Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Good" versus "Evil"

No matter how good you try to be, someone will accuse you of being stupid or up to something.

This point of view gains strength from the existence of so many people who actually are stupid or up to something. And this is before we start to sort through the honest differences of opinion.

Somewhere under all the obfuscation and misinterpretation some things must be true. We can destroy our environment and render our planet at least highly unpleasant if not utterly uninhabitable. We can create widespread misery by picking on each other. Greed and corruption are worse than laziness. More people are thoughtless than are evil, but some people are genuinely nasty. Among them, some choose to do it retail, as criminals, while others go wholesale as national leaders with global aspirations. Initially, the key factors are a willingness to hurt others with little or no provocation and an enjoyment of their suffering.

Niceness and nastiness represent the ends of yet another continuum in human behavior. Almost no one is entirely nasty or totally nice to every living thing they meet. But you can generally pick up on reliable trends to indicate a person's probable bias.

All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. That seems like a simple call to action. Get up! Do something! But you get the same result when a whole bunch of people who think they're doing the right thing are busy busy busy promoting their agenda and obstructing competing agendas with the result that nothing gets done. Problems grow worse as the argument goes on. We can't even agree on what the problems are. And some of those agendas will only make things worse. So we can't just randomly decide to throw all our weight behind any proposed solution as being better than nothing. We could hasten the destruction much more easily than we seem to be able to develop a consensus about what constitutes the common good and how we can attain it.

Political advertising fills the media right now. It's all pretty cynical. The campaign geniuses who produce the ads obviously believe that a significant number of people will be swayed by these little bits of melodrama that are stuffed with emotional triggers and very short on actual information.

All political advertising on broadcast media should be banned. I would rather sit through an endless Public Broadcasting fund drive, and those make me want to scream. However, the ads do fit the Halloween theme extremely well. What could be more horrifying, terrifying, sure to open the gates of Hell than The Opposing Candidate? Mwa ha ha ha ha ha! None can stand before The Opposing Candidate! Spawned by Satan! MBA from Hades University! Steeped in corruption, perversion, greed and lust! Thou shalt not vote for The Opposing Candidate! Dooooooom!

This message paid for by Americans for a Better America. We bring you everything you hope someone will bring you. Honest.

The little films give you a villain and a hero. Just as the annual flu vaccine contains three or four strains expected to be most common, a political ad can only contain a handful of key points the makers of it hope will inoculate you against infection by the wrong political choice. If distortion or outright lies seem like they'll have the desired effect, the end justifies the means.

After all the political theater dies down we'll be left with another batch of elected or re-elected officials. Most of them will have their sights set on 2016. Whatever they do or don't do will be shaped to fit the campaign narrative regardless of actual events.

The rich really benefit from expensive elections because even the well-meaning populists have to spend so much time raising money and building their image that they have much less time to spend on meaningful debate. Lots of people want to be in the information business. If people are properly informed they can make better choices. Ah yes. Better for whom?

I want to believe that people I perceive as good are good. But I think the principle of the secret ballot is as much to prevent embarrassment as it is to facilitate free expression of political will without threat of coercion. It's a sickening feeling when someone for whom you had high hopes turns out to be an idiot or a sleaze. Nobody's perfect. But when you've bet on someone's integrity and judgment you hope they manage to continue to display both at least until their term ends.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Yes Means Yes Means No

It's easy for an old man with no power to speak sagely about sexual restraint, but I was not always that man. At one time I thought I was sexually attractive and a few women helped foster that misconception by exploring that potential further than with a cursory and dismissive glance. It was the 1970s. Men and women were figuring out a lot of things about themselves in a social setting that was pretty relaxed about taboos.

The backlash started in 1980. While parts of popular culture in the 1980s continued the movement toward social acceptance of various sexualities and other recreational habits, the conservatism of the Reagan administration rode the wave of reactionary repulsion. Where most media seemed to portray what was right about sex and drugs and rock and roll (and disco and whatever you're into) in the 1970s, the 1980s saw more portrayal of what was wrong with it as well. A buzz kill that may be, but it's also necessary to a truly complete discussion of the consequences of libertinism.

No question a lot of us could benefit from loosening up a little. But some of us could benefit from snugging it down a tad, too. But that's why you think and talk about things that may seem creepy and uncomfortable. It's why you draw out lines of speculation to explore possible results before you set them in motion.

California's recent enactment of the law requiring positive and ongoing consent before engaging in sexual activity, aimed at state funded universities to establish stronger safeguards against sexual assault, is misguided, unenforceable, doomed to failure and bound to lead to lots of litigation. But it's another step in the discussion about the general sexual relationship between people.

Sexuality is built into us. Some people have strong urges. Some people have no urges. Some people have urges for things that other people find incomprehensible. In most of us, admit it, when you see a stranger, isn't one of your questions, "would I want to shag that?" Come on. You know it's true. In polite society we don't act on it and usually don't even reveal that the thought flickered through our minds, but you know it did. If you think it didn't, start paying really close attention to every feeling, no matter how fleeting, that goes through you when encountering other people.

To think is not to act. It's merely the mind exploring possibilities, another trait that's built into us. It's why we live in constructed shelters, cook our food, bathe, treat illness and travel around in mechanical conveyances that go faster and farther than we could easily walk or run. It's what got us to the moon and makes us dream of traveling to the stars. It's how we invented the artificial heart and the motorized dildo. Ingenuity, baby.

If I could go back in time I would have less sex. I know, easy to say now after the fact. But the fact that I started believing this in my 30s, when I was still bursting with testosterone and foolish desires lends it more weight than simply the pendulous mass of an aged, reluctant phallus. It's mind over matter, because civilized society depends on it. Part of me regrets the opportunities missed to shag, but the wiser part realizes that in order to meet the standards of feminism with the strength of character they require, I should be able to witness the most piercingly erotic display without assuming an invitation. And certainly I should be able to walk among a throng of summer-clad lovelies and merely be happy for them that they can dress in comfortably scanty clothing that happens to reveal details I find sexually arousing. My arousal should not be their problem.

An impossibly high standard? Possibly. But people die all the time trying to climb the tallest peaks. Why not aspire? That's the thing about keeping your zipper locked: no one ever died of it. You can fall or freeze or have something fall on you and crush you as you assault the high mountains. The only thing that will harm you when you try to control your lust is whatever you brew up in your own mind.

In the 1970s I was immersed in a culture in which  -- supposedly -- the cool guys got lots of chicks and the chicks loved it. More things reinforced stupid male conceit than challenged it. I sought partners because sex is fun and if I'm enjoying it everyone must enjoy it. It seemed like the thing to do. It paid off in orgasms. What could be wrong with that?

Sorry about that. Like I said, if I could go back I would play hard to get, knowing full well that this would mean that I went ungotten. But the universe in which I actually lived has to exist for me to know why the universe I imagine would be better.

At the time, neither I nor my female partners realized I wasn't going to amount to shit. Based on my potential, I looked like I might be a fairly decent bet. Again, I apologize. I had suspected since second grade that I wasn't going to do very well in life. The doubt really flared up in me one afternoon when I was about 10 years old. I was standing in the back yard of our house in Maine, realizing that I had no idea what I was going to do for a career. How was I going to achieve financial prosperity? How was I going to pay for retirement? I should have nursed that doubt instead of believing that everything would turn out fine. It would have helped me realize that getting it on with partners misled by my boyish adequate looks and superficial charm would be deeply unfair.

You may now ask what a guy is supposed to do if he isn't a self-actualizing failure, and instead knows he's a catch. The answer is the same: dig deep for the strength to resist. Turn the lack of sex into the mark of distinction.

I'm not formally joining the celibacy camp or promoting virginity pledges. I don't believe in declarations of that sort. But if consent is revocable at any time ( "Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.") that includes retroactively when the only standard of verification may be the conflicting accounts of the only two people in the room at the time.

Once again it turns out to be true: the only truly safe sex is no sex at all. The only way to have your nobility untarnished is to avoid rubbing it up against anything. So not only does the cool dude never ask for sex, but waits to be asked instead; when asked, the answer is a polite "no, thank you."

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that from time to time I still have sex in the context of my ongoing relationship. It gives me a more informed  understanding of the expression, "get lucky. " I do not initiate, but I don't say no when asked. I like to be asked. What can I say? I'm a horn dog. If I was young and virile and sought after I would face a terrific challenge combating a naturally lustful tendency. It's tough out there, guys.

Yes Means Yes reminds us all that nearly any sex can be considered a violation. Who with a scrap of decency wants to be a violator? I stand on the sidelines because I'm out of the game I was never very good at anyway, but I can still connect the dots. I can observe and point out what I see from up in the bleachers that may not be obvious in the confusion on the field. The ramifications of contact don't end when the impacting bodies separate. In some ways they last as long as either player is alive. I'm not talking about unintentional pregnancy or the transmission of disease. I'm talking about how an experience changes as the echoes Doppler down the tunnel of time and the light hits the image differently as long as the memory lasts. What seems okay at the time, and even shortly afterwards, may turn into a regret at some point. So what is the statute of limitation on perceived sexual violation? If a violation took place, its heinousness never diminishes. Look at how we continue to hunt down World War II concentration camp guards in their 90s. If the standard of violation is revocable consent "at any time" that means any sexual contact remains an open case forever. This was always true in a way. Yes Means Yes merely codifies it officially.

Don't be a filthy brute. Just walk away. It's the next stage in evolution.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The End of the World

Humans tend to equate the end of the era of human domination with the end of the world itself. That's so cute. The planet existed for billions of years without us and will probably continue to orbit and support life long after we have knocked ourselves off our own pedestal and broken it up so we can throw the pieces at each other.

After World War II, legend has it that there was widespread support for the idea of a world without war. The one just ended had killed enough people and damaged enough real estate to make many survivors believe we could no longer accept armed conflict as a way to settle intellectual disputes.

Of course we continued to have wars. We just did not let them get out of hand. They tended to be inconclusive and unsatisfying, no matter how savage and bloody they may have been in their own theaters, and how divisive they might have been on the home front.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War it was easy to believe in Armageddon as a conflict between two political philosophies in control of discrete and contiguous land masses. It would be the conventional war of the past, scrawled immensely with enormous weapons. Probably no one would survive.

As the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated, preparing for Armageddon is not very economical. You have to have a balance of trade that supports your militaristic expansionism. Merely being armed and dangerous is nowhere near as effective as being rich and ruthless.

In the late 1990s the threat of superpower conflict seemed to have been banished forever. Indeed, this may be true. In the 20th Century we had the incorrectly named War to End All War. In the 21st Century we have the Wars That Can Never End. There's the one between corporate capitalism and Islamic radicalism. There are internal struggles and international chafe areas all over the world.

Separatism is the new nationalism. Dissolution has replaced unification. It's more important to refuse to lose an argument than it is to solve a human problem. Anyone, anywhere, might suddenly find themselves standing next to a suicide bomber. It doesn't happen often in some places, but there's really no reason it couldn't. Because you can't do anything about it, you can't worry about it. If someone is so pissed off at the world that they're going to flip out and kill a bunch of people you can't guarantee to stop them without completely abandoning civil liberties and making everybody go around naked under surveillance cameras. Even then, someone at some level will be wearing pants and giving orders. Or maybe a shirt and no pants. Our leader could be an exhibitionist.

Watching news coverage of the Islamic State and other thinly veiled excuses to commit murder, you can see the logic and the economy of small-scale conflict spread over a widening area. Because it travels on ideas rather than an advancing front of conquered and assimilated territory, a battle of sorts can break out anywhere one or more interested parties can equip themselves with cheap and available materials to spread a little bloodshed. Once people thrust away the idea of living in peace the logical result is fighting.

The people who like to fight and the people who like to watch them accuse anyone who speaks against it of being chicken. Don't think we should fight? You must be a coward. Right. Because those are the only two choices: warrior or coward. It's typical lazy binary thinking, to which humans are subject everywhere.

This would seem to imply a sort of unity among the warriors against the cowards. But the warriors need enemies to fight, not just weaklings to exterminate. Among both the peaceniks and the fighters, factions argue. In the peace camp the arguments just get bitchy. The warriors declare each other enemies and have another war. The result is fragmentation of both sides into smaller pieces that don't get along. The armed and dangerous crowd, often manipulated by the rich and ruthless, battle wherever they can. The bitchy arguments of the peace promoters get very bitchy indeed. Unkind things are said. It's very painful. It becomes very hard to put together a guest list for a party.

The conflict that brings down civilization and returns humanity to scrounging for food in a harsh landscape will not be the spectacular exchange of nuclear missiles, although someone may manage to get a few nukes mixed in. It will be more and more little bombs, rockets, bullets, clubs, knives, kidnappings, beheadings, torture, maiming, IEDs, rocks, bottles, here, there and everywhere. It will be one failed state after another. It will be breakaway republics reabsorbed by their old imperial masters, festering with armed resistance to both independence and absorption. It will be fighting for the sake of fighting, just to prove we can take it.

Maybe we'll burn out the fighting urge before it takes everything down. It seems doubtful at this point, but you never know. What fuels it now is the sense in so many people's minds that they could be the winner that takes all. So put together a band of fighters and start your campaign. Imagine your own Thousand Year Reich, or whatever your culture likes to call that empire of power and control so dear to the grandiose. Or maybe you envision a rational anarchy in which liberated people live in perfect individualistic harmony without paying any taxes to a stupid, intrusive government. Or maybe theocracy is your bag. Your group of true believers will create the nation favored by God to rule the planet. Unfortunately, just a few miles away, a similar group has formed. Take up your weapons. The first glorious battle is upon us. It certainly won't be the last.

Any survivors of this global conflict probably will be no wiser. They'll just be hungrier, more weather-beaten and less well armed. Some of them may be the kind of cowards who talk about living in peace, but we've seen how little traction that has. It will just be a whining noise in the background.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Affordable Care"

After hearing some hopeful things about the Affordable Care Act in New Hampshire from friends who have been using it, I finally had to sign up myself after the insurance from my wife's former employer ran out.

To start with, it's not affordable. Even with my "subsidy" in the form of a tax credit I would be paying more than $300 a month to have a deductible of $5,750. The $40 co-pay for doctor visits isn't bad, but at my income level, $300 a month is a chunk, especially when you consider that I have to pay out of pocket for everything up to $5,750 and, if I did get seriously ill, would still have to go to work to earn the money to keep my premiums up. And of course the deductible resets every year.

I'm not a political pea-brain, so I don't blame Obama. Indeed, the people who make Obama a bad president are the same people who made George Bush a bad president. In the case of Bush they reinforced everything he did. In the case of Obama they throw roadblocks in front of everything. So one president drove us down a rocky slope and when the next one tries to steer us back onto the road the yahoos keep grabbing the steering wheel and stomping on the brakes.

I did not vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary in part because his health coverage proposal was basically like Mitt Romney's system in Massachusetts, based on private insurance that everyone has to buy. After he won the general election, Obama began adding better features to his proposal, like the publicly funded option which would, in fact, blessedly have killed the private insurance industry and set us on a path toward a true universal coverage system. But the insurance lobby and the largely Republican political operatives who serve them made sure that went away.

I know that plenty of Democrats have financial obligations to corporate interests. But most issues tend to divide pretty neatly between the D's and the R's.

If someone said they were going to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a universal, single-payer system and some strong, rational controls on medical service and drug pricing I would support it instantly. And that's simply never going to come from the Republican side of the aisle.

Meanwhile, that leaves me unable to afford Affordable Care. I will return to the ranks of the uninsured, get my self-pay discount from medical service providers, pay the much more affordable tax penalty in lieu of the fat honkin' premium and hold on for Medicare.

Is this all there is?

On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the president announced the escalation of a bombing campaign against more enemies. The "Freedom Isn't Free" crowd would tell you this is the way of the world. Implicit in that statement as it is used today is that "freedom" is always bought at the cost of warfare. The "free" gain their little clearing in the hostile world by laying down a constant barrage to protect its perimeter. War without end, amen.

If there was a God, I would have more respect if He, She, It showed up with something other than wrath and a flaming sword to punish the ungodly and reward the faithful, since that would simply be an eternal perpetuation of the same crap that has spoiled human existence. Psychologically, if you want to punish the wicked, let them truly feel and understand their wickedness. Don't just rough them up to try to make them physically regret getting caught. But that, of course is much harder than the simple application of violence. It would take an all-powerful god to to apply it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Can thought be taught?

This article about not sending your kids to an Ivy League school caught my eye on Google News. I contains a lot of questions about the purpose and usefulness of college that I had when I was IN college in the late 1970s. Alas, you get no credit at all for being decades ahead of your time.

"The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance."

When I read that I remembered my own thoughtful childhood. It wasn't quality thought, but thinking was habitual. Indeed, it was almost a disorder. What might be mistaken for attention deficit disorder can really be a swirl of thought triggered by something an instructor said that we were meant to gloss over and move on. Significant concepts go unrecognized all the time. To the thoughtful, nearly everything is thought provoking.

Over the years I have met a large number of people who seem to do very well without thinking too much at all. Some of them are successful business owners. Thoughtfulness does not necessarily correspond directly to education level or commercial success.

I'm all in favor of anything that helps people to be more thoughtful and more interested in reconciling concepts intellectually rather than confrontationally. I just don't know if college can create a quality in a student that was not already latent.

I did learn to think better in college, but that process was already underway and continues to this day.

My ability to observe and analyze on sight has helped me to survive more than any rote fact I ever absorbed. I may not be able to spout Latin or quote the classics, by I can figure shit out. Do I wish I had paid a bit more attention in school? Certainly. But the ability to extract basic principles from a situation and apply them to future and more complicated situations is more important than a brain full of Jeopardy-winning factoids. If I was as ignorant as I am AND less capable of thought I would be truly and deeply screwed. As it is, I can cling by a fingernail for a while longer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Strange Day

This is a strange day, and not just because it started at 3 a.m.

The cellist rolled out of the driveway at 0330 this morning on her way to Maryland to take an orchestra teaching position there. Her 15-year struggle in the cultural wasteland of northern New England had worn her down to the point where she did as crusty locals tell incomers to do, and went back where she came from.

The decision was not made lightly. It doesn't not reflect on the happiness of our marriage or her ability to deal with the climate and isolation of northern rural life. We're not as far north or as rural as the state has to offer, but we're well clear of anything that would be mistaken for urban or suburban. Such a place has many attractions. High-quality arts education is emphatically not one of them.

Northern New England seems actively hostile to her profession. When it comes to serious music education they only like half-assed shit that makes everybody look bad, but does not single out individuals as particularly bad. It is a pact of mediocrity. The few sites where music is pursued at a somewhat higher level are like small, low islands facing the waves in a cold, empty sea. Those islands are already populated with other castaways, eating everything that grows or washes up. They're as likely to push another person's raft back out to sea as they are to try to accommodate one more on the island. To be fair, there's only so much food and shelter.

A parting like this creates a strange new reality for both people. The one going forth has to undergo the displacement, homelessness and a new job. The one left behind has to live with the sudden absence of the partner. I have to relearn how to live alone, but not really completely alone, because I have to maintain the place we had in such a way that she can return when her time permits. But when she's not here, she's not here. I have to do everything in a larger and more complicated facility than I would have if I lived truly alone. While she is occupied by all the new things in a new job -- regardless of the familiarity of the profession -- I have to get used to being here, missing only the most important person in my life.

In 1996 when we started into our relationship, I could have lived with a seasonal cohabitation. We had that for a couple of years, but never really questioned that we would merge our living arrangements. She liked New England. Maryland was clearly sagging under the weight of surplus population. So she came here, full of hope. Once she'd given it more than a couple of years we could never go back to the way it had been when she was a plucky single woman living in Baltimore and I was a mountain hermit living in New Hampshire.

We both gave up much for what we gained. So this reconfiguration to something like that earlier phase is not and does not try to be a return. It's a new game. For one thing, I can no longer afford to be in this house by myself. If I suddenly had to make do without the financial contribution of my spouse I would virtually disappear as I cut off things like cable, phone and Internet to reduce expenses. The nice cushion I had in the mid 1990s has been whittled away by necessary expenditures as we tried to stay afloat while she pursued her career in this cultural desert. What a couple of idiots, right?

We did not know she was terminally ill when we got together. I don't even think we knew it by the time we married. So that casts a shadow over any vision of the future. How soon will her kidneys fail? How much will she be able to work once she goes on dialysis? It's not a matter of months, but no one knows for sure how many years it might be, while research creeps along in search of treatments that might extend kidney function, let alone cure the disease. So there's that.

Obviously no one knows how long they have. Her brother dropped dead in an instant from a heart condition no one knew he had. We all know someone like that, perhaps even several people. And there's cancer, blood clots, ALS, MS, car accidents, bathtub falls,... But having a specific ticking clock adds to the sense of urgency when the person you wanted to spend your life with needs to spend significant amounts of time pursuing her adult professional goals a considerable distance away.

Today I stacked the last of the firewood. I usually solo that chore, so the lack of another person did not stand out. But the task made me think of winter, and preparing for winter, and all that needs to be done before then. Subtracting my wife made the prospect look more intimidating than normal. Winter, even in the age of global warming, is a primal force around here. You need to be ready and you need to stay ready for as long as it lasts. It is the season around which everything else revolves, the season of darkness and cold indifference to life. We are grateful for all that is not winter, even if we love the opportunities winter brings. If you're not using winter's advantages, its disadvantages loom monstrously.

I consider returning to Maryland, but only to a place outside the sprawl. Even then I don't know if I could afford it. One thing about hardscrabble places like rural New Hampshire, the cost of living is pretty low. Income is low, too, and the physical demands are greater than in southerly climes, but somehow a balance is possible that I never found in Maryland with my patchwork of credentials and experience.

Once the tourist economy fails along with the middle class, New Hampshire will have nothing. There's a bit of industry in the southern part of the state, but the job creators will have no incentive to put a facility in a place with so little transportation and communication infrastructure unless they're attracted by sufficient numbers of desperate people willing to work for cheap money. We're probably a couple of years from that, but nothing indicates that the political and economic trends will change course to prevent it. But in my new strange world I can't let myself look too far ahead in any case.