Wise Words From An Old Friend

Arguing with ignorance is like playing chess with a pigeon. You could be the world’s best chess player, but the pigeon is still going to knock all the pieces over, shit on the board, and dance around triumphantly.

I don’t know how true this is of ignorance in general, but it’s certainly a fair description of arguing with proud, willful, immovable ignorance.

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Some Thoughts on Fantasy

So, as part of the discussion on my previous post, n8chz has directed my attention towards a discussion going on the blog the Hipcrime Vocab . This post (which is well worth the read) asks the question: given all of the problems that (the application of) technology has caused, Why must positive depictions of the future always be dependent upon some sort of new technology?

My first inclination upon hearing this question asked was mundane: science fiction tends to be written by scientists or science enthusiasts, and this subculture tends, of necessity, to be very positive about Humans’ abilities to solve problems through the diligent application of wits. But the second, deeper reason, I think, is that technologies, once having been invented, cannot easily be un-invented*. Thus, the only feasible way through the problems of technological civilization is out the other side**. Some Science Fiction writers err in thinking that technology alone would make a better world possible, but ultimately, any vision of the future that doesn’t involve huge numbers of people dying must be technological in nature; there is no chance of returning to pastoralism, and frankly, the overwhelming majority of moderns–even the ones who might think otherwise–wouldn’t actually want to if they thought about it in any great detail***.

But then it occurred to me that this impulse to escape to a romanticized vision of a pre-industrial world (rather than trying to envision a better future for the one we’ve got) already has an outlet: Fantasy literature. 

When you think about it, it’s actually kind of odd that science fiction and fantasy should so often be grouped together on bookstore shelves. It is true that both of them involve imaginary departures, be they large of small, from the mundane world of the here and now. But historically, the two genres in fact arise from two diametrically opposed ideological forces: science fiction from the technological enthusiasm arising from the industrial and technological revolutions, and fantasy from 19th century romanticism, which was itself a social reaction to the “disenchantment of the world” by these same revolutions. Needless to say, there have been no shortage of fantasy worlds in popular culture over the last fifteen years or so, and has all-but-replaced the mainstream science fiction which was so popular during the 1990s. Indeed, I would say that it first entered it’s present position in mainstream culture around 2001, with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. By coincidence, this was also around the same time that the technology bubble of the 1990s burst, the economy started to slow down, and the war on terrorism started.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m as much of a fan of fantasy as the next person. But I have yet to be convinced that it can offer anything but escapism.

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*There are, of course, a huge number of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels wherein modern technology has been lost due to cataclysm, but no one seriously asserts these as “positive’ depictions.

**A positive alternative, I suppose, could be to have a world with no technology that hasn’t already been invented, but in which the societal machinery has been reconfigured into a more-Utopian configuration, but even that would require some sort of catalyst.

***Here’s a fun game you can play by yourself, it’s: Try to count the number of times you would have died if it weren’t for modern medicine.

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An Heretical Question

For the last several weeks I’ve been thinking about a question which I’m almost afraid to ask, because if taken too literally, it could sound like I’m advocating restrictions on freedom of inquiry. Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting question, so I’m going to ask it here anyways.
So here goes:
*ahem*

Whereas technology exerts and enormous influence on culture to the point of being one of the major driving forces of history, and

whereas these influences are not always positive (or, at least, not always desired), and

whereas a technology, once having been invented, cannot be un-invented, and

whereas the dissemination of new technologies, unlike other major driving forces of history, is almost entirely under Human control,

why should there not be some process in place for determining, based on the desirability of the likely effects of a new technology upon society, whether or not the new technology should be disseminated?

Now, I must admit, I feel a little bit dirty even for asking this question; indeed, it seems almost heretical, particularly to someone of my age group and scientific background: “information wants to be free” and all of that. But let’s at least entertain this idea as a thought experiment: right now, the unwritten rule is, essentially, that any new technology upon which someone can turn a profit gets spread around. But given that any new technology can have profound effects upon a society, ranging well-beyond what its inventor intended or what it was marketed for, and given that we all have to live in this society whatever the consequences, is it not right, based on the principles of democracy, that we should get to have some say over the process? Would this be any worse than living in a perpetual series of randomly-selected social experiments with no controls?

Indeed, even hardened free marketeers agree, whether consciously or otherwise, that the line needs to be drawn somewhere. Few and far between, mercifully, are those who think that you should be able to walk into any corner drugstore and stock up on nuclear weapons*. So if we are agreed that avoiding an otherwise-statistically certain nuclear holocaust is worth a little regulation, how about an environmental catastrophe? Why should we not, after all, use legislation to forbid the worst of the greenhouse gas emitting technologies? Phase out engines below a certain degree of efficiency and mandate the replacement of carbon-based power plants. This one attracts a lot more controversy than the first, although not deservedly so. And of course, if you’re going to guard against nuclear and environmental catastrophes, biological catastrophes certainly seem like fair game as well. Antibiotics should be rationed, so as to prevent the evolution of “superbugs.” So far, I don’t think I’ve said anything that any reasonable person should find particularly outrageous.

Problems only really start to emerge once we start to widen the circle a bit; looking beyond outcomes which are strictly and almost certainly catastrophic to those which are merely undesirable. Here, the question naturally becomes: undesirable to whom? And here is where the waters start to become muddied, because things like cultural value systems and entrenched power structures enter into the equation in a much more major way**. Imagine, for example, if there had been some sort of a board in place in the United States to review new inventions and give them the stamp of legislative approval based on their projected cultural impact during the early 1960s; now, given the likely composition of this board (namely: men), how likely do you suppose that they would be to allow the dissemination of the combined oral contraceptive pill when it came across their desk? It certainly wouldn’t have been a sure thing. And can you imagine what the last 50 years would have been like without the sexual revolution? Now, of course, it’s entirely possible that the pill could have passed anyways, if it’s manufacturer had put enough pressure on the legislative process–which, of course, only highlights another of the system’s flaws.

Of course, all of this overlooks one key point: the fact that, in most cases, it is impossible or at least very difficult to accurately predict all of the societal ramifications of new technologies. As such, debates over any new technology would come to be dominated by wild speculation, probably of the most sensational nature.

All in all then, the idea is a bad one; while it is reasonable in the most extreme (i.e., likely catastrophic) cases, there’s just too much that could go wrong with it. If we lived in a perfect society where everyone could have roughly the same amount of say in determining what our culture’s “values” were, and if there were some empirically verifiable method for predicting the likely outcomes of introducing any given new technology, and if the whole thing was run by people who were utterly incorruptable, then it might be different, but in any society populated by Humans, it’s probably best to leave the boundary strictly at things like “preventing nuclear annihilation” or “stopping global warming.”

Science, as Isaac Asimov noted, may be gathering knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom, but there seems to be very little on the regulatory end that can be done to mitigate that.

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*Although I don’t want to give the NRA any ideas for their next policy initiative.

**Not that they didn’t enter into it in the first place, mind you. The wealth of the petroleum industry is by far the largest reason why so little action has been taken on climate change.

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The Moderate Sort of Racist Misogyny.

Q: How many Liberals does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Look guys, I know we promised change during the election, but the situation on the ground is such that…

So here’s the Liberal Party in a nutshell. Now, the article refers specifically to the Liberal Party of Quebec, rather than its federal equivalent, but there’s a pretty significant amount of cross-pollination between the two, and the criticism still applies.

For context:  A few months ago, the then-governing Parti Québecois entered an election campaign running on its proposed “Quebec Charter of Values.” The values embodied were nominally those of secularism, but in practice, the charter was rightly decried as xenophobic; it banned all public employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols (that is: turbans, hijabs, or kippahs, but not, presumably, crucifix pendants) as well as mandating that everyone have their faces uncovered when receiving any sort of public service. Notably, for a secular charter, it was surprisingly silent on the issue of the giant crucifix in Quebec’s legislature, on the grounds an icon of Jesus Christ been sacrificed in penance for the sins of mankind is somehow not a religious symbol*. In other words, the charter was far more about sticking it to unpopular minorities (Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs) then it was about the (laudable) goal of ensuring the religious neutrality of the Provincial Government.

Anyways, the Parti Quebecois went on to lose the election (for a variety of reasons, mostly unrelated to the Charter), and was replaced in government by the Liberal Party.

But now, of course, the Charter is back. But don’t worry everyone! It’s a moderate version!

Vallee said her legislation would allow all religious symbols but place limits on the burka, and the niqab, which cover a woman’s face, and the chador, a long veil which covers the hair and arms and is seen as a symbol of religious oppression

So in other words, they’re not going to stick it to all unpopular religious minorities anymore; oh no. Now it’s been trimmed down so that it only sticks it to really unpopular religious minorities. And only the women, so it’s OK!**

This is precisely what I hate about the political moderation.

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*Considering that fundamentalist Christianity is currently by far the biggest threat to secularism in just about every jurisdiction in North America, this is a profound oversight.

**On a side note, I just love the logic here: these are “symbols of religious oppression” of women, so naturally women will automatically become less oppressed once we start policing what they’re allowed to wear in public. No doubt, denying them government services will help them assimilate into mainstream society too! There’s simply no way of interpreting this policy except as a scrap of red meat being thrown to xenophobes.

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Of Moral Ambiguity

There’s probably a lot of moral ambiguity in the world; at least, I keep hearing about how much there is. But there seems to be a hell of a lot more in the way of assholes claiming that there’s moral ambiguity where there isn’t, in order to mask their own guilt.

Take, for example, police officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. last month. Eye witness testimony and forensic evidence all agree: Mike Brown was shot multiple times from a distance of thirty-five feet while in the process of surrendering. This being the case, it is clear that his killer, Darren Wilson, should at the very least be put on trial.

But of course, police solidarity and petty, racist tribalism among certain white Americans can’t allow that. And so the police took it upon themselves to release video of Brown allegedly committing petty theft before his murder*: even the New York Times took it upon themselves to declare that the victim “was no angel”–as if there is now or ever has been a single person on Earth who was, or as if the theft of $5 worth of merchandise was sufficient cause to shoot an unarmed teenager multiple times from a distance. What purpose does this video serve other than to kick up false clouds of moral ambiguity to obscure the sight of a clearly evil act? To allow those with an emotional interest in Darren Wilson getting away with it to twiddle their thumbs and equivocate, and to make solemn pronouncements about how “things aren’t black and white?”

Now please don’t misconstrue; I’m not saying that there isn’t moral ambiguity when it comes to people: as I have said, no one is an angel, and by the same token, no one is a devil either, and I have yet to meet anyone with no redeeming features**. But it is very, very rare that a seemingly evil act can genuinely be recontextualized into a good or morally neutral one, and most of the times when you hear it said, it’s a self-serving lie.

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*There, I said it.

**Even the biggest asshole I’ve ever met doted on his cats like royalty.

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Giving Stephen Harper Too Much Credit

Ever since Stephen Harper was first elected in 2006, there has been an endless conversation going on in Canada’s media and academic institutions about the ideological predispositions of his government. Is he a genuine fundamentalist, or is he just playing one to appease his base? How are his policies rooted in the traditions of Albertan conservatism? Does he oppose action on climate change because he rejects the science or because he is hostile to the idea of government intervention in the economy? And so on.

Presumably, the people who engage in such speculation are doing so in the hopes that, if they can pin down his intellectual history, it can help to create a narrative for how his government operates. But I have come to believe that all of this speculation is ultimately worthless, in that it assumes that there is a coherent, ideological rationale behind his policies.

What all such discussions overlook is one key fact: Stephen Harper (and by extension his government) is–first, last, and only–a creature of the oil and gas industry. A spiteful, petty, resentful creature–but a creature nonetheless. Once you just accept this fact, all discussion of his ideology becomes immaterial; everything he claims he believes in is nothing more than a smokescreen*.

Take, for example, two news items in the last week.

In the first, Harper’s Finance Minister, Joe Oliver, has criticized the government of Nova Scotia for banning fracking in its territory.  Now, of course, natural resources are a matter of provincial jurisdiction in Canada, and Joe Oliver isn’t a citizen of Nova Scotia, so this can’t even be said to affect him personally. So why would a high-ranking federal minister be making a public statement about something which is so blatantly none of his business? Especially considering that when the Harper regime was first elected in 2006, it ran on opposition to the Kyoto protocol on the grounds that it “touches on provincial jurisdiction, without consulting the provinces.”

Now, as you can see, in one case,  Harper’s Conservatives think provincial jurisdiction is sacrosanct (when it helps the oil industry); in the other case, Harper’s Conservatives feel like telling the provinces what to do (when their actions hurt the oil industry). Clearly, no hemming-and-hawing about Harper’s opinion on federalism is going to be helpful here: the government will spin on a dime when the oil industry’s profits are at stake.

In the second, more critical item, Harper has, without consultation, signed a “free trade” deal with the People’s Republic of China. Among other things, this deal serves to lock-in Harper’s environmental deregulations for the next 31 years, by allowing state-owned Chinese companies to sue for lost revenue. In other words, Harper, a right-wing Conservative Prime Minister, has abrogated Canadian sovereignty to China, a Communist state, to the benefit (surprise, surprise) of the oil patch. There is simply no way to justify such behaviour in terms of any sort of coherent ideology–especially not those generally ascribed to Harper: nationalism and economic libertarianism.

But it’s not just Harper’s hypocrisies which make sense when you adopt this model: it, and it alone, explains virtually everything that his government has done for the last eight years, from the constant drive for more free trade deals, to the harassment of environmentalists, to the gutting of scientific research, to the rollback of First Nations’ sovereignty, even to his obsessive quest to strengthen the Canadian claim to the arctic by means of ridiculous photo-ops of him searching for the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror**.

So why isn’t this the dominant narrative behind Harper’s actions? Well, I believe that when you’re an intellectual, there’s always the temptation to perceive everything in terms of intellectual history unfolding itself before your eyes. But if you do this, you run the risk of taking bullshit at face value and ignoring baser, more materialistic considerations. So it has been in the case of Harper. Commentators trying to puzzle out some grand system of beliefs which drive the man and his government are giving him way too much credit; he’s a shill, and nothing more.

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*Although, you could say with a fair degree of accuracy that this puts him in with the finest intellectual traditions of Libertarianism.

**To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea, as it were.

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Of History and Petty Tribalism

As you know, I’m a bit of a recovering nationalist. There was a time (when I was approximately 14 years old or so) when I believed that Canada could do no wrong, neither in the present, nor in history. Oh, there were a few slip-ups, I might acknowledge: the Residential Schools chief among them, but be we were very sorry for that, and in any case, it was mostly the churches’ fault. This is actually a pretty productive (I’m not going to say “good”) attitude to have when you are a high school student, from an academic perspective. It is, of course, the attitude that whoever drafted the curriculum wants you to have*. But it has the effect of warping your understanding of the world. It is difficult to break-out of the trap, but it can be done, and I will explain how:

If you want to learn the lessons of history, there is one very critical fact that you must first accept: Your ancestors, countrymen, or predecessors were not on the morally correct side of every issue.

Once you accept this–once you acknowledge that your great grandfather might have been a racist asshole, or that some of your nation’s wars might have been criminal enterprises, or even that your ideological or religious fellow travellers may have committed some very dubious acts in the name of their stated ideals–your view of the world will become vastly simpler and far more accurate. You will able to examine context which you had previously ignored for being inconvenient, and you will able to dispose of all of those ridiculous ideological scaffolds that you have built-up in your imagination to justify or explain-away those things which do not fit neatly into your worldview.

It goes without saying that you will have a better picture of the past; but history is continuous, so it will also give you a more accurate view of the present, and very likely of the future as well, at least in a general sense. Somewhat less obviously: you will also become a better person.

Let me justify this last claim. If you do not have a well-defined concept of yourself as an individual, then you will most likely strongly associate yourself with one or more group identities, if only as a means of understanding who you are. Nation and religion are always popular for this purpose, but any old identity will do**. You will naturally tend to claim the virtues and accomplishments of this group as your own, whilst minimizing or denying their vices***. This, of course, is what motivates a distorted view of history. But breaking yourself of the idea that your forebears were tautologically on the side of the angels can be a first step in breaking yourself of the idea that present members of your group are tautologically on the side of the angels. And then you will have no choice but to seek out your own virtues.

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*If you believe that your country doesn’t teach even a little bit of propaganda in its history classrooms, then I am very sorry but you have probably inhaled a lethal dose of it.

**There are a large number of people, in fact, who associate themselves with that most paradoxical of group identities: “Individualist.”

***A good example of this phenomenon in action, at the time of writing, is the white Americans rallying around Darren Wilson, the cop who killed an unarmed black teenager in Missouri. They support him because acknowledging the racism of the act hurts their group identity.

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