Another Apologist: P.W. Dunn

Below is a comment of mine directed to P.W. Dunn in a discussion I started with him.  I also posted my comments in my blog here in the post titled About Canonizing Acts of Paul.  The comment here was originally intended to be posted in his blog, but I decided I no longer wanted to continue my dialogue with him as I didn’t see it going anywhere interesting.  Also, I figured this comment could use its own post. 

My discussion with Dunn reminds me of my discussions with Bedard.  The difference is that, even though Bedard was also a New Testament scholar, he overtly identified himself as an apologist and so was open about the fact that his scholarship served a purpose of apologetics.  Bedard even gave his blog the title of Apologia.  So, I knew what kind of discussion I was in the moment I commented to his posts.  Interestingly, I don’t think Bedard made religious claims in his blog but rather always kept the discussion on the level of facts and logic.  Like Dunn, Bedard presented himself as rational, even claiming his beliefs were based on his rationality.  To say the least, I had immense doubts about whether his rationality was actually greater than his faith, but at least he seemed more or less open about his bias. 

The peer-reviewed article of Bedard’s that I read was high quality scholarhip and so I had respect for his intellect… even though it served a purpose of apologetics which I consider far from worthy.  The ironic part of it was that objectively speaking his article easily could’ve been used as evidence in support of my criticisms of his religious beliefs.  It is rather odd how some people have objectivity in terms of their professional career, but can’t appreciate the obvious implications to their personal life.  That is what in psychology is called compartmentalization.  Maybe Dunn has compartmentalized in a similar manner, but it is far from obvious.

I must say I’m not a fan of apologetics and I’m outright critical of apologetics when it’s conflated with scholarship.  I sense enormous problems that are created when belief and rationality are mixed.  The danger is that there is a thin line between rationality and rationalization.  The purpose of scholarship is to lessen bias, and so scholarship that is intentionally biased seems blatantly wrongminded.  I’d even go so far as to say it’s a moral issue.  To me, the role of academic is a noble calling.  The role of professional scholar represents the human capacity for rationality and more importantly represents the ideal of truth.  If even academics lack the ability to see past their biases and lack the ability to seriously consider different perspectives, then there is even less hope for the average person.  An academic spends years training their intellectual faculties and analyzing difficult issues.  Society looks to them as authorities on the subject of their expertise.  Also, academics act as teachers.  In particular, acadmics at a college level are some of the most influential people in the world as they help to form the minds of society’s youth.  We should hold scholars to a very high standard.

However, in the past, fields such as biblical studies were used to support orthodoxy and it’s only been in recent decades that this field has come into its own as a secular endeavor.  Part of the reason for this is because the discoveries of many non-canonical texts only happened very recently.  The church spent great effort over the centuries destroying and suppressing these texts, and many of them were considered entirely lost.  Even once these texts were once again available, the first scholars read them through the bias of what the heresiologists had written at the beginning of Christianity.  New Testament scholarship had been meshed with orthodoxy for so many centuries that scholars initially had great difficulty studying the heretical texts without bias, and many scholars still today are still heavily influenced by the orhtodox criticisms of ancient heresiologists. 

Dunn seems a good example of this.

 – – –

Here is the aforementioned comment:

“I do believe that the New Testament as it came down to us is inspired and is a faithful guide for the church and witness to Jesus Christ.”

When I first commented, I was only making a point about an academic issue.  I wasn’t thinking in terms of religious faith and beliefs, and especially not in terms of orthodox doctrine.

However, reading your response, I’m not certain if this is an academic discussion or a religious one.  You spoke of which texts you considered inspired and which texts you considered inspiring.  It’s not surprising that you don’t find inspiring texts that you don’t believe to be inspired, but either way it has nothing to do with a scholarly discussion. 

My determining what we’re actually discussing is complicated by the fact that you started your response by declaring your belief in the orthodox canon as being an inspired witness to Christ.  OTOH you present this blog as a scholarly endeavor.  So, I’m confused by your using it as a platform for declaring your personal religious beliefs and defending orthodoxy. 

Do you see your role as an academic or as an apologist?  If your scholarship is merely in service of orthodoxy, then I don’t have much interest in continuing dialogue.  I could try to offer a rational response, but there is no rational response to a profession of religious doctrine.  Belief and reason are simply two different issues. 

The problem is that scholarship necessitates this division to be kept clear, but orthodox religion requires scholarship to serve doctrine.  Ultimately, a person can’t both be a scholar and an apologist at the same time.  The moment scholarship is constrained by or conformed to doctrine, it ceases to be scholarship and becomes apologetics.  This isn’t to dismiss religious belief, but it’s simply to say it has no validity in the context of scholarship and instead lessens the objective value of that scholarship.

I’ve yet to see evidence that you clearly separate the two.  If you did clearly distinguish them, then you wouldn’t have brought up your faith in a format supposedly dedicated to academic scholarship.  In having a discussion with you, I’d have to try to make distinctions between your beliefs and your scholarship.  However, this would ultimately be impossible as you’ve mixed them together in your comments.

You seem to be an intelligent person.  I don’t doubt you can make logical arguments supported by evidence.  Nonetheless, your strong religious faith seems to imply that your beliefs are conclusions that precede your arguments.  Before perceiving the situation to be otherwise, I’d have to see evidence of your willingness to change your beliefs to fit scholarly evidence and hence a willingness to consider evidence that contradicts your beliefs.

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My Brain On Google

Here is a blog post from Matt Cardin in which he responds to an article from The Atlantic (Is Google Making Us Stupid? by  Nicholas Carr).  I agree that the internet alters cognitive functioning, but I don’t see this as problematic.  I’m old enough to have grown up reading books.  I didn’t even become all that involved with computers until my late 20s.  I now spend much time on the internet and it has changed how I think, but it hasn’t made me think any less deeply.  In fact, it has caused my thinking process to be even more complex.

I could see how some people might have a different experience.  I suspect my brain is particularly suited for internet in two ways.  I naturally think in non-linear connections.  Also, I remember facts in terms of connections… meaning my rote memory absolutely sucks.  The internet helps my mind to operate optimally.  However, for someone with a more linear focused mind (or someone who is easily distracted and for some silly reason wishes to be more productive), the internet might be the bane of their existence.

For me, the internet hasn’t fundamentally altered my behavior in reading books (other than allowing me to discover new books I’d never have known about otherwise).  But I do sometimes find myself oddly trying to use an imaginary cursor to click on printed text (it doesn’t work).  Fortunately, I  have an electronic dictionary that helps me at such times (interestingly, my looking up words has increased immensely since buying this electronic dictionary).  Anyhow, I spend as much time reading text in printed form as I do reading text on a screen.  Maybe I’m lucky.  I have a job that allows me the time to read books (while disallowing me to get on the internet).  And I have a friend who likes to sit around reading books when we hang out.

To me, books and the internet are complementary.  I just love information and language, and it doesn’t matter to me about the format.  I can skim information very quickly across multiple websites and I can sit for hours reading a massive book.  Both are useful and enjoyable.

Anyways, it is rather ironic that people discuss on the internet such issues as the problems of the internet.  There is Carr’s article that hyperlinked to several other articles, blogs, and a research paper.  Matt Cardin (along with probably hundreds or thousands of others) hyperlinked to the article through blogs, articles, discussion boards, and emails.  And Cardin also hyperlinked to another article thus creating a conceptual link that his readers could follow (which has greater impact than a footnote in a printed text).  Other bloggers (such as my self and Quentin S. Crisp) then link to the writings of  those who linked to the article.  So, a world-wide discussion grows into a complex web of ideas and related discussions.  Without the internet (including the wonders of Google), such far-reaching discussions of cultural import simply wouldn’t happen.  In the past, people were mostly just passive receivers of information.  But now such information has become interactive.  I’d guess this increases the intelligence of the average reader.

I consider Carr’s article to be nonsense with a catchy title.  For God’s sake, there is even a Wikipedia article about it (which by the way is longer and more edifying than the article itself and which I found through a Google search).  Here is a quote that supports the conclusion I came to in the previous paragraph:

Carr’s essay was widely discussed in the media both critically and in passing. While English technology writer Bill Thompson observed that Carr’s argument had “succeeded in provoking a wide-ranging debate”,[3] Damon Darlin of The New York Times quipped that even though “[everyone] has been talking about [the] article in The Atlantic magazine”, only “[s]ome subset of that group has actually read the 4,175-word article, by Nicholas Carr.”[28] The controversial online responses to Carr’s essay were, according to Chicago Tribune critic Steve Johnson, partly the outcome of the essay’s title “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, a question that the article proper doesn’t actually pose and that he believed was “perfect fodder for a ‘don’t-be-ridiculous’ blog post”; Johnson challenged his readers to carefully consider their online responses in the interest of raising the quality of debate.[4]

Many critics discussed the merits of Carr’s essay at great length in forums set up formally for this purpose at online hubs such as the Britannica Blog and publisher John Brockman’s online scientific magazine Edge, where the roster of names quickly took on the semblance of a Who’s Who of the day’s Internet critics.[29][30][31][32] Calling it “the great digital literacy debate”, British-American entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen judged the victor to be the American reader, who was blessed with a wide range of compelling writing from “all of America’s most articulate Internet luminaries”.[32]

I’ve criticized Google some recently because of biases in it’s search results, but overall I’ve been satisfied with it as a tool for gathering information… although I no longer use it as my sole search engine.  I’m of the opinion that search engines in general are just awesome.  I sometimes even end up perusing online books I already own (such as with Google books) because I can search the books quickly and find exactly what I’m looking for.  I would say that if you’re feeling a bit stupid don’t blame Google.

I just want to live my own life and do my own thing.

Here is something I wrote a while back, but never got around to posting.  It’s very personal and it’s partly just me venting.  I don’t always feel this way.  I do care about my family and feel relatively close to them.  Still, I’m uncertain what I want or can realistically expect from family.  Since writing the below comments, my parents have moved back to the town I live in.  But I’m not sure how much that changes things.  I feel that with 20 years of long distance relating there just has been an opportunity lost and I don’t know if it can be regained.  I know that maybe from an objective standpoint I shouldn’t be so critical of others, but when I’m really depressed this is just how I feel.  So, this is me being emotionally honest.

 – – –

This post is more personal than what I’ve recently been writing about.  I’ve been feeling somewhat disconnected lately or rather I’ve been feeling more disconnected.  It’s partly just depression, but it goes beyond that.

On the personal level, I’ve had a growing sense of disconnection in the past 5 or so years. 

An aspect of it was that my oldest brother moved away seeking a career and then my second oldest brother moved away because of family.  As the years have gone by, my connection with them has grown less and less.  They both have their own lives and family seems secondary.  I understand that and I’m not blaming them.  I used to be angry at my second oldest brother because he started becoming distant as soon as he married and his wife was jealous of the close relationship we had at the time.  I still have some bitterness towards her, but now I mostly feel indifferent.  Whatever connection I had with him is mostly gone and isn’t likely to ever return. 

Added to this is the fact that my parents have lived halfway across the country (in South Carolina) for the last 20 years.  I’m living in the Midwest which is where my parents are from.  We moved around a fair amount growing up and the reason was mostly for my dad’s career.  That is how they ended up in SC.  Talking on the phone and seeing them a couple times a year doesn’t really create a close bond.  I feel like I barely know anyone in my family anymore.  Years of distance aren’t easily bridged.

Another aspect of it was that a few years ago I was trying hard to connect.  I dated some at the time.  Despite my serious intentions, I seemed to meet women who either were unable or unwilling to commit.  I also made a new friend around that time.  I connected well with him in many ways, but it became clear that he didn’t fundamentally understand me.  I realize fundamental understanding is rare.  I have another friend who is from my childhood and we have a very strong connection.  I suspect most people go their whole lives without ever having a deep connection of any sort.

This brings me to the less personal level.  My depression makes me very sensitive to all of this, but my experience doesn’t appear to be atypical.  People seeking careers and constantly moving around is quite normal as far as I can tell.  My second oldest brother’s lifestyle also seems normal.  He got married and had some kids.  His immediate family became his life and everything he does revolves around it.  This isn’t how traditional cultures worked.  People didn’t move around that much, and so one’s immediate community and extended family were as much a part one’s everyday sense of family. 

However, America was built on a very transitory lifestyle that demanded a more transitory style of relating.  The conservative ideal of family values focuses solely on the immediate family and this is the social structure of our society.  The immediate family is required to be the glue that holds all of society together.  Sadly, it isn’t capable of serving such a function on its own.  Older people still remember a time of community and extended family.  For instance, my parents grew up amidst close relationships of family and neighbors.  My parents are of the generation that helped put the nail in the coffin of America’s dying sense of community, but what they don’t realize is that the idealization of the immediate family was the very nail.  Of course, it began before that generation.  I only point them out as they like to blame the younger generations for the problems they helped create.

My not being married basically means I don’t even have an immediate family to feel a connection with.  I grew up with little connectioin to extended family and have lost my connection to my immediate family.  My main connection in life are my cats and my one good friend.  In the process, I’ve also given up on any notion of being a part of a community  It feels like our whole society is in a stage of change.  If our society is to avoid collapse, then a new structure of family and community will have to form, but that is for the future to decide.  I’m not hopeful about it… certainly not in my lifetime.

Back to my personal experience… basically,  I feel apathetic about it all.  I don’t feel like trying anymore.  I don’t feel like trying to connect.  I really just don’t care about the superficial relationships that have developed between my family and myself.  I hate superficial relationships.  This brings me to a deeper factor.  My family has changed, but more importantly I’ve changed.  There just isn’t much that I have in common with my parents or with my brothers… other than distant memories.  The subjects I spend my time studying are of practically no interest to most everyone I know.  Also, my personal life is in an entirely different reality from the personal lives of my family. 

I have to admit that I really don’t care about what is going on with my family.  There is no connection there that would lead to me to caring.  I just want to live my own life and do my own thing.  Life could’ve been different, but this is how life has turned out.  Family only feels like a burden I’d rather be free from.  I’m tired of pretending that I care about them, and they don’t know me well enough to really care about me.  There simply is not much connection there.  It’s a simple fact.  I can either accept it or not, but it doesn’t change the way things are.  Anyways, my family apparently is content with the way things are or else it wouldn’t have turned out this way.

Besides depression, there is another reason this is on my mind.  I was talking to someone about the suffering that is life and why people choose to bring children into this world.  It’s certainly not for the sake of the child.  The child has no choice in the matter, and when that child grows up they very well might resent having been brought into the world.  So, this got me thinking about my own parents.  My parents intended to only have three children and I’m my mom’s fourth pregnancy.  It’s arbitrary that the child before me was stillborn.  The main reason my parents tried for three children was that my mom wanted a daughter.  As I’m of the male gender, I’ve mostly failed in being a good daughter.  Anyways, there are only two reasons that any person has a child.  First, it’s a biological urge which is largely outside of conscious control.  We’re animals and we do what animals do.  Secondly, to the degree a person does make a choice, it’s entirely projection.  The parent has their hopes and expectations.  If people were capable of making purely rational and objective choices, then there’d probably be very few children if any children at all.

So, I’ve thought many times in life I’d rather not have been born.  My reason for existing in the first place are because of the biological urges and psychological projections of my parents.  Those are the reasons for my existence and I really don’t care about either of them.  I don’t feel the desire to follow my biological urges and be a good evolutionary agent of the species.  Nor do I feel any desire to live up to my parents expectations.  When I really think about it, there isn’t much point to my existence which isn’t to say that I want to kill myself.  I do at times have a deeper sense of meaning and even occasionally I have a sense of purpose.  That said, life in and of itself seems pointless.

I don’t want to play the game.  I don’t want to be a good son, a good brother, or a good citizen.  There must be more to life than that.

Homelessness and Civilization

I have a large set of connections I want to set down, but I’ll try to keep it simple as possible.  The seed around which my thinking formed consists of the recent discussions that I’ve been involved with on the Press Citizen.  These discussions have been about the deaths of two “homeless” people (although it’s unclear whether one of them was actually homeless): John Bior Deng was shot by a deputy, and Amil Lowell Baines fell from a construction site.  In the comments section, it became clear how much misinformation and prejudice many people have about the homeless. 

For example, many equate being homeless with being transient which is sometimes true, but often not.  One of the deceased was a life-long resident of Iowa City and I know of other homeless around here who grew up in this town.  I’d guess that homeless people are less likely to move and travel around than the typical American.  To be more accurate, the largest transient population in Iowa City includes the students and employees of the University.  In particular during semesters, this town consists of mostly transients and those who’ve lived here their whole lives are probably a fairly small minority.

When you get down to it, our whole society is based on transience.  Afterall, our country was founded by transients, more often called immigrants.  Many of the immigrants across the centuries were refugees of political persecution… which significantly so was the homeless guy who was shot (he was a refugee from the violence in Sudan and he comes here only to get shot).  The first people who came to America often were very desperate people.  They were members of what today we’d call religious cults who were escaping religious persecution or they were criminals evading the law or they were various other types of rootless people.  These people left their homelands, their land and and houses, their families, friends and neighbors, and sometimes they left their entire culture behind.  Some of them even did this by free choice which is a bit strange.  The fabric of society was already disintegrated when these earliest immigrants got here.  Of course, when they got here they in turn destroyed every culture they came in contact with.   So, this ungroundedness is at the root of our culture.  In a sense, cultural destruction and amnesia is our culture.  The Industrial Age only magnified this already present cultural force.

Many have tried to re-create our lost sense of community, but it’s hard with so many different cultural backgrounds.  We didn’t even share a common religious background and so essentially patriotism became our collective religion and a vision of democracy became our utopia.  On the level of personal relationships, the traditional model of social order has never been regained in America’s entire history.  We are a very unstable society which creates the space for social innovation, but nonetheless people have the same needs that Paleolithic man had.  

Extrapolating from the theory of Paul Shepard, America represents an exacerbation of a problem that has existed since the beginning of civilization.  Our human psychology is built on evolutionary needs.  We aren’t essentially any different than our Paleolithic ancestors, but our human nature has led to our present situation which isn’t conducive to the healthy functioning of that very same human nature.  It’s quite a conundrum.  We simply weren’t designed for civilization.  What we were designed for is small hunter-gatherer tribes.  Interestingly, these early people were transients, but they were transients within a defined area that they knew intimately.  Modern people who live in the same place their whole lives have a less strong sense of place than primitive humans who travelled on a regular basis.

Another insightful author is Derrick Jensen.  He wrote about our culture of violence.  Western Expansionism has always destroyed cultures and left refugees in its wake.  And those refugees who try to escape the destruction end up spreading it by further expansionism.  I won’t try to detail Jensen’s extensive argument, but basically he points out how this is so fundamental to Western culture that it involves all aspects of our lives.  The psychology of the victimizer/victimization relationship is the most fascinating part.  Not only do victims tend to keep silent which encourages the victimizers, but more importantly the vast majority of victimizers were once themselves victimized.

This also relates to religion as well.  Christianity in particular was always a rootless religion.  It formed in the urban areas of Rome that included many displaced people.  The imperialistic expansionism of Rome has always been at the heart of Western religion and culture.  The Axial Age religions in general promoted a transient class of monks and preachers.  Many of these religions taught we weren’t at home on earth, but that our true home was elsewhere.  This was a major shift for humanity and it set the stage for all of modern civilization.

In America, transience became the model not only of religion but also of close relationships.  People moved where ever the opportunities took them, and often the whole family went along.  People no longer could depend on community as their social identity and so the immediate family carried a significance it had never had before.  Your parents and your children were required to satisfy the psychological needs that a whole community once served.  People became in a sense isolated within their own families. 

This tendency manifested in an extreme form with the return of WWII soldiers.  The Civil War had ripped our young society apart, but the two World Wars utterly traumatized the entire human race.  Mankind has yet to recover.  Furthermore, in America, soldiers didn’t even have a traditional culture to return to.  Like many war traumatized people, they were rootless and yet looking for a way to set down roots.  Suburbia was born and the ideal of the atomic family became a national aspiration.  We were going to rebuild our nation, and there was a boom in both babies and technology.  The problem was that suburbia only gave a superficial sense of community.  Despite conservatives’ idealizing the supposedly “traditional” family values, Americans had lost the sense of traditional anything for so long that our dreams of it were ungrounded from reality.

One of the issues that came up in the discussion about the homeless is that most people end up living on the streets for a reason.  Few people willingly choose a life of homelessness.  There are so many people who need help, but our society is either unable or unwilling to help them to any great extent.  Even more problematically, there is very little social safety net for those who encounter problems and it’s hard to pull oneself back up again.  We just cynically and apathetically accept that some people suffer and it’s just not our problem, but many homeless people probably thought the same way before they became homeless.  The basic factor is that theoretically we could solve the homeless problem along with many other problems if there was a collective will to do so, but for whatever reason there isn’t. 

It’s not a lack of money or talent.  It’s simply a matter of how we choose to spend our resources.  Apparently, the suffering of others isn’t a priority of our society.  The odd thing is that we spend more money on causing suffering than we do in looking for solutions.  The US has been involved in various wars it helped to start every year of its existence.  Just stop a moment and deeply consider the implications of that.  I mean, talk about a culture of violence.  And now with the wars on drugs and terror we have the conditions for an endless war and the whole military-industrial complex that goes with it.

Most countries spend massive amounts of money on the police, military and investigation agencies.  But the US spends on military so far beyond all other countries combined that it’s bewildering to contemplate.  Plus, tons of money disappears into the black budget which nobody knows what it is funding.  On the other hand, charities, schools and research into improved healthchare are constantly challenged with a lack of funding.

In conclusion, I think humanity has come to a situation of major crises.  We’re at the point of no return.  We certainly can’t return to a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle without the utter annihilation of civilization, and we can’t even return to the idealized agrarian lifestyle that paleo-conservatives like to fantasize about.  Our only trajectory is the future where ever it may lead, but it doesn’t look promising.  In order for the human species to survive the next century, we’ll have to have a complete revolution of society on a global scale.  Whatever may come of it, it’s literally impossible for us to imagine in the present.  Humans have proven themselves incapable of change except when crises forces them into action and this is particular true in a less stable and more reactionary society like the US. 

At some point in the relatively near future (whether or not in our lifetimes), there will be a looming societal breakdown.  Either the human species will meet the challenge at the last moment or we’ll go down in apocalypse.  It should be a good show.  Meanwhile, those living in relative wealth and comfort will continue as they always do and the less fortunate will continue to suffer.

Healthcare: Right vs Responsibility

Insurance and Social Security…Pet Peeves (blog post by gina from Gaia.com)

Steve said in the comments section:

However, as a Libertarian, I do not see my healthcare as a responsibility of the Federal Government, nor do I consider it a “right”.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this on a philosophical level because it’s a rational perspective.  However, I disagree with it for reasons of compassion which aren’t precisely rational… although I would add that I believe compassion supports rationality when discussing issues specifically pertinent to the human condition.

When I hear statements like this, I immediately wonder about the background of the person making the statement.  I doubt someone who has spent their life in poverty would hold such a belief.  It seems to me a belief of convenience that justifies the person’s position in society.

I’m not picking on Steve for maybe he is just being honest about what he believes.  We all justify our lives with our beliefs.  Even poor people hold beliefs of convenience.  My main complaint is the word “responsibility” in his statement which is a moral judgment which implies poor people are to blame for their own lack of healthcare.  What I’m judging is the tendency in we humans to judge eachother from an assumed position of moral superiority.

I’ve noticed this kind of moral superiority in many people.  It always bugs me.  I know people who have lived righteous lives and who feel justified in their moral superiority, but this is in the context of their being middle to upper class people born into a stable and wealthy society.   What I think many of these people don’t realize is how many advantages they’ve had in life compared to the average person in the world and particularly compared to those on the bottom of society.

And Steve further commented:

But as for me, I do not look toward any other individual or institution to pay my way.  If I get sick and cannot afford my treatments, then all that hope is that I will reach around deep inside myself, find some dignity, and die with it.

This sounds rather convenient.  If he was a poor person born with a disability or who got an illness at a young age, he wouldn’t say something like this.  This is an example of ideology losing contact with human reality.  What is even worse about this statement is that it is one step away from eugenics.  Actually, it is eugenics using a passive methodology.  Just let the poor and needy die of illness and malnutrition.  That way, there is no blood on anyone’s hands.

Could you just imagine all of the sick and dying people crowded around the hospital doors.  No one would let them in because they couldn’t pay and yet they’d have no where else to go.  It would lead to riots and hospitals would become police fortresses and there’d be a black market of stolen hospital drugs.  If the the the chasm between the haves and have nots got too large, walled cities would have to be created and the lower classes would be isolated into ghettoes.

It could end up in some weird kind of Plutocratic Fascism.  Any ideology pushed to an extreme (meaning when the ideologues gain control of political power) ends up with some kind of oppressive political system.  You can start off with Libertarianism, but where you end up may not look so Libertarian.

This is a rather dark vision that I portrayed based on the extreme views of Steve, but it’s far from preposterous.  Many conservatives believe as Steve does.  Conservatives at least used to at least pretend to be compassionate, but that has fallen out of favor.  Since the Republican party has lost much of it’s power, it’s showing more of it’s ruthless nature.  The problem with taking away power from big government is it usually just means instead giving it to big business.  Libertarianism sounds like a good ideal, but sadly small governments seem to be no longer a possibility in the present globalized world.  There will always be some big dog in power, but the best we can do is try to keep it on a short leash.  If you ask me, a big business fascism wouldn’t be a pleasant world to live in unless you were one of the small percentage of wealthy elite.  Then again, Socialism taken to its extremes can also lead to some equally dark ends.  Maybe it’s better to keep all of the big dogs around so that they’ll fight with eachother.  Just tie them to the same leash that way when they try to go in opposite directions they won’t actually get anywhere. 

But that is just me being cynical.  I just get tired of ideologies no matter what they are.  Why is it so difficult to create a socio-political system that actually encourages people to care about and help eachother?  Is our only choice simply to try to curtail people’s selfishness by making laws and hoping that social darwinism will somehow lead to a greater good?

Officer Shoots Homeless Man: Comments

My local “newspaper” has an active community of commenters, and I must admit I rarely read the paper version.  To tell you the truth, I find the comments online more interesting than most of the articles.  There was a homeless man shot by a police officer and it attracted many comments including my own.  Since the paper allows users to also blog, I wrote my first post about some of these comments.  Even though this is more local news, I’ll also post it here since it applies to humans in general.  If you follow the link, it will bring you to the post where there is discussion in the comments section.

Posted 7/29/2009 10:30 PM CDT on press-citizen.com

Recent events in Iowa City have got me thinking and so I’ll write my first blog post here. I normally blog on Word Press, but this topic directly relates to the articles and comments on the Press Citizen that are about the police shooting of a homeless person. Even though I don’t comment here that often, sometimes a topic captures my attention and some of the self-righteous comments annoy me so much that I feel compelled to respond. I just can’t let mean-spirited and ignorant statements to go unchallenged… although I realize I’m mostly just wasting my time. 

I’m not a liberal softy who believes judgments are never justified. I’m fine with a righteous attitude as long as it serves an empathetic sense of compassion, but righteousness serving it’s own purposes is serving no good purpose at all. Righteousness seems rather infantile when it’s used to exclude certain groups of people and make oneself feel superior. So, self-righteousness is one of the few things that makes me feel righteous in turn.

Certain topics really draw out some ugly comments. In the articles about the shooting, some people weren’t even trying to hide their gleeful joy that a less-than-worthless homeless person had been removed from the population. It’s just mean. I find it very strange how some people are incapable of comprehending that the homeless are people too and not rabid dogs to be shot down. Why is it wrong to care about people who’ve had difficult lives? Do these people want to dismiss the homeless because they don’t want to accept their common humanity, don’t want to accept that they could easily end up in the same situation? It’s easy to be righteous when you’re life is relatively easy and when you’ve been fortunate enough not to have hit rock-bottom, not experienced the extremes of suffering.

Also, there is all kinds of ignorance. Many want to portray all homeless people as mentally ill drunks invading from the Big City who come here simply to cause harm to people and property… . The homeless get lumped together with all of those black gangsters taking over Iowa City and incidents like this get lumped together with every criminal activity that happens downtown. It’s hard to take these kinds of opinions seriously, but sadly the people who voice them take them all too seriously. People were stating reactionary opinions with no basis in facts, and they’re ready to condemn the homeless guy even though he is conveniently dead and unable to give his own view. The homeless guy is automatically guilty and the police officer is automatically innocent. Oh yeah, and the bar patron is a good Samaritan by hassling the homeless to the point of starting a fight that ends in death. People were coming to conclusions about it before the police had even collected all of the witness testimony.

And then there are the people who always try to dismiss the views of others or make every discussion into black and white conflicts. Why can’t there be multiple perspectives? Why do we have to jump to ideological conclusions before the facts come in? Why if you question anything, you must hate America, the troops, and the cops? Why can’t I care about everyone and not pick sides? Why is the life or rights of one person worth more than another?

It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about genuinely caring about other people. I’m truly appreciative of the cop trying to do the right thing as is true of most people in the world. Still, that isn’t any reason that the public shouldn’t question the facts and the interpretation of the facts. Also, what is wrong with seeking to improve police procedure so that more lives can be saved in the future? The problem is that many of the commenters don’t want certain lives saved. Isn’t it a good thing to suggest that violence should be the very last option. Guns, of course, should still be an option for the police… but when dealing with a man with a knife who wasn’t near anyone at the moment a taser would probably be more appropriate. At least, let us have an open discussion about it.

This kind of issue is just another thing that depresses me about the world. I wish more people would stand up to such mean people. I know it’s tiring to respond to such comments, but it tires me more to think of people spreading their hatred and bigotry without being challenged.

Dad, I’m bored.

This post will be very short compared to some recent writings of mine.  I just had a thought about my past.  Around the latter part of elementary school, I remember telling my dad that I was bored… it was probably summer.  It’s an odd thing to remember. 

The only other aspect I remember is that in telling my dad this I was seeking some kind advice.  As silly as it seems, I was asking my dad about a fundamental issue of life.  The issue of boredom is directly related to the issue of meaning.  I didn’t have the philosophical context to understand it at the time, but basically I was inquiring about what I was to do with my life.  I was a kid who had all the basic necessities of life taken care of and I lived in a town that had plenty of opportunities.  And yet I felt bored.  I mean, could just occupying myself with activities be all there is to life?  That’s a pretty deep question.  Most people just spend their lives distracting themselves until they die, but it seems that even at that young of an age I wanted more out of my life.

I usually think that I don’t get bored anymore.  But maybe like most people I’ve just become better at distracting myself.  Ya know, maybe being bored isn’t such a bad thing.  Boredom reminds us of a deeper longing.  Even distractions can become boring after awhile because they don’t satisfy that basic desire for something more, something meaningful.

Normality and Rationality

I was thinking about two issues of how people respond to that which is conventionally thought of being outside of the “normal”.

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The first issue I’ve thought about many times before as it comes up in the literature of UFOs and the paranormal.  I was skimming through some books by the likes of John Keel, Patrick Harpur and Keith Thompson.  These books confirmed the data I’d seen for myself in public polls.  Simply put, the vast majority of people believe in or have experienced something that seemed to defy a rationalistic, materialistic worldview.  Most people have had at least one strange experience in their life.  Many people have had multiple strange experiences in their life.  However, skeptics and debunkers (whether atheists, scientists, media reporters, or government officials) treat the paranormal as if it were abnormal.  Furthermore, it is treated as if belief or simply acceptance of it might be dangerous for society.

I was thinking about an interview between Dawkins and Radin.  Dawkins told Radin that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.  Radin pointed out that it depends on what one considers extraordinary.  Dawkins was trying to dismiss from the start experiences that were common to most people.  There is a further problem with Dawkin’s statement.  Parapsychology gets very little funding and so is unable to do the largescale research that is necessary to produce “extraordinary” evidence, but its mainstream scientists such as Dawkins who argue that parapsychology doesn’t deserve funding because it doesn’t produce “extraordinary” evidence.  So, Dawkins’ statement is disingenuous because he really doesn’t want parapsychology to produce extraordinary evidence.  Still, a surprising amount of parapychology research has been done considering the factors of ridicule and limited funding.  Radin even offered to discuss the actual evidence and Dawkins refused.  So, Dawkins represents the rational scientist who precludes certain evidence by coming to a conclusion before even looking at the evidence (if they ever look at the evidence).

It reminds me of CSICOP, the skeptical organization by various mainstream scientists (incuding Dawkins).  The problem with CSICOP is that it isn’t headed by scientists and the scientists who support it have no professional experience with parapsychology research.  CSICOP has no peer-reviewed journal and doesn’t support research even in disproving the paranormal.  Hansen says that CSICOP did do some research early on, but it ended up proving what they were trying to disprove and so they never did research again.  Worse still, they use their influence (via mainstream scientists) to keep parapsychologists from getting funding.

Another example would be the military.  The Air Force had some programs to collect data on UFOs, but the public side of these programs was to debunk.  The main issue wasn’t necessarily to discover whether such things existed or not.  The Air Force had plenty of data to know that there indeed were unidentified objects “flying” in unexplainable ways.  Their own pilots were constantly reporting these things.  The reason debunking was necessary is because of a need to control.  If UFOs were either enemy experimental craft, aliens, or strange paranormal phenomena, the Air Force doesn’t like anything to exist in their airspace that they don’t control.  And if they can’t control the objects, they must control the information about them.  They must put up an image of always being in absolute control. 

George P. Hansen, in his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, goes into great detail about this need for authority figures to control and how the paranormal seems inherently contrary to such control.  Hansen goes into immense detail about the problems parapychology researchers have had trying to study something that can’t be confined to the boundaries of research.  Another interesting point he brings up is the issue of personality types.  According to Ernest Hartmann, thin boundary types are more likely to experience the paranormal and more likely to be open and accepting about such experiences, and thick boundary types are the complete opposite.  Most people are somewhere in the middle as I was pointing out how most people have had paranormal experiences at some point in their life.  An extremely thick boundaried person is a minority, but very interesting is the fact that they’re more likely to be hired for positions of authority in hierarchical organizations (government, military, education, corporations, etc.).  So, authority figures don’t end up representing the actual experience of most people.  Someone like Dawkins is being honest in that he has never experienced the paranormal (or at least has always managed to explain it away), and so it makes no sense to his worldview.  The other problem with thick boundaried people is that they have a harder time imagining the experience of someone than someone different than them.  So, not only do most authority figures not represent the experience of most people neither do they understand.

However, why do most people remain silent about their experiences?  There is the possibility that most people take other people’s silence as demonstrating that their experience is uncommon.  Everyone is afraid of being the first one to bring the subject up because that would mean risking ridicule.  However, I believe it was Patrick Harpur who offered another possibility.  Paranormal experiences aren’t even easy to explain to ourselves.  Like spiritual experiences in general, the paranormal commands a sense of awe and even reverence.  People feel something important happened that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  So, maybe people don’t talk about them because trying to explain them would seem pointless and unecessary.  But many people when asked without fear of ricicule are willing to admit to their experiences, and that is why we know from polls that such experiences are so common.

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The second issue is about how people talk about things that are outside the “norm”.  This is mostly an issue of Western civilization, but increasingly it probably applies to other cultures as well.  When talking about the non-rational people feel a need to make sense of it rationally.  I’ve thought about this less than the first issue and so I have less to say about it.  I became aware of it listening to an interview on NPR.  The person being interviewed was an expert on behavior that is so far outside the norm as to be called “evil”.  He was discussing it in rational terms of psychology and historical events, but its a subject that touches upon the metaphysical and the just plain inexplicable. 

It’s hard for most people to wrap their minds around what makes other “normal” people do horrible things such as Nazi medical doctors.  And it’s even hard to come to terms with mass murderers who are usually motivated by mental illnesses few of us ever have to experience.  At least, a Nazi doctor was following orders.  Simple self-preservation can explain following orders no matter how grotesque.  But this expert pointed out that the people who did the actual killing of Jews were often given the choice of whether to participate or not. 

I was watching a documentary recently about the part of WWII involving Russia and Germany.  These were two totalitarian superpowers who were willing to go to any length for victory.  All morality and social order was gone.  The actions taken on enemy soldiers and just innocent civilians was at least as horrifying as any of the Nazi death camps.  It was all out thuggery and brutality.  It didn’t surprise me that the people involved were so-called “normal” people.  During what is called the partisan war, there was a lot of torture and random killings and most of it was not done because of any orders given.  They were typically just local people doing horrible things to other local people, often to those they were friends and neighbors with before the war.  One guy who terrorized a particular town used to be the teacher for that town and before the war he showed no signs of being vicious.  That is disturbing but other wars have shown that repeatedly that your neighbors may one day turn on you and do horrible things beyond imagination.  This potential is within every person.  Even psychological research shows how easily people turn to brutality.  What is called “civilization” is a thin veneer. 

What is surprising is that the people interviewed who were involved in the atrocities from WWII were mostly unrepentant and said they’d do it all over again.  These people were now old, possibly grandparents and great grandparents now.  But given another opportunity they’d gladly torture their neighbors all over again.  “War is war” seemed to be the rationalization.  Nothing else mattered but kill or be killed.  These were just “normal” people.  It’s hard for Americans in particular to understand this attitude.  Unlike Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, America idealizes morality and civil rights even though we don’t always live up to those ideals.  Of course our soldiers have done horrible things as well, but we tend to look down on this type of behavior.  The US soldiers involved in the recent torture incidents are mostly repentant when interviewed.  They act as confused by their own behavior as the rest of us.  They explain it as following orders.  We all can understand that and we sadly nod our heads.  But guerilla warfare is a different entity, something more close to the behavior of serial killers.  Americans haven’t personally experience guerilla warfare since the Civil War.  The atrocities of war are what happen elsewhere… well, until 9/11 that is.

Anways, the callers from the NPR interview were mostly Americans I suppose.  And so maybe my observation applies more to Americans.  The majority of callers seemed only indirectly interested in the “evil” behavior itself.  Instead, they took issue with how “evil” was defined.  Everyone had their own definition.  It seemed extremely important that we get our definitions precisely correct and that everyone should come to a rational agreement about how we discusst it.  The process of discussing was almost more important than the subject.  Maybe it’s because these behaviors are so challenging to our normal understanding.  It’s almost as if the right definition could be found then it wold all somehow make sense, somehow seem less threatening.  We moderns define ideas and terms in the way that Christian theologians in the past categorized sins and demons.  If things are in their proper place, at least there is a sense of there being an order to the world.  It doesn’t stop the “evil”, but it turns it into an object that can be safely studied.

Review: Taxi to the Dark Side

This is one of the best documentaries I’ve watched in a long time. It made a powerful case against the Bush administration. If you could still support torture after watching this, then there is something seriously wrong with you. 

It was surprisingly balanced and nuanced. The soldiers who did the torturing were given the opportunity to speak and they weren’t painted as simply bad people. However, I was saddened to hear how they rationalized it at the time. One soldier seemed to still not understand that what he did was wrong. His only complaint was that he got into trouble for doing his job and wished someone had given more clear orders.

I’m not shocked because this is typical of human nature as has been shown by psychological research, but it certainly doesn’t give me much hope for humanity. If you set up another torture prison right now, you could find soldiers to do the same thing all over again. Humans are sad creatures.

However, a major point of the documentary is that we’re all to blame. The government lied, the media parroted the propaganda talking points, and the American public embraced it righteously. The truly sad part is where it’s pointed out that our own war of independence was fought to stop this very kind of civil rights issue. We’ve become the oppressor. Apparently, it’s time for a new revolution.

One last point of interest is the connection with CIA research. The CIA program MKULTRA studied brainwashing techniques that involved torture techniques. The CIA had been reigned in from it’s past illegal activities, but that all went out the window with 9/11. There was a culture within the government that was rooted in these past covert projects.  And don’t forget that Bush sr was originally a CIA director.

By the way, the documentary mentions that the US detainees now numbers at 83,000 since 2001.

Showcasing Sites for Writing

I was reading a blog post by Anne Whitaker (To the website! Chapter Three (at last!)) and came across these showcasing sites. 

Author’s Den

Creative Carnival

Blog Carnival

Technorati

Zimbio

I’d heard of Technorati before, but hadn’t ever looked into it.  I’m not sure that I’m all that interested in going out of my way to share my writing with the world.  Anyone who is interested in what I write about will probably (ignoring a recent exception) be able to find my blog posts just by doing a websearch.  But I could possibly enjoy a bit more interactivity than I get in my isolated blog world.  I was observing how very few of the people who visit my blog ever leave a comment… maybe one out of every few hundred visitors.  Half of the people who comment simply do so because I linked to their blog first.  So, I’ll explore these sites and see what I think of them.