09 October 2014

Me vs. The Agenda

Unless you are a _______, are an expert in _______ culture, understand and utilize _______ lingo, and have nothing but neutral-to-positive things to say about _______, you should never, never, never ever discuss _______.

Ever.

Don't do it. You'll be wrong and labeled an anti-________ no matter what you say or how eloquently you say it. In fact, despite not having said anything myself, I'm running the risk of being wrong just by saying this. I can see it now:

Me: <<says the sentence above>>

Someone else: Andrew, you are saying that _______s are closed-minded and irrational? That makes you an ignorant and bigoted asshole and everything else that comes out of your mouth is garbage!

Yep. I'm a white American male, endowed with nearly every social privilege known to liberals. I am categorically unqualified to say anything critical about any social issue that doesn't affect me directly. I lack the necessary perspective to truly understand it. That is, unless I become a white knight for the cause, but that would preclude me from saying anything remotely negative or general about it.

Doesn't that sound a little silly to you?

Agendas, man. They're everywhere.

I follow a few black bloggers on Tumblr, so I come across a lot of pro-black, anti-white politics that make me shake my head. They're not wrong because they're black. They're wrong because they're making the same mistakes as the wrong white people. But I'm not allowed to say anything. That would make me racist. Actually, I confess; I have spoken up and said something before. And yes, I was called a racist.

Recently, I've seen my fair share of so-called sexism. The recent herpes-like flare-up with Sam Harris spouting an off-the-cuff conjecture which led to a tsunami of backlash was a spectacle to behold. In the eyes of the accusers, the man could say nothing to defend himself. The slight had been released out into the universe and forever labeled him a sexist pig, regardless of the actual makeup of his character. In fact, his rebuttal, though pre-approved by three female editors, served only to salt the wound of the offended.

This hyper-reactivism is absolutely absurd. Racism, sexism, and bigotry are the new clauses to Godwin's Law. We're simply not allowed to say anything remotely critical or suggestive about the socially underprivileged. Not in humor, not in curiosity, not in ignorance, not in wisdom, and may FSM help you if it's by accident. Language is so important to these people that the mere utterance of a misplaced word sends them into a frenzy.

With a clear head, one might be able to see how this could stifle meaningful conversation.

"But Andrew, there's nothing good that can come of this. We've been down this road before. We're trying to move forward."

I'm not buying it. I'd rather have a substantial conversation than avoid hurting someone's feelings. In the eyes of The Agenda, any conclusion which damages the image of a member of its protected in-group is always wrong and the originator of said conclusion is evil. That's it. That's the end of the discussion. Any attempts to rehash, defend or explain will only dig one's self deeper into their hole. There is no way to be correct if you say anything remotely generalizing. The only way to be forgiven is to publicly renounce your point and throw your lot in with them.

I have no desire to go into further specifics. As I have pointed out, it is a losing fight. My only hope with this post is that it serves to sober up at least one fanatic.

05 October 2014

It's OK to Criticize Religion

It stands to reason that when you put Ben Affleck in an intellectual debate with Sam Harris, you're likely about to witness the equivalent of game between the local Tee-ball League All-Stars and the 1999 New York Yankees. In fact, the only way the Tee-ball team could hope to escape the encounter with any dignity would be to sabotage the proceedings and make up their own rules. That's pretty much what happened this past Friday, on Real Time with Bill Maher. Just like the allegory of playing chess with a pigeon, Affleck knocked over the pieces and shat on the board by screaming bloody PC murder while completely ignoring the rational points being laid out before him by his intellectual superior. But we can't write this off as the buffoonery of just one man - this is how most liberals play the game, which is the very point that Sam Harris was making.

There are many reasons why liberals are resistant to criticizing Islam, but none of them are good. What it often boils down to is a lack of any real thinking. Case in point: the entire concept of Islamophobia. Criticize Islam and you're called a racist (as Ben Affleck did to Harris). However, these geniuses failed to recognize that Islam isn't a race. Islam is a set of ideas - a set of very bad ideas - that should be open for criticism. If this point even manages to get established, the next position to fall back on is that not all Muslims share the nasty beliefs that are giving the religion a bad name. As I am about to explain, this statement is both false and irrelevant.

You don't need to reach as far as the atrocities that extremist sects like Islamic State are committing to find problems with Islam. At its core, modern Islam is anti-feminist, anti-gay and culturally brutal (the penalty of apostasy is death). Most followers of Islam today uphold these values. These are not fringe beliefs acquired from warped interpretations of scripture. These are the tenets of mainstream Islam.

However, it is true that many Muslims are kind, well-meaning people who would not hurt a soul. This is because they are human and this is the default behavior of most humans. If they are good, they are so despite their religion, not because of it. There is nothing about their religion (or any religion, for that matter) that pushes them to be good beyond what they'd already be capable of without their beliefs.

At the very best, religion gives context to our inherent desire for cooperation and happiness. However, there is no benefit to religion than cannot be achieved through secular means, so we're left to analyze the potential downsides, of which there are many. Despite the well-behaved majority of humanity, most religions and many political ideologies provide a framework for justified brutality. Just because a religion's followers can be good does not remove the tool of brutality from the toolbox. It sits there, waiting for someone to come along, pick it up, and use it with the full justification of the same religious text that everyone else follows.

Therein lies the biggest reason not to criticize Islam. To do so is to open all religions up to criticism, and who wants to fight that war?

What if the act of criticizing religion was just a moot point, anyways? We are all humans, and humans thought up the brutal religions in the first place, right? Throughout history, countless people have suffered because someone felt justified in causing them pain for the good of all humanity. Could religion simply be a single facet in our polygonal nature to do this to each other over and over?

No.

The procession of society would all seem like a hopeless cycle of brutality if not for one reassuring fact: collective human knowledge is cumulative. To justify the original creation of today's brutal centuries-old religions as human nature is to assume that they were created in the same intellectual environment as exists today. Clearly, that isn't the case. What's the last brutal religion to arise from the laws of the universe as understood through the day's most advanced knowledge?

Granted, more recently, newer ideologies which are brutal are not so much religious as they are political. The formula still matters, though; they are based off flawed understandings of the world. They are based off of ignorance. What you're not seeing is new brutal ideologies emerging from intellectual sources, using modern knowledge for their justification.

Everyone wants to do good. Everyone wants the world to be better. However, if your understanding of the world is flawed, your solutions for how to make it better (and your ideals for what is "better") are going to be flawed. The more we know about reality, the more we study about ourselves, and the more we actually apply this knowledge, the less brutal we become. Yes, many have suffered as a result of flawed science, but it's only gotten better as we learn more. Not worse.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, have you ever seen a society suffer because it became more rational?

Religions must be criticized. To hold Islam in an unassailable category of its own makes zero sense. None whatsoever.

30 September 2014

Health Insurance Is Not Health Care

This is just a rant, but I needed to get it out and into the wild before I burned up from grinding it down in my head. Americans, you must never ever ever ever ever confuse health insurance for health care. Never make the mistake of thinking health insurance is a necessary part of the health care process. Never be grateful to your health insurance provider. Never take pride in having "good" insurance. This is akin to a slave being proud of having a master who does not beat him.

Health insurance is not there to protect you from the high cost of medical care. Medical care costs a fortune BECAUSE of health insurance.

Health insurance is the middle man between your health and the maintainers of it. It does more than just pay your doctor for you. It lords over the care that you receive. Your health insurance provider is not a medical advisor, yet it gets to determine how and how often you get treated. It makes these decisions not for your own good, but for its bottom line.

For instance, if you have a therapist recommend that you visit her once a week, that is a doctor-prescribed 52 visits a year. However, your health insurance likely has a limit to the number of psychiatric visits you're allowed. This number can be as low as 20 visits a year. That means your generous and benevolent health insurance provider will only allow you to receive 38% of the medically recommended care that you need. Sure, you can always pay out of pocket for the rest, but let's not forget how much things cost - as a result of health insurance.

Let's also say that a doctor prescribes medication to you. You drop the prescription off at the pharmacy and the pharmacist runs it by your insurance. Your health insurance provider can then simply say that it won't cover you for that medication. But why? They might tell you that the medication is normally prescribed to a different age group. Who the fuck are they to tell you what medication you can take? We know the real reason is that your insurance is always looking for a reason to not provide coverage. That way, they save money. That's it. You receive no benefit.

Here's another scenario: you get injured, so your primary care physician gives you a referral to a sports medicine facility. However, upon arriving and trying to make an appointment, you're told that the soonest the doctor can see you is two and a half months out. Why is this? Well, there is only one doctor in the whole facility who takes your insurance, and he's only in once a week. Why not blame the other doctors for not taking your insurance? Because doctors negotiate with the insurance providers on compensation and if they don't take your insurance, it's probably because your insurance company is so greedy that it couldn't make a deal with at least one more fucking doctor. And now you have to put your life on hold for 10 weeks because your injury won't heal on its own.

These are the stories of the "insured." These are people who pay money out of their pocket to receive health care, but receive bureaucracy instead. Nobody deserves this.

If you paid attention to the Affordable Care Act, it states that most adult Americans are required to purchase health insurance. There are so many things wrong with this. Again, health insurance providers are not medical care providers, they are corporate entities that exist for the solitary purpose of making money. And now our President has forced us into bed with them, as if this was the best solution to the problem. Out of some bizarre allergy toward anything remotely socialist, blinded by the false assertion that our capitalistic health care was somehow superior to that of other countries, we avoided adopting a single-payer system or even a national health service. Instead, our nation's leaders wrote a big fat check to the very institutions that are responsible for deteriorating our quality of life in the first place.

The worst part is that you're pretty much helpless against all of this. That's the system. It could likely be simpler, less stressful, less controlling and cheaper, but the leaders that you voted for have turned around and fucked you. Don't posture too much, though. The leaders that you didn't vote for would have fucked you even worse, but in a different way. So let's all be proud of having a leader who at least has the courtesy to use lube.

17 September 2014

Review: Waking Up

I'm always in awe of Sam Harris for his ability to identify the blind spot in our collective discourse and then proceed to write a book that fully illuminates it. For too long, there has been a rift between rationality and spirituality. Those who orbit around the heft of scientific thinking often dismiss spirituality as a distracting waste of time, while those who embrace spirituality often bastardize scientific knowledge to a frustrating degree. Finally, someone has managed to bridge the gap in an elegant and intellectually honest way that makes it OK to say you're spiritual, without having to believe in all that mystical crap.

It was never enough to simply leave the religious folk to their boundless love and speaking in tongues while dismissing it as self-delusional brain-hacking. Harris rightly points out that though those people are mistaken as to the essential cause of their religious ecstasy, it does not diminish the fact that they are indeed experiencing it and they are justified in seeking it out. The greater point that the entire book revolves around is that every experience, sensation, and mental state that a religious adherent can achieve may also be achieved by an intelligent, rational, and disciplined individual without ever having to believe a single false assertion as to the nature of our universe.

Of course, the use of the word spiritual doesn't hit the brain the way one would hope. It's not perfect, but the alternatives fall much shorter. Throughout the book, Harris works with a surgical scalpel to separate what he means by the word from the excess baggage that many would ascribe to it. It can be tedious, but it makes the point all the clearer to see.

One of the bolder statements that Harris makes lies in his comparison of the major religions along the axis of introspection. If you guessed that the western Abrahamic religions fell short in this evaluation, you'd be correct. Western society, as groomed by these faiths, would sooner laugh at the thought of an inward gaze than to entertain its potential benefits. I'm grateful, then, that Harris is hardly bashful in touting Buddhism as his framework of choice when going down the spiritual path. The core teachings of Buddhism, he explains, are merely an empiricist's manual for how to harness your own mind.

I've written before about mindfulness and its benefits, so I will skip that part. For me, the real sense that I was learning something came when Harris began deconstructing the source of consciousness in the brain. Split-brain experiments have always posed the most interesting dilemmas for people who believe in souls or their like. How are you one person if the two sides of your brain behave differently and often in opposition to each other when they are separated? That's not the mind-blowing part. Harris drops the mic on that segment by tossing out the possibility that our brains are already split. If your brain demonstrates that it houses at least two separate centers of consciousness when it is surgically split, what's to say that these centers aren't separate when the brain is intact? What could be likely is that your feeling of self is in fact a conglomeration of many separate centers of consciousness blending together, overlapping and stepping aside in a dance just beyond your perception.

By far, the most entertaining segment is the one about spiritual gurus and the disastrous pitfalls of spiritual submission. Harris spends such a huge chunk of the book espousing the process of learning from a spiritual teacher that it's almost comical when he nearly goes Gallagher on the whole concept in a few easily-devoured pages. He pulls up just in time, with a healthy warning of vigilance, and the point is received. But I couldn't help but wonder how a follower would find a guru in the first place. Do they have Facebook pages? One story involved a group of people literally wandering around the mountains and caves in search of a teacher, but I can't imagine Sam himself used this method to find the many mentors he personally studied with. I guess you have to run in those circles.

07 June 2014

The Beauty of Nihilism

Last night, I was talking with a friend who was very honest with her opinion of my nihilist philosophy. She didn't see the point in feeling like there was no purpose or meaning to anything. Why would anyone need to take it that far? Understandably, stripping out all of the fuzzy concepts from existence and focusing on only the sharp, hard edges of reality can be a bit jarring, but I was able to come up with a few words in the defense of my stance.

I brought up a programming analogy, since I work around technology all day. When you write a program, there are infinite ways to achieve the same result. The method that you choose, however, affects many things along the way: performance, readability, configurability, extensibility, elegance... the list goes on. The ideal program, from a conceptual perspective, is one that accomplishes a very complex task with the simplest code.

For a very rudimentary example, imagine the task of calculating all prime numbers between 1 and 100. There are 25 of them, which means that, at worst, the program could consist of 25 lines of code, each one devoted to printing a single number. However, this method lacks many qualities. First, it puts the burden on the programmer to do the calculations first. Next, it cannot be used for any other purpose. Third, it's a redundant mess. There's more to say, but you get the point. This is NOT how programs are written.

An ideal solution might consist of a loop that performs a dynamic calculation and then spits out the result over and over until it is finished. You might be able to accomplish this in 4-6 lines of code, depending on the language you use. The key quality of this simple program is elegance: the ability to do a complex and robust task with only a simple set of instructions. This is how we find beauty in programming.

And this is akin to the beauty I see in nihilism. To me, nihilism is the simplest program necessary to interpret reality. We strip out all the extra lines of code (meaning, purpose, subjective opinion) and we're left with only what's necessary to understand what is there before us. And the code that remains is elegant in that it consists of only a few basic declarations, but establishes a foundation that potentially answers all substantial questions with truth.

The other thing I said in defense of nihilism is that reducing commonly romantic concepts down to their physical components is actually quite beneficial. For instance, happiness doesn't need to be this nebulous feeling that randomly finds or escapes you. If you whittle happiness down to its most basic elements, you can begin to understand what causes it, and work to maximize it through strategic actions.

Whenever you perceive something, you're writing a program in your mind that helps you conceptualize and understand it. Nihilism is, to me, the most elegant program in existence for that purpose.

23 April 2014

Nihilistic Mindfulness

I’ve been bad. I haven’t practiced meditating in a long time and I would easily classify most of my thoughts during the day as “mindless.” That is, of course, the opposite of “mindful”. Mindfulness is a skill that takes a fair amount of work to acquire. The most recognized route to mindfulness is through meditation, wherein you practice acknowledging your thoughts for what they are and then let them go. This leads to what is often called being “in the moment,” a state where you neither pine for the past, nor mull about the future, but instead appreciate your here and now.

The benefits of mindfulness meditation are so numerous that it may as well be considered a superpower (as close as you can get to one in this world). From various health improvements to a calmer, happier disposition, mindfulness will likely improve your life, if only a little bit. However, despite not meditating in ages, I do recognize the benefit of a certain kind of mindfulness in my life; I’ll call it a pseudo-mindfulness. It stems from my philosophy of nihilism and it allows me to do a little bit of what mindfulness meditation can help with: recognize things (thoughts, feelings, actions, objects) for what they objectively are, so that they can be processed clearly.

To set the stage, let’s clear it completely. Imagine only a vast expanse of emptiness. This is the total amassed universal value, worth, purpose and meaning of everything in existence. And while existence itself is full of stuff, nothing means anything and there is not a single reason for it to be here. Enter stage right: us. We are human minds with the propensity to arbitrarily assign value to anything; real or imagined. We must acknowledge that any value we give to things is not inherent, literal, or wholly transferable. It is a concept contained within our minds and it disappears when we do.

Understanding the intrinsic value of something (or lack thereof) puts its relative value to you in more accurate perspective. In fact, a philosophical framework in which all things begin by being valueless works in a similar fashion to the non-attachment that is practiced during meditation. The process through which things acquire value (in a subjective sense) is entirely mindful, as we must acknowledge what something means to us and why it deserves value before we allow it to hold any sway over us.

The nihilistic perspective is very lean, with little consideration given to the impractical and inconsequential. Just as a mindful meditator may find themselves no longer disturbed by things that used to rile them up, a nihilist also finds no cause to be shaken by something they haven’t bothered to give value to. With this method of thinking, we start evaluating more of the world around us because we become experts at determining subjective value.

This isn’t the same as walking through the park and silently judging everything, or blindly dismissing everything as meaningless. In the way you can appreciate an overheard conversation for its entertainment value, you can also walk away toward the next attraction because eavesdropping is nice, but not essential to your life.

Everything you experience is a chance to learn to control how you want to feel about it. Using myself as an example, I’ve become much more aware of myself during times of stress and anger. I’m able to quickly identify the source of my mood and its effect on me because I am not being taken by surprise by it - I’ve already recognized it for its potential to affect me. This allows me to recover very quickly and move on.

I am not saying that nihilism is a substitute for mindfulness meditation, nor will it improve your health by any measure. My only claim is that the nihilistic mindset that I’ve described is a philosophical approach to non-attachment that doesn’t require actual meditation practice. This is also not to say that adopting this mindset is easy or even recommended. I’ve only begun to explore the nuances of nihilism. I also acknowledge that someone eagerly following any philosophical model I have described in my writings is likely to find themselves with many unanswered questions. That being said, I look forward to explaining it further as the thoughts come to me.

17 April 2014

Where Does Power Lie?

How exactly do politics work? What’s the carrot and who’s holding the stick? These questions led me to start analyzing the chain of events that contribute to any political outcome. The ultimate question is this: Where does the true power lie? If we can realize this, we’ll know where to aim our focus to exact the most effective change in a system we aren’t satisfied with.

My initial guess is that the power is truly with the people as a whole. We’re the ones who elect officials. We’re the ones who the officials have to please in order to keep their positions. And we’re the ones to blame when the people we elect turn around and trample on our rights. However, there are some people who believe that The Man is the one with the power. They believe he has too much of it and he uses it to manipulate the people into supporting him, without their true consent and to their own detriment.

Who is correct?

Watching shows like House of Cards (vague spoilers ahead), you begin to wonder if the people have any power at all. In the show, a power-hungry politician manipulates the system he was elected into as a lowly House Representative and manages to find himself in great positions of authority without a single vote cast further in his favor. The millions of lives he manages to affect with his power plays are casualties of his ambition. His path transcends the politics that we see on the nightly news and takes an entirely different route – one that not a single citizen could have prevented at the polls.

While that is a scary picture, we must also admit that it is fiction. The world may contain comparably bloodthirsty figures vying for power, but many things needed to go conveniently right for Frances Underwood to get to where he was going. Reality simply doesn’t work that way.

Election campaign consultants have things down to an eerie science. They’ll advise a candidate that they have to support Topics A and B, but denounce Topic C in order to gain exactly 4% in the polls. These suggestions are delivered without respect to the candidate’s personal values or their party’s philosophy. It’s a game of doing whatever it takes to win. Values be damned.

In this situation, it may not be obvious who has the power, but the answer is the people. Ultimately, the politician needs to appeal to the people, who hold opinions on Topics A, B and C. In order to get elected, they must align themselves with their constituents, even if they personally disagree.

That isn’t the entire story, though. If the politicians don’t like what the people want, they have a few options to change the voting landscape. Gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, propaganda, limiting options, and outright vote rigging are all tools of manipulative influence that politicians can use to bend the outcomes of “democratic” elections in their favor. The question is: how effective are any of these methods?

At the risk of overloading the conversation with yet more questions, there are still plenty of factors to consider when it comes to determining who has the power. After the election is won, there is nothing that says a politician must adhere to the promises they made on the campaign trail. A recent study by Princeton University revealed that the policies enacted by the US government largely deviate from the average voter opinion. In fact, they align more closely with those of special interests and organized groups. The people may vote, but it’s the money that speaks.

Given this knowledge, the people are, at best, disorganized in their ability to prevent the power from slipping from their grasp. Incumbency rates in Congress are at 85%, despite record low approval ratings. Assuming the same people being polled for their approval are the same ones voting for their congressional representatives, how the hell does anyone keep their job? This is how we indirectly answer the question of how effective voter manipulation efforts are, as a whole.

Popularly suggested solutions to the supposed oligarchy that has replaced our democracy seem to center on the influence of special interest money on our policies. Remove the money and it will clear out the corruption, right? Maybe. Removing one source of corruption does not immunize against it entirely, though. There are ways to be compensated for loyalty to special interests other than cash.

The linchpin of democracy, the election, is what must be repaired in my opinion. This is a multi-faceted problem. We must ensure that everyone is allowed and encouraged to vote. We must ensure that votes are properly counted. We must ensure that voting districts are drawn with realistic boundaries. We must ensure that the information which people vote on is truthful. Lastly, we must ensure that people have the option to vote for a candidate who actually represents their interests. A tall order, but it’s something to aim for.

Every election should represent a chance to flush out our previous bad decisions and make improvements. With the effect of elections on our politics almost nullified, we, The People, are nearly powerless. It concerns me to think of what we must resort to if our elections fail to enact the change that we desperately need.