10/19/14

Skepticism Too Easily Slides Into Cynicism


CynicismYears spent in the media, plus decades of independent practice as a writer and social critic honed my native skepticism into a protective psychological barrier against a wide range of social ailments and inappropriate, often dangerous beliefs. It has made me question motives, statements, logic and conclusions, and search for the underlying truths. It motivated me to explore, to examine, to dig deep. To try to understand, not simply deny.

It’s an easy slide, however, from a healthy skepticism to a soul-destroying cynicism – using the modern sense of the word. Modern cynicism encourages acceptance of the notion that everything is bad, rotten and evil except the viewer; cynics become too lazy, too self-assured of their own faith and beliefs to investigate further. They draw conclusions from surface appearances without going deeper; and blanket everything with negativism.

Skeptics, however, keep enough of an open mind to continue asking questions. Healthy skepticism is often paired with conscious awareness, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion:

In order to have more freedom and empowerment in our lives we need conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion. The more we practice these skills, the less we’ll be subject to manipulation and exploitation and the more unencumbered we’ll be in pursuing true happiness and fulfillment…
Our skepticism will bring out the best in the upstanding people and institutions and will bring out the worst in those that are dishonest and corrupt. By asking questions and observing the reactions and responses of those we’re questioning, we’re able to discover who we’re really dealing with and make informed choices with respect to them.
To question things is to take back control of our lives, because knowledge and understanding bring us power and choice and enable us to act on our own behalf in the best, most informed manner. Not accepting everything at face value and being skeptical about the underlying motivations of those who want to lead us, advise us or profit from us is a wise course of action for all the above reasons.

Cynics simply don’t believe in anything but their own surety. They don’t feel the need to go looking for the roots and the causes that skeptics hunt and wrestle with. Cynics are negative, skeptics are searching for answers. Cynics don’t have to take responsibility for things because they’ve already decided the world is against them: skeptics look for answers and meaning to make things connect and work.

You cannot shed light into the darkness if you’re convinced that there’s some ulterior motive behind the light. That’s why conspiracy theorists are for the most part cynics in the dark. Scientists, on the other hand, are generally skeptics with candles.

I’ve tried, through my life, to keep my skepticism healthy and active; a tool to fuel my curiosity, while dampening the trend to assume a cynical approach. I have tried to use skepticism in the way of free inquiry, as taught in the Kalama Sutra. After all, the word comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning “inquiry.” Not doubt.

I’m not always successful in avoiding the cascade into cynicism – it’s easier and faster, requires less effort and thought, especially with social media, but overall I believe I have stayed above it.

The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote in Pensées Philosophiques (1746):

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.

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10/18/14

The Ebola Panic


Jenny McCarthyEbola has gripped the imagination of North American media and been spun into a terrifying spectre looming like a horseman of the apocalypse over us. So widespread has it become that Jenny McCarthy, one of the top wingnuts of quackery and pseudomedicine, and poster girl for the pro-measles-pro-mumps parents, felt compelled to pipe up with her own “cure,” should it spread to the USA:

Lemon juice.

Yep. Wonder how the scientists missed that one. A quick trip to the grocery store and you’re immune. Safe easy and natural!

Well, okay, she didn’t really say that. It was from a story posted on The Daily Currant, a satirical website and shared on social media as if it was a real story. Not even McCarthy is that moronic. I hope (it’s hard to tell…).

The same site also had stories titled, Sarah Palin: ‘Can Obama Stop The Ebola Zombies?’ and “Justin Bieber Hospitalized With Ebola” and Ann Coulter: ‘Give Ebola to Migrant Children’.

That doesn’t mean the wingnut crowd McCarthy belongs to hasn’t been busy spinning its nonsense. There has been the usual pile of steaming codswallop coming from the conspiracists about ebola as with chemtrails, morgellons and the New World Order. It’s been called a hoax on the loony tune sites. And on one a government population control device:

A buzzword around the internet lately, describes that the US government has either bought or created patents of a virus “called” ebola (not necessarily the same as the original from 1976), and is being used for either population control or as a bio-weapon for use on foreign powers that the government is at war with.

I know, I know: who comes up with this irresponsible, paranoid madness? (Apparently the scare/hoax/conspiracies are fueled by a profit motive… at least in part.)

The point is that ebola – a few years ago barely known outside the virus hunters of the CDC – is now a household word and a hot topic on social media. It scares people (and clearly befuddles the wingnuts). So much so that Ann Coulter, harridan for the Tea Party actually did chime in on it (although she lacks any knowledge about medicine or science to justify her comments), albeit to use it as a platform to launch another anti-Obama-pro-white-racist attack:

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter on Wednesday joined the bandwagon of right-wing critics questioning why President Barack Obama hasn’t instituted a travel ban for the African countries battling the Ebola epidemic — perhaps with the goal of preventing those who are infected from getting “free medical treatment” here in the U.S

Calling Coulter a pundit is obviously sarcasm; Salon more fittingly calls her a “professional troll.”
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10/16/14

The mote and the beam



“Hide witch hide, the good folks come to burn thee;
Their keen enjoyment hid behind a Gothic mask of duty.”

Jefferson Starship: Mau Mau (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)

I was thinking about those lines recently. They seemed appropriate given the events in town since last spring. I was also thinking about what Gord Hume wrote in 2011:

“Explosive internet columns, blogs, and opinion pieces that do not seem to be overly-burdened with concerns about facts or accuracy are now being added to the traditional media mix, and have further aroused this toxic brew.”
Gordon Hume: Take Back Our Cities, Municipal World

Toxic certainly describes the political atmosphere in Collingwood these days. It’s been a rough campaign season, although I have to say thanks to the support I and some other members of council have received from residents. It’s good to know the poison has not seeped into every pore. Not everyone listens to the harridans of hatred.

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
Shakespeare: Macbeth

Coffee mugIt’s a sad day indeed for this community when any person is judged guilty solely on an allegation from a blogger, without any evidence, without even hearing his or her side. Just innuendo, rumour and gossip. And increasingly more often, outright lies.

What happened to our Canadian sense of justice and fairness?

A former politician recently called the attitude among the local negativists as a “lynch mob” mentality and referred to the madness of the McCarthy era. Both seem, sadly, true.

But I have to add: Honi soit qui mal y pense – evil be to him who evil thinks.

Who would have thought anyone in this small, quiet, beautiful town would be so shamelessly determined to hurt and demean others? I simply don’t understand that. It’s outside my ken.

I never understood bullying. And now we have the local cyberbullies pointing their fingers at us and call us bullies when we stand up to them and demand accountability; who damn us for asking questions of staff after they spent years castigating and accusing staff themselves.

Ah, the hypocrisy never ends, does it?

It sometimes disheartens me, demoralizes me. Maliciousness affects our families, our friends and neighbours. It is, as Gord Hume wrote, a toxic brew; and it keeps getting stirred by this small group.

Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.
keller.blogs.nytimes.com

These attack posts, these accusations are not about engagement, or debate, issues, process, or even democracy. Never have been. Democracy comes with responsibilities; social media doesn’t. They’re not about civil debate; the mature exchange of ideas and views. They’re not the Collingwood way of engaging one another.

They’re simply about hurting someone else, about smearing them, discrediting them, demeaning and belittling them, getting revenge for a council decision they didn’t like. Just like in the school yard: bullies, grown up to be cyberbullies.

There’s always been a political agenda playing in the wings. This term it’s been replete with dirty politics, name-calling, smears, lies and self-righteous but groundless accusations. Some say it’s part of a generations-old feud between Liberals and Conservatives. Or just a longstanding personal animosity between some current and former politicians. Others say it’s big-city politics, or Harper politics, or American politics. Doesn’t matter: the relentless personal attacks, the denunciations, the accusations have continued unabated, their angry clamour growing louder with every week as we approach the election date.

Any opportunity for an engaging debate on the issues, even for simple explanation and exchange of views, was scorched away by the ongoing vitriol. Who can be heard over the continual schoolyard shouting, the lies and taunts?

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10/16/14

Cold Mountain Poems


Han Shan and Shih TeI first became aware of the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan, in the late 1960s, when I was engrossed in reading the poets of the earlier Beat generation. It was at that time that, through them, I started to discover and explore Western Buddhism – as it was adapted and represented through their experiences and words. I eagerly read everything by Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and others from the era.

Sometime around then, I discovered a few of Han Shan’s poems. Beat poet Gary Snyder had translated 24 poems for the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later included them with a collection of his own poems in his 1959 book, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. My copy of that book, in its 1966 reprint, has long since vanished from my shelves. But I remember the effect they had on me: their austere simplicity, their sincerity, their unfeigned naturalness.

I found Snyder through Kerouac’s portrayal of him in his novel, The Dharma Bums (which I also still have on my shelves). Around the same time I discovered haiku, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and translations of other T’ang poets: Li Po, Wang Wei and Tu Fu in particular… books which I still have. Snyder’s translations were crisp, clear and poignant.

Han Shan means “Cold Mountain” in Chinese. It’s not simply a place: in the poetry it’s a metaphor for both a state of being and a spiritual destination. The reader is not simply looking at a person: he or she is looking at a mirror: Han Shan is telling us to look within. The poems are important in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism, which later migrated to become Zen in Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
translated by Gary Snyder.*

His original name has been lost in the ages between us. He has been dated to a wide range of years in the T’ang dynasty, between about 577 and 901 CE. He has also been identified as different individuals during that period, as well as a collective of poets. He travelled and wrote with a companion, Shih-te, although some authorities suggest they were the same person. No one knows for sure. All we know is that he wrote his poems on rocks (and maybe on bamboo and the wood or the walls of houses).

His only contemporary biographer, Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of T’ai Prefecture, wrote this of Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha! – the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

You can read other biographical accounts online, including this one at Hermitary.

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10/15/14

“A” Personalities: A Theory


GoodreadsWhen someone tells me he is an “A-type” personality, I cannot help but think of the title of Aaron James’ bestselling book: Assholes *A Theory (Anchor Books, New York, 2014). After all, what else would the “A” stand for when someone boasts to the audience he is an alpha male as if the rest of the room was full of less-worthy betas?

Self aggrandizement is not limited, of course, to assholes, but they certainly occupy centre stage (at least in their own mind). Not always the best place to be, considering that, medically speaking, A-types are more prone to heart disease than B-types.

As Wikipedia tells us, Type A personalities are,

“…ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management… often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.
…Type A behavior is expressed in three major symptoms: (1) free-floating hostility, which can be triggered by even minor incidents; (2) time urgency and impatience, which causes irritation and exasperation usually described as being “short-fused”; and (3) a competitive drive, which causes stress and an achievement-driven mentality.

Not entirely flattering a description, is it? Rigid, status-conscious, ambivalent, impatient, short-fused, irritable, hostile, competitive… not the sort of person you want at a council table where cooperation, consensus and respect make for good governance. A-types at the table generally are seen by others as assholes. Hence the mnemonic association with the book. One wonders why anyone would boast of this.

Aaron James writes of a dichotomy between cooperative people and these A-types:

Even the “bright-line” rules of cooperation will have exceptions and cooperative people often put a certain amount of work into discerning both the spirit of the law and what is finally acceptable in a particular case. They thus seek clarification, check assumptions, ask permission or at least take a measure of care in good faith. The asshole, by contrast sees little need for the work of mutual restraint aimed at benefit for all involved. According to his generalized sense of entitlement, it is only natural that the various advantages of social life should flow his way.

(For the sake of politeness and civility, I am inclined to find another name for assholes. I cannot merely call them jerks, because James differentiates between assholes and mere jerks. Twits, idiots, dweebs, boors, shmucks, cads, jackanapes… these names fail to capture the essence of those truly despicable people whom James describes. I think I will have to simply refer to them as “a*holes” so as not to entirely dilute the impact.)

A-type, A*holes, pretty much the same thing, at least as far as I can fathom. Of course, I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure there are subtle shades of difference I fail to discern.

B-type personalities, on the other hand, Wikipedia says, work well together:

…generally live at a lower stress level and typically work steadily, enjoying achievement but not becoming stressed when they do not achieve. They may be creative and enjoy exploring ideas and concepts. They are often reflective…

Sounds like someone much easier to get along with in a group dynamic like the council table: unstressed, creative, exploratory, reflective. People who will contribute rather than control, will think rather than merely act. People you can work with and respect. people who use “we”  when describing accomplishments and work as a team. People unlikely to be described in James’ book.

A-types, however, will find themselves in it.

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10/15/14

Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime


An intriguing possibility was reported on Science Daily this morning:

Earth’s last magnetic reversal took place 786,000 years ago and happened very quickly, in less than 100 years — roughly a human lifetime. The rapid flip, much faster than the thousands of years most geologists thought, comes as new measurements show the planet’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than normal and could drop to zero in a few thousand years.

Why would this matter? The article continues:

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

When will this happen? That’s the big question behind the headline. Soon, warn geologists. But their “soon” in geological time doesn’t mean the same as “your breakfast will arrive soon” in a restaurant. It seems overdue for a flip, but no one is sure when that might happen. A 2002 story in The Guardian warned that it was imminent – in geological terms:

“Some experts have stuck their necks out to predict that we can expect the next reversal some time in the next 2,000 years.”

I think we can have that cup of tea while we wait. It may not happen in our lifetimes. But, the article has that shock effect nonetheless:

The Earth could be about to turn upside down. The planet’s magnetic field is showing signs of wanting to make a gigantic somersault, so that magnetic north heads towards Antarctica, and magnetic south goes north. Compasses will point the wrong way, and migrating birds, fish and turtles are going to be very confused.
Just when this will happen, how long it will take and what the consequences will be, is difficult to fathom. What is not in doubt, though, is that it will happen. About every half a million years or so, the Earth’s magnetic field flips upside down.

And that’s the worry: every half-a-million years is a lot less time than the 786,000 years since the last flip-over. This summer, Scientific American warned it could happen sooner rather than later:

Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from huge blasts of deadly solar radiation, has been weakening over the past six months, according to data collected by a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite array called Swarm.
The biggest weak spots in the magnetic field — which extends 370,000 miles (600,000 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — have sprung up over the Western Hemisphere, while the field has strengthened over areas like the southern Indian Ocean, according to the magnetometers onboard the Swarm satellites — three separate satellites floating in tandem.
The scientists who conducted the study are still unsure why the magnetic field is weakening, but one likely reason is that Earth’s magnetic poles are getting ready to flip, said Rune Floberghagen, the ESA’s Swarm mission manager. In fact, the data suggest magnetic north is moving toward Siberia.

So we wait, unable to do anything about it. Have another cuppa, if you must. Yes, you have time.

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