Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The most powerful four letters in the English language

A little exchange on Facebook got me thinking about the F-word. It doesn't take much to make me think about the F-word. I'm pretty fond of it.

Starting with the unvoiced, soft sound of the f, passing through the vowel u at whatever speed your mood dictates, the word then ends on the unvoiced hard cut of the k sound, reinforced by its preceding c. The word goes from soft to hard, yet traditionally describes an act that goes from hard to soft. Perhaps that paradox is part of its power.

Would the person who took exception to my use of those four powerful letters have objected if I had said, "Who gives a YHWH?" Maybe not as much. Vulgarity crosses more lines than blasphemy.

In writing, camouflage helps. Internet postings are full of euphemistic alterations like f***, f@^&, dashes, cartoonish $^%%#^ substitutions. How about etbj? Foreplay, if you will. Quickie encrypters have already staked out gvdl. 621311 is old news to anyone past about the sixth grade.

I first encountered the most powerful weapon in the verbal arsenal when I was about 8. My older brother came back to the table in a restaurant to report that he had seen something terrible on the wall of the restroom. He seemed pretty shocked. I developed an immediate need to go see. I said pee, but that was just cover.

The word might as well have been inscribed with a scrawl of satanic fire instead of scratched into the stall divider with a sharp implement and left to rust in the caustic spray of misdirected urine. It was clearly a powerful talisman I could use to smite my enemies. It was like taking delivery of the first atomic bomb. Here was a word that would vaporize all other words, and billow upwards in its terrible majesty until it was the only thing the senses could detect. It was a thunderclap of a word.

People who believe that anyone and everyone should have access to automatic weapons will still take exception to the use of the f-word in conversation. That's how powerful it is.

Those of us who find the word irresistible must seem like the performers you see juggling torches and chainsaws. But really, by taking the f-word out of the deepest bunker and turning it into a simple syllable of emphasis we help to increase its benign uses, like generating electricity with nuclear power instead of just using it to wipe whole cities off the map. Maybe that hasn't always worked out super well, but at least they're trying.

I held onto the word for a couple of years before I used it in combat. Some other fifth grader was teasing me about something, and finally I snapped. "You fuck!" I yelled at him, from many yards away. I had just crossed Main Street under the eye of the kindly crossing guard, a gentle woman I liked. I was so shocked at my own transgression that I avoided the official crossing for weeks. I made my own way across the street -- which was also US Route 1 -- and proceeded to school on back streets on the other side.

When I finally gathered the courage to return to the official crosswalk, I apologized to the guard. She didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't explain, only blessed my luck and vowed to be more careful with the heavy weapons in the future.

As it happened, the future was two schools later, at a private school for boys, where you'd better have a full arsenal of profanity and be ready to use it. My parents were right: that school taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I lost nearly every fight and had no real friends, but if those are the lessons you need to learn, learn them.

Profanity can become a verbal formula you repeat to soothe yourself in the face of frustrating circumstances. You know, like prayer. Prayer and profanity are the feeble twin consolations in the face of the insoluble dilemmas that life among our fellow humans assaults us with. And profanity is much more effective with the petty annoyances.

Maybe with enough repetition and mainstream acceptance, the f-word and its lesser kin will lose all their power to harm and to heal. They're still racy enough to attract attention in many contexts. And they have their literal meanings to bolster their metaphorical application. It seems like a good recipe for self-perpetuation.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Slave owners shape our history

The yet-to-be United States declared its independence from Great Britain only after southern plantation owners were assured that all this freedom and equality would not apply to the brown people they owned or the lifestyle and economy based on slavery.

The fledgling United States needed a constitution. Southern plantation owners signed on only when assured that the slavery question would at least be pushed way down on the calendar.

In 1861 the slavery issue's heated tensions came to actual warfare. As a result of that war, slavery was abolished. Segregation and suppression continued, aided by laws and beliefs based on principles of racial inequality.

By the end of the 19th Century, a few people had amassed vast fortunes that depended largely on cheap labor and favorable legislation. While the workers were technically free and compensated for their efforts, institutions like the company store and payment in scrip were just a couple of factors contributing to income inequality, insecurity and poverty among workers. The wealthy enjoyed a very close relationship with the elected government.

During the 20th Century, American society showed some signs of improvement in the treatment of workers and minorities. By the end of the century, however, those trends were beginning to reverse. It has only become more obvious as the 21st Century has advanced. A few people control most of the money. The world is their plantation. Their purchased legislators and judges solidify their gains. Restive populations are turned on each other, told that the threat comes not from the concentration of wealth but from the differences of the people around them.

Wealth is measured in dollars. Dollars are measured in numbers. Numbers have no empathy.

Humans have emotions. They measure in feelings, and can be steered by them. In fact, they can be steered by little else. Even supposedly rational people are only rational because they like how it makes them feel.

When wealth is the ultimate good, decisions are made by the numbers to increase wealth. If a bunch of poor people have to take a hit for it, they're a necessary loss, the same as the killed or broken heroes we sent to war to defend our way of doing business. We praise you, valiant warriors. Now get lost.

The wealthy feel better when they're getting more wealth. The impersonal numbers click higher, incapable of feeling the euphoria they inspire in the humans who get to claim them. The owners control society, while the vast majority who make up that society get shoved around by forces they don't have time to understand.

If you have a fantasy of dropping out and setting up a homestead where you can live off the grid and let the whole mess of civilization fall apart, think again. You will go down fighting to defend your little chunk of arable land and potable water from the thousands of desperate people who would want a piece of it for themselves. If that sounds glorious to you, or even doable, you're an idiot.

Like all the ills of human society, the problems of economy could be solved by cooperative effort. So, like all the problems of human society, they will remain unsolved while we argue and let evolution decide for us. It's worked for millions of years. Why stop now?

Civilization was the result of evolution. The collapse of civilization can certainly be the result of further evolution. Here's the thing about evolution: it doesn't care if you live or die. It doesn't care if anything lives or dies. So if we choose to let ourselves slump into a mucky pit of industrial waste, blood and feces, evolution will log that decision and reflect those changes as impersonally as a corporate ledger shows an uptick in profits when thousands of workers are laid off.

Monday, June 22, 2015

American Stubbornness and Confederate Pride

I'm not signing any petitions demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from anywhere it currently flies. It needs to go away, but fundamental American resistance to public coercion always supersedes better judgment. Look what the South did when the federal government told them to ditch slavery. They seceded from the Union and opened fire on Fort Sumter. Reproving petitions elevate the flag issue to another Great Cause.

Southerners like to say that the war was about states' rights, but if the issue had been the right to wear green pants and a pink shirt rather than the right to own other human beings we would probably have avoided a bloody chapter in our nation's history. Note that I did not say we would have avoided an ugly chapter. Depends on the green and the pink, I guess. However, the slavery question did mesh with other aspects of the power of a federal government versus that of the states. This nicely obfuscates the basic question of racist slavery for those who wish to dance around it.

Say for argument that the Civil War had been about green pants. Say you had secession, warfare, a region of the country declaring itself a separate nation with its own flag. In due course, the Union wins the war, the South has to vary its wardrobe and the nation tries to reunify. But resentful adherents of green pants want to remember what they stood for, and how valiantly they fought. They incorporate the Green Pants banner into their state flags and keep their memories of the glorious campaign alive. In a weird way, the South was not part of the United States, and yet, having been once and future states, could they really be considered separate even for the time when they tried to break away? So their flag is sewn into our tapestry, like it or not, because to the green pants people of Dixie that was life for several years in their history. Whatever they seceded over, they came back.

Of course it wasn't about green pants. It was about an evil institution. Like most evil institutions, you can find stories from that time that are heartwarming and show kindness. But the system was not designed to warm hearts and foster kindness. It was designed to exploit a race deemed inferior, bought and sold like animals. Regardless of whether the southern states were on their way to doing away with slavery on their own, when pushed they chose to declare war rather than hurry their own emancipation bills through their various legislatures. That call to arms is quintessentially American. Don't tell me what to do or I'll tell you where to go. And I'll back it up with hot lead. People will dig in when they think someone is trying to force their hand, even if it's in a direction they were already thinking about going. And of course they weren't all thinking about going that way.

One of the hardest things to do in this day and age is wait for enough people to evolve to the point where we might all agree to do what's needed to live together peaceably on a healthy planet. But waiting and advising is all that will work. Even if you exterminated everyone who looks like trouble, if you left two people at the end there would be an argument over something, sooner than later.

Proud displays of the Confederate flag should go away, but the Confederacy can't be forgotten. The Civil War was a national tragedy that more or less ended the most obvious aspects of a national disgrace. But the official end of slavery left us with way more than four score and seven years more of racism and strife. It's been seven score and ten, so far. Remember that many abolitionists did not believe that African Americans were equal, only that they should not be owned. Once freed, the grateful darkies were supposed to nip off back to Africa to take up where they left off. They weren't supposed to assimilate into society, become educated and improve their lot. If they couldn't go away, they should at least have the decency to be well behaved. And that was the mild point of view. Where the enmity ran deeper, the hostility was virulent. While that hostility is not quite as overt and widespread now as it was a mere 60 years ago, a little is still too much, and there's way more than a little.

It will be many more years -- if ever -- before there's a national consensus on what the Confederacy was about. So many versions of any story spin up over time that it becomes impossible to untangle all the myths and legends, no matter what the subject. Its flag is a visually striking banner, brightly colored and boldly designed. Then there's the rebel yell. There's a lot to attract the merely high-spirited, not just the mean-spirited. And in a way, by taking the south back into the union, we tacitly agreed to take their heroes in the great and bloody war, who began as Americans and -- if they survived the conflict -- ended that way as well, whether they liked it or not. But you can't spend too much time reliving the details of the actual war, because that was a horrific waste of lives made necessary by stubbornness and pride. You can't go into it without acknowledging that someone was right and someone was wrong. If you tell yourself that the wrong side won, what stops you from saying we should fight again? If you admit that southern surrender was for the best, how can the war not be a complete bloody waste of lives?

The thing that seems to give humans the most trouble is figuring out when to stand up for what they believe and when to question those beliefs and abandon them. When is a fight the good fight and when is it wrong-headed and cruel? Those are decisions people have to make for themselves. You might force them to comply with your view, but if they don't agree it simply goes on the score card for later reckoning.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Myth of Happiness

What most people define as happiness is really just self satisfaction. Some may achieve it through counter-intuitive means, like self sacrifice, but they are still conforming experience to self image. Happiness as a discrete quality may not actually exist. Cheerfulness, ebullience, optimism, these are not happiness. Contentment is a form of happiness, but it can slide into complacency. And they're all still just forms of self satisfaction.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How do you know?

With the 2016 presidential primary already underway, I've been thinking about the way people get their information now, and how it has changed since the time before broadcast media.

Before radio, anyone interested in political information and candidates would have to read whatever printed matter was available, or encounter the candidate in person, or listen to another live speaker. Political participation depended on literacy, because no candidate could travel so widely and address large enough audiences to mobilize a useful number of voters.

According to this suspect graph on Wikipedia, voter turnout was quite high between 1836 and 1896, before dropping off sharply at the beginning of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, data on voter statistics from before broadcast media don't come readily to hand, so I have no better numbers to offer. But I don't really care about overall numbers. Think about the methods of communication and how they affect the lives of ordinary citizens.

With the coming of radio, people no longer had to be readers. Later, with the coming of television, they no longer had to imagine the visual aspects of what they heard. As video has developed it has followed in the footsteps of film in providing instruction as well as entertainment, so that an attentive viewer can learn concepts and procedures through multiple senses, and inattentive viewers can think they did. The process of examining and reviewing written words has fallen off, while the absorption, conscious and unconscious, of information that may be wildly skewed, has risen sharply.

The Internet is the descendant of television. According to a Rodale article, video content is expected to comprise 86% of the Internet by next year. Obviously, people would rather see something that walks and talks --and dances -- than read something that sits there and requires them to engage more analytical faculties to absorb it.

Personally, I tend to skip videos and look for something I can read. But I am politically and economically insignificant, being nonpartisan (though left leaning) and dirt poor. But as a canary in a coal mine, I have to chirp out that encouraging people to absorb most of their information through what are basically animated cartoons does not bode well for the intellectual future of the species.

Intelligent people will think about what they've been fed, but they have to fight through the psychological manipulation inherent in the medium to do so. People with less time or inclination to think will be herded. The shepherd and the crook may be one and the same.

As animated content takes over more and more, written information will become harder to find. In the Dark Ages, illiteracy created a wall between the people in power and the people over whom they exercised it. Grubbing for survival, the serfs and peasants learned what they needed from the people around them. No one asked for their opinion about affairs of government. Now, in the era of video serfing, the semi-literate, harried multitudes are simply steered with simple words on paper and a lot of haranguing through speakers and screens.

Even if you dig for the more measured tones and thoughtful presentation of public broadcasting you're getting only a peephole view of the world. And public broadcasting is picking up a lot of corporate financing, which has to alter the content, even if it's done subtly, so as not to alarm the shy, skittish intelligentsia. Because every single human views the world from within the confines of their individual brain, the most rational individual will still transmit and receive through a filter of preconception. These prejudices apply to written material as well as audiovisual.

Written material is superior because it stimulates critical brain activity more effectively than video. You may agree or disagree with material in either medium, but the forced pace of video carries you past each point faster than you can say, "hey, wait a minute." Written propaganda has had plenty of influence through the centuries, and continues to do so. But seeing it on paper and being able to look at it over and over without rewinding allows you to review it, to catch things you might not have noticed before, without sitting through a bunch of the rest of the presentation as you try to rewind to the spot you remember. The emotional impact is more controllable without an animated presenter cranking up the feeling.

Of course information in any medium is only as good as the investigation behind it. So the whole thing stumbles over access. Can a reporter get to information? Has the information been formulated for effect, or is it really unaltered primary data? Has the information been filtered through the editorial bias of the publisher? Since that is almost inescapably true, has that bias rendered the information useless, if not outright harmful?

Many of the details we are given, and encouraged to either enthuse or rage about, are irrelevant to the broader implications of a given event. That's when the reader, viewer or listener has to rise above the thicket of detail to think about major movements and basic principles.

Authority

My employer had one of his periodic foaming shit fits yesterday. These typically consist of a disproportionate rage response to a triggering event. Underlying stressors have accumulated until he blows a gasket, usually bellowing impotently about his authority.

When you have to yell about your authority you have none. I can't remember the last time I yelled. Even when I was running the retail concession at Jackson Ski Touring in the early years of the century and had an employee who could be a real punk asshole when he felt like it, I did not yell. I did my best to understand the man's limitations and work with them, to maximize his strengths. It would do no one any good to get in endless pissing contests with him. We developed a functional symbiosis. Eventually, he moved on. I got a new colleague.

I don't have subordinates. I have colleagues. And I AM no one's subordinate. This does not guarantee that my employer does not think of me as a subordinate. He does have power, for all his lack of authority. He can order me to do things, leaving me to decide whether to follow the order, ignore the order or quit. He can fire me. But he cannot command my respect. No one can. Nor can I command anyone to respect me.

Life gets a ton easier when you just do your thing and don't worry about whether anyone bows down before you.

My employer's problem is that his kids never rebelled. He's got these great authoritarian rants saved up that he never got to spew at them. Since a certain kind of employer considers his employees to be so junior that they are actually juvenile, the incoherent bellowing about attitude and respect transfers neatly.

My bluntness is an expression of efficiency. To me, the shortest distance between a stupid idea and the trash heap is a straight flight launched with a sharp kick. I get away with this often enough to lull me into believing that my employers actually understand how my mind works. Then a blowup happens and I have to remember to let them do what they want. I will simply wade through it, climb over it or walk around it, and hope it goes away. If it doesn't, it becomes the new normal.

If I thought all their ideas were stupid you could accuse me of being an arrogant punk. However, I understand how they fit into their particular community. I oppose only the ideas that will do them -- and us -- a harm they have not considered. Ultimately, they have the power to institute the harm. After whatever token critique I attempt to offer, my next responsibility as an employee is to do the foolish thing they command, or at least stand back so it can play out in all its collapsing glory. If all goes well, it will cause no outright harm, only inconvenience. At worst it brings the whole place down. Then something new can arise.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Basics of Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theory boils down to one essential principle: Everything supports the theory.

Lack of evidence is some of the best evidence. It proves how high and deep the conspiracy goes, because they can cover it up so well. So lack of solid evidence proves concealment. If you can't find it, it's just really well hidden, because WE KNOW IT'S THERE. It DEFINITELY EXISTS.

Evidence against the conspiracy is disinformation. Scientific explanations of phenomena are junk science. It's all just public relations produced by shills working for the conspiracy.

Any unexplained event or phenomenon is not the work of natural principles you are unfamiliar with. It is ONLY the work of sinister forces.

Anyone who disagrees with the conspiracy theorists is a dupe. Yet unswerving belief IN the conspiracy does not make you THEIR dupe. No, you are one of the intelligent faithful who see through all the smoke and mirrors and pesky "science" produced by the conspiracy to cover up their heinous schemes.