing away from that dark precipice.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No rush for Rush

Update: The investment group interested in buying the Rams has announced that Rush Limbaugh is no longer one of its investors. This decision was taken in order to prevent unwanted negative attention....

Rush Limbaugh, the failed sportscaster and admitted drug addict who's been appointed by the Republican Party to be its leader, wants to buy a football team. And the football team doesn't want anything to do with him.

Referring to Limbaugh's frequent racist comments about football players, military generals, and U.S. Presidents, the NFL Players Union has appealed to the league commissioner to keep divisive right-wingnut politics out of football, saying: "[S]port in America is at its best when it unifies, gives all of us reason to cheer, and when it transcends. Our sport does exactly that when it overcomes division and rejects discrimination and hatred."

Taking the protest even further, several key players on the St. Louis Rams team have announced that they won't play for the team if Limbaugh buys it, and other players on other teams have spoken out against the "jerk" who rules the conservative radio waves and the GOP.

WB might ask, "Can't we all just get along?" — but that question was made famous by someone Rush wouldn't respect. So, players: keep piling on.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pity the trillionaires

Saudi Arabia wants financial aid when (if) the world succeeds in burning less oil to reduce CO2 emissions.

No, really. Saudi Arabia, the nation that has made trillions of dollars since the 1930s from the sale of its oil, and that will make trillions more before the oil dance is done, has apparently saved none of its money, and now wants to get in line with Bangladesh, the Maldives, and other dirt-poor nations who'll need some financial help moving into a clean-energy economy.

Maybe if it knocked off building mile-high supertall skyscrapers at a cost of $5 billion a pop, just for the sake of having a bigger... er, tower than those punks in Dubai, we might feel some sympathy. But until then: shameless.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Leading by example

Two good things happened this week: first, frustrated with Congress's inability to think about more than one issue at a time (and even then, unable to deal thoroughly with the single issue), President Obama ordered the Federal government to reduce its carbon output, i.e. greenhouse gases.

Quick history: At the first global climate treaty talks, in Kyoto, Japan, Bill Clinton promised to join the rest of the world in setting targets for CO2 output reductions. Then George Bush II scrapped the agreement, because it had been made by liberal socialist anti-business Democrats. And the rest of the world said, "WTF?"

Now, we finally have a chance to rejoin the planet at the next climate talks, in Copenhagen in December, and the U.S. President said this: "As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy, the federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."


But even nicer — because this is America, powered by capitalism and governed by an ideology of "let the free market solve all problems," Apple announced that it was resigning from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of that organization's interference with needed changes to combat climate disaster. (Click on the image below to read Apple's official letter of resignation and protest.) This, even though we've all seen the dumbass commercials now, sponsored by the oil industry, that tell us how wonderful CO2 really is:

And the company isn't alone on leaving the CoC; even Pacific Gas & Electric — a coal-burning, CO2-emitting energy utility — has quit the Chamber over its refusal to acknowledge a warming world that's hurtling toward hell. Slow down and let this one sink in: a power company is saying we need regulations and restrictions and motivations to find a better, cleaner way of turning on the lights.

As Craig Ferguson says: It's a good day for America, everybody.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bust a nut

The pistachio industry in the U.S. hit some hard times after a huge recall earlier this year when some shipments were tainted with salmonella bacteria. The recall was big news, and bad for business; to stage a comeback, pistachios had to have a radical image makeover: from killer to cool.

Enter Levi "Baby Daddy" Johnston, the kid from Alaska who knocked up Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, and who is the father of her now ten-month-old child.

Yes, you too can become a paid celebrity nut-buster if you just go out and impregnate an underage girl (which Bristol was, at the time that Levi busted his nut with her). Of course, it helps if the underage girl is the daughter of a right-wing lunatic mayor of a one-horse town intersection who resigns from her first term as governor but thinks this will qualify her to become the President of Amurka. And if "Every Sperm Is Sacred" is the family song. And if, on your own MySpace page, you once wrote:

"I’m a fuckin’ redneck who likes to snowboard and ride dirt bikes, but I live to play hockey. I like to go camping and hang out with the boys, do some fishing, shoot some shit and just fuckin’ chillin’ I guess. Ya fuck with me I’ll kick your a$$."
Because then you can walk away from the baby you daddied and go on to bust your nut on TV with a clever slogan, "Levi Johnston now does it with protection."

, as in button fly;

Johnston, as in one letter removed from a synonym for schlong;

, as in condom.

LOLOMGROFLMAO - who thinks of these clever things, anyway?


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Capitalism: Of the people, for the people, by the people

This weekend WB caught the new Michael Moore documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. A couple of days before going, we had a spirited discussion with a young college philosophy student about Moore's heavy reliance on emotional appeals in all of his films to make his case. Are emotional appeals effective means of persuasion, or just cheap gimmicks intended to clobber audiences over the head heart and prevent them from thinking through the issue's complexities?

Having seen each of Moore's films and owning them all in the WB DVD library, we can confidently say that the answer is: that's really not the question. Some emotional appeals are extremely effective, but no argument should be made exclusively of appeals to the heart. Rational appeals have to be in there, too, and this is why Moore will always include standard info-only scenes of bar graphs, timelines, pie charts, factual headlines, and all of the other "don't dwell on this too long or you'll lose the audience" statistical backups. And when it really comes down to it, even a bar graph is going to trigger a certain emotional response. Consider:

Now, if you're realizing that the little blue rectangle is you, and that the number 99 is much, much larger than the number 1, and that the bars are completely illogical given the sizes of the numbers, then you're not just thinking it, you're also feeling it. You have to, because the numbers and the bars are just wrong, in a moral sense — they carry not just illogicality (rational appeal) but also criminality and injustice (emotional appeal).

And what will the 1% tell you if you use the "i" word there? Why, that you've been deluded and hoodwinked by socialists, and that you, too, can become Bill Gates or Donald Trump if you just work hard enough. (Emotional appeal.) What they prefer you to whisk right past is the statistical (rational) evidence in that claim — that Gates and Trump, on a different bar graph where the colors are reversed, will be the little blue rectangle in a category of "Americans who have become wealthy" and you become the big black rectangle in a category of "Americans who never will."

That said, there are flaws in Moore's latest movie. But none of them has to do with the central argument, that capitalism willfully and intentionally destroys families and communities and cities and the nation itself. That argument is proven by an in-house memo from Citibank to its wealthiest clients, and by a three-page proposal, written by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, that was the basis for what Congress passed as "the $700 billion bailout" of U.S. banks. Both documents are factual, rational evidence, and the statements in them are outrageous and infuriating, thus triggering emotional responses. But they're not enough to carry the argument on their own. For that, Moore has to tug at heartstrings — especially since the people most damaged by capitalism are not the ones who have disposable income to spend on movie tickets. The audience members watching this film are the lucky ones, and so they need to feel the pain of the people below them who cannot attend.

Unfortunately, an opening scene, a home video showing something going on, doesn't make clear what that something is until far too much time has passed. Several minutes of audience members thinking what the hell am I looking at here isn't an effective way to start. In fact, the way the home video is presented, it's not even clear until much too late whether audiences should cheer the people in it or condemn them.

Likewise, a scene of a former Wal-mart employee and his family reading letters to a deceased wife and mother goes on too long. The outrage has already been established, factually and rationally, so a bereaved family's suffering over it is a totally unnecessary sledgehammer to an already battered viewer's brain. Ditto a scene with Moore taking his elderly father, a former GM worker in the 1950s, to tour the demolished site of his former factory. "I remember we would come and pick you up here," Michael tells his dad. "We would watch you coming down the ramp." To which his father replies, "Yup." Rationally dissected, this scene is pointless; we all know that industry in the U.S. was gutted during the Reagan 80s when corporate mergers and acquisitions and downsizing in the name of profits — and only profits — became the new American Way.

Luckily, Moore offsets this needless exchange with his aged dad by documenting a factory takeover by Chicago employees of a window and door manufacturer that has closed up shop. They don't want to save their jobs; they know those are gone forever. They just want to be paid for them, since their former employer's bank has announced that it won't disperse their last payroll. What transpires during the takeover, as community members, fellow union workers, and even the Catholic church come together to support the workers, is the real message that Moore wants to send with Capitalism. The damning facts about Wall Street greed and the illegal hocus-pocus of "derivatives" are being handled ably by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, in exposés published in March, July, and this week. Likewise, the New Yorker is on the case too, most recently in a huge article titled "Eight Days" that documents the minute-by-minute movements of the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and Wall Street executives as they collaborated to create the $700 billion robbery of American citizens, all with no legal justification or precedent. Leaving the investigations to the investigators, then, Michael Moore is free to go in a different direction, and to show how the number 99 really is bigger than the number 1, and that the tiny number's hold on power will last only as long as the huge number allows it to. When the consent ends, the party's over.

Sadly, one figure who gets implicated in the sordid story, although never by name, is... Barack Obama. Moore uses footage of thrilling and emotional pre-election rallies, attended by millions, where the new kid promised sweeping change. Change. Hope. Yes We Can. That guy — who then went on to keep all of the key players of the 2008 Wall Street Swindle in their same positions of power, and to appoint previous players to new positions. Here, the message isn't that Obama's a crook, but that he's a powerless pawn to the real chessmasters of American politics: the bankers.

To offset that sad realization, one politician in the film roars with a loud and angry voice about the wrongness of it all. She is Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, and she shows what might someday be possible if truth and justice ever really do become the American way. WB has no idea if Rep. Kaptur has any Presidential aspirations, but we're seriously thinking about starting a "Draft Marcy" movement right now.

So, are there cheap emotional appeals in Capitalism: A Love Story? Yep, a couple of real screamers. How much damage do they do to the larger message? On a scale of 1-100, about a three. Capitalism is ultimately as far from a "Look at all the bad guys and see how it's all their fault" story as Michael Moore has ever told, and his message is wrapped in kindness, compassion, and even love for the people whom his films serve. The final scene is classic Moore comedy-with-teeth, but the one before that — news footage of a drowned New Orleans after Katrina — is exactly what's needed to illustrate Capitalism's bottom line message. Are we, the people, going to sit obediently by and wait to be rescued by the wealthy and powerful who would literally prefer that we drop dead so they can profit? Or will we get up and move?

"I can't do this anymore," Michael Moore says in the closing minute of the film. "I need you people in the theater to help me. And please, do it soon." As unemployment and homelessness rates climb higher and safety nets disappear, that "soon" is going to happen even sooner than he thinks.