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tkam

I am the youngest of three boys raised by a working single mom in the 1960s and1970s.  We lived toward the poor end of the spectrum, so much of my childhood was spent devoid of television (back in those days, TV was considered a luxury, not a necessity).  Due to these circumstances, I was well into my teen years before I encountered the idea that women could be anything other than strong, intelligent and capable.  It still baffles me when I encounter people who start from an assumption that women are not strong, intelligent and capable.  Especially because so many of them actually consider themselves to be feminists.

Needless to say, I am often misunderstood by people when the discussion turns to sexism and women’s issues (yes – I am allowed to discuss these things even though I have a penis).  Usually it’s because I don’t assume women need protection.  And because I assume they are relatively intelligent adult human beings, so when they do stupid things my initial response is other than “Oh, you poor thing!”.  In fact, I have a universal response to stupidity that is colorblind and genderless.  Those of you who know me have encountered it frequently.

So I generally try to avoid these discussions, especially on the Internet.  When I look at a situation and say “Why in hell did she do something so dumb?” I immediately get attacked by a half-dozen or so ‘feminists’ who demand to know why I’m “blaming the victim” and/or being such a sexist.  Which leaves me wondering why these ‘feminists’ think their role is to gallantly provide protection for someone they claim to consider a strong, intelligent, capable equal.

A large part of the problem is the simple fact that the Internet is a piss-poor vehicle for human interaction and communication.  This is no fault of the Internet but is rather due to the fact that most humans are not very good at communicating.  And extremely few of us are skilled at communicating using only the written word.  This is why people who are good at it get paid for doing so.

So when we do try to discuss important issues on the Internet we usually screw it up.  As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of the ‘discussions’ on the Internet about sexism consist solely of people pointing out instances of sexism and screaming “Look everyone!  A bad thing!”.  Just in case we didn’t already know that sexism is bad.

I, on the other hand, want to know why the strongest, most intelligent, most capable, most badass woman on the face of the planet still occasionally needs someone else to tell her she’s pretty.  And I think maybe this is the kind of thing we should be talking about.  The parts of the issue that are complicated and that maybe make us a little uncomfortable.

Which brings us to Go Set a Watchman.

As should be obvious, the following will contain spoilers (although probably not anything you haven’t already heard).  If you haven’t read Go Set A Watchman and intend to, you might want to stop reading at this point (I’m a Map Dork, so as a buffer I’ll throw in a map [found here]).

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Still here?  Good.  I’ll get right to the point:  Atticus Finch is a racist.  I know this is not easy to accept, but it is, in fact, even evident in To Kill a Mockingbird (although not obvious.  That is reserved for Go Set a Watchman).  Before you get too upset, though, let me explain a couple things.  First off, Atticus Finch is a racist, but only by today’s standards.  By the standards of his own time (To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the mid-1930s, when Atticus was in his early 50s.  Go Set a Watchman takes place in the mid-1950s) he was something else entirely.  Second, Atticus was what I think of as a ‘benevolent racist’.  Unlike most of his contemporaries he didn’t consider black people to be subhuman (yes – I said black people.  Political correctness is the process of white people sitting around deciding what the new labels should be.  I don’t subscribe), nor did he in any way consider them to be undesirable or even unlikable.  He just didn’t consider them to be equal.  In To Kill a Mockingbird Jean Louise (a.k.a. Scout) states:

“Atticus says cheatin’ a colored man is ten times worse than cheatin’ a white man”

Later, Atticus himself says:

“There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.”

Atticus’ racism is there, if you have eyes to see it.  Go Set a Watchman just makes it more blatant and obvious.  But it’s not any different.  Atticus is not any different.  His form of racism is a condescending one.  He views black people very much as though they are children.  Children who need our (read: white people’s) help.

Jean Louise, however, is not racist.  She is described (by herself, in the interest of full disclosure) as ‘colorblind’.  Despite growing up in Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s.  How did this happen?  Because she was raised by Atticus FinchTo Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are, in fact, two parts of one story.  Jean Louise Finch’s story.  The story of her relationship with her father.  And how Scout, like every child, eventually comes to terms with her father’s humanity.  How she finally realizes that Atticus Finch has as much right to be flawed as the rest of us.

Jean Louise eventually accepts the fact that her father is human and he therefore has faults.  And she realizes that he is not defined by his faults.  For his part, Atticus learns that he has succeeded in the task that all good parents set for themselves:  he has raised a child who is better than he is (which, by the way, may not have happened if Atticus hadn’t actively defied the dictates of his family and community to allow his daughter to grow up to be exactly the person she desired to be).  At the end of the day, though, Atticus lived in a time and place that was both extremely racist and extremely sexist, and he was years ahead of his time on both these issues.  But not immune to them.  And – truth be told – I’m okay with that.

I am finding, however, that many of the people I know are not.  I am a little surprised and dismayed by how many of my friends are actively avoiding reading Go Set a Watchman (some of them have even concocted elaborate reasons for it).  I wish I could say the reason for this is simply because they don’t want to face the fact that Atticus is a racist.  The truth is that they don’t want to face what Atticus Finch’s racism represents.

We here in the Northeast live in a fuzzy pink bubble wherein we think we have largely beaten racism (we are wrong, and we are also not alone in this).  Because of this, we believe that there are precisely two types of racists in this world:  bad people and stupid people.  We honestly believe that at least one of those two conditions must be in place before racism can even exist, let alone thrive.  So the idea of an inherently decent and intelligent person (like Atticus Finch) who is also a racist is complicated and it makes us uncomfortable and we don’t want to look at it so we instead decide that it can’t exist.

Which only serves to prove that we are failing to understand the nature of racism.

See, racism is not rational.  This is why it does not respond to reason.  Nobody sits down, analyzes all the available evidence, then concludes that the only logical course of action is to be a racist.  Racism arrives through a different vector, and for this reason we cannot combat it effectively with logic and reason.  Also for this reason, otherwise decent and intelligent people can sometimes turn out to be racists.  This invariably occurs during childhood.  If you spend the bulk of your formative years surrounded by a certain way of thinking, there’s a decent chance you will come to believe that said certain way of thinking is normal and/or proper.  Sexism often procreates by this method as well.  As does religion.

Relax.  Before you throw a hissy and accuse me of badmouthing religion, take a moment to look up the word ‘rational’.  And know that most of the religions of the world will back me up on this.  One does not reason one’s way to God.  Religion is not logical nor does it desire to be.  Belief is arrived at through other means.

This is why belief systems (good or bad) need to be kept in check via legislation.  We cannot carefully explain the facts and then expect racists to become colorblind.  We cannot throw logic at sexists and then expect them to suddenly support paycheck equality.  We cannot reason with the religious right and then expect them to see the light in regard to marriage equality.  It simply will not happen and thinking otherwise is just plain dumb.  We need Affirmative Action. We need the Nineteenth Amendment.  We need separation of church and state (make no mistake, folks – the Founding Drunkards were not concerned about freedom of religion.  They were concerned about freedom from religion).  Rationality cannot be applied to belief systems, so the only recourse a rational society has is to protect the general populace from them.

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internet When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting  class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”.  The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that.  Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.

I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation.  If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy.  For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this.  Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems.  While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.

Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it).  In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality.  It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions.  You can read the proposal here.  First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you.  Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).

Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off.  In all his guises.  Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it.  One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years.  Why will this occur?  Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode.  Or something like that.

Let’s put that one to rest right now.  The internet isn’t going away any time soon.  It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.

Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity.  The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right.  We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion).  We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free.  Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.

A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?

Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).

But should we?  Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality?  Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do.  Why?  Because you pay for it.  I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you.  Why?  Because I pay for it.  Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones.  Why?  Because they pay for it.

Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?

And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum.  As one pundit put it:  What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?

The short answer is:  Nothing would stop them.  The long answer adds:  Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either.  Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?

And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me.  I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual.  The university I attended was littered with Coke machines.  Really.  Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus.  Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door.  But Pepsi was nowhere to be found.  It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university.  Why was it this way?  Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove.  Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.

Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?

Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story.  It’s about a mythical time before there was television.  In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV.  In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose.  Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air.  Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost.  The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.

Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it.  This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air.  Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.

It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it.  To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality.  Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long.  In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge?  Let me give you a hint:  It’s about money.  The internet has never been free.  It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way.  Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data).  The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.

And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality.  The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent.  To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing.  In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck.  In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.

You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation).  If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing).  Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today).  In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).

I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away.  If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.

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People's DRM For those of you who don’t know, DRM is an acronym for Digital Rights Management.  For the bulk of Geekdom, DRM is considered a dirty word (to Geeks, acronyms are words).  This is not so much because of what DRM is, but because of the manner in which it has been implemented.

In a pure sense, DRM is simply an offshoot of copyright.  It’s another way of saying “I created this content, and I should have control over what happens to it.”  In theory, DRM is intended to protect the interests of the creator of content, just like copyright.

Part of the confusion here comes from the ‘Digital’ part of DRM.  In days of yore, things like music and movies were recorded (by small blue trolls) on strips of magnetic tape.  It was called ‘analog’, as opposed to ‘digital’, and it was a completely different way of recording data.  The scope of these differences is far larger than I’m willing to go into here, but I will point to the most pertinent difference:  analog content degrades when it’s copied, and the degradation is cumulative.  Digital content does not degrade when copied.

If you stop and think about it, you can see why the music and movie industries were okay with cassette tapes and VCRs but got their knickers in a twist over CDs and DVDs.

And so the people who had no talent but had nonetheless made obscene amounts of money by managing and manipulating people who did have talent found themselves staring straight into the obliteration of their golden geese.  This scared the crap out of them, and they scrambled for ways to stop the inevitable.  They made the mistake of selecting the ‘Stormtrooper’ option.

It was kind of predictable, the sort of mistake made by people who think they’re in control (or even that it’s possible to be in control).  Rather than addressing the changing world, acknowledging the needs of the audience and embracing new technologies, the boneheads decided to fight it all.  I think they actually believed there is a small concrete bunker somewhere in Kansas labeled ‘Internet’ that can be seized and controlled.  Really.

So they assigned the small blue trolls to the task, and they implemented a variety of objectionable practices that have become known, collectively but inaccurately, as ‘DRM’.  Things like the infamous Sony rootkit.

As I said, these various bits of nastiness are not, precisely, DRM.  They are simply examples of DRM.  Much the way Roman Catholicism is not ‘religion’ but rather an example of religion.  And Digital Rights Management, as a concept, is not particularly evil.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with an artist desiring just compensation for their work.  I do, however, draw the line at imaginary compensation.  You know – the outrageous sums the RIAA and MPAA say they’ve ‘lost’ to pirates.  I can understand having issues with those who mass produce counterfeit content and market it, but I refuse to carry it over to the schmucks who just make a copy to play in their car.  I don’t feel artists can realistically expect a guarantee of compensation for their efforts.  But they should be able to stop others from capitalizing on it.

Now, there are those who (mistakenly) believe they occupy the other end of the spectrum.  These are the folks who have given rise to the term ‘Copyleft’, otherwise known as ‘Viral Licensing’.  One of the earliest forms of this (and probably the best known) is the GNU General Public License.  The GPL is a heavy hitter in the so-called Free and Open Source Software world (think Linux).  In a nutshell, the GPL states that code covered by the license can be freely distributed and modified, but any resultant product must also be covered by GPL.  This is where the ‘viral’ comes in.  If you want to use this ‘free’ stuff to make other stuff, your new stuff must also be ‘free’.  And this carries on if anyone else wants to take your ‘free’ stuff to make even more stuff.

The basic idea is a good one. The original product is offered at no monetary cost, and we want to protect against anyone charging people to use it or any part of it.  But it’s not exactly free, or even especially close to it (unless we narrow our definition of free to ‘without monetary cost’).  It’s rather like Robin Hood stealing from Nottingham, but only giving the proceeds to the poor if they agree to use them only for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  It’s really only a façade of freedom.

In fact, it’s Digital Rights Management.

As stated, I don’t actually have any issues with DRM.  And I’m kind of a fan of viral licensing.  I am bothered by the use of the term ‘Copyleft’ – as though DRM of one sort is somehow morally superior to DRM of another sort.  Truth is, they are all very firmly ensconced at the right end of the spectrum.

To my knowledge, there is only one true example of ‘Copyleft’.  Woody Guthrie invoked it when writing songs in the early forties:

“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

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For DummiesI am a pretty smart guy.  The tests that are usually used to measure these  things tend to place me somewhere in the smartest 5% of humanity, depending on the particular test and what kind of day I’m having.  I am also smart enough to know the flaws inherent in these tests and am very much aware that they are not always accurate (unless, of course, you just want to run comparisons of middle-class, white guys of European descent).

So let’s allow for the less-than-perfect nature of intelligence testing.  Let’s say I’m considerably less intelligent than the tests are wont to place me.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that I actually place just inside the smartest 20% of humanity.

This means that every time I initially encounter another human being, there is an 80% chance that they will be dumber than I am.  Although even the most determined moron isn’t stupid all the time, I think if we took the time to crunch all the numbers (and allowing for the relative nature of stupidity), we would end up with something like a solid 20-25% chance that any time another human being opens their mouth in my presence, something stupid will come out of it.

By now you may be thinking that I am arrogant.  While I feel arrogance is too strong a term, I am the first to admit I possess an ego the size of Louisiana.  However, my ego has nothing to do with with my intellect.  Rather, it is a result of my upbringing.  My family took pains to see that I developed a strong self-image.  They did not foresee the monster they would create.

My intelligence, to the contrary, tends more often to have a humbling effect.

The smartest human being I have ever met (and believe me, children – she’s really fucking smart) once explained it to me this way:  The universe is an enormous place full of stuff we don’t know.  Somewhere in that immensity, we live inside miniscule bubbles made up of our knowledge.  When we learn new things, the size of our bubble expands, but the net result of this is that the surface area of our bubble (the interface where our knowledge meets our ignorance) increases.  Therefore, expanding our knowledge exponentially increases our awareness of just how much we don’t know.

This is why those who posses truly superior intellects are usually not prideful about it.  Real intelligence instills humility.  Real intelligence knows that it has arrived where it is through a certain amount of luck and is thankful for it.  And real intelligence knows what it is – it needs no validation.  This is why most people who are truly intelligent view their intelligence as just another physical attribute, like being tall or having blue eyes.

And then there are those who just think they’re smart.   Those who are, in fact, not smart at all, but they believe otherwise because some test or web site or TV show told them otherwise.  To be fair, they probably clock in at the smarter end of mediocrity, but they don’t actually ever cross over into the realm of intelligence.  And stupidity that thinks it’s smart is the most dangerous form of stupidity.

You know the type – there’s no humility in this crowd.  They’re oblivious to the vastness of their ignorance, mainly because they never look up from the shiny baubles of their amassed ‘knowledge’.  They actually believe that they ‘know’ things.  They speak of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ that is ‘proven’ and ‘undeniable’ as if such things actually exist.  And what really drives them crazy is when someone has the gall to question their so-called ‘knowledge’.  This is when they leap to the attack, and their attack always takes the same form:  they must prove you wrong.  This is the only manner in which they can believe themselves to be right.  The fastest – hell, the only – route to intellectual superiority lies in the ability to point to another human being and convincingly declare: You are wrong! It’s kind of sad, actually.

But here’s the thing that pisses off the genius wannabees the most:  that it is unacceptable in our society to walk up to others and say “I’m really smart”.  I mean, what’s the point of possessing a superior intellect if nobody notices? How will everyone else know they are inferior unless their betters point it out to them?

So the wannabees found themselves in a bit of a pickle.  How can they show off their intellectual superiority without just coming out and saying it?

After applying their mediocre intellects to the matter, they eventually decided that the way to show off their brains was to be annoying.  You know – needlessly correcting grammar.  Obsessing on minute, meaningless detail.  Memorizing acronyms and using the complete term instead.  You’ve been exposed to the behavior.  You’ve probably wanted to knee a groin over it.

Eventually, though, they managed to see through the fog of their mediocrity and noticed that all they were accomplishing was to piss everyone off.  While they may have been exhibiting their superiority, the inferior masses were clearly not ‘getting it’.  A new method was called for, and after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, one member of this ‘intelligentsia’ stood up and said “Um…what about this ‘God’ thing?”

After a brief fight, he managed to clear enough space around himself to offer an explanation:  “I meant that we should profess ourselves as atheists.  Everyone knows religion is for idiots.  If we say we don’t believe in God, everyone will know we’re smart.  And society allows us to go around saying we’re atheists.”

The rest – as they say – is history.  Now the creme de la mediocre have adopted atheism as their own personal religion.  And they cling to a few studies that support their primary idiocy, i.e., ‘smart people tend to be atheists’.

But what the mediocre minds really hate most is me.  I show up and declare my atheism in complete (usually well-constructed) sentences, and they welcome me with open arms.

And then I go and ruin everything by explaining a few things to them.  Like evolution is a belief, not a fact.  Like unbelief is as much a matter of faith as belief.  Like atheism is, in fact, a form of religion, as is science.  And my personal favorite, the one they hate most:

The universe is a really big place.  There’s enough room in it for more than one Truth.

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There’s this guy – let’s call him Steve.  Steve is a believer, and what he believes in is Creationism.  He has not arrived at this belief through any sort of evidence or proof, but rather he believes in Creationism simply because it makes sense to him.  Within the boundaries of Steve’s worldview, Creationism is the only argument that is even remotely plausible.  However, Steve is also an honest man.  He freely admits that his belief in Creationism is his own personal belief, and that he has arrived at it without benefit of direct evidence of any sort.  As a matter of fact, Steve will even admit that he believes this way because there isn’t, in fact, any direct evidence that supports Creationism.  However, he will go on to point out that Creationism is a theory and – like most scientific theories – is very difficult to outright prove.  So Steve (like most of us) is content to believe the way his personal logic dictates, and will accept evidence that appears to support his beliefs as proof enough (he’ll even go so far as to admit that sometimes he must avoid looking too closely at evidence that appears to contradict his beliefs).

Obviously, Steve is not the only Creationist in the world.  He has many fellow believers, but the majority of them believe in a fashion dissimilar to Steve’s.  Their worldview (unlike Steve’s) demands that there be proof of Creationism.  Because their beliefs are subject to opposing beliefs, they must be unchallengeable.  It is not enough to simply profess a belief in Creationism – belief is a fuzzy, imprecise and immeasurable thing.  This will simply not do.  Their beliefs must be precise, pure and unassailable.  Faith is not enough – there must be proof.  This is science, after all.

Unsurprisingly, these Soldiers of Truth do not take kindly to those in the opposing camp.  Those who would dare to refute – or even question – the righteous veracity of Creationism are the worst sort of unfaithful, unbelieving and unconscionable fools.  It is the utmost folly to question the truth behind any idea that is so clearly logical, reasonable and – above all – proven.  However, while these Soldiers of Truth are righteous, they are also compassionate.  Those who possess opposing points of view are not viewed as objects of rancor but rather as objects of pity.  After all, it’s rather sad that they are too ignorant and unenlightened to see the truth that’s right before their noses.

Instead, their rancor is reserved for the likes of our friend Steve.  You see, while Steve is, technically, one of their own, he’s not enough one of their own.  It’s not enough that he believes in Creationism as sincerely as they do.  Simply because Steve believes in Creationism in a fashion that differs from theirs makes him worse than the enemy.  The fact that Steve believes in Creationism, but fails to believe in the same way they believe, makes him some sort of abomination.  In their eyes, it’s just not possible for Steve to share their belief in Creationism because he does not share every aspect of that belief.  There is only one road leading to the moral and logical high ground on which they stand, and there is simply no other route by which one can arrive there.  And to pretend otherwise is the utmost conceit.  “If you are not with us in every respect,” Steve is told, “Then you are not with us at all.  And if you are not with us, you are against us.”  So Steve often ends up being a target for his fellow Creationist’s aggression, usually because he repeatedly makes the mistake of wading into arguments on the subject.

Okay.  Are we feeling properly pissed off at Creationists?  Has Steve won our sympathies?  Have we yet figured out that Steve’s story should be re-read, but this time replacing every instance of ‘Creationism’ with ‘evolution’?  (Replacing ‘Steve’ with ‘Terry’ is optional.)  Have we fastened our seat-belts and placed our trays in their upright position in preparation for today’s rant?  Good.

I have just about had it with liberals.  Don’t get me wrong – I am about left as they come – but I’m not talking about anything as secular as mere politics here.  I’m talking about the kind of liberalism that borders on religion.  The kind of left wing that believes it is, in fact, the Right Hand of God.

As you may have guessed, this post springs from a recent argument (two of them, actually).  In both instances, I took the stance you can assume I took based on the story above.  I do, indeed, believe in the theory of evolution.  I am also aware that there is no direct evidence of evolution.  You’d be amazed at the amount of liberal venom this stance attracts.  Wave after wave of vitriolic attacks flew my way, despite the fact that the first statement I made was that I believe in the theory of evolution.  But for most liberals (you know, the open-minded, accepting, understanding end of the spectrum) my belief sans proof is not enough.  In fact, it’s blasphemy.  By believing without proof, I am (to their way of thinking) invalidating their faith in the supposed ‘proof’ behind their belief in the theory.  In other words, the fact that the object of our belief is exactly the same is insufficient.  To these yahoos, my crime lays in that I do not share their method of belief.

For those of you keeping score at home, this is the stuff of which the Crusades and Inquisition were born.

And I am fed up with this crap.  So let me set a few things straight.  First off, there is no direct evidence of evolution.  Let me repeat that, using overweight letters to show I really mean it:  there is no direct evidence of evolution. Evolution is a theory and, in case you hadn’t noticed, the overwhelming majority of science is made up of theory.  There is blessed little proof in science.  Fact is also pretty scarce.  And laws are just theories that enjoy widespread acceptance.

This is not to say that there is no evidence of evolution.  There is plenty of it, actually.  Conversely, there is a fair amount of evidence that contradicts evolution.  To scientists, this is not a problem – it’s just the way of theory.  But trust me, folks, there is no evidence that proves – irrefutably – that evolution occurs.  If there was, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.  One of the boneheads I was arguing with recently pointed to a dozen or so experiments (you know – the kind with fruit flies or earthworms or somesuch) that ‘prove’ evolution.  Stands to reason – if it occurs with fruit flies and earthworms, it must occur in all species.  I tried to explain that a few examples cannot prove a premise unless at least a few assumptions are made along the way.  The response:  “I provided concrete evidence of experiments and observations that support evolution”.  Am I the only one who understands that ‘support’ and ‘prove’ are two different things?  Why is it that all these pundits think that any evidence that supports their beliefs equates to proof?

I’ll tell you why.  Because they turned to science looking for the same thing other people turn to religion for:  certainty.  Clarity.  Because they are looking for the absolute in a world that can only offer relativity.  Because they seek truth in a world that can only offer honesty.  And for some inexplicable reason, they seem to think science can deliver this.  But science is not – cannot be – this way.  Science is relative, not absolute.  It is honest, but not necessarily truthful.  Truth and the absolute are the domain of gods, not science.  This is by design.  Science is the domain of humans.  Therefore it will always be imperfect.  If you need perfection, shrug off your liberal prejudices and go out and find a religion you can agree with.  Seriously.

Due to my recent experiences with my fellow liberals (added to all the ones I’ve had throughout my life), I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to separate myself from the bulk of the ‘left wing’.  I no longer feel that I can define myself in the fashion they want me to define myself, so I must respectfully decline membership in whatever it is they’re selling.  Instead, I’m starting my own Left Wing (note the capitals) splinter group, A Latere Sinister.

The manifesto of A Latere Sinister will be posted at a later time.  For the nonce, know that we are the reasoning branch of the left wing.  We think before we speak, and we deliberate before we challenge.  We are driven by our hearts first, our conscience second, and our brains third.  Unlike the majority of our liberal brethren, we do not whine.  We see whining as the pointless exercise it is.  And while we are not a particularly militant branch, we will not hesitate to knee you in the groin if it becomes necessary.  Applications are currently being accepted.

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My formal education and training is in archaeology and history.  Archaeology was my first career-related love, history was more or less a by-product.  Here in the US, most archaeology is actually a sub-discipline of anthropology (but not all.  A discussion for another time), so while my field of study was archaeology, my degree is in anthropology.  Why, you may ask, is archaeology considered a sub-field of anthropology?  The reasons are complicated, but in a nutshell the answer is:  Because Franz Boas said so.

Anyway, that argument aside, modern American anthropology consists of four basic sub-fields:  archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology.  There is some overlap and intermingling betwixt these sub-fields, but not as much as you would think.

Anthropology is, relatively speaking, a young science.  In the grand scheme of scientific endeavor, it really hasn’t been around that long (compared to – say – astronomy).  Because of this, it has undergone some well-documented changes in a relatively short period of time.  In its earliest manifestation, the field was basically cultural anthropology – a group of dedicated researchers (mostly men) who went into the world to spend some time amid strange peoples and learn their ways.  This often occurred amongst marginal and/or aboriginal peoples, mainly because – let’s face it – white people are boring.

Then Franz and his ilk came along, and they sliced anthropology up into its current major subdivisions (yes – I’m oversimplifying.  I’ve only got so much time here), due mainly to the fact that the field of anthropology was getting larger and more complicated.  So now the budding anthropologist needed to know more.  Now the discipline demanded more of them, namely what was then called four-field competency.  A couple of generations ago, this was something you could expect to find in any given anthropologist.  While they would have had their own particular area of specialization and expertize, you could reasonably expect them to be able to hold their own in any of the four sub-disciplines.

But time marched on, and anthropology again became larger and more complicated, so that by the time I got to it, anthropologists were no longer expected to possess four-field competency.  By this time, four-field exposure was considered to be adequate (this should not be taken as a comment on the quality of education in regard to anthropologists.  A person can only be expected to carry so much around in their head, and as the field expands, the requirements must narrow).  Today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if four-field exposure is no longer considered necessary.  As time has gone by, the field of anthropology has become more and more specialized.  And this occurs even within the sub-fields.  American archaeology is immediately, broadly, divided into two categories:  Prehistoric and historic (the dividing line being drawn at the arrival of white people).  This gets even further subdivided, in ways I won’t go into here.

So a couple of generations ago, any given anthropologist could reasonably have been expected to be able to ‘do anthropology’.  Dropped into any situation in which the skills of an anthropologist (of any sub-field) were needed, it could safely be assumed that they would be able to perform as necessary.  A generation later, this was no longer the case.  And we get further away from it every day.  This is mainly because anthropology is (as previously stated) a young science.  It really hasn’t been around very long, and it’s barely out of its toddler stage.

This progression is not unique to anthropology.  All sciences grow from infancy into maturity (a state yet to be achieved for many sciences), the major difference being the length of the time period over which this occurs.  For some, it’s centuries.  For others, generations.  For others, considerably less.

Which brings us to GIS.  While you could (rather effectively) argue that the practice of GIS has been around for centuries, the discipline of GIS has only been around for a few decades (give or take).  In that time it has progressed through infancy and well into toddler-hood, possibly beyond.  The speed with which this occurred can be problematic.  As an anthropologist, I could safely stand on my own generational ground and look behind and before me.  I could see the ‘old days’, where four-field competency held sway and where anthropologists could be expected to ‘do anthropology’.  I could simultaneously look forward to where anthropologists would no longer really understand the interrelationship of the four sub-disciplines and where specialization would hold sway.  In the field of GIS, however, many of us have watched the development of our discipline happen right in front of us.

My first exposure to GIS was in the form of a class called ‘Computer Mapping’ (that’s right – while the term ‘GIS’ had been around for a short while, it hadn’t yet graduated into common usage).  For software, we used MapInfo (waaaaaaay before Pitney Bowes).  I was (as you may have guessed) studying archaeology at the time, and the usefulness of GIS to the discipline did not escape me.  The purpose of the class was to (eventually) produce a road atlas.  The end result for me personally was to seal my doom and condemn me to a lifetime of Map Dorkitude.  Toward the end of that class, I purchased my first copy of ArcView (for only $250.  At that point, at least, ESRI offered substantial discounts to students).  I spent the following Summer teaching myself how to use it (Map Dork!  Map Dork!).  By the end of that Summer, I think it’s safe to say that I was quite able to ‘do GIS’.  Because – let’s face it – at that time, a general proficiency with ESRIWare equated to an ability to ‘do GIS’.

But that was a long time ago (in GIS-time, at least.  Not so much in real-time.  I’m not that old), and the ability to narrow GIS to a particular skill set (or software vendor) is long past.  Sure – there’s a certain baseline skill set – a core of knowledge – that all practitioners of GIS possess and use, but the field has progressed so far beyond the baseline that the mere possession of the basic tool kit no longer enables or qualifies a person to ‘do GIS’.  As a matter of fact, the very idea of ‘doing GIS’ has almost become absurd.  We cannot assume that a speed skater and a football player are engaged in the same activity because they are both ‘doing sports’.  Neither can we say that a chemist and a geologist are engaged in the same activity because they are both ‘doing science’.  Therefore, I think it’s a little ridiculous to say that a person setting up a server stack and a person taking a waypoint on a mountaintop are engaged in the same activity because they are both ‘doing GIS’.  GIS – as a discipline – has progressed too far and grown too much and gotten too complicated to wrap into a single package that a single individual can ‘do’.  So the idea that one can be certified to ‘do’ GIS is either an extreme absurdity or an extreme conceit.  In either case, it’s a concept I refuse to buy into.

And this brings us to the first and primary reason I won’t have anything to do with GISCI and their GISP program.  I don’t believe that GIS can be effectively stuffed into a pigeonhole that would easily lend itself to certification.  In all fairness, though, I’m not all that sure GISCI claims to certify people to ‘do’ GIS.  From their home page:

“A GISP is a certified geographic information systems (GIS) Professional who has met the minimum standards for ethical conduct and professional practice as established by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI)”

In other words, a GISP is someone who has been certified by GISCI to be – well – certified by GISCI.  I leave it to the individual to determine the value of this.  Now – it could be that somewhere within GISCI’s ‘minimum standards’ lies the ability to ‘do’ GIS (as they perceive it).  I can’t really say, because I haven’t been able to find a definition of GIS on GISCI’s website (I’ll be the first to admit that my search for one has not been exhaustive).  I did find this tidbit, though: “The GIS Certification Program is an opportunity to define the profession of GIS.”

So, to recap:  By paying GISCI, not only can we become certifiably certified, but our certification may someday help us to determine what it is that we are certifiably certified to do (although actually doing it may require another certification).  Hot damn!  Sign me up!

But let’s try to be charitable here.  Maybe GISCI is sincerely trying to respond to a need, however ineptly they may be doing so.  Does GIS – as a discipline – need some sort of certification or licensing to achieve legitimacy?  I believe this is a valid question, and I think the answer is “no”.  This question has been debated within the community for quite some time now, and the opinions seem to be pretty evenly divided.  If you think about it, this is one of those cases where a lack of consensus equates to a “no”.

Let’s take it a step further:  If not necessary, would such a certification or licensing process be desirable?  For much the same reasons, I think the answer to this would also have to be “no”.  In this case, though, I don’t think it’s so much that the community wouldn’t like to see something of the sort in place, but what they would like to see (in such a case) is something other than what GISCI has to offer.  And GISCI seems to be doggedly determined to stick to their program.  And they seem equally determined to convince the rest of us that we need what they’re selling.  Another reason I’m not interested.

Other than that, the only thing GISCI and their GISP program seem to be offering is a code of ethics.  Sorry, but I again feel the need to respectfully decline.  It’s not that I have anything against codes of ethics, per se, it’s just that I find them to be pretty much useless.  There is an old saying:  ‘Locks only stop honest people’.  In a similar vein, a code of ethics will only really be adhered to by people who don’t, in fact, need such a code in order to act ethically.  Those who are prone to act in an unethical fashion will certainly not be stopped by a code of ethics (especially when it really counts – when nobody’s looking).  A code of ethics is only useful when it has teeth.  GISCI’s code is only enforceable with those who live in fear of having their certified certification taken away.

So at the end of the day, GISCI simply isn’t offering anything I have a use for.  I am not saying that their program is without value, just that it holds no value for me personally.

Which brings us to the last item on my list, and the only one that I feel could actually be called a ‘complaint’.  While I have no use for GISCI and GISP, they do not, in fact, annoy me.  What does annoy me is their fanboys.  I’m not talking about their proponents and/or supporters, many of which I have had lively, entertaining and informative conversations (sometimes even arguments) with.  I’m talking about the zealots.  Like the yahoo who told me that GISP is not about competency but about commitment to the profession.  In much the same way the phrase “No thank you. I have my own belief system and would rather not read your literature.” somehow transforms into “No thank you.  I’d rather eat babies and burn in Hell.” on the trip from your mouth to the ears of the stranger who came knocking on your door, so does the statement “I don’t need a certification to validate what I do.” somehow become “Your support of said certification invalidates you and what you do.”  In some quarters, the support of GISP borders on the religious.

So allow me to make this as clear as I can:  My indifference to your certification does not – cannot – invalidate it.  My opinion of GISP does not determine its value or lack thereof.  If pursuing and achieving a certification is meaningful to you, then you should by all means do so.  But do not expect me to attach the same meaning to it.  I will make my own choices in the matter.

And, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just express my commitment to the profession through a dedication to competence.

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Not too long ago now, bad things happened to Haiti.  And not just the usual bad things, which are pretty bad – Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere (and the fact that the hemispherical distinction is made should tell you a few things about poverty in other parts of the world).  I am talking, of course, about the earthquake and the resultant aftershocks.

Like most other Americans (I suppose), I heard about it in the news, and I closed my eyes and dropped my head and spent some time mourning for people I had never met.

I then considered what I could do to make things better and, again like most Americans (I suppose), I came to the conclusion that I should just throw some money at the situation.

Shortly thereafter, though, I caught wind of a bit of a movement (for want of a better word).  Map Dorks had taken a good look at the existing maps of Haiti, and had found them wanting.  And so the call went forth to all Map Dorks:  Relief efforts in Haiti need accurate maps.

And let me tell you, boys and girls, the Map Dorks stepped up. With the help of imagery provided by the likes of Yahoo, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye (who acquired satellite imagery the day after the initial quake), armies of mappers converged on Open Street Map and kicked serious ass all over Haiti.  In the space of a day the maps of Port-au-Prince went from looking like a hill town in upstate New York (disclaimer: I LOVE hill towns in upstate New York) to looking like Manhattan.  And they are accurate in ways that maps of Haiti have never been. Within a day a Garmin IMG file was produced and a day after that someone whipped up an iPhone app to leverage the OSM data for use on the ground.  And we (Map Dorks, I mean) haven’t stopped.  My life is crowded these days, but I can still find the time to give an hour or two to Haiti every day.  It really isn’t that hard to do.   And I think it’s rather more significant to the people on the ground in Haiti than the 20 bucks I can afford to send.

But this is all beside the point.  The point is the response to this crisis of Map Dorkia, who – for better or worse – are (on some level, at least) my people.  And my people have behaved admirably in this situation.  There are a couple who have been especially helpful and noteworthy (I’m talking about you, Kate and Dave), but while they are unique they are not unusual amongst Map Dorks.  When the call went out, many answered.

And because of that,  I am very, very, proud of my people.

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Pluto

Update:  The boy and I just watched Interplanet Janet, from Schoolhouse RockShe considers Pluto to be a planet.  Who are we to argue?

Okay – here’s the deal.  I’m getting a little tired of this Pluto’s-Not-A-Planet crap.  Why, I ask, would Pluto be considered to be anything other than a planet?  ‘Why?’  The answer goes, ‘Because it doesn’t fit the definition of “planet”‘.

Huh?  When did this happen?

2006.  That was when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided (for whatever reasons) to write a new definition of ‘planet’.  Their definition is as follows:

1)  Have an orbit around a sun.

2)  Have enough mass to assume a (mostly) round shape.

3)  Have cleared the neighborhood in its orbit.

The third is the one Pluto falls short on, and for this reason they’re now referring to it as a ‘dwarf’ planet.  There are some in the profession fighting this (mostly because expecting Pluto to clear out the neighborhood is unreasonable, due to the enormity of its orbit), but so far they have been unsuccessful.  My take on this is that the IAU is going at this ass-backwards.

Years ago, the archaeological world had a list of criteria they used to define a ‘civilization’ (much like our planet-defining list above).  If I remember correctly (and I usually do), there were 5 items on the list, the pertinent one being possession of the wheel.  It was thought that a group of humans couldn’t reach the lofty heights of true civilization without first developing the wheel.  Then one guy, who had spent his life studying the Inca, raised his hand and said: “But – the Inca never developed the wheel”.  He was told that the Inca, having failed to measure up to the definition, couldn’t have been a ‘civilization’.   “But,”  he argued, “They Built Machu Picchu.  They had a trade network that spanned a continent.  They had suspension bridges, for Christ’s sake!”

“Hmmm,” said his colleagues, “Maybe we should re-think our definition.”

This, my friends, is how science is supposed to be done.  A good scientist does not look up on a overcast day and say:  “It’s not blue, therefore it cannot be the sky”.

Pluto has enough of a gravitational influence on our solar system that it’s presence was known decades before anyone actually ‘saw’ it.  It has three moons (that we know of), putting it ahead of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.  Most importantly, in the decades during which Pluto’s existence was known but it had not yet been ‘seen’, it was known as “Planet X”.  This alone gives it more celestial street cred than all the other so-called planets combined.

It’s a friggin’ planet.  Just fix the definition, already.

Besides, we don’t really want to piss off the god of the underworld, do we?

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Sun Tzu's Art of War

“An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

No it isn’t.”

The other day, I found myself once again engaging in an argument with some random internet bonehead.  This seems to happen to me with ridiculous frequency, and I think I may be starting to understand why.  This particular bonehead tried to tell me that ad tracking leads to ‘identity theft’ (the quotes are to illustrate my general disdain for the term.  What is commonly referred to as ‘identity theft’ is most usually simply credit card fraud.  Nobody ever showed any interest in buying insurance against credit card fraud, though).

Anyway, when I first encountered this idea, I did what I usually do when I come across an idea that seems a little odd to me – I researched it a bit.  I discovered some interesting things: that ‘identity theft’ has actually been on the decline (at least as of 2007, the latest figures I could easily find), that slightly less than 12% of ‘identity theft’ occurs online, and that law enforcement agencies recommend conducting business online as a means to prevent ‘identity theft’.  I explained to bonehead that I didn’t share his fears regarding ad tracking, and he basically told me that I’m wallowing in my own ignorance and that if I could achieve the lofty heights of his superior knowledge, I would be quaking in fear just as he was.  This time, I pointed him to the information I had learned earlier, asked him to explain it, and asked him to point me to one single documented case of ‘identity theft’ that had been attributed to ad tracking.  His response?  Once again, I’m accused of idiocy based solely on the fact that I will not accept whatever he says at face value.  Did he actually attempt – in any way – to back up his statements?  Nope.  So I called him on it.  His response to this was the best of the lot.  Told me he wouldn’t ‘pander to my demands’ (really – he used the word ‘pander’), told me that I should go out and find his proof for him (I’m not making this up), that I was calling him a liar unless he offered up some proof (I called him no such thing.  I didn’t call him a bonehead, either.  I just think he is one) and, finally, that he was wasting his time by discussing something with a person who calls him arrogant (yup, I did call him that.  Call me crazy.  I can’t help but think a guy who tells me to do the necessary research to back up his idea is just a wee bit arrogant).

Anyway, this latest encounter with an internet pundit got me to thinking.  Specifically, about the nature of argument.  As I always seem to be doing these days, I spent a fair amount of time thinking it through with an eye toward it being A Discussion I Will Have With My Son.

I am not, by nature, an argumentative kind of guy.  I do, however, like a good argument.  These two statements are not contradictory.  They only conflict with each other if you don’t understand the nature of arguments.  Michael Palin (quoted above) quoted the definition of argument, virtually word-for-word, from the OED.  In a nutshell, an argument is much the same as any other form of discourse between humans:  it’s simply an exchange of ideas.  The problem some people have (and the place where misunderstanding creeps into the mix) is that, in the case of arguments, the ideas being exchanged are opposing and often seemingly contradictory.  I say ‘seemingly’ because it is difficult for some people to wrap their brain around the idea that opposing points of view can be (and quite often are) equally valid, equally ‘right’, and equally ‘correct’ (or ‘incorrect’, if your worldview demands it).  An argument is not a competition (when competition is added to an argument, it becomes a debate), nor is it a conflict.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people from thinking that an argument is something that you ‘win’.  So far too many ‘arguments’  get treated as some sort of conflict, a conflict that needs to be ‘won’ by proving one’s own point of view to be the ‘right’ point of view.  Sadly, insecurity often drives people to believe that the only way to be proven ‘right’ is by pointing to someone else as being ‘wrong’ (this often becomes intertwined with the irrational fear that admitting to your own mistakes causes your penis to fall off).  Those who are subject to this confusion usually collect what they perceive to be the Holy Grail of arguments:  the endgame.  The verbal equivalent of checkmate.  The Statement With Which There Is No Arguing.  Sometimes, they’re quite effective (“You’re not a woman, so you can’t possibly understand”), but usually they’re just sad and transparent (“I’m not going to pander to your demands of sourcing information on such cases”).  In any case, they all just indicate that someone has either run out of ideas, or they have realized that their position is indefensible but find themselves emotionally unable to abandon it.  Some people have a very hard time letting go of an idea once they have embraced it.

One of my favorite Professors at college explained scientific theory thusly:  “Start with an idea.  Then do everything in your power to punch holes in that idea.  If it stands up to that onslaught, hand the idea to all your colleagues and have them do everything in their power to punch holes in it.  If your idea also stands up to that onslaught, then you might – just might – be on to something.”  I took that explanation to heart, and I apply it to every new idea that comes my way.  Upon first encountering an idea, I scrutinize it and decide whether to embrace or reject it.  Now – if you are the person who happened to present that idea to me, and if you (for whatever reason) wish for me to re-examine my initial decision about the idea, then you would be well advised to give me a reason to do so.  If you are unwilling (or unable) to bring anything to the table aside from your initial idea, don’t be surprised when I fail to take either you or your ideas seriously.  I do not – and will not – apologize for this behavior on my part.  I feel that it is every thinking being’s right and duty to question ideas.  Unquestioned ideas are dangerous.  They are the stuff of which tyranny is made.  Even – especially – tyranny of the self-imposed variety.

When I attended Oxford, a classmate and friend of mine took a class on Parliamentary Debate.  The class divided in half and debated a variety of issues, and they opened up a couple of their debates to the general public.  I attended these public debates, and they were vastly entertaining and informative.  The topics of debate were chosen carefully, so that there would be as little ‘right vs. wrong’ as possible.  The idea was to teach a set of skills, not to prove a point.  Debate is pretty much just formal argument.  It is a competition, with a winner and a loser.  A debate is not won, however, by proving oneself  ‘right’ or ‘correct’, nor by proving one’s opponent ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’.  Either of these, given the nature of debate, is impossible to do.  The way a debate is won is by presenting your own case more effectively than your opponents present their case.  An argument is ‘won’ (if there absolutely has to be winning involved) the same way.  It is not ‘won’ by mindlessly repeating your initial statement.  It is not ‘won’ by mindlessly contradicting the statements of those who disagree with you.  It is not ‘won’ by asking someone else to back up your statements for you.  And it is definitely not ‘won’ by failing to present a case at all.

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Got into a discussion/argument with a random Internet pundit yesterday.  He did a post on his blog about Islam, in which he stated that he thinks ‘Islamophobia’ is understated.  He seems to feel that we should all live in mortal fear of Muslims.  I wasted a few minutes of my life trying to reason with the poor guy, but realized that I was being stupid when he professed to have read the Koran, specifically referring to ‘the nasty parts’.  He actually tried to convince me that within the pages of the Koran lies adequate reason for all right-minded global citizens to fear the ‘Muslim Threat’.  Painfully obvious that he had never actually read the book.  Or if he had, he had done so with extremely prejudiced eyes.

I actually kind of like the Koran.  As religious texts go, It’s not too terribly offensive.  It’s extremely dull, but not too offensive.  The fact that it belongs to a western religion is a strike against it, but it’s actually more interesting to read than the perennial favorite of the western religions:  The Bible.

Two quick facts, little-known to most Americans:  1)  The Koran is not the only scripture of religious import to Islam.  The Old Testament also plays a prominent role.  2)  The word ‘Jihad’  makes an appearance a grand total of four times in the Koran.  In none of those instances does it refer to an armed conflict (or a conflict of any kind).  In the Koran, the term ‘Jihad’ refers to a struggle – specifically a spiritual struggle.  And any idiot can tell you that a spiritual struggle is, above all, a personal one.  It’s not something you do with a group.  Especially a group with machine guns.

Anyway, this guy I was arguing with kept trying to convince me that Islam poses a threat to the world, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Eventually, I realized where he was coming from.  He had pretty much told me everything I needed to know with the first word he used.  Or, rather, the second part of that word:  phobia.  The guy is just plain living in fear – even abject terror – of Islam.  Or, more accurately, of Muslims.  And his fear is irrational, a fact that obviously bothers him.  So he professes to a knowledge of the Koran, which gives him the ability to claim his fear is a rational, reasoned fear.  It’s kind of sad, actually.

Since I’m aware of the fact that this guy is not alone in his fears, I started to wonder about the nature of those fears, and their genesis.  To be sure, they have roots that go back to the Crusades (you remember the Crusades – when the Pope saw that too many Christians were being killed by other Christians, so he invented an outside enemy for his flock to focus their considerable homicidal energies on), but while the seeds may have been planted in the Middle Ages, the Bush-Cheney cartel did a fine job of pouring Miracle-Gro on it.  But the propaganda alone doesn’t really explain the fear.  What – exactly – are so many Americans afraid of here?  What is it about Muslims that strikes so much terror into the heart of Joe Sixpack?

Belief.  Real, intense, white-hot belief.  The Kind of belief that Americans never see in their own lives.  The kind of belief that can drive people to obliterate themselves because they feel their faith demands it.  Americans don’t get this.  America has a different kind of belief – the kind that just asks you to show up on Sunday and perform the proper rituals.  Americans feel drawn to religious institutions not out of any spiritual drive but rather out of a simple need to belong.  And when we Americans are confronted with people who are willing to die for their beliefs, they scare the crap out of us.

Before anyone starts shouting, let me just say that I’m not talking about ALL Americans here.  Just the majority of them.  I know there are people in this country who are truly religious.  I also know that there are people in this country who are truly spiritual.  And I know that sometimes these are the same people.  But I know that these people are – by far – the minority.  Most Americans subscribe to one religion or another out of fear.  Simply because they’re afraid that the Beard In The Sky will punish them if they don’t.  Which is also the only reason most Americans behave themselves.  The average American (possibly the average person) is lying, thieving, raping, murderous scum, and the only thing keeping them from acting upon it is the threat of retribution.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at any situation in human history in which the rules were removed.  Riots.  Wars.  Show me any break-down of the social order, and I’ll show you the true face of human nature.

Now, this all got me thinking about the nature of belief.  Specifically, the nature of American belief.  What, if anything (I wondered) do Americans believe in strongly enough (or love strongly enough) that they would be willing to die for it?  Religion?  Not likely.  Sure – there have, on occasion, been Americans who have willingly chosen to die for their beliefs – but they are so rare as to be statistically nonexistent.  Their country?  Another big ‘no’.  While there are (and have been) plenty of people who will stand in line to fight and kill for America, those who have actually willingly died for it are intensely rare.  Family?  Sadly (and inexplicably, to my mind), also no.  Hell, I know many, many people who can’t even be bothered to give up their bad habits for the sake of their family.

Which brings us to the True American Belief System:  Hedonism.  This is the belief that burns strongly enough in America that its adherents are willing to die for it.  Americans have proven – repeatedly – that the one thing they are more than willing to sacrifice their lives for is their own pleasure.  Here we drug and drink and smoke and eat and sex ourselves to death every day.  Here we willingly risk our lives just to achieve the pleasure of the moment.  This, my friends, is the true American object of worship:  Personal pleasure.  It is this, not money, that we – as a people – love most.

Twittification:

  • RT @JElvisWeinstein: United has quickly settled with Dr. Dao. They didn't want to drag this thing out like they did Dr. Dao. 6 hours ago

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