Category Archives: Society

The Pitfalls of Self-Help

Despite the occasional lighthearted derision that accompanies the self-help genre, the fact remains that self-help books, programs, and seminars dominate a sizable chunk of exactly the sort of alternative many people turn to in hope of gaining a base level of understanding concerning some matter that they feel is eluding them, and the lack of which they feel is causing them either personal or professional setbacks.

Some self-help deals with finances, with promising titles like Get Rich Now!–Here’s How!, or All the Money-Making Habits of Successful People Whose Success You Can Copy, Too! [Disclaimer:  No intentional real titles of self-help materials will be used in this post, so as not to distract from the larger point being made by anyone’s need to defend personal loyalties and heroes.]  While most competent financial self-help material will include helpful tips on money management and fiscal responsibility (i.e. set up emergency savings, spend within your means, fully research any potential investment opportunities before committing, etc.), it is a statistical guarantee that they will not live up to the grander claims their marketing implicitly (and often explicitly) makes–such as making anyone actually rich through their work (other then the financial self-help gurus selling the product, of course).  The sheer disparity in the number of people who turn to this sort of self-help, and the low (and I do mean, low) number of actual millionaires it has produced through decades worth of publications and lectures should serve to indicate that many of the promises being made in this genre are (if you pardon the pun) bankrupt, at best.

A much larger sector of the self-help industry deal with matters of self-improvement.  Happiness, depression, anxiety, confidence, dating, attractiveness, sex (oh, especially sex!), or any combination of perceived personality flaws and life dissatisfactions; all of which are the bread and butter for most self-appointed self-help experts.  The titles in this category of self-help always give the impression that all of the personal hangups you’re experiencing, and that are keeping you from being the sort of person you wish to be, do in fact have a ready-made remedy, and are only a few pages (and supplementary seminars, lecture events, and oh-so-many dollars) away.  These would be titles like Finding Happiness, or Rules for Life, or How to be Confident, and Maybe Even Get Laid! [Reminder Disclaimer: All titles are meant as fictional, and all resemblances to real self-help work are purely coincidental.]

Like the financial self-help mentioned above, self-improvement self-help also often comes with some sound advice about presenting yourself in the best light possible; i.e. being assertive with others about your needs and wants, being honest with yourself about your real needs and wants, and possibly even something about the benefit of practicing good hygiene for even measure.  The part that they won’t advertise to you (at least not upfront, before you pay for the material being sold) is the reality that the only way–yes, the only way!–to overcome any personal flaw is to get up and force yourself to do things differently than you have been up to this point.

No book can or will teach you how to get the nerve to ask someone out on a date, or how to mimic what people are attracted to.  The only way for you to learn that is by trying, failing, and learning from previous mistakes through repeated exposure.  Same with gaining overall confidence.  Reading about what body language, habits, or tricks confident people exhibit will do nothing to make you confident–exposing yourself to emotionally vulnerable situations, repeatedly and consistently, until they stop feeling like vulnerable situations is how you’ll become confident in whatever you are pursuing.  Because your confidence in a situation is directly correlated with your comfort to said situation, and the only way to increase comfort (and by extension, confidence) is through familiarity.

If you’re thinking, “Hold on, I’ve actually read some self-help that said that exact thing…”, you’re right.  The problem is that it’s a sound piece of advice that takes no more than one whole paragraph to give.  However, there is no marketability in doing that alone, because it reveals the charade of the structure before the charlatan has had the chance to seduce you into his or her enterprise.  Just telling people it’s up to you to go out and practice the skills you wish to have until you’re a pro, and that no one can do it for you, either directly or by proxy of a formula or a life guide, takes away the bottom line that stuffs the pockets of these individuals who have shamelessly turned the self-doubt and insecurities of others into their professions.  Whether it serves to help any of these lost people to overcome their setbacks in the long run, or not, is irrelevant to them.

There is an obvious irony in the term self-help that many have pointed out at one time or another, but the main issue with self-help isn’t that people are looking to someone else for guidance or means by which to understand aspects in their lives (or about themselves) that they are dissatisfied with.  There is no shame in needing help, and it is unquestionably brave to ask for help when you know you are opening yourself up for judgment, and scrutiny, and possible criticism.  The problem is that quite often turning to self-help gurus becomes a substitute for actually taking the necessary actions to resolve whatever is really causing you grief.

Buying and reading the books, going to the lectures, fretting over memorizing the techniques, participating in the forums, sharing the quotes, the memes, the events on social media, they all give the illusion that you are advancing forward towards some kind of personal progress through whatever system of method is being sold to you, but in reality it is more of a self-sustained loop meant to keep alive the career of these very same gurus that–if they wanted to–could condense the relevant bit of their “self-help” into one paragraph, and step aside to let you truly learn and grow as best as you ever will be able to on your own.  But they won’t do that–they can’t do that.

There will always be one more book you have to read.  One more lecture you have to watch.  One more nuance they have to extrapolate on, over and over again.  And they do this because they know that the vulnerable individuals who are most likely to seek out their material will have the sort of insecurities that will make them indefinitely dependent on the personality they come to trust for guidance, rather than cut the tether to be self-sufficient with whatever insight they think they’ve gained.  For these self-help gurus to exploit this vulnerability to sustain their lucrative careers of preaching banal life advice and inflated self-importance, is anything but helpful–it is parasitic.

Advertisements

Yes, the Alt-right is Racist, and Fascist, too

I’ve always been of the opinion that the best thing about the internet is that it can connect you to people you would never have had the chance to meet otherwise.  Unfortunately, the worst thing about the internet is that it can connect you to people you might never have wanted to meet in the first place.  A further caveat I need to add to my thinking here is that it also gives opportunity for groups of people, who would otherwise silently fester in the fringe of their own obscurity, an outlet by which to promote and recruit for their ideas.  Trailing in that online tradition of appealing to edgy opportunism, mixed in with out-group paranoid hysteria, development of an in-group lexicon, and add a good sprinkle of desperation for online celebrity (propelled forward by a base of fans hiding behind the unrestrained security of online anonymity).  Finish it off with a dose of victimhood mentality about being an aggrieved, unheard sector of society, and you have the key ingredients of an Identity Movement.

The alt-right is one such Identity Movement in the news lately.  It’s hard to tell whether the white supremacist nationalist “identitarian” movement is really winning over any hearts, or if its vocal presence and relentless social media self-promotion is just giving that impression. Either way, these brand of racists are no longer content with posting anonymously on message boards like Stormfront [no, I’m not linking to it; you can google it if you’re that curious], and are confident they can gain a mass appeal among America’s white majority.  One of the main reasons why I’m doubtful of the alt-right’s claim to be gaining mainstream traction is the fact that despite being a movement focused on race, whose primary objectives deal entirely with the promotion (though they would undoubtedly call it protection) of white people and white identity–well to the point of wanting race to be the determining metric of citizenship in a proposed ethnostate–it’s main proponents (and their online followers) will whine incessantly if you so much as dare actually pin the dreaded “racist” label on them.  (It has to be a social progress of a sort when even racists consider being a racist a bad thing, and I’m one to take any progress I can get.)

Deflection, conflation, and obfuscation are common tactics of argumentation and self-defense among the alt-right when it comes to fending off the (accurate) racism charge leveled against them.  Usually something along the lines of:

“The leftists/liberals are the real racists!  All they do is talk about racism, and always at the expense of white people.  The alt-right is just a reaction to the left’s/liberal’s anti-white racism.  The Left’s anti-racism is just a code word for anti-white.”

Okay, I’ll bite.  For the sake of argument, let’s grant the premise entirely.  Let’s grant that the current political Left has a prevalence of anti-white racism at the core of its ideology.  Now, how does the Left being racist against whites (a scenario wherein racism is a bad thing within the stated premise), justify an equally racist pro-white reaction against it (wherein now racism is stealthily flipped as a desirable response)?  Surely, if the initial racism from the Left (as the alt-right identifies it) is a bad thing, then racism as a counter to it would be equally bad, as it would make you simply an inverted copy of that which you are opposing to begin with.

What the alt-right misses (be it intentionally or unintentionally) is that rather than succumb to a false dichotomy in which one must choose a side between racist leftists and the racist alt-right, it is possible to denounce both sides as racists, and oppose them both simultaneously (as the vast majority of people living in the Western world already do).  Just like I can oppose a crime committed against a person, without having to condone the wronged person’s subsequent retaliation if he or she decides to even the score by committing an unlawful act in revenge.

It simply amazes me how people involved in this argument (including those attempting to argue against the alt-right) fail to point out how saying that other people (people you ideologically oppose) engage in racism, doesn’t nullify or justify one’s own racism.  After all, the KKK and the Nation of Islam are both ideologically just as racist as each other, regardless that the stated goals of their racism contrast one another.  To repeat, simply pointing to racist practices of other groups (practices that you wish to emulate, by the way) doesn’t make your racism more justified, or less racist.

I’ll state it even clearer for alt-right supporters: whenever you find leftists/liberals saying we should get rid of whites on the basis of them being white (by whatever active/passive/Marxist/post-modernist/cultural/political means or influence you wish to identify it as) it is racist.  When the alt-right says we should get rid of non-whites on the basis of them being non-white (by wanting to create an ethnostate where citizenship is to be determined based on race, which will inevitably deprive current non-white citizens of their citizenship status based strictly on the criteria that they are not white) it is racist.  And I can–and I will–call them both as such, and point out the myopia of calling out one side’s racism while mimicking the same line of thinking from the other end of the spectrum.

Alt-right spokespersons are very quick to eschew the racism charge against their ideology by saying that they (and people like them) are essentially just in favor of preserving white identity as a unique and distinct concept, just as all other races ought to be respected in their desires to preserve their own unique identities.  When stated in such terms, it can sound rather benign.  But the reality is that every time people who are sympathetic to the alt-right start to map out their end goal (i.e. the creation of a white ethnostate, wherein citizenship rights are to be primarily based on the merits of a person’s race) of just what this sort of ideology entails if it was actually implemented, the outcome is always, by necessity, indefensible on every civic and (I would argue) moral ground.

Once again, deflection and obfuscation are the means by which people within movements like the alt-right communicate.  So whenever challenged on the indefensible violations of human rights that would inevitably follow were their proposition for a white ethnostate put into practice, their go-to retort is to insist that nothing about their goal of creating a white ethnostate is inherently violent, in and of itself, against non-whites who happen to already reside in the carved out area; insisting that sufficient compensation to these non-whites to simply be relocated out of the white ethnostate would be a peaceful alternative to the transition.  I’m tempted to point out how these are the same people who mock the political Left for being unrealistic utopianists for advocating for a classless society, all while sincerely putting forward the expectation that a group of native-born citizens will peacefully relinquish their citizenship rights (and all the protections and privileges it guarantees them) as long you give them enough cash to make it worth their while.  However, I’ll be charitable once more, and for the sake of argument grant even this (absurd) premise well beyond any reasonable sense that it deserves.

So let’s say the alt-right accomplishes its goal, and a white ethnostate is established.  Let’s say that within this ethnostate there is a moderately-sized metropolitan city of 150,000 people, whose non-white population now needs to be relocated.  For the sake of being generous, let’s also say that the percentage of that non-white population is as low as 10% of the whole, leaving us with only a meager 15,000 individuals that now need to be removed.  And since I’m in such a generous mood, let me put the total percentage out of this already small group of individuals who will actively reject any attempts to be removed from their place of birth (regardless of the monetary compensation offered to them to do so) at a measly 1%.  That’s 150 individuals.  150  native-born, law-abiding, multi-generational citizens, whose legal status and citizenship rights will now have to be forcefully revoked, who will have to be forcefully evicted from their country of birth, not on the merits of any wrongs that they have individually committed, but based strictly on the metric of having been born as the wrong race.  This is the reality of what the alt-right is advocating for, if one follows their proposition to its logical conclusion.

So why is this point not being hammered every single time someone like Richard Spencer gives an interview?  And then continuously followed up on when he gives an evasive non-answer that fails to acknowledge the violent ethnic cleansing campaign that will undoubtedly have to happen to fulfill this alt-right talking point?  How can you let these same people babble on about being stalwarts for the cause of individual freedoms and liberties, while advocating for the implementation of policies that seeks to deprive people of the greatest guarantor they have for safeguarding their individual liberties: their citizenship rights–rights most of them have a privilege to by virtue of their births, regardless of their race.

The reason I’m writing this post isn’t because I’m worried the alt-right will actually achieve its stated goal.  I’m fully aware that all of this is a fantasy scenario.  A racist, fascistic wet-dream of a fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.  The logistics of it are not only impractical, the morality of it are intolerable even among the population they are trying to appeal to, i.e. conservative-leaning whites.  I’d even go so far as to say that the proposition of creating an ethnostate, where being white will be the primary criteria considered for citizenship, is furthermore not just ahistorical, but outright anti-historical.

The reason I say this rests on the fact that even during America’s most openly pro-white eras–where slavery was an acceptable labor practice and open discrimination against non-whites was not only tolerated, but often encouraged–even at such a time, where the proclamation that the United States was a de facto “white country” would not have raised the slightest eyebrow among the population at large, even at that time, citizenship still was not and could not be based on the merit of race alone, as evident by the existence of non-white freemen that lived and worked in various sectors of American society, and were still considered American citizens.  Despite the widespread (socially acceptable) discrimination that existed against them, and despite the fact that there were a multitude of legally binding social obstacles that prevented them from enjoying their full citizenship rights on equal terms with the white American populace, the one fundamental right they could not be deprived of was their status as a citizen of the country.  They were still American, and were identified as such by the highest courts of the land.

Perhaps there will be alt-right supporters who read a post like this and say, “Yes, well I don’t care what you say, I’m still in favor of a white ethnostate.”  Rest assured that my goal in writing this prolonged screed on your screen isn’t to convince you to give up your views.  It’s simply to get you to be honest with yourself and acknowledge that when you say you’re fine with a white ethnostate, you are by definition saying you’re fine with revoking the citizenship rights of nonwhites, even if they are native-born and law-abiding members of society.  And you further support this policy, even if it means using force against whatever percentage of these now racially undesirables refusing to give in and surrender their rights to the nation they were born under–essentially endorsing a policy of ethnic cleansing in the region you wish to carve out only for yourself, and people you wish to racially identify with.  Furthermore, it would go a long way to your credit if you could do so under your real name, if these are the convictions you honestly hold.  Because if you do it solely behind the safety of an online pseudonym, where no one can tell if you’re being sincere or trolling for the “lulz”, you can’t turn around and expect anyone to be willing to waste their time and energy engaging in argument with an opponent whose honesty cannot be reasonably deduced.

Moreover, the real reason I bothered writing this post comes down to the fact that those of us who look at the alt-right and see the absurdity of what they are saying need to stop with the near-apologetic way we talk about these people.  Yes, the alt-right is fascist by virtue of the very goals they outline, and the means they are willing to resort to accomplish them.  Don’t allow yourself to get derailed arguing about free speech and free expression by a group that’s literally talking about wanting to strip away the citizenship rights of people on account of them having been born the wrong race.  How can you say you support free expression, when you don’t even support basic rights of citizenship?  By definition, you cannot subscribe to this view, and still maintain to be an advocate for either individual rights, or any sort of enlightened values.  The only word for this line of thinking is authoritarian.  And pointing a finger at what the authoritarian, anti-white leftist/progressive “cucks” are doing, doesn’t negate the fact that while the ideological goal may be different, your the intent and ideological methodology is identical.

Because authoritarianism, by any other name, from any other side, still smells just as rotten.  And the alt-right was rotten at its core from its very inception.

Stranger Danger, Knocking at the Door of Society

In Austin there have been a series of bomb explosions this month from an as-of-yet unidentified perpetrator* (see update below).  Of course it goes without saying that all of us here are hoping that the person/s responsible is/are apprehended sooner rather than later.  Living in the city, what I’ve seen is that life is more or less carrying on as usual in the public sphere.  This is to be expected as people by and large still have duties and obligations to concern themselves with that forces them to carry on regardless of the danger that may be surrounding them (bills still have to be paid after all, and kids still have to get to school).  That is to say, while I know many individuals are certainly taking any and every precautions they can to be safe in a time like this, the city’s social life remains largely undisturbed.

This observation caused a coworker of mine to opine how surprised she was that everyone (referring to those of us who reside within Austin) is responding far more nonchalant about these bomb incidences than one would expect of people in similar situations.  Although I can somewhat see what she meant by the comment, I feel that it also brings up the further query of how exactly one is expected to act while this kind of situation is going on?  How do you as a person properly respond to potential danger that is far enough to be an abstraction to you subjectively, even though you rationally know it’s objectively close enough (mere miles if you’re an Austinite) that it ought to keep you on high alert?  In this regard, trying to gauge out one’s safety risk is comparable to standing in fog–those outside can see you’re in it, but you (precisely because you’re in it) still identify it as something that is some distance removed from you.

The southwest Houston neighborhoods I spent my teen years growing up in were not particularly safe places (it unfortunately goes without saying how most urban areas in big US cities aren’t).  During that time, I have been held up and robbed–and intimately known many others who have been held up and robbed–by street gangs and desperate individuals enough times to have developed a sixth sense about which way to move, what sort of characters to avoid, and how to secure my home to ease my mind on the matter as much as I can (as a precautionary rule, the little chain lock on the door does little good).  My point is that, like most city-folks, being surrounded with some degree of criminal activity is not something new to me.  Nevertheless, no matter how much personal familiarity one has with this nation’s crime rate, the news that a neighbor or coworker has been assaulted and/or robbed within walking distance of you (or that random packages are detonating in the city) will always stir a certain level of anxiety in a person’s mind.

I know people who use this to argue that the human “heart” is naturally inclined to do evil in times of desperation.  But I’m unconvinced by this line of reasoning.  Just as I doubt that man is naturally disposed to be good, I’m equally skeptical of suggestions of his innate wickedness.  Man is adaptive; his behavior situational.  Which is why I see no necessary contradiction in the fact that a person can be a callous murderer at one moment in time, and a genuinely loving parent in another.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that the three men who robbed me at gun point a few years ago probably spent that very evening exchanging pleasantries and joy with some loved one or another (quite possibly with my money; in which case, I at least hope it managed to bring someone happiness).

But this doesn’t do anything to relieve the reality that social communication is being broken down in the densely populated areas of the world.  And it leads me to ponder a few things.  Namely, what if in the future someone who sincerely requires my assistance knocks on my door for help?  Will I readily trust the person, or will I assume that it must be a clever ploy to get me to leave the safer confines of my home, concocted by individuals looking to prey on the average person’s sympathy towards a helpless voice?  I don’t know.  Ideally, I like to think I’m empathetic enough to answer the call for help.  Shamefully, I’m inclined to admit that there’s a chance I might not respond to a doorstep plea.  But it’s easy to philosophize about different scenarios when one is safely removed from the moment of action.  In the moment, a normally rational person can easily be overtaken by anxiety-induced irrationality.  I have even been told by many friends that their social anxiety has reached the point where they don’t feel comfortable having people approach them as they are getting into their cars, because their minds instantly start to recall all the horror stories of victims assaulted (or worse) by opportunistic criminals.  (I personally have also always been of the opinion that there is no inquiry that cannot be made by a stranger just as well standing several paces away from my car door, as standing right in front of it.)

For me, all of this brings up the issue of how exactly we’re supposed to create a more socially cohesive and  cooperative society, when for the sake of our very survival we have little choice but to be vigilantly suspicious of the individuals we are stuck sharing society with?

*Update, 03/21/2018:  A person believed to be responsible for the bombings was identified by law enforcement authorities today.  He took his own life as authorities moved in to apprehend him.

Private vs. Public Schools

Parents who bear the financial luxury of having the conversation, may eventually find themselves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of sending their children to a well-respected private school, over what has been described as the more lowbrow settings of many public schools.  Full disclosure: I spent some time pursuing a career as an educator in a public high school, so I can attest to the shortcomings of its structure personally, if need be.  I have also been associated with a good many private schools over the years as an academic tutor, so I can also verify how much of their oft-heralded academic superiority is greatly exaggerated by its enthusiasts.

It’s true that many private schools have higher test scores and graduation rates than their public school equivalents.  It’s also true that private schools, being primarily funded by the parents who can afford to send their students there, are not obligated to accept every child looking to enroll into their institution (having parents whose income can meet the financial demands of a private school education is also not always enough, since many private schools reserve the right to dismiss any student whose academic performance or personal views fall short of their satisfactory standards).  Public schools, being funded largely by the state through taxes, are normally prohibited from being selective about their student body (hence why it’s called public education; if you’re under 18, you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat).  However, it is also true that private schools are often better at promoting an engaged and interactive learning experience in the classroom, as opposed to public schools where preparing students on how to pass standardized tests reigns supreme.

I present all of the above not because I want to argue one educational system over the other.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably convincingly argue the talking points for either side, without ever injecting my personal views into the discussion.  What I really want to address here is the libertarian argument I often hear in my part of the country, which insists that public schools should be completely replaced in favor of private schools in order to increase the value of America’s education system.  The reason I don’t support this view is because its proponents use questionable criteria to argue against the value of public schools, and because the entire argument appears to be accepted by individuals whose real goal is to  satisfy their already existing political or philosophical ideology, rather than an actual desire to provide a better educational model for the students.

Eliminating public schools will by definition exclude certain people from getting any kind of education–primarily people who need it the most–because there will always be someone who will not be able to pay the tuition, or meet the academic standards of the private institution.  And these children also need to get a basic education if your goal is to truly have an educated populace and be economically competitive on the global market (if it’s not, then disregard this whole post and go about your day).  A proponent of the private-school-only model might argue that private schools come in a variety of forms, and several could be set up where private tuition and high academic standards will not be decisive in enrollment.  To which, perhaps, individuals can donate of their own free choosing to contribute to the basic education of those less affluent in society.  The problem with this line of reason is that it sets out to resolve something for which there is already a solution.

There is in fact already a model in place by which education is provided to those who cannot afford high tuition rates and whose scholarship is not exemplary, and it’s called the public schools system.  What motivation is there to create a complicated set of arrangements within the private school model, when the public schools already serve the function to meet those arrangements?  Essentially, I find two reasons at the heart of it offered by private school proponents, neither of which has much to do with increasing the value of education:

1.  “I don’t like taxes, and big government.”

2.  “I don’t approve of what the state is teaching my child.”

Point number one is popular with libertarians and fiscal conservatives, who feel that government involvement in the marketplace (be it of goods or ideas) and taxation is harmful to the system as a whole, as it leads to over regulation, a lack of productivity, and a stifling of the individual’s liberties in favor of providing communal welfare.  We can debate the validity of these economic points all day if we want, the bottom line as it relates to the public schools is that because public schools are funded by the states (through taxes) they are an infringement against the rights of citizens who may want to opt out of their requirement to pay the taxes which fund institutions they get no services from (either because they have no children, or prefer to send their children to private schools).  The issue I see with this is that while it would make for a compelling sociopolitical discussion about the role of government and civil services, none of it has anything to do with invalidating the notion that public schools serve a needed role in educating citizens who otherwise would have no access to formal schooling.  If your contention lies with the process by which public schools are funded (i.e. taxes), then you have to first voice your concern with the supreme law of the land (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8).

Whether you agree with the efficiency of it or not, the government (both federal and state) has the constitutional right to collect taxes, which it can in turn use to fund social services; education being one of those services on account that it provides a positive benefit to society.  Thus, the whole justification taken here in favor of private schools over public ones, seems to stem from the fact that the existence and funding of public schools doesn’t align with one’s political beliefs.  But this is unsatisfactory in convincing anybody outside of your mindset in the objective worth of your position, since a socialist could equally argue that private schools ought to be eliminated because they foster a sentiment of elitism and class segregation, which will lead to long-term economic ruin.  The problem with both approaches is that the topic at hand is being used to support one’s predisposed political opinions, instead of letting one’s political opinions rationally derive from the topic at hand.

The second point is, to me, a testament as to why public schools are necessary.  Speaking primarily as a former educator, it needs to be said that when I sought to teach students verifiable, testable, reliable data, I owed it to them not to let their (and their parents’) biases deter their learning process.  There is not doubt that the public school curriculum is at times undermined and dulled by the school board that overseas it, which can have negative affects on the education standards presented to the students.  But ultimately the teacher is still not held accountable directly to any parent or school administrator who may take issue with the philosophical implications of a particular topic raised in class.  Teachers are held accountable to the set district standards, whose authority lies independent of the administrators running the campus and the citizens whose taxes fund the district.  And as long as they can demonstrate that they have not violated said standards, no parent or administrator can dictate the information and content that make up the teacher’s lecture (try as they might at times, they will by necessity lose in every attempt, as they very well should).  Therefore, to promote private schools over public schools as a means to ensure the promulgation of your personal ideals and values in the classroom, is to me a position that is almost pointless to refute, because I guarantee you that there are a number of demonstrable facts, across various academic disciplines, that negate many opinions near and dear to your heart.  Once again, trying to make reality conform to whatever ideology you have chosen to accept is by definition incompatible with providing students with a thorough and comprehensive education.

It is worth mentioning that I am in no way arguing that private school should be abolished, or even that public schools provide a superior education.  I know that there are private schools that do exemplary work, whose curriculum is completely devoid of political or theological considerations, where the primary objective is to give its students a proper education based on good scholarship and proper critical thinking skills.  Hence, I take no issue with there presence in the greater educational system, serving as an alternative to parents who are considering it as a viable venue by which to educate their children.

My main point here is to argue that public schools are necessary as a social service.  Furthermore, my aim is to counter the view prevalent in my neck of the woods (conservative, libertarian-leaning America), where people are inclined to argue against public education because they feel uncomfortable with the way they are funded (i.e. taxes), or don’t like the lesson plan being taught.

If, for instance, you are a parent who prefers for your child not to learn about evolutionary biology, or analyze a work of literature you find vulgar, and opt out for the private school route to avoid the implications you think such things will have on your child’s greater thinking, you have the right to do so without considering my feelings on the matter; nor would I even try to suggest that you in anyway ought to take my considerations on the subject seriously.  However, if you come to this conclusion, and therefore insist not just that other parents should follow your lead, but that the educational system needs to be designed in such a way as to undermine the existence of the public school model, you have essentially forced me to engage you on the matter.

My position does not stem from a desire to satisfy the axiomatic precept of my political or theological identification, but from a recognition that many members of society benefit from–and are dependent on–the existence of public schools to educate their children; in hope that a decent education will provide at least some chance of letting them rise higher in the economic hierarchy than their parents.  I see no reason why I should stand in the way of this hope, or concede the argument to those who aim to do just that.

On Arguing Economics

Just to get the main point across allow me to start this post by simply stating, there exists no such thing as the economic model from which we can impartially derive any sort of self-evident conclusions, policies, or values.  By which I mean that there is no purity test to determine which economic model is somehow more objectively “valid” than another.

For example, take two modern economic models that stand on completely opposite sides of the spectrum:  Marxist communism and laissez-faire freemarket capitalism.  [I’m aware that different people have over the decades attempted to give varying definitions within both these models, thereby making an overreaching analysis on my part impossible; hence, I will primarily be addressing elements that are agreed upon components by almost all professional voices in the aforementioned fields.]  Putting aside what Marxism has come to mean to the layperson through the various revolutionary forces that carried its banner in the 20th Century, at the core of the economic model is the proposition that societal development is best understood as the process by which humans–as a collective–produce the necessities of life (often referred to as historical materialism among Marxist scholars).  While the nuances of the whole thing can get very convoluted from here on out, the basic framework Marx was working off of, within this scope of historical materialism, is that human society is better served if the workers who physically produce the products necessary for the life of all of society retained economic control over said products.  From this he further postulated the emergence of a commune like market of commerce, in which production is owned and distributed equally among all sectors of society (i.e. communism), as a historical inevitability that human development is progressively heading towards in the modern era.

The theoretical problem of course in the Marxist economic model is that the validity of historical materialism is dependent on the notion that we accept the validity of historical materialism; this is otherwise known as a tautology (or circular argument), and is fallacious by definition.  The practical part being ignored in this model is that the perception of human progress as developing towards one specific sociocultural norm or another is only evident in hindsight, and any economic/social course that ends up developing can in retrospect be rationalized in terms of its preceding events; this is true even for identical situations that yield contrasting outcomes.  Not to mention, if we are to approach economics from a historical perspective (as Marxism claims) a decent case could be made that human nature (even in modern, industrial time) seems to be more conducive on creating hierarchical social structures, rather than collective communes.

Before any freemarket advocates who might be reading this start handing out congratulatory “Likes” to my dismantling of Marxism (I’m looking your way libertarians and self-styled classical liberals), it needs to be said that the reasoning underlying laissez-faire freemarket capitalism fares no better than its socialist antipodes.  The premise that economic sectors perform at their best when market forces are allowed to compete unmolested by non-market factors (like the government), rests on the idea that little to no regulation will in itself create an environment in which all the various forces that make up the marketplace will have to compete against one another; theoretically leaving the final word on what products/serves are to succeed in the freemarket to the consumers (i.e. all of us).  In theory, this sounds great; in practice, just like when it comes to Marxist economics, historical data casts a few doubts on the extent to which laissez-faire capitalism holds up.

First, the proposition that the freemarket is something akin to a self-sustaining, self-correcting organism ignores the fact that the freemarket is–above all else–entirely man-made.  The freemarket, as an economic plane in which human beings exchange commerce, is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, anymore than a locomotive is a naturally occurring phenomenon; we purposefully invented it to serve our economic needs.  Thus, to argue a “hands-off” approach to an entity whose very existence is owed to primarily “hands-on” interests, can be argued to be more than a bit narrow-sighted.

More than that, when we look at the era in which laissez-faire freemarket capitalism thrived unmitigated in the U.S.–the late 19th and early 20th Centuries–instead of seeing a marketplace of robust competition, driven by the needs of the consumer, we see a gradual concentration of market power in the hands of a handful of conglomerates.  The reason being that, economically speaking, the initial surge in competition experienced in a newly emerging market, left to its own devices, can in time have a minority of businesses surpass their competition to the point that they are virtually the only option on the market left for the consumer.  In this historical scenario, the presence of a laissez-faire freemarket did not create a healthy competitive environment, nor did it have any means to correct the centralization of commerce powers in the hands of the few over the many.  (In fact, in this case the government actually did have to step in and implement anti-monopoly laws to try and introduce competition back into the market.)  Therefore, the unanswered (or unanswerable) question concerning laissez-faire capitalism is the issue of–given the proposition that faceless, easily corrupted government agencies cannot be trusted enough to interfere with the business operations of the freemarket–why faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates ought to, for some reason, be seen as more trustworthy in this regard?

Although this much should be obvious by now, the point of this post isn’t to convince anyone to accept the superiority of one economic theory over another.  Even as far as the two (admittedly more extreme) examples cited above, I’m sure that given more time and interest we all could go back and forth listing all the sincere benefits and advantages of both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism.  Acknowledging this, my greater point about economics remains the same, which is that while the historical study of economics can produce viable, scientifically tangible, insights about some aspect of human societies (primarily developments in the commercial and fiscal sectors), proposed economic theories themselves lack this level of scientific rigor.  All economic theories (be it Marxism, laissez-faire capitalism, or anything in between) by necessity begin with an assumed conclusion (“human society is naturally moving towards a collective communal state”, “the freemarket operates best when left unregulated”, etc. etc. etc.) and then go on to selectively interpret all socioeconomic developments through the lens of whatever situation is more conducive to the promotion of the favored economic conditions already accepted by the economic theory in question.

From this it certainly does not logically follow that all economic theories are equal in their outcome (whether for good or bad).  Or that any one economic theory couldn’t be claimed as more preferable for any specific society (I think most reading this can agree that feudalism would generally be a horrible model for modern society).  What it does mean is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing, omniscient economic system deduced through unfiltered objective reality, as opposed to individual, subjective human preferences.  In light of that, I think perhaps talks of economics from opposing viewpoints is due a bit more humility and reservation about one’s own pet theories, than what is currently on display in public discourse.

Just some food for thought, savor it as you wish.

The Golden Age of Conspiracy

I have an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories.  When I say this please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t actually buy into the stated details of conspiracy theories, I’m just fascinated by how much devotion and faith people put into them; how a person will take several demonstrable facts and then loosely connect them into something–which at first glance–sounds like a plausible narrative, which will appeal to a wide spectrum of people.  Despite what some might think, I am wholly unconvinced that either intelligence or education plays a significant role in deterring people away from believing in conspiracy theories, because such theories are not really about filling the gaps of our mind’s ignorance and shortcomings.  It’s more about satisfying a base desire for witnessing something greater, higher, that is closed to the majority of the “deluded” masses.  This is what makes conspiracy theories appealing to its proponents.

I was still young when Lady Diana died in 1997, but I was old enough to take note of the reactions people around me had to the news.  It took about four minutes after hearing the news for several members in my family to staunchly announce how they didn’t accept the “mainstream” story.  Why didn’t they accept it?  What tangible evidence did they have to make them doubt the news report?  Essentially none, but it didn’t matter.  There suspicion was that the simple answer must be a distraction to cover up the real story.  Or as my mother put it, “I cannot believe that there isn’t more to this whole thing.”  This sentence, I believe, captures the mindset most of us have, most of the time, when we are confronted with some awestruck piece of data.  The official report of the incident was that Diana and her boyfriend died after crashing in a road tunnel in Paris, due to the driver losing control of the vehicle.  But this just wasn’t big enough for most people, who to this day maintain there has to be more to it.  And no investigation will be enough to convince any of them otherwise, because any investigator who comes up with a different conclusion will simply be evidence of the greater conspiracy.  Most conspiracy theories follow a similar line of reasoning.

We have an innate aversion to simplicity.  Just repeating a story we hear isn’t enough, we need to add more complex details onto it to make it more digestible for wider consumption; refine it and move the narrative forward with facts we think ought to be included with the official details.  It can’t be that politicians are simply corrupt and self-serving, they must also be secretly operating under the direction of an unknown shadow government, which is menacingly pulling the strings behind the curtain [and (occasionally) this shadow government has to be made up of shape-shifting, inter-dimensional lizards, whose bloodline traces back to ancient Babylon].  It’s not enough to say that life on earth is simply adaptive to its environment, there has to be more to it; some kind of grand purpose and intent operating on a level too complex, too powerful for our meager minds to fathom.  This line of thinking is especially strong when we don’t have enough facts to draw any kind of clear conclusion, in such a case we’ll reason that even a conspiracy theory is better than no theory.

Simple reasons and answers are often not enough to do the job for us, because simplicity can never meet the expectations of our innately suspicious imaginations.  What does satisfy out suspicion is a narrative that goes counter to the “mainstream.”  That only those of us who are of the most elite intellect can grasp.  “The Illuminati may be fooling you but it’ll never fool me,” is the popular tagline.  Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is the layer of excitement they bring to everyday facts.  It is stimulating beyond belief to lose oneself in all the various plots and details of a hidden world, even if its veracity is only verified by a very questionable set of complex circumstances; this just makes it more exciting.  The other part of the appeal is the strange level of remote plausibility it brings to the table.  For instance, there is no denying that people have conspired in the past (and still do today), often for ominous reasons (an example being the documented long history of unethical humane experimentation in the United States).  And this air of remote plausibility is more than enough to keep people’s suspicions on high alert, except when it comes to scrutinizing the various details being used to support the particular conspiracy theory they have chosen to embrace.

We know that the human mind is in many ways constrained in its ability to rationalize the world, thus we are constantly seeking the higher, the greater, the unimaginable as our answer of choice.  The strange thing is that as the answer we are seeking becomes more nuanced and complex the simpler it will begin to seem to us, and we will insist that our highly elaborate–immensely complicated and circumstantial–answer is really the most simple and obvious of them all.  Because by that point we have already accepted the narrative of the conspiracy, where the grand conclusion is being used to fill in the details, instead of the observable details being used to arrive at the most possible conclusion (be it simple or complex).

Precisely because there appears to be something innate about the way the human mind is drawn to conspiracies the ease by which ideas are exchanged in our lifetime makes it a ripe golden age for conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists to thrive.  The reason being that this greater medium of communication, and the great vastness of information available to us in which we can indulge our niche interests, also makes it possible to feel as though we are exploring new pieces of data everyday without ever really having to step outside the conclusions of the particular niche interest we are being drawn to.  Given enough time, we’ll cease wanting to hear from an opposing view contradicting the knowledge we have invested so much time in attaining.  The deeper secrets we have learned will become a part of the way we view and interact with the world.  In short, the conspiracy will become a part of your identity, a personal matter for you to defend, and all competing and alternative data will work only to confirm what you already have accepted to be true.  Reducing reality to a matter of popular vs fringe consensus, the veracity of which is to be decided based on how titillating it is to one’s cynically credulous senses.

The Illusion of Urgency

Modern life seems fast-paced, yet largely immobile.  I sit behind a desk most of the day (with the exception of the times I’m running from one unit to the next; but even then, my movements are confined to a narrow spot).  And when I do need to change locations, I sit in a car or bus to do so.  Hence, I’m never really actively moving in any of these given situations, I’m just being sort of passively transported so I can resume my stationary posture at another location.  Nevertheless, I feel an unyielding sense of urgency throughout much of the day.  The hours are going by quickly, even as I’m doing nothing of interest.  Sometimes, I find myself suddenly getting up with a great leap of determination and purpose, eagerly entering an adjacent room, only to have my mind completely space out on what it was exactly I wanted to do/get from therein.  (Which then, of course, leaves me with the awkward burden of having to invent some sort of rationale for my behavior by picking up something irrelevant, or curiously looking over some item or another, lest I feel misplaced for entering a room for no reason.  And I do this despite being aware fully that there is no one around to judge my odd behavior.)

Throughout most of human history, I imagine the norm was the other way around; life was largely slow-paced, but highly mobile.  If all you did for a lifetime was work in the field from dawn to dusk (as some of my cousins out in the country still do), your day was fairly monotone, though very active; leaving the body too tired for any odd quirks in mannerisms.  Modern life is also tiring, but our mental sensory is also overstimulated.  My attention span has been greatly warped by the one-click, multitasking nature of what passes for a normal work day, that I find it hard to sit through a whole television program without feeling the desire to pause and do something unrelated for a second or two, before returning to the program (I imagine this is why online viewing is so much more appealing these days–it gives a greater impression of control to the audience).

It’s not ADD or ADHD, by any means, because it’s not about focus, but speed (or the illusion thereof).  Like changing gears on a highway to match the speed of the other cars around you; everything around me seems to be going at full speed, causing me to increase my pace just to appease the high-speed environment I’m finding myself in.  Yet, as I said before, daily life is largely immobile.  Therefore, what I’m left with is this mental impression, this urgency, to act on something or another, but find the lack of motility and space offered by modern life insufficient in satisfying this urge.

It is an illusion of urgency, where none may even exist.  And even though I recognize the superficiality of this on a conscious level, on some prime impulse I can’t help but feel relentlessly anxious to both slow down and speed up at the same time.  With contradictory impulses like this plaguing the mind, it’s no surprise that the psychiatric and psychedelic industry–is there any longer a difference between the two?–is recession-proof.