Wednesday, November 30, 2016

More Moral Outrage

Yesterday, I examined my moral outrage against or, at least, disapproval of drivers who illegally misuse carpool lanes while the rest of us don't. Today, I want to address another, stronger example of moral outrage or, at least, of disapproval on my part.

One of my Facebook friends published the following post: "I suppose you have the freedom to burn the American flag but don't be surprised if most Americans think you're an idiotic, disrespectful, sophomoric, coward."

If you've read much of this blog, which I realize you probably haven't, you can well imagine that I didn't agree with my "friend's" sentiments. This is how I responded:
Perhaps some who burn the flag wouldn't lift a finger to aggress against nations we have no business invading and destroying but would lay down their lives to defend you or this country against attack. Maybe one reason they burn the flag is that they're contemptuous of our government habitually sending young soldiers into harm's way to wreak devastation and death in situations that don't warrant it but which do aggrandize the "military-industrial complex" and garner misguided support for politicians who push for it. I may not like it when people burn the flag, but when we get upset when people do it, we need to understand that we're just upsetting ourselves and giving other people power over our emotions that they don't need to have.

Moreover, instead of reflexively condemning and pejoratively labeling people who burn the flag, maybe we should remain clear-headed and try through dialogue and probing reflection to understand why they do it. We might then be able to empathize whether or not we continue to disagree with their actions.
Now that was pretty tame considering what I was feeling at the time and in keeping with my message of empathy and tolerance. But then I read the following comment in that same thread: "Anyone who burns the flag hates the country and should be punished or deported," and I responded this way:
Not everyone who burns the flag necessarily hates the country. In fact, they may love the country so much that their burning the flag is their frustrated and angry protest against what they perceive not as a symbol of the country as a whole but of its excessive meddling and military misadventures abroad and its callous neglect of serious problems and suffering here at home and of mindlessly "patriotic" spoutings like we see here in this thread.
 I would never burn our flag in protest, but I can empathize with why some do, and I would never be so foolishly presumptuous as to accuse them all of hating this country. In fact, I suspect that some of them genuinely love this country far more than do their pseudo-patriotic and insufferably self-righteous accusers, especially if those accusers voted for the dismal likes of Donald Trump.
Voting for Trump is arguably an act prodigiously worse than the protest burnings of a thousand American flags, because it could do vastly more harm to this country than those burned flags ever could.

For example, Trump has chosen an ideological fanatic to be Health Secretary who reportedly wants to dismantle Obamacare and Medicare as we know them and replace them with disastrously privatized systems that could leave untold millions of our most vulnerable citizens without adequate health care and/or hopelessly impoverished.
Why aren't you railing against THAT instead of against harmless flag-burners, you pathetically posturing fools?!
This was undeniably and blatantly less empathetic and tolerant, a fact not lost on me even as I was posting it.

So why did I post such a clearly hypocritical put down of people in that thread? Did I do it out of uncontrollable anger or hatred? Not really. I don't think. The fact is, I didn't feel all that angry at the time, and I don't hate, at least not consciously, the woman who posted or those who agreed with the comment I attacked. So why did I say what I did?

I think there are times when I'm just in one of those moods when I want to vent, as provocatively as possible, frustration and resentment. I'm frustrated that people are so simple-minded in their so-called "patriotism," and I'm especially frustrated and resentful that many of these same people undoubtedly voted for Donald J. Trump to be our next president. So, even if it meant contradicting my own previous advice and making myself look like a first-class hypocrite, I just had to let 'er rip. And so I did.

Having said that, I believe that what I wrote in both comments was true. Except, perhaps, for the last line in my second comment. My jury's still out on that one.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Driving While Morally Outraged

My wife didn’t sleep well last night, so I drove her to work this morning. And after I dropped her off and waited my turn in the metered lane of the onramp to get back on the busy freeway, I saw several cars whiz past me in the unmetered carpool lane, none of which contained the required two occupants or more for that lane.

I felt resentful and wished there were a CHP unit stopped somewhere nearby monitoring these blatant violators and preparing to sock one of them with a costly ticket that would, henceforth, deter them and others from taking advantage of highway amenities for which they didn’t qualify while the rest of us dutifully abided by the law.

Of course, if all those drivers who disregarded the law obeyed it instead, the metered lane would have backed up even more than it did, and my wait would have been even longer. So was it really such a bad thing that some drivers illegally took advantage of the carpool lane? Was that really so different from infractions I commit all the time such as breaking the speed limit?

My first inclination is to think improperly using a carpool lane violates Moral Foundation Theory’s principle of fairness in a way that exceeding the speed limit doesn’t. And, being the political liberal I am, I’m purportedly more insistent on people treating each other fairly (and caringly) than are my more conservative fellow humans who are said to place equal if not greater value on other innate foundational values such as liberty, even when I arguably benefit from some people acting unfairly and using the carpool lane when they shouldn’t, thereby decreasing the traffic and wait time in the metered lane for those of us who act fairly.

Yet, how is it really being unfair to me if I’m actually being helped by it, and, if it is unfair, why don’t I think it’s unfair of me and others to exceed the speed limit when others don’t? Why don’t I stay at or under the speed limit and feel angry when others fly past me?

Am I maybe just resentfully envious of drivers who improperly use the carpool lane when I don’t have the nerve to do it, although I do have the (less) nerve required to speed?

Maybe if I spend more time thinking about all of this, I’ll be able to discern a significant difference between speeding and misusing the unmetered carpool lane of a metered freeway onramp that justifies my indifference to the former and aversion to the latter. Or, failing that, maybe I’ll either stop speeding, or I’ll stop feeling upset and self-righteous about carpool lane violators and go on about my driving with greater equanimity.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

San Junipero and Artificial Paradise

I grew up watching the original version of the television anthology series The Twilight Zone, and I still consider it one of the finest television series ever. Now there’s a worthy successor to it in the brilliant British anthology series Black Mirror. It focuses on the dark side of modern technology.

Last night, I watched an episode from the series that I found extraordinarily moving. It was titled San Junipero. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to before reading the rest of this post.

The basic storyline can be found here, so I won’t bother offering my own inferior summary. But what I will say is that right after I watched this episode, I felt so moved--overwhelmed with emotion actually--that I posted the following to Facebook: “I just finished watching one of the most beautiful and moving stories I've ever seen on a TV or any other kind of screen! I am just blown away with equal parts sadness and joy! It's an anomalous episode from the third season of "Black Mirror," the brilliant British TV anthology drama series usually focusing on the dark side of technology. The episode is "San Junipero," and I recommend it in the strongest terms to anyone reading this who can watch the show on Netflix or some other way, because it's THAT extraordinary.

I watched this episode last night because I wanted to hear afterward what the Very Bad Wizards had to say about it in Episode 102 of their outstanding podcast series. I listened to the podcast this morning.

I must say that I was so overpowered emotionally last night that I didn’t spend much time reflecting on the deeper issues raised by “San Junipero.” But Sommers and Pizarro spurred me this morning to ponder the story in more depth.

Until last night, all the “Black Mirror” episodes I’ve seen have painted gloomy if not frightening portraits of technological dystopias, but “San Junipero“ seemed much more upbeat and ended with Heaven is a Place on Earth (lyrics here) ringing joyously in the sonic background as the two protagonists drove blissfully off together into their cloud-based paradise. But is the story really as happy as it seems outwardly?

What would it be like to have one’s consciousness posthumously uploaded to the Cloud where one could experience for as long as one wished a place or era or perhaps any number of places and eras as though one were still embodied but know that one was not?

Tamler and Somers surmise, and the episode reinforces this, that at least some of those who choose this fate could end up jaded, bored, and emotionally numb in an “afterlife” where one can do pretty much what one wants without consequences and eventually runs out of novel experiences to spice up life and make it worthwhile, finding oneself trapped in empty, hedonistic decadence.

This reminds me of a famous Twilight Zone episode in which a petty criminal dies in a shootout with police and ends up in a place he thinks is heaven because it’s filled with every hedonistic experience--like having beautiful, adoring women at his beck and call and always winning at gambling--that he craved in life, yet he quickly becomes bored and even miserable and jarrringly discovers that he’s not where he thought he was.

Not only that, but knowing before one dies that one can be transported to cyber-paradise and even being able to preview it on a weekly basis beforehand could cause one to look forward so much to the artificial reality of the afterlife that one ceases to be fulfillingly engaged in the reality of this life.

Yet, come to think of it, how different is this from the monotheist focused on escaping this earthly vale of sin and tears into everlasting heavenly bliss? Moreover, the people who ended up in San Junipero were already old and/or dying before they went there, and many of them, like Kelly, had lost their spouses and/or children to the grave. They had very little left to look forward to in their current lives, and poor Yorkie had been a motionless quadriplegic for forty years and now had the chance to run joyfully across the sand with her gorgeous lover for as long as the two of them wished.

By the way, everyone who elected to be uploaded to the Cloud after they died had the ability to opt out and die completely or, perhaps, to change their artificial locale, era, and circumstances whenever they so chose. That is, if heaven turned into hell, they could exit into a new virtual reality or into oblivion at any time.

So, it’s hard for me to see “San Junipero” as a typical “Black Mirror” dystopian nightmare. And if I were given the chance to do what Yorkie and Kelly did, I’d probably take it. After all, not so unlike Yorkie, I’ve lived a life that, while very comfortable by worldwide and historical standards, has been quite bereft of rich experience. If I could artificially reinhabit my youthful body and go back to my teenage and early adult years of the sixties and seventies knowing what I know now, I might have quite a time of it. And when I got tired of it all, I could do what I suspect we all end up doing anyway.

The only thing that might give me pause would be uncertainty about just how trustworthy and foolproof the process actually was. For if we humans are intrinsically flawed, it would probably be foolhardy to assume that any of our technologies are impervious to failure or, perhaps, misappropriation, and a failure or misuse of the technology discussed here could conceivably turn San Junipero into a ghastly nightmare one could never escape.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Am I Really a Liberal?

I read an article today I may blog more about later. But right now I want to focus on one aspect of it. The article is a concise summary of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s take on the psychobiological roots of political liberalism and conservatism.

Haidt says research shows that liberals are “open” to and even crave novel experiences whereas conservatives resist novelty and stick with routine and that these differences are very likely biologically programmed and innate. Thus, liberals naturally push for social and cultural change they think will make life better, and conservatives naturally recoil from such change they think will disrupt established order and make life worse.

I first became acquainted with Haidt’s claim from his TED talk a few years ago. And I remember thinking that my political liberalism doesn’t fit Haidt’s mold. That is, I’m very liberal politically but exceptionally resistant to change in my personal life. How could this be?

I didn’t think much more about Haidt’s claim until it dawned on me today that what may be happening in my case is that I’m like other political liberals in craving novelty, but I stick with many routines not because I really want to but because my cognitive deficits and psychological hangups prevent me from seeking the novelty I’m naturally predisposed toward.

For instance, in his TED talk, Haidt says conservatives gravitate to restaurants like Applebee’s and liberals to ones like Chez Panisse. Yet, I am just the opposite. I like Applebee’s and have never eaten in a real French restaurant.

But why is that? Is it because I really want to keep eating at the same old humdrum places? Or is it because, while I want to eat at new places and sample new cuisines, I’m afraid that my learning disabilities and social awkwardness and anxieties will poison the experience and I want to avoid this unpleasantness?

After all, I know nothing about French food. Not only about what it is but also about how to order and, perhaps, even eat it in a way that won’t make me look stupid. So, I stay away from Chez Panisse or the Moroccan or Afghan restaurant nearby, just as I avoid doing so many other things, especially in public, because I don’t want to appear awkward and stupid and be looked down on.

Yet, when it comes to doing things, like reading about or listening to new ideas in philosophy, science, religion, or what have you, I love it and seek out these experiences with relish, so long as I don’t do it in a public manner that potentially exposes me to looking awkward or stupid.

That is, I love to read about or listen to new ideas in private or with people with whom I feel comfortable. But I wouldn’t be as keen on exposure to these ideas in situations where I’m with others with whom I might be expected to intelligently discuss these ideas, because I’d be afraid that I wouldn’t be up to the task and would look stupid.

And in some cases, I resist doing new things even when I don’t fear that other people would think I looked stupid doing them, because I’m afraid that I would FEEL stupid trying to do them and failing. For example, I might stay away from an art gallery because I don’t “get” art, even though I’d really like to, and I don’t like to place myself in situations where I feel inadequate.

In an upcoming blogpost, I’d like to say more about the article I read today.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Zakaria Interviews Kissinger

I've come to pretty much despise CNN. Its pre-election obsession with Donald Trump is no small part of the reason. It seemed that almost every time I tuned into CNN over the past umpteen months, they were talking almost exclusively about "TRUMP...TRUMP...TRUMP."

It was as though there were virtually nothing else, short of an occasional terrorist attack or natural catastrophe, going on in the world worth covering. To make matters worse, their coverage of Trump, as with almost everything else they sporadically touched upon, was shockingly shallow.

Rather than investigate Trump's past with due journalistic diligence or thoughtfully explore the ramifications of his policy proposals, such as they were, CNN chose to lightheartedly and nitwittedly dwell at mind-numbing length on "The Donald's" most recent petulant tweet in response to the latest SNL skit mocking him or on some other such trivial nonsense. They treated Trump like everybody's favorite clown, or, as NYT literary critic Dwight Garner semi-famously said, like a "dancing bear" who always has a chance to win when an election is turned into a "three-ring circus."

Indeed, if psycholinguist George Lakoff is right, this incessant attention from CNN and the rest of the so-called mainstream media, even when seemingly negative, boosted Trump's visibility and correlative popularity. I'm thinking it may well have been the decisive factor in Trump being elected.

But there's one CNN program that I still like. Well, actually, there are two. The other is Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown. But first and foremost is Fareed Zakaria GPS.

No doubt many, depending on where they fall on the political spectrum, would accuse Zakaria and his show of being either too liberal or too conservative. But I find every episode informative and thought-provoking even though I'd love to see a wider range of guests and opinions presented.

Fareed's first guest today was Henry Kissinger. Now say what you will about Kissinger--some consider him one of our greatest Secretaries of State while others think he's one of the world's most monstrous living war criminals--, this 93-year-old guy seems to have retained his smarts, and he said a couple of things today that stood out to me.

First, he said that Trump comes to the office with less "baggage" than any president-elect he could recall. I think he meant that Trump doesn't appear to be intransigently ideological and hasn't spent time in political positions where he's accumulated political debts to anyone. Once in office, he could do pretty much what he wanted provided it was constitutional and he could, when necessary, marshal requisite popular and congressional support.

When Zakaria asked whether Trump carried the baggage of policy proposals he made during his campaign, Kissinger cautioned against the press 'nailing' him to those positions and criticizing him for turning away from them, because there was a chance that if they did as Kissinger advised, Trump's pragmatism would prevail over destructive and dangerous ideology.

This morning, I saw a Saturday Night Live sketch where Adam Baldwin portrays President-elect Trump feeling overwhelmed by preparations to assume office and exhibiting resistance to carrying out some of his campaign pledges, such as rescinding Obamacare. And I thought this might not be so far from how it really is for Trump now that the campaign is over and it's time to dispense with the bullshit and face up to the crushing realities of being president of the world's pre-eminent nation. Maybe Kissinger is right that we can help him to handle reality more effectively by giving him some space.

Yet, what the sketch also showed was Trump delegating as many duties and responsibilities as possible to Mike Pence and his staff. And given the sensibilities and histories of Pence and others Trump seems intent on surrounding himself with, I fear that he'll be letting incompetents, fanatical ideologues, and ethical pygmies run this country while he largely retires to his gold-plated penthouse in Trump Tower between ceremonial functions in which he'll represent this country on the domestic and world stage with nothing approaching the impeccable intelligence, eloquence, and class our outgoing president unflaggingly demonstrated for the past eight years.

The second thing Kissinger said was that Trump's professed attitude toward Russia's Vladimir Putin may actually defuse some of the tensions between our countries that the condescension toward Russia and the aggressive expansion of NATO's military capabilities near the Russian border under the Obama administration may have gone far to arouse.

We shall see...

Urgent Self-Change

To change one’s life:
1. Start immediately.
2. Do it flamboyantly.
3. No exceptions.
― William James

Early last week I became more convinced than ever that I need to change the course of my life. Not so long ago, I might have ‘nakedly’ disclosed what convinced me. But today I hold such personal matters closer to the vest.

Suffice it to say that I’ve followed up on my conviction by making some promising, if underwhelming, preliminary progress. Yet, I feel the need to do much, much more. My question is, How should I proceed?

The William James quote above rings true to me in a powerful way. That is, if one wants to change one’s life, one needs to unreservedly jump right into the deep end and go for the gusto. On the other hand, psychologists say that change most likely comes one small step at a time in a systematic series of well thought out steps.

I don’t precisely know how I’m going to go about changing myself. I just know that I need to find and follow through with an effective way to do a bang up job of it. Or else...

Friday, November 11, 2016

No More Holy War

What if love was holy, and hate was obscene?
And it wasn't twisted, what a wonderful dream.
Living for love, unafraid of the end.
Forgiveness is the only real revenge.
Oh, so we can hear each other and feel each other,
We can break these walls between each other.
Baby, blow by blow and brick by brick,
Keep yourself open, yourself open.
So maybe we should love somebody
Maybe we could care a little more.
So maybe we should love somebody
Instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.

-- Alicia Keys

The recent election of Donald Trump as our next president has left me reeling with disbelief and despair along with more anger and bitterness than I care to admit. I expect to post more about this after I've had time to gain a clearer perspective on it all.

In the meantime, I want to share a video I saw and commented on this morning. A clearly distressed but hopeful Alicia Keys posted a video to Facebook after the election in which she sings a modified segment from her song Holy War. And here is the comment I left on her page in response to her powerful video:
Alicia, I'm a relatively old man who confesses that while I've long been aware of you, I haven't listened to much of your music, because I've always been more drawn to instrumental jazz and jazz-fusion music than to lyrical songs. But I have to say that I've seen some recent interviews you've done that have left me enormously impressed with the stirring beauty of your spirit and with your gleaming authenticity. And when I woke up early this morning and saw this video, I cried. The unguarded rawness and depth of your singing and emotion touches me overwhelmingly and gives me hope that during these most troubling of times, there are people like you in the world who are inspiring love rather than hate, hope rather than abject despair, and that maybe, just maybe more and more of us can follow your lead. Thank you, beautiful lady, for your wonderful video and for being a light in my life and in all our lives during this dark, dark moment in our nation's history.