culture, environment, International News

Human vs. Nature vs. Human Nature

There’s nothing like nature to provide a clear reminder that all the political scandals in the world are irrelevant in the face of human suffering in the wake of natural disaster.

The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda is already nearing 2,000, and the official toll is expected to be somewhere in the region of 10,000. Already the scale of the disaster has led to crucial delays in bringing aid to the country. The suffering of thousands continues, and will be abated only through the hard work and dedication of aid agencies and volunteers from around the world – aided by donations from millions around the globe.

The damage and loss of life are terrifying, and the response inspiring – but this is the time when another phenomenon starts to emerge, one that is a demonstration of the darker side of humanity. It was probably less than five minutes after the storm had passed that the first scammers raising funds in the name of typhoon victims started to emerge. Fortunately, various news and information outlets are cautioning people about the danger of falling for these scams, and some valuable resources exist for the public to educate itself, but the question remains: how can people do this? What kind of a person could undertake such a despicable act?

The psychology off criminals is, I must admit, somewhat difficult for me to understand; this is likely a good thing. Lex Luthor I ain’t – I’m reasonably clever on a good day, but I certainly couldn’t come up with some of the ideas that scammers do. It reminded me of the following exchange from the first Bond movie, Dr. No:

Dr. No: I’m a member of SPECTRE

James Bond: SPECTRE?

Dr. No: SPECTRE. Special Executive for Counter Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion. The four great cornerstones of power headed by the greatest brains in the world.

James Bond: Correction. Criminal brains!

Dr. No: The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be!

I don’t know that it is superior, but it is obviously unfettered by any sense of empathy for victims or any moral qualms about taking advantage of the generosity of others. From what I know of psychology, I suspect that the ideal personality trait for a con artist is narcissism – the need to aggrandize oneself, often at the expense of others. Narcissists at their worst are ruthless, manipulative, and focused only on their own gain. The inability to internalize and a callous disregard for the norms of society is also a symptom of antisocial personality disorder, which I would refer to as sociopathy. I offer the following helpful illustration:


I guess the point is that there are some bad people out there who will not hesitate to profit at the expense of others or exploit the pain of thousands for personal gain. This should never stop us from doing what we can to help. Donating to well-established charities is the best way to ensure that help will go where it is truly needed. On a daily basis, all of us need to recognize that others are less fortunate than we are, there is suffering on our own doorstep, and we have the power to effect change. Volunteering is a great way to give back – giving of yourself can be more valuable than throwing money at some problems.

Right now, however, the people in the Phillippines and Vietnam need help, and I would urge you to lend a hand. Here are two suggestions:

christians, Conservatives, creationism, culture, education, evolution, media, politics, racism, religion, religious right, Republicans, Things We Should Know, Uncategorized

It’s Not the End of the World

His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.

-George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

To those of you thoughtful (or at least conscious) enough to recognize the process described above, you probably have asked the same question I have: How do people who, for the most part, seem outwardly rational and functioning members of society, believe some of the political or religious ideology that has been spoon-fed to them? Many of the ideas espoused by extremists of all stripes are demonstrably false, so how can people go on believing them?

As far back as 1956, behavioural scientists have published studies dealing with this question – that year, Leon Festinger published When Prophecy Fails, a book that described the reactions of individuals faced with the by now quite common phenomenon of the world continuing on without ending. The individuals were members of an apocalyptic cult who had given away all of their belongings and waited upon the figurative mountaintop for the end of the world, which never came. How did these people deal with the fact that their beliefs, and the actions that followed their beliefs, had been proven unequivocally incorrect? Surprisingly, the cult members’ beliefs intensified, and they began proselytizing even more fervently.

This phenomenon was described by Festinger and his co-investigators as a type of cognitive dissonance, which occurs under specific circumstances:

1. The belief must be held with deep conviction and be relevant to the believer’s actions or behavior.

2. The belief must have produced actions that are difficult to undo.

3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and concerned with the real world such that it can be clearly disconfirmed.

4. The disconfirmatory evidence must be recognized by the believer.

5. The believer must have social support from other believers.

So to create the increased fervor, the members of the group must actually recognize that the evidence is against them. The social support of the other believers is crucial to the continuance of faith in what has clearly been disproven.

So, let’s apply this to those that myself and other authors here on the ‘Kog often find ourselves at odds with: Tea Partiers, religious fanatics, Conservatives, conservatives (note size of ‘c’), climate/evolution/science deniers, racists, alt med zealots, and so on. Our frustration in large part comes not from the fact that people have a particular belief; that’s their right in a democracy and none of us would have it any other way. The frustration arises (for me, at least) from the individuals’ dogged adherence to beliefs and customs that have been clearly shown through evidence to be non-productive, simply false, or even patently absurd – no amount of discussion or clarification will budge them from their metaphoric hilltops. As long as they have the security of knowing that others share their beliefs, they can cover themselves in that fact as with a warm blanket and weather any storms we may visit upon them.

Kinda makes you think, don’t it? Considering this over the past few days, I have recognized my own tendency to dig my heels in and push when encountering opposition; recognized also my quite literal anger at people who refuse to change their minds despite whatever evidence I may bring to bear. I have realized that I will quite clearly never change their minds or cause them to alter their behaviour one bit, just as their arguments won’t change me in the least. Engaging with the zealot on his own terms requires you to become a zealot, to attack the individual and react emotionally to the ‘ignorance’ you must crusade against. I have personally seen this in myself, and walked away grumbling from my computer, my day ruined by my ideological opposite number who has drawn me into reacting emotionally.

But, no more – evidence is evidence, and truth is truth despite some people’s objections to it. Some acts are just and some are unjust, and some ideologies deserve the time and energy that can be committed to teaching and learning different perspectives… And some, as much as my brain craves closure and victory, are not. The secret to creating and maintaining an online persona that carries some weight and the appearance of validity, as I see it, is recognizing the difference. Some people cannot and will not be convinced, so wasting the effort to try is folly. So, I shall no longer feed the trolls. I expect my blood pressure will be better overall as a result.

If you are so motivated, I’d love to hear some discussion of your experiences in the comments. I want this to be the start of a great conversation, not the end.

culture, economics, justice, law, media, politics, Things We Should Know

G20, Canadians 0

I have been following, probably to a lesser degree than I might have, the protests surrounding the G20 summit in Toronto. What I find interesting is that the summit itself has been eclipsed by the violent clashes occurring outside the security perimeter – perfectly natural, after all, violence has always provided better ‘copy’ than negotiation and discussion. In that sense, the protesters have accomplished one mission: their messages are being covered, if only in a primarily negative fashion and only as a peripeheral story to their methods of propagating the message.

For what it’s worth, I wish to offer a few observations:

It is important for the general public to remember that all of the protesters are not violent, and all of those acting violently are not legitimate members of social activist groups – it is said by some that there is a cadre of ‘professional protesters’ who travel from event to event to cause disruption. I would certainly not want to see everyone painted with the same broad brush as ‘violent’ or ‘irresponsible’. Nor, as it happens, do I particularly like having all police portrayed as ‘jack-booted thugs’ or provocateurs. There is reportedly evidence that some covert provocation by undercover police has occurred in the past, however, in the age of YouTube and the ‘citizen journalist’, such actions are a clear liability. The police are paid to maintain order, and I have no doubt that they arrived on the front lines with the ideal of doing this job – that being said, police, first and foremost, are human beings, and human beings make mistakes; they lash out when attacked, due to fear (they are greatly outnumbered by shouting, angry protestors), or out of an over-developed sense of duty. The violent members of the police services, as with the protestors, are vastly outnumbered by those who do their jobs well, and with integrity. Remember that just because the violent individuals on both sides get the most attention, that does not make them representative of the whole.

Speaking of representation, I was interested and curious after reading some stories on the CBC as to whether or not many of the individuals, violent and otherwise, among the protesters are politically active in other ways, such as voting. A quick search revealed this study, which indicates that surveyed individuals in the 15 to 21 and 22 to 24 year-old age groups are the most active in “non-voting political behavior”, and the least active in actually voting (even allowing, of course, for the fact that the voting age is 18). While understanding that younger adults are cynical and disillusioned with the political process, I think we have done a poor job in educating younger people about the importance of voting – it is the acceptable democratic method of social change, as opposed to the proposed ‘violent revolution’. We already have the means to enact social change and ensure that the individuals who represent us truly have our best interests at heart – the organized, purposeful, collective casting of ballots. Demanding social change while declining to participate in any meaningful way in the process available seems dishonest, in my opinion. Call me naive if you must, but I’m an optimist – I believe if we truly want social change, if we want to replace the current regime, it is within out power collectively as Canadians to create the change – ‘be’ the change, in other words. Revolution worked in Russia in 1917, but is unlikely to have any meaningful effect beyond the disruption of the lives and livelihoods of individuals not even concerned with the protests – the small businessmen and so on. If you want justice, you have to be a full participant in the creation of the just society, become one of its builders, and not focus on the violent destruction of the old regime. Each of us, every day, in any given moment, create and maintain justice within society according to our moral codes – let that creation dominate through the political process rather than abetting wanton destruction.

Beyond (and inextricably bound within) the political is the personal – how we act, what we do, whom we choose to help or hurt. Concern for our fellow citizens – the expression of justice, of tolerance and of lending assistance where possible – is the basis of democracy, particularly a democracy such as ours which is based on a pretty good (but not perfect) social safety net. Behind this altruism, however, is the single most important unit of society, the individual, who maintains (or breaks) the social covenant as she sees fit on a constant basis through interactions with others – society is not imposed from the top down, but is built and maintained, moment by moment, by the individuals, the ‘bricks’ that are its component parts. Humanity, however, is descended from animals (no matter what creationists may tell you), and the proof of this ascent lies in our behavior, in the actions between thoughts, in our instincts. One of the more fascinating parts of Social Psychology lies in the realm of Collective Behavior, as discussed with great clarity over the years by writers such as Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, and by Erich Goode in the excellent textbook Collective Behavior (who knew?). Human social interaction is by nature complex, but the behavior of crowds as they become mobs has been examined in great detail, and is, to some degree, predictable. The social dynamics of the crowd-to-mob transition rely on  particular elements to unfold: first, the ‘power’ granted to the individual by the collective – to put it another way, as individuals, we can be known quantities; as part of a collective, we are anonymous, and therefore more free to express ourselves physically and emotionally – witness on a small scale the strident nature of the anonymous message boards on the Internet, and keep in mind that each of these is a building block of a collective expression of order or disorder. Second, observation of crowds has proven the importance of leadership – one or more individuals, usually a small number, who define the ‘agenda’ for the collective. How they act sets the tone for the dynamics that follow. If, for example, the natural leaders from whom the collective takes their cues are peaceful by nature, the dynamic will remain a peaceful one – which is why all crowds, at concerts and sporting events, do not become mobs. On the other hand, if the leaders, being more expressive or lacking impulse control, are more violent or begin to destroy property, then the crowd’s transformation to a mob is virtually assured – in many cases, all it takes is one act of violence to transform the collective, empowered by the anonymity of numbers, into the anarchist army. Third, there must be that act – the violent action, the thrown brick or punch, that acts as the ‘tipping point’ in the collective mood, and unless the emotional impact of this act is diffused immediately, the transition is inevitable. It is for these reasons, despite complaints of excess on the part of police and security services, that motivates the array of precautions in Toronto. The police understand the potentially negative consequences of collective behavior, even if we or the protestors do not.

Finally, as time goes on, the patient observer will take note of the escalating rhetoric on the Internet, again motivated by anonymity and the protection it provides. The attacks will become more personal and the rhetoric more heated, until the faceless and inherently evil ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ Other becomes unworthy of respect or calm dialogue – in fact, as individuals, they are to be torn down and destroyed as effectively as are physical structures. Although not a physically ‘present’ collective, the concept of the tipping point still applies – the first one to ‘flame’ the opposition sets the tone for what follows, despite the efforts of some individuals to foster a more civil dialogue. The Other, meanwhile, becomes dehumanized, and the attacks become personal, until the level of vehemence approaches a point which would never be reached in a face-to-face confrontation on the same subject.

I make these observations with a goal in mind – not to bore you, as may well be the case, but hopefully to point out the imperfections of both sides in this ‘struggle’. I don’t pretend to be an expert in capitalism or colonialism, so I have deliberately left these issues out of the equation; ultimately, these are but ideologies which require human agency to exist.

And that’s the point, really – despite the perception of the monolith labeled ‘SOCIETY’ that we percieve, we, individuals, citizens, police and protesters, are society writ small. And, frankly, it is a little humbling, despite the accelerated growth of technology,  just how fragile our collective is, under the right conditions. In the building of a society, we are all keystones.

Note: Edited to reflect a quite accurate comment that I had stated an opinion as fact.

culture, International News, Lighter Things, Lying douchebags, media, religion, Self-righteous asshole, Skepticism

Baba… Oh, Really?*

Interesting story from India in which a well-known skeptic, Sanal Edamaruku, responded to the outlandish claims of a self-proclaimed guru or baba (holy man) who, it was said, could kill a man using only his eerie mystical powers.  Mr. Edamaruku simply challenged the guru to go ahead and kill him right then and there, on television. To the surprise of no-one with a nickel’s worth of sense, Edamuruku remains alive and kicking, and Pandit Surender Sharma, the outed ‘guru’, goes home without a cookie. I must admit to loving the description of the events that occurred, live, on a talk show:

Mr Edamaruku had been invited to the same talk show as head of the Indian Rationalists’ Association — the country’s self-appointed sceptic-in-chief. At first the holy man, Pandit Surender Sharma, was reluctant, but eventually he agreed to perform a series of rituals designed to kill Mr Edamaruku live on television. Millions tuned in as the channel cancelled scheduled programming to continue broadcasting the showdown, which can still be viewed on YouTube.

First, the master chanted mantras, then he sprinkled water on his intended victim. He brandished a knife, ruffled the sceptic’s hair and pressed his temples. But after several hours of similar antics, Mr Edamaruku was still very much alive — smiling for the cameras and taunting the furious holy man.

Below is Part One of the ‘attempted murder’… the video is in Hindi, but it’s certainly easy to catch the drift – I recommend watching the videos in their entirety, or availing yourself of one of the ‘condensed’ versions:

All credit, honor and respect to Mr. Edamaruku and the Indian Rationalists’ Association. Well done.

*With apologies to The Who.

culture, entertainment, general silliness, Lighter Things, media

Bah, Humbug… The Xmas Rant

A Blog post in today’s New York Times which discusses which Christmas songs should be put out to pasture got me to thinking about which traditional songs, shows, etc. could be considered the most annoying – from my own point of view, of course. Please feel free to comment freely and often – let’s get this debate party started!

First of all, there should be a moratorium placed on the playing of any festive music before the 15th of November – even if some of it is good, by the time xmas rolls around we are so psychologically damaged by the repetitive playing of good tidings that we would probably welcome the relative solitude of Guananamo Bay. Brainwashing us to be happy is still brainwashing.

When I was young, my family had a simple tradition: light the tree, start a nice, roaring fire and turn the winnebago-sized console stereo to our local radio station to enjoy some nice xmas music. I’d sit with my hot chocolate, waiting for the NORAD Santa tracking reports, ready to dash for my bed at the slightest hint of sleigh bells. Inevitably, something horrible would intrude on ths most peaceful and pleasant night of family togetherness: a little spoken word recording of something called The Littlest Angel, or something like that. The single most depressing collection of words ever, read by a deep-voiced narrator who seemed on the verge of tears, it was a recording that nearly every year drove my family to the brink of mass suicide – would you like a little arsenic in that hot chocolate? Yes, please. I don’t even remember what it’s about, other than a dead child and a box full of his possessions that got sent to the wrong destination or something – yes, even in heaven, there is lost luggage. If this is still being played somewhere, it’s no wonder more people are reputed to kill themselves during the holidays.

Frosty the Snowman – there’s no better cartoon to motivate me to turn up the heat in my home. While the Grinch and Charlie Brown (except for the Linus speech) remain treasured memories that make me want to watch them every year, Frosty is just saccharine enough, with just enough uncomfortable subtext, to render it unwatchable for me. For starters, none of these children apparently have parents – Karen’s trip north with Frosty seems to be nobody’s problem in particular. Sure, no issue at all – someone’s daughter has just illegally jumped on board a train with an inhuman snow homonculus – what’s to worry about? That, combined with the fact that every adult in the cartoon is incompetent or borderline retarded, makes this utterly unwatchable. Don’t even get me started on the ‘sequel’. It’s a sad tribute to the talent of Jonathan Winters that this is ever repeated. Oh, and while I’m at it: was there anyone ever who actually thought Jimmy Durante could sing? He would have been right at home with Rod Stewart and Kim Carnes in Laryngitis Theatre.

The following list of songs will be those banned immediately upon the inauguration of my administration:

  • Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree: Is it just me, or does Brenda Lee sound like her sinuses have fallen into her neck? Completely cringe-worthy, in my opinion;
  • Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer: c’mon, this one is self-explanatory. Somewhere, there’s one guy who likes this – let’s give him a copy and spare the rest of us the agony;
  • Santa Baby: By all means, let’s reinforce the association of Charistmas and naked, unfettered greed! Ho, ho, ho.. and I do mean ‘ho’;
  • Any song with “Christmas” in the title that has nothing to do with Christmas, e.g.: Last Christmas by Wham! The need for a two-syllable word does not justify the inclusion of the name of the holiday in your lyrics;
  • Baby it’s Cold Outside: while not technically a Christmas song, it was pointed out by a commenter in the NYT as being a great date rape song – so, it’s out;
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas, and no, sorry, not even the Bob and Doug version will be saved. Ok, you can play that one once on a designated day at a designated hour, then it goes back in the sleeve – this will be known as the “Take off and take it off” rule;
  • Silent Night: seriously, is there anyone who isn’t sick of this? The new jazzed-up version on the commercial will be shot and burned, along with whatever his name is, De’Angelo or whatever. Just don’t tell him we’re responsible, as I think he may be a good fella, if you know what I mean;
  • Blue Christmas: Elvis is dead. Accept it, and stop pissing on his corpse by playing this over and over;
  • Anything, and I mean anything by Boney M;
  • Jingle Bell Rock: No it isn’t, and no, it doesn’t;
  • I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus: Let’s not celebrate children witnessing extramarital affairs, that just seems wrong. It strikes me as odd that the kid seems ok with it. Come to think of it, is this the kid who shortly thereafter requires the replacement of two front teeth? Dysfunctional families are not festive. Plus, They Might Be Giants did it better with Santa’s Beard;
  • Snoopy’s Christmas (Snoopy vs. the Red Baron): If I may, I’d like to (ahem) shoot this one down for good;
  • Any “All-Star” songs, like those performed by Band-Aid or Northern Lights have long since stopped serving any useful purpose. The sole redeeming moment is in the televised documentary for Northern Lights, after legend Neil Young sings his line, and the engineer (or whoever) says from the booth that it was a little flat. Neil Replies: “That’s my style, man.” Yes it is, Neil, yes it is;
  • Whatever that atrocity is that describes the heroic deeds of “Ding-A-Ling the Christmas Bell”. All copies, and Ding-A-Ling himself, will be melted down and the resulting ingot dropped on the composer;
  • Springsteen’s version of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: no, just…no. The band sounds like it is laying in wait for Santa with knives;
  • Do You Hear What I Hear: If so, you are obviously not drinking enough;
  • Feliz Navidad: I heard this recently and realized just how annoying this was. Ok, I appreciate other cultures and other languages, but come on! This is the same phrase repeated 300 times – that’s not a lyric, that’s a vocal compulsion;
  • I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas: trust me kid, no you don’t. Those things are vicious;
  • The Little Drummer Boy: even as a child, my family were primarily using this as a basis for obscene versions (the fact that ‘drum’ rhymes with ‘bum’ being the height of comedy styling when I was eight), so let’s just play this one off for good;
  • That idiotic Christmas song by the Beach Boys, Little Saint Nick or some such. I am particularly annoyed by the refrain “Christmas comes this time each year”. Thank you, Brian Wilson, for your insight, but I have a calendar, and it was working properly when last I looked.

We now know the reason Santa can travel the world so quickly: caffeine and sugar

Now, there’s some stuff that needs to stick around, for example, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which may strike some readers as an odd choice, given my atheist leanings, but it is a beautiful tune (and is thus responsible for my capitalizing the ‘G’ in god, which I generally refuse to do).  Plus, it hasn’t been done to death – the version in Mr. Bean’s Christmas special shows how well it still works. The animated Robbie the Reindeer specials are hilarious and should be classics – and shall be designated so once my regime takes office. Also, there was one on a week ago about Santa’s elves who were responsible for securing the scene before Santa’s arrival, that was a hilarious pastiche of Christmas cheer and Mission: Impossible-style antics. If anyone remembers the name of this, I’d appreciate it.

Anyway, this is a partial list at best, and I invite everyone to vent their anger and put in two cents’ worth of cheer or venom, whatever works for you.

Oh, and what do I want for xmas? The opportunity to write for publication. A column, a commentary, whatever – I’d just appreciate the opportunity. I’m hoping one or more of our readers could help me out with that. Pointers, names, or just a straight up chance to establish myself, that’s all I need.  Blatant plug complete, thank you for your patience.

Happy Holidays to my esteemed colleagues, and particularly to our readers, without whom we would just be talking to ourselves.

culture, entertainment, general silliness, media

Tiger Bomb

This is one of those times.

One of those times that I certainly think that I need – nay, deserve – press credentials. Picture the scene, or a variation thereof:

Star Athlete/Actor/Musician: I am sorry that I have transgressed and let people down. I will promise to work on my (marriage/drug problem/gambling problem/poor acting skills) and try very hard never to let this happen again. Questions?

Me: I have a question.

Star Athlete/Actor/Musician: Yes?

Me: Why the everlasting fuck should I care what you’re doing, have done, or are about to do? I mean seriously, with child poverty, war, disease, racism, the rape of the environment, abuse of power and willful ignorance on the list of things that are waaaaayyyy ahead of you and your little insignificant peccadilos, why does what you’ve done matter one iota in the grand scheme of humanity’s march toward oblivion? Does what you’ve done actually alter a single molecule of the universe outside your own little social circle? Can you answer me that?

Star Athlete/Actor/Musician: (Weeps openly).

As you may have guessed, I’m getting a little tired of this. Athletes, Tiger among them, are physically talented – they have an unparalleled  ability to complete whatever goal is required of their individual sport – that’s what makes them worthy of the title of ‘champion’. Similarly, actors, such as Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep (although others may differ, this is the first two names that come to mind among modern actors – I would put William Powell high among those of the past) can interpret characters and pretend believably to be someone else in order to service the requirements of a narrative – they are mental and physical storytellers. The good ones can help immerse you in a new world or situation so the viewer can concentrate on the narrative flow. The bad ones take you out of that world and disrupt that flow. Musicians too are sometimes capable of works of incredible beauty, nuance and social commentary.


That’s where it ends, folks. The personal activities of these people who have chosen certain types  of employment in creative or competitive fields are of absolutely no interest to me, and I submit that they are of no valid interest to anyone else, either. They are well-known because of their talents on the field, screen or stage – they perform their chosen professions with distinction and well-deserved recognition. That is where it ends.

They, like any individuals, are entitled to their opinions, but they are no more or less important or valid than the opinions of others. Celebrities who endorse many causes or charities, I have no particular problem with, as they make no claims to expertise or special insight. Others, however, have chosen to insinuate themselves into fields in which they have no more talent or expertise than you or I. Perhaps less. That is at best annoying, like Bono’s solutions to the problems of the world economy, and at worst highly dangerous, like Suzanne Somers’ endorsement of vitamin cures for cancer and dismissal of mainstream oncology, or Jenny McCarthy’s campaign against vaccination due to unproven and unverified links to autism. I don’t know about you, but I’m not taking cancer treatment advice from Chrissy Snow.

The most important point I’d like to make here (finally) is that the actions of celebrities, no matter how well-intentioned, or poorly-considered, are not, nor have they ever been, news. We have conflated popularity and importance to the point where any idiot who can act his way out of a wet paper bag suddenly possesses a degree of social influence completely disproportionate to the level of importance of the work he or she performs. Granted, not all professions have an equally profound influence on society – I haven’t felt the need to listen to the opinions of a taxidermist lately. The point is that if he or she is an incredibly talented taxidermist, does that make their opinion of any issues more valid?  Should a proficient taxidermist be granted the ability to evade or disregard the laws the rest of us must follow? Is this brilliant animal-stuffer justified in assuming they should be treated like royalty?

News is, to my way of thinking, information that is relevant to our lives from an economic or social perspective – crime, unemployment, political decision-making – all of these will have relevance to the way we live our lives and to the way we plan for the future. None of this applies to celebrity news, unless George Clooney decides to steal a zeppelin and crash it through an orphanage on his way to destroy Wall Street in a giant ball of flames (That, I would read about).

As far as I’m concerned, celebrity ‘news’ – including any discussion of the infidelities committed by a golfer in his personal life – are irrelevant and waste my time. This is just the kind of mind-candy that distracts us from the real issues, keeps us politically ignorant, and motivates some of us to do anything to achieve the new holy grail of celebrity – a reality show of your very own.  As for their being role models, same story – they are good at a job, and if you choose to follow after them professionally using the best and the brightest as your guide, more power to you. If, however, you decide that you have to wear the celebrity’s brand of shoes or abuse others just to be like them, you have severe problems. We are losing our identities because of the aggressive sale and self-promotion of other people’s identities. Until enough of us stand up and leave the room (or change the station, or, just imagine – complain) at the sight of gossip and celebrity antics, we will continue to breed generations of people who think that a celebutante with no claim to fame other than being famous has something important to say. About anything.

Now, where can I steal me a zeppelin?

Barack Obama, Conservatives, culture, Democrats, entertainment, Google, Liberal, media, Past indiscretions biting you in the ass, politics, religious right, Republicans, Things We Should Know, United States, us versus them

Politics, Society and Technology: the Perils of Entitlement

As I was cruising the intertubes this morning, waiting patiently for the NFL to kick off, I came across a blog entry on Huffington Post by Jeffrey Feldman, entitled “The Outrage Pandemic“. It describes the rising tide of outrage from both the Right and the Left in regard to President Barack Obama, particularly now that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This got me to thinking about a few seemingly random things, which may not be so random.

We live now in an age where everything is instant – gratification of the need for attention, for knowledge and for fame is mere moments away for most people. Blogs for example are, or rather were, unique venues for the everyday individual who once was one of the faceless masses to be fed information to provide tasty opinionated snacks to the world (I am as guilty as anyone of checking the blog stats to see if anyone is reading what I have written, and how the ‘Kog is doing in general – I respect and admire my co-authors, and I’m glad I was invited to participate in this grand experiment). Add YouTube videos and Wikipedia to the mix, and we have unprecedented access to instant gratification, in the form of information, entertainment, or infotainment, from almost everywhere in the world.

What is problematic in the access to ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ we all enjoy is the atomization of social life – when everyone can write their own newspaper, or make their own movies, or, more tellingly, limit themselves to reading the ‘news’ from the viewpoint they prefer, shared experience becomes less… shared. The common experience of having access to a limited number of media that still existed until about 15 years ago has been lost, replaced by the ability to create a world that reflects you, and to search for others who share your views, no matter how extreme.

Add to the atomization phenomenon the usual action and interaction associated with anonymous communication, and the landscape becomes considerably more volatile. It has been said, quite rightly, that you can be literally anyone online – it’s why I don’t bother with chatrooms. The sneaking suspicion that the 18-year-old nymphet at the other end of an intertube is actually a hairy, naked trucker in a cheap hotel ruins the whole experience for me. Sometimes it is possible to know, or suspect, too much. But, that’s not the important aspect I am talking about (whew). The translation of thought into text without much usable context (the emoticon is useful, if annoying, but not foolproof) leads to misunderstanding, and the usual human interaction to perceived disagreement or outright verbal or textual attack is an emotional one, completely out of proportion with any reaction to a similar real-world situation. To borrow from theories of collective behavior, a group of individuals becomes a mob because of the combination of:

  1. A reasonably large group of people (critical mass, if you will)
  2. A precipitating or ‘trigger’ event
  3. An individual who recognizes the protection of numbers, and escalates his behavior to violence
  4. A cascade effect in which others in the collective follow the extreme behavior, losing shared or ‘normal’ morality in the crowd, as it were.

Now, imagine the same idea, translated to a single individual, who wears his cloak of anonymity granted not by a crowd, but a keyboard. There are no immediate repercussions to negative actions, at least no physical threat of incarceration or personal injury, so actions and reactions can become routinely larger than life – the internet age has created a uniquely bipolar citizen. In essence, we become our own individualized mob. How’s that for a contradiction?

To cast back a bit for the next thread in the narrative, let’s take a look at the 1970’s – not too closely, or we’ll be blinded by hairspray and huge collars. The ’70s have been referred to as the ‘me decade’ – the sexual revolution resulted in a revolutionary sense of permissiveness, and an indulgence of hedonism that has been unequaled since – thanks primarily to the negative impacts of recreational drugs and sexually transmitted disease. The ’80s were the ‘greed is good’ decade, which led to more self-indulgence, not to mention teased hair and fluorescent colours. Gratification of the need for entertainment, in particular, became more the order of the day as cable television networks grew. The most important, and potentially most negative aspect of this development is the launch of CNN in 1980. News became entertainment, the personal continued to be political, and every small development in the evolution of social life was placed under a microscope. Access to this unending stream of information, rather than being a boon to society, meant that people were getting used to having all the information they needed, all the time – there arguably never was a better time to be politically active, as information was becoming more readily available, but was still limited, to a degree. The ‘me decade’ morphed into ‘me too decade’.

The commercialization of the internet in the mid-1990s enhanced the public’s access to information – which had its’ downside in the fact that not all sources are reliable – in fact, I would venture to say that 90% of the information available on the ‘net is opinion rather than objective fact. It became too easy to find others seeking information, or willing to share information in such a way as to make it more palatable to certain tastes. The ability of bloggers to vilify politicians or other public figures because of the emotional volitility of anonymity, and the ability of readers to limit their interactions to like-minded individuals has led to the evolution of the know-nothing know-it-all, and the growth of the political rabble-rousing we see constantly around us, particularly in relation to American politics.

So, we have passed the ‘me decade’ and the ‘me too’ decade, and entered, around the turn of the century, the ‘me too, right now decade’. The failure of anyone to live up to our comfortable vision of society, cultured online, of nodding heads and reinforcement of emotionally comfortable and fiercely defended beliefs leads to the inevitable volatility of reaction. What we have is a generation of people who have grown up online, in which very few vote but almost all pontificate on the slightest outrage committeed by those who do not respect the boundaries of our own little undiscovered countries.

This is not limited to the political Right – we see now the political Left dogging the footsteps of a President with intelligence and wisdom, but who is unable, as is any human or organization, to fulfil the immediate wants and needs of everyone, all at once. Therefore, the rhetoric becomes more vehement, the outrage more emotional – those who do not agree or who do not cater to our beliefs are instantly the ‘enemy’, the ‘other’, the traitor who consorts with terrorists because they diagree with your vision of America – which in reality is limited to the boundaries of your home office or your parents’ basement. There is no longer an ‘America’ for people to be proud of, but several million Americas on every street, and sometimes more than one in every home.

Sometimes the citizens of these atomized Americas come together and share their outrage, but the emotional reaction, unmuted by people who may disagree, continues to build until the individual begets the crowd, which begets the mob. We are not, and are unable to, translate the interactive processes that are built by personal contact and childhood interaction to the internet – rather, the interactive rituals and emotional responses of the internet are being translated to real life, with dire consequences. Disagreement becomes hatred, disappointment becomes betrayal, caution becomes intolerable delay. The lure of the emotional and the instant is too strong.

President Obama has had the misfortune of becoming the leader of the free world at a time when personal interaction has degraded to black and white – the ‘for us or against us’ mentality was not limited to the inside of President Bush’s head. If Obama fulfils his promise of hope and progess, he will earn the hatred of those who benefit from the status quo, either emotionally or financially. If he fails, he will be vilified by those who feel that change is the only way to make the world better – in every way, both politically and personally. If he even achieves half of his lofty goals, he will still make enemies of people on both sides.

As has become obvious from some of my prior posts, I have high hopes for Barack Obama – I think he represents a change long overdue in American politics, as well as in global relations. My fear is that the Lyndon Johnson-esque Great Society that he envisions will be sabotaged by the millions of ‘better’ societies that live in the emotional cores of those on both sides, and that people will guard their personal borders against unwanted information or action to such a degree that co-operation in moving forward will be impossible. Those that are most highly motivated to speak are inevitably the loudest and most dogmatic on both sides, and the voices of entitlement, the shouts of the ‘me too, right now’ generation may drown out the reasoned, intelligent dialogue he offers.

The telegraph linked us on a very basic level. The telephone enabled contact with one another. Television and radio showed us, through pictures and words, the world outside our windows. Now, the internet, the great boon to mankind, has enabled us to examine, to know, and to experience, the inside of our own heads.  Will it rule us, and decide our future for us, or will we reclaim ourselves, our knowledge, and our bonds to each other? Who knows.

Make no mistake, however, the future may depend on our mastery of our tools, and of ourselves.