What Independence?

As Americans get ready to celebrate another “Independence Day,” isn’t it time to reflect on whether or not there’s any independence left to celebrate? This video does an excellent job of explaining why things are no better now (an understatement, really) than they were prior to the American Revolution.

These are also issues that should be able to unite movements such as Occupy, Tea Party, Libertarians and anyone who values freedom. We need to stop arguing over ultimately trivial ideological/political/religious points and wake up to what’s really going on.

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Reclaiming Spiritual Symbols

An important and enlightening article, by Angela Priitchard, published in Waking Times:

Reclaiming the Spiritual Symbols that Have Been Hijacked and Used Against Us

It’s true that many esoteric symbols have been hijacked for dark and manipulative purposes. One outcome of this is that many “truthers,” conspiracy theorists and others have concluded that these symbols are intrinsically dark.

Symbols such as the cross, swastika, all-seeing eye, pentagram and many others have many meanings and uses -both positive and negative. To simply categorize a symbol as negative (or even as positive) is misleading and simplistic.

David Icke, for example, who I think makes some very good points in some of his teachings, tends to go overboard at identifying “Illuminati” symbols such as the Goddess -which, it is often pointed out, is portrayed in The Statue of Liberty, the Starbucks logo and countless other places. Even the sun itself can be considered an Illuminati symbol, as many conspiracy sites are quick to point out.

A more intelligent way to see this is that symbols have a certain power. So it’s natural that anyone seeking power -for whatever purpose- would try to make use of them. To equate the symbol with the intentions of any particular group who uses them, however, is a serious mistake. It would be akin to reading a book full of hatred and propaganda and concluding “books and words are the tools of the dark forces. We must never use words!”

The major drawback to this approach is that it means relinquishing all of these symbols and allowing them to be used for dark and manipulative purposes. Wouldn’t it be better to reclaim them and use them for our own positive and liberating purposes?

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Thom Hartmann’s View of ADHD

I read one of Thom Hartmann’s books on ADD/ADHD and attended one of his lectures and was impressed with his Hunter vs. Farmer view of the issue. It’s true that conventional society, including schools and most workplaces are designed with the “farmer” in mind. This may also relate to the idea that society was freer and healthier prior to the Agricultural Revolution.

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How the Media Fabricates Obsessions

Here’s a story that’s a perfect example of how the mainstream media attempts to fabricate an obsession and then asks why everyone is obsessed with it.

Americans Obsessed With Missing Plane

This is just one example of how our attention is directed at certain events while others are ignored or downplayed. There are also regularly scheduled mass events, such as the ever-longer holiday season, increasingly hyped smaller holidays such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day as well as the Superbowl, Olympics and the endless celebrity gossip.

The corporate media manipulates your consciousness nowadays not so much by pushing a blatant ideology but by focusing your attention on certain hyped up events so you don’t have time to think about anything else.

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Zebras, Lamarck and Teleology

A recent article on Discovery.com reveals the likely reason why zebras developed stripes. It turns out that this type of pattern causes light to reflect in a way that keeps away flies and other pests. What’s really so interesting about such revelations, however, is that they actually undermine the whole conventional understanding of evolution. To understand how this is so, we must go back to the old debate between Lamarck and Darwin regarding evolution.

Lamarck essentially believed that animals developed certain traits in response to their environment and passed these down to their offspring. This sounds straightforward enough, and completely consistent with the above example of zebras and their stripes. There’s only one problem with it -it goes against the Darwinian notion that the needs of animals has nothing to do with evolution. According to the conventional Darwinist view, traits are random. The reason that certain traits are passed on has to do with natural selection.

A common example is the length of giraffes’ necks. The Lamarckian view would be that giraffes developed long necks to reach food in higher places. The Darwinian view is that those giraffes with longer necks were more successful, causing these traits to be passed down.This is an extremely important distinction philosophically speaking. Why? The Lamarckian view, while supporting the idea of evolution, implies a certain intelligence in the natural order -perhaps even that forbidden notion of “intelligent design.” The Darwinian view implies a completely random universe where the most adaptable traits prevail due to their practicality. The Darwinian view does not attempt to explain how such traits came about -we are supposed to believe it’s all random. While certain aspects of Lamarck’s theory have been disproved, it’s very difficult to get away from his basic premise that there is a certain intention to nature.

What’s so interesting is that even trained scientists commonly speak as though the Lamarckian view was correct. Read, for example, the article about zebras. Nowhere is there a mention of natural selection. It seems that the idea of intelligence in the universe is so intuitively appealing that it’s difficult even for diehard Darwinists to escape talking this way.

Just to be clear, the Lamarckian theory does not return us to a simplistic type of Creationism. After all, if God simply created everything in a perfect manner, why is there a need to explain giraffes developing longer necks or zebras acquiring stripes? Everything would simply have been in place from the beginning. The very existence of evolution, even the intelligent design approach, implies a greater complexity than is allowed for in orthodox interpretations of monotheistic religions. The type of intelligent design assumptions that leads us to assume that animals evolve for specific reasons is actually closer to the Aristotelian idea of teleology -the notion that the universe itself contains an impulse to move towards certain ends.

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Is Snowden For Real?

Now that Edwards Snowden is making a new statement, it’s a good time to reassess his credibility. Most of the arguments about whistleblower Edward Snowden are whether he’s a hero exposing the secrets of a corrupt government or a traitor who’s a threat to national security. Others, however, wonder if he isn’t something else altogether.

There are a couple of reasons to doubt him. First of all, there is the question of why, if he’s such a threat to the establishment, he gets so much media attention. The government and mainstream media have a history of ignoring theories and people who represent a true threat rather than keeping them in the headlines.

The other issue, which will resonate more with people who typically follow the alternative/conspiracy media is that Snowden’s revelations are, when all is said and done, rather mild. Is it really surprising that the government is spying on us? So far, all of these earth shattering exposes seem to be on topics that seem controversial but are fairly out in the open. Similar charges could be made about Julian Assange, who, a while back, threatened to reveal information that would take down a major financial institution.

Of course, it’s inevitable that there would be Snowden conspiracy theories, since there are ones about everything else. So far, there’s no conclusive evidence either way. As always, though, it’s safest to question everything!

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The Past, Present and Future of Skepticism

Skepticism is widely believed to be a trait of educated and sophisticated intellectuals. Yet the word is used in a variety of ways, many of them contradictory. Let’s delve into the history of skepticism and how it both helps and limits our thinking.

A Brief History of Skepticism

The ancient Greek philosophers were the first to use the term ”skepticism.” The first acknowledge Skeptic was Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 BC), who asserted that nothing can be known for certain. This was a militant form of skepticism that has little to do with the way the word is used in contemporary parlance.

The Enlightenment period also produced several notable skeptics, such as David Hume (1711-1776), who believed that the notion of cause and effect could not be proven. In other words, just because we witness a pebble being thrown into a pond and then a ripple in the water doesn’t necessarily mean that the pebble is the cause of the ripple.

Another philosopher whose views can be called skeptical was George Berkeley, commonly known as Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753). He was known as an idealist, in the sense that we can only be sure of our ideas of the world, not what the world really is. Hence, we should be skeptical of everything our senses tell us, as we have no way of knowing that this is real in any objective way.

This is only a brief summary of a few well known skeptics in the history of philosophy. We could also bring in countless other individuals and schools, including Buddhism (especially Zen, which dispenses with dogma and encourages us to only pay attention to the present moment), Taoism, and many other Western philosophers of the last few centuries. However, my goal with this article is not to present a thorough history of skepticism, but to explore how our understanding of it has drastically changed in recent years.

The Impracticality of Skepticism

If you consider the history of skepticism, even the extremely abbreviated version of it referred to above, you will note a common feature of classical skeptics. They were skeptical of ”everything” –including the evidence of our senses. A skeptic worth his or her salt traditionally questions absolutely everything and trusts nothing.

This point of view is a difficult one to live with and it presents many obvious difficulties. For one thing, by placing everything in the category of unknowable it arguably renders all inquiries pointless. Why bother to consider the big questions of existence if nothing is knowable?

The field of philosophy that deals with knowledge is epistemology. Skeptics deal with epistemology by being comprehensive agnostics. The word agnosticism literally means absence of knowledge, not just about God but about everything.

A popular anecdote (at least among students of philosophy) concerns an argument between the aforementioned Bishop Berkeley and the writer Samuel Johnson on the issue of whether we can believe the evidence of our senses. Supposedly, Johnson struck a large stone with his foot, claiming “I refute it thus” (referring to Berkeley’s idealistic skepticism of matter).

While it’s arguable if this demonstration truly constitutes a persuasive argument, it does point out a legitimate issue. Namely, that a position of complete skepticism puts us at odds with the entire everyday world. In other words, it’s not very practical.

How Modern Rationalists Turned Skepticism on its Head

We have looked at classical skepticism and how its refusal to take anything at face value can be problematic when living in the so-called real world. However, this is not a problem for modern skeptics, as they are far more selective than their predecessors when it comes to what they question.

There’s probably no better place to look if you want an idea of what modern skeptics are like than Skeptic Magazine and its website. The site’s stated mission is “Examining extraordinary claims & promoting science.”

A typical representative of this point of view is Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, who has give a couple of popular TED Talks on the subject. For example, in his talk, “Why People Believe Weird Things,” he sets out to debunk various “weird” beliefs in things like the paranormal and UFOs.

What’s interesting about Shermer’s brand of skepticism is that it not only differs from the traditional variety but in an important manner outright contradicts it. For Shermer and his fellow believers in what might be called scientism are the very opposite of idealists such as Bishop Berkeley. Rather than doubt the evidence provided by the material world, they ask us to believe it unquestioningly.

It’s also quite telling that Shermer dismisses non-mainstream beliefs with the decidedly unscientific term “weird.” There is a clear attempt at ridiculing and intimidating people into feeling intellectually inferior if they believe in something that doesn’t pass the rigors of the modern scientific establishment. But what exactly does this have to do with skepticism?

Are Modern Skeptics Pseudo Skeptics?

As we have seen, modern skeptics are certainly not skeptics across the board. They believe quite fervently in anything that has been “proven” by “science.” I put these words in quotes because such terms can never be as precise as they pretend to be. The constant evolution of scientific theories, as well as the significant (but often ignored or downplayed) disagreements among scientists on many issues is enough to make one ”skeptical” of the myth of a monolithic Truth that has been established by a demigod known as Science.

The key point here is that modern day skeptics tend to place an almost religious like faith in the information provided by their senses. However, even this faith is dwarfed by their belief in nebulous terms such as logic, rationality and science. In actuality, this turns out to be a faith in currently popular theories. In comparison with skeptics of earlier ages, there are good reasons to consider modern skeptics pseudo-skeptics. This is ironic, given that these modern day would-be skeptics are fond of throwing around terms such as “pseudoscience” to anything that doesn’t meet their narrow criteria of truth.

Let’s take a closer look at why something as apparently rock-solid as science turns out to be anything but when we move beyond superficial definitions.

The Rise and Decline of the Scientific Method

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the scientific method can be defined as:

“A method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

Although many of the principles of modern science date back at least as far as the ancient Greeks -Aristotle in particular- the particular way of looking at the world wasn’t systematized until around the time of the Enlightenment and peaked in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What devotees of the scientific method usually ignore is that many of their most cherished assumptions began to unravel with the latest discoveries of quantum physics, which has largely disproven the notion of a materialistic, quantifiable, objective universe.

This is not the place to go into detail about the complexities of quantum physics. However, anyone who has even a basic exposure to the theories of physicists such as Niels Bohr or Werner Heisenberg (famous for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that it’s impossible to simultaneously know the position and momentum of a particle) can see that this branch of physics undermines almost everything that scientists had taken for granted for centuries.

One of the most revolutionary theories to come out of quantum physics is Many Worlds Theory, which initially sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. Many-Worlds Theory, which was first proposed by American physicist Hugh Everett, postulates that every time there are multiple possible outcomes for an event, parallel universes are created. In each of these universes, a different outcome occurs. While this is, so far, only a theory, the fact that many trained scientists take Many-Worlds Theory seriously tells us a great deal about where science is heading!

A famous example of how Many Worlds theory can work is illustrated in the well known thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat, conceived by Austrian Erwin Schrodinger. In this experiment, an imaginary cat is in danger of being killed by a radioactive gas. Schrodinger claimed that the cat is, in a sense, both dead and alive, depending on a random outcome. While some may object that Schrodinger’s Cat is more of a philosophical question than a scientific experiment, it’s another example of how leading edge physics is moving in the direction of metaphysics. Others have gone even further, equating quantum physics with spirituality and mysticism. Books such as The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav and The Holographic Universe, by Michael Talbot argue that the latest discoveries in quantum physics have implications that are consistent with mysticism.

We can see how such quantum inquiries undermine the basis for the scientific method as conceived by 18th, 19th and 20th century materialists. The latter, after all, relies on a Newtonian, atomistic universe where there is only one truth, not an infinite number of them.

Quantum Skepticism

From the standpoint of this article, what’s interesting about quantum physics is that it actually brings us full circle –back to the roots of skepticism. One of the implications of quantum physics is that matter and the physical world isn’t actually “real” at all -at least not the way we have traditionally assumed it to be. This returns us not to the materialistic skepticism of Skeptic Magazine, but to the truer skepticism of Hume and Berkeley, as well as their many predecessors.

This isn’t to say that the science of the future will result in a philosophy of skepticism. More likely, there will be more connections made between science, philosophy and spirituality. However, philosophers mystics and spiritual teachers have always taught people to be skeptical of the world as it appears to be. One of the most famous examples of this is the metaphor used by Plato, where he likens the world of our senses to watching shadows on the wall of a cave. A contemporary metaphor that has similar implications is that we are living in the “matrix.”

http://vectors.umwblogs.org/2012/02/16/the-matrix-a-complex-modern-adaptation-of-platos-allegory-of-the-cave/

Postmodernism: Another Manifestation of True Skepticism?

In a very different way, postmodernism is another force that is bringing us back to the skepticism of earlier ages. While postmodernism, almost by definition, is extremely difficult to define, it is characterized by a radical subjectivism and a belief that everything is open to interpretation.

A postmodernist, for example, might argue that a work of literature or even a philosophical doctrine has no objective or universal meaning. Its meaning depends on the conditioning, psychology, state of mind (and countless other variables) of the reader or observer. This brings to mind the Observer Effect in physics, which states that the fact of observing a phenomenon will cause a change.

Postmodernism is naturally skeptical of any single way of explaining or defining anything.

Reconciling Skepticism With Aristotle

Some fear that both postmodernism and interpretations of quantum physics such as Many Worlds Theory essentially turn our reality into a chaotic, unknowable place, perhaps something out of Alice and Wonderland. To those who worship the rational mind, including our modern pseudo-skeptics, it’s an unforgivable sin to declare the world unknowable, irrational and, worst of all, magical.

But this skeptical way of looking at the world doesn’t have to reduce ”everything” to chaos. Even if there are “many worlds,” that doesn’t mean they all exist simultaneously, at the same time and ”in the same respects” (keep that phrase in mind as you read the following passages). In fact, there may actually be a way to reconcile the most farfetched implications of quantum physics with Aristotle’s Law of Non-contradiction.

There are several versions of this law. In different passages in his Metaphysics, Aristotle states:

It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.”

Opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time.”

Aristotle’s Metaphysics is extremely complex and can, ironically, be interpreted in many ways. However, this law, along with the Law of Identity, which states, “each thing is the same with itself and different from another” can be seen as forming the bedrock of Western civilization.

How can such apparently logical metaphysical laws be reconciled with outlandish theories of mysticism, multiple worlds or postmodernist relativism? We must go back to Aristotle’s qualification when he says ”…in the same respect.” This is quite vague and, once again, open to interpretation, but it’s also helpful. Although Aristotle was probably not thinking about multiple worlds (though who knows?) when he said this, we can apply it here.

For even if there are infinite truths, worlds and possibilities and no singular, objective reality, each of these is still distinct and valid within certain parameters.
We might use the analogy of a game, whether it be football (European or American), baseball or chess. In a game of chess, for instance, it’s perfectly valid to say that ”a bishop can only move diagonally.” This is not an objective truth, in that it has no meaning outside the rules of chess. However, it ”is” objectively true in every game of chess that conforms to the traditional rules.

So, applying Aristotle’s Law of Non-contradiction, we might say “every piece in a game must move according to the rules agreed upon by the players for the duration of the game.” This does not necessarily imply that there is only one game -only that each game imposes its own reality on the players while its being played.

Some people have created new variations of chess. There are also countless other games that use different pieces and have completely different rules. We might compare each game to a world or dimension. It gets more complicated when you have different worlds interacting with one another. This might account for the apparent chaos of the postmodern age -it’s getting increasingly difficult for people to agree which world or game we’re supposed to be playing.

The Future of Skepticism

Let’s conclude this survey of skepticism by considering what the future is likely to bring. My main focus thus far has been contrasting the traditional, more comprehensive skepticism of philosophers from ancient times to the 18th century with the pseudo-skepticism of contemporary materialists.

Though we can be influenced by the ideas and theories of ages past, we can never return to them. Society and knowledge are constantly evolving and the same is true of philosophical theories. If quantum physics undermines the simplistic materialism of modern skeptics, it also ultimately subverts even the idealism of Plato or the intellectual skepticism of Bishop Berkeley.

Plato, for example, cautioned against taking the material world literally, as he saw it as a mere reflection of the higher world of ideas or forms. Yet such a neat classification cannot survey something like Many-Worlds Theory, where the possibilities are literally limitless. Plato naively believed in things like a perfect, utopian society (which he describes in The Republic). A more quantum approach to politics would probably more closely resemble what the late Robert Nozick described in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where many different types of political and social arrangements co-exist.

Similarly, the skepticism of Berkeley and Hume is a kind of disembodied philosophy that never gets beyond mental conjecture. This is why Samuel Johnson was provoked into introducing something as concrete as a rock to bring Berkeley back down to earth. Today’s quantum physicists, while they enjoy creating thought experiments like Schrodinger’s Cat, are also busy in the laboratory actually proving that their theories have a scientific basis.

The skepticism of the future is likely to morph into something that is distinct from either religious or scientific dogmatism. It is more likely to become a playful form of skepticism that incorporates the postmodern notion that truth can have many interpretations.

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Alternative Media or Controlled Opposition?

Are shows like The Daily Show, Colbert Report and Real Time With Bill Maher really as alternative as people like to believe? Or do they play the part of “controlled opposition” -actually serving the forces they pretend to subvert? I don’t have the final answer, but it’s a question worth contemplating.

Political satire plays an interesting role in modern culture. It gives a mostly younger, well educated and liberal audience a chance to laugh at things like war, injustice, environmental issues and the violation of civil liberties. My point is not that these issues are too serious to be joked about. Laughter can always be therapeutic, and the notion that some subjects are taboo is itself one that inhibits freedom. But can satire sometimes be used as a way to discourage real resistance or the creation of a truly new paradigm?

In a recent essay in The New Yorker, author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that Stewart, Colbert, Saturday Night Live and the like are part of “the institutionalization of satire.” In this essay, he quotes another writer, Jonathan Coe, as saying, “Laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest…it actually replaces protest.”

I don’t know if I’d go that far –laughter is certainly better than mindless acquiescence. Yet it’s also easy to see how taking the position of snickering at the stupidity of mass culture, political leaders and other absurdities can indeed take the place of more substantial action.

If you really analyze what the most popular American political satirists are focusing on, you’ll see that a lot of it has more to do with matters of culture, education and even geography than ideology. This is especially apparent in the supercilious attitude of Bill Maher as he recounts the latest faux pas made by Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. A lot of this ends up being a well educated, urban and mostly coastal (East or West) audience having a laugh at the expense of Middle Americans who shop at Walmart and watch Fox News.

In other words, a lot of the appeal of this type of satire (and all satire, perhaps) is in experiencing a rush of cultural elitism, a shared sense of being part of the hip crowd. So what’s wrong with that? We could criticize cultural elitism from an ethical, sociological or class struggle point of view, but that’s not my intention here. My point is that these contemporary political satirists are essentially playing a mind game on their fans. They are flattering their audience into a state of
appeasement and self-satisfaction.

It’s also crucial to remember that these high profile satirists are part and parcel of the American mainstream media, as much as they like to portray themselves as “alternative.” If you doubt this, consider that Jon Stewart’s annual salary is currently $30 million. How many of his “Occupy” fans who protest the bonuses of CEOs even know this?

If you need any evidence of where shows like The Daily Show Ultimately stand, consider a recent interview Stewart did with Erik Prince, founder of notorious private security company Blackwater and author of a new book (the title says it all) Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.

Stewart made a half-hearted attempt to appear like he was asking some tough questions, but it was quite apparent that the whole interview was a chance for Prince to redeem Blackwater’s image in the public eye. Watch the video below to see what Abby Martin (someone who does a real alternative news show called Breaking the Set) has to say about Stewart’s interview.

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, along with the Fake News segment on Saturday Night Live can be fun to watch, and they do sometimes provide some much-needed humorous break from the often bleak world of current events. Some of their ironic observations might even occasionally expose something significant about how the power structure operates. But don’t mistake them for anything truly alternative.

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Seeing the Fnords in American Psychosis

An article recently published on the Adbusters site, American Psychosis, by Chris Hedges, has been widely shared and has apparently struck a chord with many readers. After reading it, I can see why, though my own feelings about it are ambivalent.

A Few Thoughts About Adbusters Itself

I used to occasionally buy Adbusters -the print publication- and found it interesting and thought provoking. At the same time, I was struck by the paradox of having to pay $7 for a magazine that purports to be about exposing and undermining the capitalist system. I’m not sure what the current newsstand price is, but I see from their website that an annual subscription costs $45 per year for 6 issues, which comes to a little over $7 per issue. While the magazine is well designed, and it no doubt costs a lot to publish, it’s also true that readers who have that kind of disposable income to spend on a magazine nowadays aren’t in too much economic distress.

This may seem like a digression, but not necessarily. The point is that the main audience for AdBusters and most of those who participate in discussions about modern American capitalism are doing so from the position of insiders rather than outsiders. This doesn’t refute their point of view, but it suggests that they are people who are bored by or who feel intellectually superior to the masses rather than those who are truly victimized by the system.

A Diatribe Against Modern American Capitalism

Unless you are part of that (quasi-mythical?) demographic who mindlessly embraces reality TV, junk food, Walmart and American foreign policy, your instincts (like mine) are probably going to tell you that this article is on target in many ways. It taps into a strong aesthetic and moral inclination to react with distaste at the vulgarity, superficiality and materialism of modern culture. Before I start to regurgitate what Chris Hedges is saying, I should back up a few steps.

Hedges is picking on some very obvious targets in this article and making some very broad generalizations. The problem with this kind of process is that it tends to lead to lazy thinking and a tendency to view the world in a narrow, prejudiced manner.

Seeing the Fnords

If you’re not familiar with fnords, it’s an expression coined by Robert Anton Wilson and used in the underground classic The Illuminatus Trilogy. The word doesn’t have a precise meaning, but it indicates a form of deceptive propaganda hidden in messages. In the novel, awakened individuals were able to “see the fnords” when reading newspapers. I would suggest that you also need this ability when reading radical and countercultural propaganda such as the American Psychosis article.

I am not going to deconstruct this article paragraph by paragraph, but consider just one example of what I consider to be over-generalized thinking and propaganda. Hedges compares the behavior of corporate bankers to ruthless contestants on reality shows who will do anything to get ahead. This, apparently, is symptomatic of our whole culture as we now believe that the objective is to get ahead or become rich and famous at any cost. As Hedges puts it,

“Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.”

Except, is this really true?

My understanding of “seeing the fnords” is to critically examine every word and idea and look for places where the writer or speaker is lulling us into an ideological trance of some kind.

Popular Culture: It’s Not That Simple

I am hardly an expert on reality TV. At the moment I don’t even own a television and only watch programs on sites owned by capitalist scum like Netflix and Hulu. But I’ve watched enough samples of reality TV as well as browsed enough online stories and comments to get a general idea of what it’s all about. And while I can see how one could conclude that it’s all about greed, selfishness and dog-eat-dog -especially when you have shows with names like Survivor- it’s really a lot more complex.

What I observe in modern culture today is a confusing potpourri of contradictory values, emotions and behaviors. I see greed, jealousy, family values, sentimentality, altruism, kindness, ambition, lust, selfishness and the team spirit all being exhibited and abandoned in turn (or, more accurately, at random). Is this a sign of a healthy culture? Perhaps not. But it’s not quite as simple as the Chris Hedges of the world portray it.

I invite you to look at popular culture -reality shows, regular programs (dramas, comedies, action), movies, music and so forth with the objective eyes of a social psychologist or anthropologist. Try to identify the particular emotions and values being portrayed at any given moment.

You can find almost anything you look for. For example, on a typical reality show, you will indeed see the ruthless and manipulative characters getting ahead. But you will also notice that the other characters, and most of the audience despises rather than admires these characters. Perhaps they also secretly admire their ambition, but this is where it all gets more complex. The point is, these shows are not simply putting the greediest and most selfish people on a pedestal.

Reality vs Illusion and the Sin of Magical Thinking

Another thing that Hedges despises about our culture is the presence of “magical thinking,” or the belief that having a positive attitude can negate the reality of tangible problems. This is typical of the materialist Old Left point of view (not materialist as pro-capitalist, but in the Marxist sense of dialectical materialism ). We are supposed to embrace the hard truth of “reality” and not escape into the corrupt bourgeois world of romantic illusions. To quote Hedges once again,

“…mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking.”

What, however, is Hedges and others who share this view, suggesting as an alternative? That we focus entirely on injustice and what’s wrong with the world? I understand that this is coming from the traditional radical perspective that advocates rising up in righteous anger and overthrowing the corrupt system. I can totally understand these sentiments, but at the same time, it’s hard to see how coming out against miracles, inner strength and having faith in ourselves is subversive to the causes of freedom and justice.

Indeed, if you look at the most successful resistance campaigns in recent history, such as those organized by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., (as well as the recently deceased Nelson Mandela), they were grounded in faith and a belief in self-empowerment. Granted, these movements were not advocating individualism or capitalism, but neither were they about the kind of austere, anti-spiritual intellectualism displayed in this article. Again, things are complex and the answer is probably not going to be found in simply embracing or condemning Theory X or Y.

I would maintain that despite its poor reputation in intellectual circles that magical thinking is, overall, a good thing. It frees us from the tyranny of believing in a static, inevitable reality. Notice where Hedges courageous commitment to “reality” leads him –to a place of unbridled pessimism. His final, depressing line, is “The goal will become the ability to endure.”

One could say that Hedges is following in the noble tradition of radicals such as George Orwell, who paints a completely dismal picture of the future, supposedly as a cautionary measure. The problem, however, is that doing such a skillful job of illustrating how miserable things are, and how much worse they will soon become, is that it’s all too easy to start to really believe it. We may start off saying, “If we don’t change our course, then all is lost,” and end up only repeating the “all is lost” part.

A Quantum, Postmodern Way to Look at Popular Culture

There are many ways to view or respond to popular culture. We can simply lap it up without questioning or analyzing it. We can attack it from the radical perspective of someone like Chris Hedges. We can take an even darker, more conspiratorial view and imagine who is really behind it all -perhaps the Illuminati or negative ETs who want to enslave humanity. I propose, however, that there is another alternative still -to look at it from a perspective that might be called quantum, postmodern or multidimensional.

As noted, what’s really distinctive about contemporary culture is the often contradictory number of values it seems to present. This goes beyond reality TV, of course, and includes our whole confusing global culture. The internet itself is both a metaphor for this and an example of it. There’s no way to define what the internet stands for, as you can find everything on it, from mindless consumerism to racism to anarchism to new age channeling to anything else you can imagine.

How does postmodernism fit into this mix? While there are many ways to interprets postmodernism, one of its basic tenets is that everything comes down to interpretation and subjectivity. This can be criticized as an amoral or pointless way to look at life, but it can also be seen as a freedom from dogma or the need to interpret anything in a specific manner.

While some object to the use of the word “quantum” in modern new age parlance, I believe that the discoveries of quantum physics are indeed relevant to our culture as well as to our physical world. The idea that particles exist as potentialities that can express themselves in a multitude of ways is a perfect metaphor for human freedom. It’s similar to what the existentialists, in their own language, were saying a century ago. There is also the “quantum” truth that the observer influences the behavior of a particle.

The belief that there is not one, but many parallel worlds is something that many quantum physicists (as well as philosophers and mystics) believe. The Many Worlds Theory, for example, supposes that an entire world may exist for every possibility. This is another potentially liberating idea, one that frees us from having a single, unalterable destiny.

When we apply some of the notions of postmodernism and quantum physics to culture, we realize that we aren’t locked into seeing things in a particular way. We are free to watch what we want, buy what we want or to boycott all of it if we prefer. Yet it’s not an all or nothing proposition -unless we choose to embrace “all of it” (if that’s even possible) or “none of it” (equally difficult nowadays).

We also don’t have to use things -whether objects or cultural products such as TV shows, movies or songs- in the way the creator or producer intended. We can remake and reinterpret them. So even if there is a sinister conspiracy behind something, there is always the possibility of subverting it for a completely different end.

This type of thinking is what I originally found interesting about AdBusters -the way someone could take an insipid advertisement and subvert it. Banksy has become famous for doing such things on a large scale. As an aside, it is perhaps instructive to note that even Banksy has appeared to have “sold out” recently.
Like AdBusters itself, it seems to be almost impossible to effectively subvert the capitalist machine without becoming a part of it. This may be telling us something important about the nature of reality, and how it simply doesn’t support rigid ideologies in the long run.

Perhaps the lesson we can learn from it all is that it is up to us to take away the lessons and values from popular culture (and everything else) that we choose. We can also chose to focus upon that which brings us the most meaning, happiness, value or coherence. You can do this almost everywhere now. Even the audience for the most banal reality show can choose to root for the nicest character or the meanest. Of course, we also have the option of not watching the show at all.

It may very well turn out that, in the final analysis, that what is known as magical thinking turns out to be the most practical. If the alternative is a world where all we can hope for is to endure, I certainly hope that this is the case.

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Halloween Costumes and the Appeal of Moral Outrage

This past Halloween, the media was full of stories of people, both celebrities and everyday people, who managed to provoke outrage with their choice of costumes. There was Julianne Hough with her blackface costume. Then there were a pair of outrageous costume faux pas that went viral online. One was a depiction of a Boston Marathon bombing victim. The other, from England, was two women dressing up as the Twin Towers, complete with fire, planes and falling bodies.

To help keep people in line, Salon.com even published a list of the 10 Most Offensive Halloween Costumes Ever. This articles was full of self-righteous warnings about what constitutes poor taste or a politically incorrect costume.

For a long time, it was mainly conservative, religious types who objected to the pagan, occult or supposedly satanic connotations of Halloween. Now the liberals and moderates are out in full force cracking down on insensitivity and tastelessness. Except some of the people objecting the loudest aren’t actually moderates, liberals or conservatives -they are foaming-at-the-mouth crackpots, looking for a target at which to spit their venom.

As a recent article on Opposing Views points out, the woman who portrayed the Boston Bombing victim has not only been harshly criticized, she has received death threats and people threatening to rape her. What is going on here? While the fact that some of these critics are unbalanced does not automatically discredit all of them, to me it suggests something fundamental about the nature of moral outrage. I’m talking specifically about outrage expressed towards relatively harmless, symbolic issues here, not actual violence or terrorism.

Some people have a sick sense of humor, and no doubt certain costumes cross the line when it comes to good taste and sensitivity. If people are offended by this kind of behavior, they have every right to express their opinions. Yet the kind of outbursts we have seen against these costumes seems way out of proportion to the behavior.

It seems that there is a whole subculture of moral outrage nowadays, whose denizens lie in wait for the next transgression so they can pounce. Moral outrage, whether it’s expressed by religious fundamentalists, liberal ideologues or simply highly sensitive types of no particular political persuasion seems to be a kind of catharsis for some people. It gives them an excuse to vent and to express a sense of superiority.

The person who expresses moral outrage is implicitly holding him or herself above the transgressor/sinner. It’s as though people living in a pristine Utopia have been invaded by barbarians and are shocked that such primitive types exist. People who are prone to outbursts of moral outrage also tend to make dramatic statements such as “What is the world coming to?” or “There’s no hope for humanity if…”

If there is any point at all to this rant, it’s that moral outrage -at least when directed against something as ultimately trivial as a Halloween costume- is melodramatic and misguided. It also implies a climate of intolerance where nothing must be done that risks offending anybody. By this criteria, controversial works of art of any kind could be banned.

In a way, expressions of tastelessness and moral outrage feed upon each other. Let’s face it -if you wear a costume that mocks large scale tragedies, you must be seeking attention on some level. Similarly, without such incidents, those who find catharsis in publicly condemning their moral inferiors would have to direct their frustrations elsewhere.

In conclusion, it’s not my intention to defend or attack anyone’s choice of Halloween costume. Nor do I think that a costume qualifies as a political statement or a moral point of view. They are simply attempts to have a good time, even if this sometimes means showing a lack of sensitivity for public mores. If such costumes don’t contribute to the betterment of society, neither does moral outrage condemning them.

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