Will the War on Terror Ever End?

Wars are fought to be won. Yet the War on Terror feels immortal. A whole generation has come of age since 9/11, yet still no end can be seen. No end seems possible. An eternal war. A contradiction in terms?

When will the War on Terror ever end?

The harder the goal is pursued the faster it recedes. The papers are full of blood each day. Again. Again. Again. Such news barely registers anymore.

Can this war ever end?

Let us take the War on Terror at its most noble. Let us leave aside all those dark questions about oil, or American hegemony. This is the good War on Terror: a fight to defend democracy. A fight against the people who want to violently overthrow freedom, and replace it with an empire of intolerant theocracy.

In this war Democracy dominants the intellectual space, it holds the moral high ground, and it has chosen to rely on two tools above all: the law and the military.

Be a terrorist and you will get arrested. Be a nation of terrorists and you will get bombed. The aim – put every last terrorist in prison, or a grave.

Will this work?

Will the bloodshed ever end?

I don’t know what will happen in the future. But I do know a little history. Idly skimming the pages of the past, something familiar caught my eye. I feel like we’ve been here before.

Once upon a time there was another power. It too dominated the intellectual space. It too held the moral high ground. It too relied on the law and the military.

What caught my eye was a certain obscure old war fought by this power: A murderous ruler harboring evil-doers. A short official invasion to clear them all out. Early success. “Mission accomplished,” one might have been tempted to say. Then decades of war, massacres, reversals, revolts, and – if you care to use the word – genocide. Sound familiar?

That war was the Albigensian Crusade. That power was Catholicism. This was the age of the Crusades. And when you start to think about it, the fundamentals of it all, it begins to look eerily familiar.

In medieval times the great enemy of the Church was heresy. Heretics were a threat to goodness of the gospel. Heretics where a threat to power of the church. Heretics were willing to use violence. Heretics were evil. Heretics had to be stopped. Heretics were an enemy within.

Being a heretic could get you arrested. Staying a heretic could get you executed. Being a land of heretics could get you invaded.

This was the War on Heresy.

And it was brutal.

The Waldensians were burnt. The Free Spirits were burnt. The Lollards were burnt. Even the dead were dug up and burnt.

Military campaigns were launched against all the enemies of Catholicism: the Muslims in Spain, the pagans in the Baltic, and, of course, those Albigensians in France – those ones got hunted down for decade after decade after decade.

In the War on Heresy torture became permissible, executions became a necessary evil, and collateral damage was dismissed with the words, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

To pursue the heretics unto the ends of the Earth, a special anti-heresy division was created  – the Inquisition. Its reputation lives on. Noble aims got mixed up with dirty politics, and corruption, and outright sadism. The noble faith of all-loving Jesus was enforced by boots and chains.

And it worked.

For centuries it worked.

Heresy was under control.

Until it wasn’t.

The Protestant Reformation broke out. Whole countries went heretic. Many of those previously defeated heretics reemerged and fused to the new movement. Suddenly there was an ocean of heretics.

They couldn’t all be imprisoned, reformed, or executed. Not that it wasn’t tried. Millions of people were stabbed, hacked, and burnt to death as both sides engaged in decades of war, massacre, and counter massacre in a futile attempt to eliminate the other. Both failed. But Catholicism failed most. It permanently lost its War on Heresy.

The medieval Catholics never dealt with the real problem: that their own moral corruption was fueling outrage at the Church, and that universal agreement on religion is an impossibility. They fought a war of ideas, a war of morals, with a butchers knife. They lost the moral high ground. Then the intellectual space. Then their political power.

Today the heretics rule the world.

Our War on Terror is also a war on heresy. Democracy has heretics.  They are those groups of people which cannot be tolerated in a tolerant society – the people who don’t believe in tolerance. The two are mutually incompatible, just as Catholicism and it’s heretics were mutually incompatible.

The Communists. The Fascists. Now the Islamic terrorists. They are our heretics.

Enraptured by the mythos of World War Two we are snared in the belief that the enemies of democracy can be defeated with guns. World War Two made such a grand tale. It felt so final. It was our glorious crusade. We defeated Nazism because we shot all the Nazis.

But a war of ideas is not a war of guns. Nazi-style beliefs still lurk underground. Waiting. Surprisingly common.

In contrast, Communism was ultimately defeated because Communism was discredited, by the Communists. They proved themselves a failure. Now not even Communists want to be Communists.

So how will our current war against today’s theocratic heretics of democracy end?

History suggests four broad options.

One: the war will never end. Not for us at least. A bullet cannot stop an idea, and an idea cannot stop a bullet. Each bullet inspires a new convert. Each convert inspires a new bullet. This war will be waged for centuries.

Two: the war will be lost. The war will be abandoned because the war itself is what feeds the enemy. One day there will be too many heretics, and too few bullets.

Three: the war will be lost. The war will have made us our own heretics. A Christian who kills souls to save souls can hardly be called a Christian. The free who destroy freedom to save freedom are not free. Democracy will pass away. Instead we will kill Muslims because they are killing us, and Muslims will kill us because we are killing them.

Lastly – four: the war will be won. This fight will be seen for what it is: a contest of ideas, a struggle of social change, a choice between democracy and theocracy. We’ve made this choice before. The implosion of the old Crusader’s world, that all-encompassing violent repressive theocracy, is exactly the world from which modern democracy was born.

Perhaps, it could be done again?

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, on Wikipedia, here.

~

© Under Obvious, 2017.

How to Write a Philosophical Bucket-list

Recently I had a crack at writing at a bucket-list: that defining list of things that you must do before you “kick the bucket”. I don’t know why it occurred to me to do this. Perhaps I’m dying and only three neurons in my hippocampus have yet noticed. Either way I think I messed it up. Majorly.

You see, I looked at other people’s lists for inspiration. Loud as a gong my mistake became clear. “Oh no!” I said. “What have I done?!”

You see, I’d written Become wise; they’d all written Go scuba diving.

Gosh! Dang! Jeepers!

Am I wasting my life? What am I doing?

Trying to live wisely, apparently. That’s according to my half-assed never-to-be-finished scuba-free bucket-list anyway. So let’s have a crack at that. Wisdom. And bucket-lists.

Why are bucket-lists so full of trivial crap? This crap is supposed to be the crap you must do before the Grim Reaper pops over for dinner and death. Yet 99% of bucket lists contain the following: write a novel,  learn a language, travel the world, and run a marathon.

Wow.

Marathons must be pretty bloody amazing.

These bucket-list cliches are all nice. Yay for you. You went for a run. Good one. Nice.

But do you want a nice life? Or a meaningful life? Because all these cliche goals, this menagerie of the nice,  does have a certain meaning. They are the expressions of a certain philosophy – a poorly thought through philosophy.

The typical bucket-list philosophy is this:

  • juvenile hedonism,
  • drive-by altruism,
  • mushy sentimentality,
  • and rub-the-Jone’s-face-in-my-glory one-upmanship.

It’s the life philosophy of a Facebook photo. Look at me. I shook the president’s hand. I’m so cool. Now I can die.

Jeepers! Dang! Gosh!

This all got me thinking. What would a philosophically sound bucket-list look like? Here’s some thoughts.

First, the over-riding motivator behind bucket-lists is this idea about “living life to the full”, whatever that means. As a result recommended items include:

  • Jump in a puddle,
  • See a sunrise,
  • And watch the clouds go by.

This is nonsense! Do you really plan on watching a sunrise only once in your life? Are you a vampire who wants to go out with a bang?

No.

Living life to the full is not for bucket-lists. It’s a habit. You do it everyday. You see a puddle. You jump in it. Life lived.

Second, although typical bucket-lists are insipid, they do allow you to see the classes of activity you can do in life. Here’s ten rough categories to help spur your imagination:

  • Becoming: change your character.
  • Learning: gain knowledge or skills.
  • Experiencing: see, touch, hear, lick it for yourself.
  • Achieving: succeed at some prestigious project.
  • Creating: make something.
  • Acquiring: get stuff.
  • Helping: make life better for other Earthlings you know.
  • Changing: make a difference in the world.
  • Locations: be somewhere.
  • Relationships: make and shape social bonds.

Pick items from each class. That way your bucket-list is more than just a bloody road-trip itinerary.

Third, please-please-please know why you are adding an item to the list. Do you really want to run a marathon? Or does that just sound cool? Item #1 on your list should be this: figure out what matters in life. Nothing else makes it on the list until you’ve answered that question.

Fourth, choose goals that take time. Seeing the Eiffel Tower can, technically, be achieved in 0.01 of a second. How is life any better for that?

In contrast, becoming fluent in French will take you a lifetime. You will soak in the language. You will be changed by the language. You’ll have to go to France anyway. Remember – these are things worth doing. They are worth taking some time. So, even if you simply must see Gustave Eiffel’s pile o’ steel, then at least do this: draw a picture of it. You will be forced to stop, slow down, and be changed.

Fifth, be careful with random trivial goals. They risk sucking the meaning from the entire enterprise. Instead give your list structure. Begin writing the grand and noble, then work down to the small and trivial. Let the lesser serve the greater. For example:

  1. Be as psychologically healthy as humanly possible
  2. learn meditation
  3. visit a Buddhist temple

Each goal flows one from the other. The otherwise trivial YOLO goal of getting selfies with a bald monk is given meaning by being part of a series of greater goals. The trivial is lifted to greatness, rather than the great  brought down to triviality.

Lastly, you might want to consider calling this list something other than a bucket-list. As soon as you say “I have a bucket-list.” you’re going to get asked, “So when are you going scuba diving?”

More troublesome, the “kick the bucket” idiom comes from either slaughtering pigs, or maybe from committing suicide. Yeah. Grim. Nihilistic gallows humor isn’t a great start for finding meaning in life.

I prefer the image of a list of plot points. Imagine you are writing a novel. Look at the main character. Certain things need to happen to this person. What  must they learn? How must they change? Where must they go? For the story to make sense – to have meaning – each question must be answered. Each answer must be brought to fruition. Otherwise the story will be incomplete. You just couldn’t kill off the main character yet.

Finish their story, then they can die.

Stories are how we make meaning of events. Life is a story we tell ourselves. So then, what are your plot points? What must happen for your tale to be complete? And yes, it can include scuba diving.

 

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Cryptic Poetry: why bother?

Words exist to communicate. Each one is a dense dollop of meaning flung from my mind to yours. That is the purpose of words. Why then do people write words without meaning? I’m talking here about a certain species of bad poetry – cryptic poetry. Words that are so indecipherable they communicate nothing. They fail as words. Why write them?

Dew of mist

All the butterflies are dead

This year

Inject the soul with

Happiness.

Was that a poem? I created it by stringing random words together with a little syntactic glue. It has no purpose. It has no meaning. It is an empty shell of hollow words. This poem has meaning in the same way clouds have faces.  Yet the internet is awash in this sort of cryptic meaningless poetry.

Why? A lack of skill? Some people out there do seem to think that merely putting words

on different

lines

makes it

a poem.

It doesn’t.

Slap on top a belief that poetry must be about obscure personal emotions and out pops cryptically bad poetry. It’s like listening to someone talk in their sleep. We can’t join their dreams.

My heart aches

The cinnamon bun

You know.

Another possibility is a neurological problem. Serious. It’s called word salad. It’s a symptom of dementia, schizophrenia, and brain injury.

Wall speaks

Windy hot mess, cloud blues;

A shelf lay fuschia,

In worlds with pencils.

I hope this is rather rare cause of bad poetry, but one can’t escape the resemblance.

However, incompetence and injury aside, to truly understand the popularity of cryptically bad poetry, I’m sorry to say this, we’re going to have to ask Deepak Chopra. Yes. Deepak Chopra. To be more precise, a random word generator with the uncanny ability to mimic a tweet by Deepak Chopra.

Can you guess which of these is the real Deepak, and which is the random Deepak machine? (The answers are at the end.)

“Reality is the consciousness that projects the illusion.”

“Formless Being is ultimate reality Liberation of Consciousness from Identification with Form through Non-reactivity.”

“Your consciousness is reborn in universal possibilities.”

“Self-power is the womb of total acceptance of abstract beauty.”

The Deepak machine was used in a 2015 study by psychologists from the University of Waterloo. It won science’s second highest honor after the Noble prizes (and all those other prizes) – the Ignoble Prize. The topic? It was titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”

Bullshit. Pseudo-profound bullshit. That, I believe, is what we are dealing with here.

They define pseudo-profound bullshit as “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” And they found that people will frequently rate a meaningless randomly generated buzzword sentence as profound. People buy bullshit.

Seeing how easy it is to write cryptically bad poetry by stringing together random words, I would say that it counts as pseudo-profound bullshit. It gives the impression of deep meaning without having any actual deep meaning.

So why is there so much bullshit poetry?

From the poet’s point of view bullshit emanates out of a desire to impress, to seem profound, to get clicks on the like button. As people will happily slurp up bullshit, you’ll seldom be challenged on the fact that all your poetry is empty nonsense. That, or you’re a random word generator.

Oh, spring forth

flying quantum space time of

my soul!

From the readers point of view? We expect poetry to be profound, we are accustomed to it being difficult, and we intend to read it intuitively – souls wide open.  We put ourselves in the optimal bullshit-absorption state. The expectation creates gullibility. The lack of confidence makes us confuse “I don’t get it” with “This is profound.” And the intuitiveness disarms our analytical firewalls. The bullshit slides right on down.

Ah, zeitgeist

dust motes

dancing on the minds

of this is bullshit!

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

Pennycook et al. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6. Here.

The Deepak tweet generator, www.wisdomofchopra.com.

(ANSWER: For the Deepak quotes, the first two are from Deepak’s twitter, the second two are randomly generated. How well did you do?)

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Why is New Atheism like Old Religion?

The New Atheists are so religiously anti-religious they even make atheists feel uncomfortable. Isn’t that a wee bit odd? How is that the most anti-religious people on the planet can resemble religion to the point that every other Tuesday they get accused of being militant fundamentalists?

The answer is fairly simple: when you fight a war of ideas and culture you will end up looking like everyone else who has ever fought a war of ideas and culture. No one has been fighting that fight longer than religion.

First we need to understand what New Atheism is all about. Then the oomph behind much of the apparent religiosity becomes fairly obvious. This thing we call New Atheism really got going after 9/11. Since then it has evolved into a collection of endeavors and interests mostly in orbit around a number of atheist authors, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. This solar system of atheism is roughly united by four beliefs:

1) The supernatural doesn’t exist. Gods, ghosts, and your daily horoscope are all wrong.

2) Religious belief is irrational. Believing in God isn’t just mistaken, it’s stupid.

3) Science is the best source of knowledge. Science disproves the ‘God-hypothesis’. Science can show us the best way to live.

4) A moral standard exists. Religion violates this standard. Therefore religion is immoral.

Agree with these points? Chances are you’ll like Dawkins and crew. So what’s new about all this? Approximately… nothing. Varieties of these arguments have existed for generations.

What is noticeable is the forceful emphasis on beliefs 2) and 4). Religion is irrational. Religion is immoral. Forget atheism, this is anti-theism. Religion is harmful stupidity.

Neutralize.

This moral mission is the raison d’être for most of the apparent atheist religiosity: anger, intolerance, and evangelism. If you think religion is evil, then you’ll be angry at religion. You won’t be able to tolerate a culture of religion anymore than you’d be happy with a culture of pedophilia.

This moral war is a struggle for minds. Such a campaign requires publicity and propaganda. A mission needs missionaries. No wonder people are reminded of the world’s proselytizing religions.

A movement needs members. Accidentally or otherwise, the New Atheist mission has encouraged atheism as an identity. They compare their struggle to that of gay rights – the identity struggle par excellence. Atheist’s need to feel free to come out of the closet.

However, atheism is a single-issue philosophical position. Is there a God? No. In contrast, religion has always been about belief and identity.

The religious merger between belief and identity is why people go supernova when their religion is criticized. Dawkins’ insistence that, “I respect you too much to respect your beliefs,” always fails – “I am my beliefs!” Criticism is a knife to the gut. This is partly why New Atheism is unavoidably rude. You just don’t slam identity.

Making atheism an identity makes it religious. All that supernova-nastiness gets sucked on in. Echo-chambers. Touchiness. Leader-adoration. Infighting. Bigotry. (In fairness, atheists living in a religious lion’s den have little choice here. You are scandalously The Atheist whether you like it or not.)

So that’s the moral fervor.

Belief number two makes New Atheism act patronizing; Religion is irrational. Rational beliefs deserve debate. Irrational beliefs deserve a Sesame Street lecture on How-to-Think-Good with Socky the Sock-puppet, followed by a brain-scan.

This faith in universal religious stupidity also permits whomping great truckloads of over-confident ignorance. Do you really need to study Santa to disprove Santa? Do you really think Santa’s real? Do you? Same deal, says New Atheism, with Noah and his you-can’t-fit-four-hundred-million-animals-on-that boat. Why bother understanding religious nuance when faith is that silly?

Combined with the condescension this all comes across as dogmatic and simplistic, a little bit religiousy.

Speaking of dogmatism we have belief number 3). Science. New Atheism is infatuated with science to the point of abuse. Deep philosophical questions are swept away with a “Who cares? Science!” The official slur for this is scientism. There’s some things you just can’t ask science to do. It’s not right.

Put all these factors together and team New Atheism smells of strident triumphalism. Just like a religion. Yet, in the end we do need to remember one thing: the word religion is so nebulous that almost anything looks like a religion if you stare at it long enough.

This one word, religion, failingly attempts to cordon off the entire crash-prone intersection between culture and belief. Dare to be a human who believes stuff, and you will be stuck on the wrong side of that barrier. And in the middle of all this credo-cultural carnage, the New Atheists are waging war. They always were going to end up reflecting back a little bit of their nemesis, old religion.

 

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

A classic New Atheist discussion, “The Four Horsemen”, on Youtube  here.

An examination of the New Atheists on the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, here.

Atheist Church, yes there is Atheist Church. Here.

The New Atheism has old roots. Try a Roman celebrating the freedom of knowledge over the tyranny of religion with De Rerum Natura, here.

An example of the criticism that New Atheism is religious, by an atheist. “Why Richard Dawkins’ Humanism Reminds me of a Religion“, by Michael Ruse. Here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

The Paradox of Progress: why does making things better make things worse?

One more labor saving device and I think I’m going to crack.

A strange truth shadows modern society: the better things get, the closer we all drift towards collectively admitting ourselves to the psych-ward. We are the richest miserable people to ever exist.

Yet it’s not just us. This enigma haunts civilization – each jump up in technology has resulted in humanity face-planting into some awaiting tree branch we didn’t see coming. Agriculture gave us food. Great! Then it gave us cholera. Not so great. The industrial revolution gave us rapid fire consumer goods. Then rapid fire machine guns. Then Auschwitz, and nukes, and climate change, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stand today at the peak of our powers, the precipice of our annihilation, and in desperate need of a pick-me-up.

Why is progress so problematic?

One answer is we’re all just whiners. Buck up. Be happy. Everything we measure is getting better, you whiny wimps.

Unless… we’re measuring the wrong things.

The global economy is very good at meeting material needs. Too good. Like a supercharged robot gone rogue, the global economy is so committed to making stuff that it is on a suicidal quest to convert the entire mass of the solar system into a spinning disc of Buy-One-Get-One-Free deals. Meanwhile all the other things us humans need are being destroyed: community, meaning, stability, equality, nature….

Coupled onto all this is a pill-poppingly depressing narrative. We are told we live in a meritocracy. Rags to riches – anyone can do it. We all end up where we deserve. Therefore, if you fail then you are a pathetic worthless loser. And by the way, we’re all engaged in ruthless selfish competition. Don’t bother asking for help. Just die. Worm.

Slather on top the 24hr tragedy news-stream and it can’t start to feel like the world is ending. What’s worse, we might not be wrong. Climate change, nukes, mass extinction….

Be happy?

Go suck a foot.

The rate of change alone is enough to do us in. We go from snappy youngsters with all the latest tech, to confused eighty-year olds stumped by doors. Our progress is progressing too fast.

Technology has another big problem – The Law of Unintended Consequences. Each new techno-power cuts the red ribbon to a new district of possibility. Sadly, many of those new neighborhoods turn out to include crime-infested ghettos of horror. Sometimes, it’s all ghetto. We’re looking at you leaded petrol.

These muck-ups aren’t all the fault of incompetent inventors. The nature of the system invites surprises. Solving problems creates new problems.

Imagine you are a butt-naked farmer. It’s you, the dirt, and some beans. A three component system. As simple as it gets.

But you aren’t growing enough. To boost production you make a digging stick. It’s a stick. You dig with it. Great! One wrinkle – now you have to cut up a tree. Now it’s five components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, and the tree.

Wood is hard. Snapping it up by hand is borderline impossible. The time you spend tugging at that tree could’ve gone into growing beans. So you make a stone-axe. Now the system has seven components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, the tree, the axe, and the stones.

Each round of problem solving – progress – lifts the complexity of the system exponentially. Every new component requires resources, maintenance, and managing. They all interact. Each problem solved creates a myriad of new problems to solve. Keep this process going and soon you’ll be needing deep-shaft mines, trade caravans, governments, and ten-thousand years later, the entire global economy. Billions upon billions of components.

The Law of Unintended Consequences rules supreme. Components conflict. Energy requirements grow. Resource depletion sets in. Interactions spin off in unexpected directions.

Problematically all this complexity is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Going from bare hands to a digging stick is a big win. But adding the stone-axe is only useful insofar as it allows more digging sticks. With us, we have reached a point where we are considering vast Geo-engineering projects whose sole purpose would be to save our bean farming from all the things we done to improve our bean farming.

Progress becomes regress.

We end up in a dizzying world which paradoxically winds down the more it winds up. We feel like we’re losing our minds. Thankfully we solved that problem by inventing anti-depressants. What could possibly go wrong?

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Just in case you weren’t already feeling depressed, according to Dr Joseph Tainter diminishing marginal returns on complexity is the sign of a civilization about to collapse, watch on Youtube here.

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

 

 

 

 

Why Do Politicians Act Like Children?

Politicians. What is wrong with them? They are supposed to be the best we’ve got. Government matters. So why, why, why do they keep giving me flashbacks of highschool? No. Primary school. Wait… he said what? Damn. Kindergarten?!

Arghhhh!

Why do politicians act like children?!

Well, as experts on children are quick to point out, most kids are actually better than that. Get it right dude.

Oh.

Okay.

Why are politicians acting so immaturely that calling them children is an insult to children?!

Arghhh!

Well… power perennially summons up certain beasts.  An ego the size of Mars is a good motivator to enter politics in the first place. That explains the toddler tantrums.

Politics is also a twisty business. Compromises. Machiavellian plots. From the outside it all looks like chaos and stupidity.

More importantly, politics cuts to the core  – identity, purpose, money. Politics pits opposing sides against each other. It triggers some instinctive craziness show-down reflex: two groups of baboons throwing poo at each other. It’s going to get messy. Throw in some polarization, or some chest-thumping ideologies and you’ve got a giant fracas of offense, irrationality, and day-time news. And fist fights. For real.

Yet, the biggest cause may be that thing we value most. In a monarchy the leader must exude god-like glory. Childishness is unbecoming. In a dictatorship the leader must live surrounded by an oil-slick of fear. Childishness is weakness. In a democracy…

Talk, talk, talk, and opinion polls.

Things get nutty. The leader must win elections. British politician Boris Johnson (foolishly?) gave us an insight into political campaigning by revealing Dead Cat Theory:

“Let us suppose you are losing an argument. …Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate”.

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

Who’s that great Aussie campaigner he’s referring to? Probably Lynton Crosby. This Wizard of Oz has gained a reputation for campaigns that claw at the chair legs of society. Tornado-through-a-cattery amounts of dead cats. Whether or not his reputation is justified Crosby does believe one thing: people never vote based on policy. They vote out of emotion.

Therefore erudite discussions of flat versus progressive tax structures are pointless. Appeal to identity. Appeal to the gut. Appeal to whatever gets the key voters going – even if that’s a fear of immigrants.

Indeed, a vast array of competing policies is way too complicated for even well educated voters to grasp. Better, say people like Crosby, to tell a very simple story. Clown-like Donald Trump was no mindless buffoon when he endlessly chanted ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. This was strategy. Give ’em a choice: do you want greatness or a crook?

So the conundrum circles around. Politicians act like children because they believe we vote like children. When you hear childish madness you are hearing the well researched prejudices of your nation being fed back to itself. You get what you vote like – emotional and irrational.

This strategizing can get deep-nasty. Negative messages stick in the emotional gullet. Rile them up. Push the hot-buttons. And, never forget, anarchy is smart-weapon.

Wedge politics involves using controversial issues to fragment your opponents. Find an internal disagreement. Stab it. The opposition will spiral into vitriolic internal debates. Hopefully the losing side will be so pissed off they leave and join other parties. Chaos, anger, and insults – in exactly the right place.

The battleaxe of attack politics is the scandal. Virulent ad hominem attacks. Insults. Innuendo. Denigration. Lies. Hacks. Leaks. Scandals can be used to remove people from office, take them out of the race, and destroy, destroy, destroy.

Politics becomes the Thunderdome.

Two men enter!

One man leaves!

Two men enter!

One man leaves…!

As Boris kindly pointed out, you do this kind of stuff when you’re losing. Just pile-drive that other guy into the floor, and the voters will have no choice but to choose you. Voters do deserve to know the bad news too, but taken too far this tactic creates a political world in which only two kinds of people truly belong – psychopaths and sadists. I don’t know if they’re childish, but they sure aint models of maturity. Their politics becomes so off-putting decent people prefer not to touch it, voters disengage, and the attack-artists are left to grow like fungus on a dead cat.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

Boris Johnson in the Telegraph accusing other people of using Dead Cat Theory, here.

A free master class with Crosby, on Youtube here.

When Politicians Attack, action shots from ABC, here. (By attack, we’re talking fists to the face.)

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Thou Shalt Give up Bacon, Tasty, Tasty Bacon…

When it comes to food people get weird. It’s not what they do eat, it’s what they don’t eat. Think about it. Despite famines, despite high food prices, despite all the amazing eating opportunities on offer, people across the world have steadfastly refused to eat:

  • pigs
  • cows
  • rabbits
  • root vegetables
  • mushrooms
  • lettuce
  • fish
  • horses
  • insects
  • cats
  • alcohol
  • dogs
  • satay goat testicles
  • whales
  • hot beverages
  • uncooked food
  • guinea pigs
  • mice
  • pumpkins
  • beans
  • camels
  • garlic
  • your grandparents.

That’s just to name  a few.

Each of these foods has been proclaimed wonderful, or at least mouth-worthy, by one culture, and condemned as pig-swill and sin by another. How can we have such wildly different opinions about what counts as good food?

Here’s a few reasons why:

A) We Have No Imagination

Functional fixedness. A cat is a pet. A rat is a pest. A cow goes well with pasta. What it does is what it does is what it does.

That’s what it does.

A horse is a horse is a… tasty meal in France. But in England it’s just… no… you can’t… it’s a horse. You ride them. Horses. Riding. Don’t you get it? You don’t… no! Damn Frogs.

B) Philosophy and Religion

An environmentalist’s refusal to eat endangered sea turtles is easy to understand. Likewise a do-no-harm Jain’s refusal to eat animals, and your daughter’s refusal to eat her pet rabbit. And cannibalism is… do I really need to explain that one?

Other prohibitions get a bit stranger.  Believers in reincarnation might go vegetarian out of fear of eating grandpa in goat form.  Believers in animal spirits may only feed their children small animals, until the child’s spirit is strong enough to deal with eating bigger animal spirits. And believers in controlling one’s uncontrollable passions often dislike garlic because… garlic gets ya going?

When it comes to religious food taboos Judaism is head of the table. God said “Thou shalt not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk.” and that was that. What can you do? It’s one of the Ten Commandments. (The other ten. Yes, there’s others.) No one’s clear why God said this. He just did. So Jews have been keeping their milk and meat kosher ever since. (P.S. ‘Kid’ here refers to a baby goat. Boiling children in mummy’s breast milk falls under that “Thou shalt not kill” bit. Just so we are clear.)

C) I Don’t Eat Garlic. Who Do You Think I Am?

What is it with garlic? Forget politics. You want a divisive issue, take a whiff of garlic. Go to the right time and place and “Garlic Eater” is a racial slur.

Food is community. Nothing sets you apart more than refusing to eat what others are eating. Nothing binds you together more than eating something no other group will eat. We are what we eat.

D) Power Games

Imagine if you could convince half the population that only you and people like you can safely eat chocolate. Wouldn’t that be great! All the chocolate for me!

Seems people have had this kind of idea before. Especially men. All the meat for me! And then, if they can, the rest of the group swings back around and slaps another taboo on you. Yes, you may get the chocolate and sausages, but we get the bananas and fish fingers! Ha! Social divisions end up getting written in food. Thus the elderly, chiefs, widows, children, and more end up with their own special taboos and rights of violation.

E) Conservation

Don’t eat the milk cow. You get milk from it. Seems sensible. Likewise, if each neighboring village has a different taboo for hunting a different forest animal then the chances of everyone driving these different creatures extinct is diminished.

F) Blame the Grim Reaper

Food can kill you. New food is suspicious. Is that really edible? Are the garlic eaters trying to poison us? They said it was the brown mushroom, right? That looks brown to me.

In the game of evolution, one bad experiment and you lose.

Our food taboo paranoia reaches a high point with pregnancy. Don’t eat fish. Do eat fish. Only eat rats if your husband done the butchering. And no hen’s eggs. You don’t want the baby to be too chicken to come out.

~

Us humans never do anything straightforwardly. Nothing could be more animalistically basic than food. Yet we can’t stop ourselves from squirting identity politics and religious dogma straight into the middle of your lunchtime sandwich. It’s enough to make you want to go get a plate full of bacon and horsemeat, garnished with extra garlic, gluten, and plus-sized animal-spirits, just to spite them. Mmm, yum!

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Food Taboos: their origin and purpose. Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow (2009) Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. Here.

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Yeah Nah, Nah Yeah!

Yes no, no yes. Is this the death of the English language? This makes no sense.

“Yeah, no this does make sense!”

“Nah, yeah I get it.”

“Yeeeah, no, I mean… don’t yes and no cancel out?”

“Um…yeah, nah.”

How do we explain such flat out contradictory language? Plenty of ideas are out there:

  • The yes acknowledges the speaker, the no shoots them down. “Damn I look good in this dress!” “Yeah, no, you should stop cross-dressing dude.”
  • Defusing a comment. “You’re amazing! You saved that child’s life!” “Yeah, no, I mean, it was my own kid anyway. But thanks.”
  • Shifting the topic without really commenting. “Dogs are great.” “Yeah, no, now chickens, that’s where it’s at.”
  • Agreement then addition. “Pizza is yum!” “Yeah, nah, but I’m getting too fat for pizza.”
  • As an intensifier. “I hate clowns.” “Yeah, no, clowns freak me out too!”
  • Sarcasm. “Can I drive your car?” “Yeeeah, no.”
  • To introduce an unexpected idea. “I hear you’re dying of cancer.” “Yeah, no, I made that one up.”
  • Answering yes to a negative question. “You don’t know Kung Fu do you?” “Yeah, no, I know him.”
  • Answering yes to a question, but contrasting your answer with how the question was asked. “Do you like Billy?” “Yeah, no, I love Billy!”

Yeah, nah, okay we get it. Yes-no makes sense. But why use it? Why use a phrase that is so obviously ambiguous?

Because we are cuddly.

Yes-no has been described as a form of verbal cuddling. It lets you preface a smack down insult with a life affirming ‘Yes!’ The blow of ‘no’ is padded with all the heartwarming fluffiness of ‘yeah’. Yes-no and no-yes are an expression of an indirect communication style. Squishy-squashy vagueness can be useful.

Some cultures prefer direct communication. Get to the point! Cut to the chase! Say it like you mean it! Other cultures go in for indirect methods. Get to a related point! Cut to a tangent! Say it like you don’t really mean it!

The direct says, “Please leave!” The indirect says “You must be very busy today!”  Directness sacrifices harmony for the sake of clarity. Indirectness sacrifices clarity for the sake of harmony.

‘Yeah nah’ and friends are so very very indirectly cuddly that they turn up all over the world. The New Zealanders think ‘Yeah nah’ is their unique catchphrase. “Yeah, nah, mate,” say the Aussies, “We do that too.” Yes-no has been reported in California, and New York, and Bill Clinton. The Brazilians, Romanians, Polish, Germans, South Africans, Indians, and more are all reported to have their own cases of ‘yes-no’ or ‘no-yes’.

So is ‘Yeah nah’ an inexplicable contradiction? The demise of English? Yeah, nah. Nah, yeah. Ah, no, no. yeah. Nah. Yeah nah. It’s good.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

An exploration of the use of ‘yes-no’ on the Language Log, by Mark Liberman. Here.

Aussies and academics wrestle with the rise of ‘Yeah no’ in “Slang’s ‘yeah no’ debate not all negative” from the Age, here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

 

May I Mansplain a Case of Doublethink?

“Mansplain” is a word that ought not exist. I don’t mean morally. I mean logically. It shouldn’t be possible. Yet “mansplain” has made it to the dictionary.

Allow me to explain:

1) “Mansplain” combats real sexism. A contraction of “Man” and “Explain” it points out sexist explaining.

2) “Mansplain” is a problematic word that gets abused in sexist ways.

Therefore, “Mansplain” is hypocritical at best, Orwellian doublethink at worst – the acceptance of two contradictory ideas at once:  sexist anti-sexism.

We are on controversial ground here, but I’m not the first to point out that “mansplain” has issues. The fact that the word has to be forever qualified with “not all men” and “yes women can mansplain too” goes to show how dysfunctional a term it is. For brevity we’ll take it as a given that “mansplain” is sexist (If you’re unconvinced I give links, and a full argument below. You should also read that bit if you don’t think mansplaining is real). Even if you disagree about the word being inherently sexist the fact remains: it gets abused. People are using sexism to fight sexism.

How is that possible?

The answer is not clear, so here’s some theories:

A)  We needed it?

We did need a word. We got one. It got used. It was dodgy, but it was all we had. The downsides were overlooked out of need.

B) Humor (and the enduring power of sexism)?

“Mansplain” is a funny word for some funny stories. Some of those stories are deeply depressing. But others are hilarious!

On this take, “Mansplaining” isn’t an issue. It is a popular joke. We like jokes. The word was just asking to become a joke. Man. ‘Splain. Ha ha. Good one. Is this why Sweden’s mansplaining hotline includes comedians?

On this view, I predict “mansplain” will loose all of its anti-sexist bite. The contradiction will resolve in favor of sexism. “Mansplain” could even become a positive word as men try to align themselves with their gender identity, which now includes the quality of explaining things like a man. At best it will join our other male gendered belly-ticklers, such as Dad-jokes and clichés about grumpy old men. “Mansplain” slides right on into these existing comic stereotypes, which may explain why it went mainstream with such ease.

In the end we will be left with “-splain” as a joke suffix, and “man-” as a joke prefix. “-splain” is already providing us with an endless series of  new “-splainings” (whitesplaining, geeksplaining, femsplaining). “Man-” has generated “manspreading” and “manslamming”. In this wave of tacky linguistic humor the original issue will be forgotten.  Sooner or later we’ll once again be in desperate need of a word to describe a certain widespread form of misogyny involving explanations.

Team sexism wins again.

C) Sexism is easy?

Egotism and laziness. The hypocrisy of people we agree with is too hard to see. Coming up with a better word is too hard. Self-examination is too hard. Figuring out the true motives of the person you are talking to is too hard. Is it really mansplaining? I don’t know. Feels like it. He’s a man. Screw it. He’s mansplaining.

Team sexism wins again.

D) When you fight monsters…?

So many men are sexist. You fight sexism everywhere you go. Those men. So sexist. They must be stopped. Them. Those sexist men. Them! Men are all the same.

And now you’re a monster too.

But don’t worry.  The fact that you’ve internalized the us-versus-them thinking which underlies all bigotry need not stop you. You can squish your nagging conscience and carry on. Look how violently you attack sexism. You can’t be sexist. It’s just like how those preachers who angrily condemn homosexuality can’t possibly be gay. Yup.

Team sexism wins again.

E) Do we have a double standard for sexism?

Men are not morally permitted to be sexist… but women are? If this is so, then the double standard fits well with our gender stereotypes. Women are tender and need protecting. Men must be stoic gentlemen, enduring the sexism valiantly.

Team sexism wins again.

F) Doubleplusgood doublethinkers are among us?

“Mansplain” wears it’s sexism on the outside. Man. Explain. Bad. Surely the contradiction was obvious from the start. This is straight up doublethink.

In Orwell’s novel 1984, doublethink is a tool of totalitarian mind control. Is that what’s going on here? Is it just a coincidence that “mansplain” is built like a word from Newspeak? Bring on the conspiracy theories! We can rule out all the ones about Reptilians in the White House. This was a bottom up process. Viva la Internet.

Here’s an idea that isn’t completely bonkers:

Relativism and Feminism often go together. Relativism in its extreme form is doublethink: no truth is true for everyone, and relativism is true for all. Applying this principle to all of society would lead to a form of intellectual totalitarianism. Relativism could never be criticized, because real criticism requires real truths. The only thing relativism can criticize is the giving and taking of offense, which seems to be something of an obsession these days.

If doublethink is already your permanent home, sexist anti-sexism is no trouble. So let the duckspeakers quack goodthinkwise! Unless that offends someone.

Team sexism wins again.

G) Revenge?

Why merely destroy the power of sexism over you, when you can take that power for yourself? Revenge feels good.

I doubt anyone is consciously thinking “Yeah, I’m going to sexist the crap out of this guy!”, but it may well give “mansplain” a certain seductive appeal. The hypocrisy is worth it. Besides they need to get taught a lesson. About time they felt what it’s like. Bastards. This one’s for team woman!

Congratulations.

Team sexism wins again.

All or none of these theories may explain how we got “mansplain”. But if more than a few of them are true then we are left with a curious conclusion. “Mansplain” ought not exist because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. And, “mansplain” is popular because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. Man, all this explaining is hurting my poor little head.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

I promised I wasn’t the only person who has issues with “mansplain”. Dive into the debate on Reddit. That’s always… interesting. It’s not just men: try “Why You’ll Never Hear Me Use the Term ‘Mansplain‘” by Lesley Kinzel on the women’s site xojane.com, and “Allow me to explain why we don’t need words like ‘mansplain'” by Liz Cookman from the Guardian.

Read about Sweden’s Mansplaining hotline, from the Independent here.

For self-reported examples of mansplaining try Academic Men Explain Things To Me. Here.

Read about the psychology of hypocrisy, in the Guardian here.

Doublethink, on Wikipedia, here.

Confused by duckspeaking? See Newspeak on Wikipedia, here.

~

I  Totally Un-patronizingly Explain Why “Mansplain” is Sexist

Self-reported examples of “mansplaining” are easily found online. From these I’ve identified six different uses. The first two get at what seems to be the original intent. The rest are misfires and abuses.

Examples are from Academic Men Explain Things To Me.

1) Sexist Assumptions

Here’s an example from an American woman having dinner with her Australian boyfriend:

“… The policies of Julia Gillard came up. “Julia Gillard,” he explains to me, pausing the conversation, “is the Prime Minister of Australia.” “I know,” I respond, in a tone intimating that no further mansplaination is necessary. “A Prime Minister,” he immediately continues, as his friends look on, “is kind of like a president.””

This is the first case of classic mansplaining: the man assuming the woman doesn’t know anything, even when it’s become obvious that she does. Hooray then! “Mansplain” actually refers to real sexism…

…and it’s sexist. Putting the “man” in “mansplaining” treats this as a uniquely male problem. Isn’t that… dare I say it… sexist?

Good intentions don’t help.

The concept must be distinguished from the word itself. If the word was  “Igglypop” or “Zapwak” we’d be okay. But “mansplain” is too transparently constructed.  Therefore it automatically falls into a narrow meaning that attributes specific negative qualities to one gender. Man. Explaining. Bad.

Using “mansplain” doesn’t automatically make you sexist, but the weight of the word’s construction is too strong to avoid. It lends itself much more easily to sexist uses. It gets abused as a result, and huge numbers of men get offended by it’s face-value blanket condemnation of all men.

A better term would be “Stereosplaining” (stereotype + explaining), or “Assplaining” (assumption + explaining). Men may well be the most guilty of this, especially towards women, but clarity of language is important. Whenever someone has a cliché reason to think you’re an idiot, then you’ll receive a “Stereosplaining”. Take this brilliant example from an Asian American woman’s conversation on a plane flight:

“…He asked me why I was going to the university so I told him I teach English.

He says, “You mean you’re learning English.”

“No,” I say. “I’m teaching English.”

“You see,” he replies, “You are confusing the words ‘teach’ and ‘learn.’ You are learning English.””

This is about gender, and race (possibly just race). Age, language, clothing, education, job title, disability, …. People will assume you’re an idiot for a lot of reasons.

2) Power Games

Here’s an example from a woman who confronted a fellow student who was attempting some illegal activity:

“…Then he told me to “stick to your programming and let the lawyers handle the law” – the equivalent of “get back in the kitchen”.

When I explained that I had taken my classes that addressed copyright law, and that the head of the department herself could confirm everything I told him, he brushed it off and said the she didn’t know what she was talking about either because she was “just a teacher”….”

This is the second serious case of mansplaining: using a real or imagined difference in knowledge as a way of dominating someone. This deserves a word, but “mansplaining” isn’t it. Clarity of language!

One, it’s not just men, and two, it’s not about explaining – it’s about putting someone in their place. These games can be played all sorts of ways: questioning, name dropping, listing your qualifications, comparing IQ scores…. The word “mansplain” itself can be used to play this game.

Now for the misuses…

3) Being sexist

Sometimes people make sexist comments while explaining something. Some people call this “mansplaining”. Seems like a misfire.

4) Being an asshole

Being an asshole during an explanation can get you accused of “mansplaining”. Being an asshole is a problem. Hence the word “asshole”. But not all assholes are sexists, and some sexists are mighty polite. Assuming all male assholes are sexist is sexist.

5) Disagreement

The word “mansplain” can be used to shut down a conversation. No actual mansplaining needs to have gone on. The man is mistaken, or he’s a bit slow, or he just disagrees, or he is merely expressing his opinion. So he gets shut down. Game over. “Mansplaining” becomes a thought stopping cliché. You can use it to dismiss someone’s opinions purely based on their gender. That’s sexist.

6) Persuasion

Here “mansplain” is used to prohibit persuasion by men, especially when it is strident, passionate, or worst of all, insistent on agreement. Again this acts as a sexist thought stopping cliché. Hypocritically, the word “mansplain” is itself a strident persuading word. It belongs to that category of words that carry their moral condemnation within them, words like “slut”, “brown-nosing”, and “terrorist”.

I hope I’ve made my case.

© Under Obvious, 2017.

National Animals: Why New Zealand? Why?

The national animal of New Zealand is the kiwi – a brown, chicken sized bird, which is all-round weird. The kiwi is a strange choice. Yet New Zealanders are kiwi mad. They named themselves Kiwis. They renamed Chinese gooseberries Kiwifruit. They named a bank Kiwibank. They named a retirement fund Kiwisaver. They stuck pictures of kiwis on the stamps, the money, and the air-force (despite the fact that kiwis are flightless). Kiwi, kiwi, kiwi! Kiwis are everywhere.

Which is strange.

Real kiwi are pretty much nowhere.

Most New Zealanders have never seen a wild kiwi. In most places where people live, kiwi are extinct. Paradoxically, the less contact New Zealanders have had with actual kiwi, the more attached New Zealanders have became to kiwi. Should the kiwi ever go extinct, logically New Zealand will be renamed Kiwiland. It is inevitable.

Kiwi-mania is perplexing. How can a nation become so extremely fond of an animal they never see? It’s like being fond of the Dodo.

New Zealand isn’t the only place to have a made an odd choice.  The national animal of the Mauritius is the Dodo. They love it. It’s dead. The English lion is even less real. The last time England had lions was… was… yeah. But that can’t top the Scottish. Their national animal is a unicorn.

These bizarre choices show us how we got national animals in the first place. The Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland are heraldic symbols from centuries ago. They were never meant to be real. Okay, the Scots did think unicorns were real, but the point is they are emblems. Symbols.

Places lacking suitable medieval heraldry can pick themselves some outstanding real animal. Or some outstanding fake animal. Asia loves its dragons. North Korea went for a winged horse. Indonesia has the humanoid bird that gets ridden by Lord Vishnu. Laugh if you like, but the truth is all national animals are imaginary. Some just happen to refer to real animals too.

National animals are symbols. The less something is a concrete reality the easier it is to make it into a symbol. As the kiwi slid towards extinction, New Zealanders were free to project onto the word “Kiwi” whatever they wanted. An animal became a symbol. A national animal. With kiwis gone, “Kiwis” no longer needed to worry about being confronted with the bizarre nature of actual kiwi. The symbol was safe.

So why do we bother with national animals? Well, all our friends have got them. Beyond that…

Blame cartoonists.

And politicians.

And advertisers.

All of them like to indulge in personification. All need symbols. To make a good political cartoon you often need to draw a character that represents the nation. Animals with a distinct cultural history work well. Then you can draw your disliked politician riding that animal, hitting it with a whip. That kind of thing.

Propagandists have the same need. Their ads need something distinctive that represents what they’re trying to sell. Patriotism needs a face. Hence all the lions, bears, dragons, and eagles doing all their roaring, breathing fire, and swooping majestically. Vote for Steve. Let’s go to war. Buy my boot polish. That kind of thing.

As a young country, New Zealand was in desperate need of new symbols to establish its identity. Hence a little over-enthusiasm with the kiwi. It’s a teenage thing. They’ll get over it. Hopefully.

Yet, the kiwi is still a strange choice. The Bald Eagle? Majesty. Power. Got it. The Russian bear? Danger. Power. Got it. The Kiwi? It’s a furry football with legs, whose greatest claim to fame is being able to push out an egg that is equivalent to a human giving birth to a four year old. Oh New Zealand! Sure the giant Moa and man-eating Haast Eagle were extinct, but why pick the kiwi? I see your sense of humour, but where is your pride?!

Perhaps that’s it.

National animals don’t get picked in a rational way. They just happen. Something about it just works. And the kiwi knows that New Zealand is small, cute, weird, unsure, and occasionally comical. And it doesn’t care. And it was easy to draw. Still, judging by the Scots and their unicorn… New Zealand should have picked the Taniwha. No one messes with a supernatural water monster with face tattoos.

 

 

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

Read more about the kiwi, it’s life as a bird, and its life as an icon. From Te Ara, the encyclopedia of New Zealand. Here.

The origins of the Scottish unicorn, from the Scotsman. Here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.