Monday, June 28, 2010

Versus Cops

This is an old stub of an opinion about the Henry Gates arrest. I don't think anybody really came right out and said this at the time. Skip it if you don't like my politics. I shouldn't really have strong opinions on this issue, but I do. And I'm a writer, and I'm vain, so I think I get to say them out loud, even when I know I'm going to piss someone off.

In my "hometown" paper's comments on this column about the Henry Gates arrest, a couple of commenters suggested that President Obama helped make the Gates arrest a racial issue.

I have yet to see footage anywhere of President Obama suggesting this. I think the fact that people view him as a source of the racial tension is a real measure of how fraught and polarized people are about race in the U.S. There was a lot of discussion about race around the Henry Gates arrest.

And, I felt, it was a smoke screen for the real issue. Racial issue or not, I have yet to see anything to suggest that the cop who arrested Gates was right. He arrested somebody who was "causing a disturbance" in their home by  mouthing off to a cop.

I'm not sure that should be an arrestable offense, ever. Even if you aren't in your own home.

Benjamin Franklin's maxim "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty" gets brought out all the time in political discussion, mostly around gun rights.

However, in the Gates situation, and in similar situations, like the Winkfein arrest, the Peter Watts beating, or the UCLA tasering, there seems to be a vocal minority who supports the rights of the police to use force. "It's what they deserve," seems to be the refrain.

I don't know why I conflate the two issues, gun control and out of control cops. Maybe I chalk both kinds of statements up to the law and order crowd because the NRA is so adamant that private citizens need their semi-automatics to ward off criminals. Because I am uncomfortable with how ready people are to give up their rights to police, I feel that those issues make a good compare and contrast exercise, however.

In the case of guns, the essential liberty we give up is unfettered gun use. The temporary security we gain is protection from some crazy ass bastards having guns. Sure, it's a temporary security. Prohibition doesn't work. It just doesn't. But disincentives to gun ownership allow some crazy bastards to get right in the head before they have access to a lethal weapon.

In the issue of police and rowdy citizens, the essential liberty being given up is freedom of speech. The temporary security being gained is that the gun carrying officer will simply humiliate or harass you. He won't  cause you pain instead. Or kill you. Or incarcerate you.

The inequity in that formula is stunning. Although yelling can trigger one's fight or flight response, an armed man really has nothing to fear from a loud citizen who does not also have a gun.

Another maxim attributed to Franklin, probably falsely, is "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." The problem is in the arms race of liberty, a private citizen will never beat the government when it comes to guns. Against the government, you are essentially unarmed, regardless of what you stockpile in you gun cabinet. But in the US, we've beaten the Feds time and time again when we use our voices. Our voices are our protection. And to give that up to the cops, and especially security guards, seems especially frivolous to me.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Free will as a gilded cage 2

In her blog, The Brazen Careerist, Penelope Trunk wrote a very revealing post about abortions, and her reasons for having them. In conclusion, she says:

"You never know, not really. There is little certainty. But there are some certain truths: It’s very hard to have an abortion. And, there is not a perfect time to have kids."

In Freakanomics, Stephen J. Dubner talks about Steven D. Levitt's research about abortion and the famous correlation between the legalization of abortion and the downturn in crime statistics. Levitt's conclusions were not that abortion is an unambiguous social good, but that the effect of abortion was that mothers who weren't ready to raise children responsibly would make the decision to delay parenthood through abortion, and not raise stressed children.

What really interests me about those pieces of reading is not what they say about abortion, but what they say about choice. How fraught it is to make any choice. School. Career. Family. To be, or not to be.

"Do I have a kid now, and divide my resources between child rearing and career advancement, or later, when the my career advancement has momentum. How sad do I feel about it afterwards?"

"Do I go to school when I have energy, and it's hard to concentrate, or later, when I'm tired and desperate for health care, and how much do I regret either choice later?"

Choices that everybody makes when the opportunity arises, like it or not. As Rush points out over and over again on oldies rock stations.

I believe strongly that adult human beings make choices. I guess some of the research on the human brain suggests that we don't, that we are merely the sum of our influences. And indeed, I think the human body pushes hard on our choices. Emotions, feelings, talents, all combine to make some choices easier for an individual. These are chemicals in the body that, in abundance or scarcity, make up huge tracts of who we are. It's scary to think we are simply the sum of our chemicals.

Practically, though, it seems impossible that human beings are only the sum of their influences. If there were no choice, human males would never settle down. Human societies would look more like a domestic cats, with dominant males visiting loose confederations of females to have children and weaker males looking for holes to fill in the natural order. Women would never do anything but have babies, because that's the best way to pass on their genes and those of their mates. To "be fruitful and multiply." There would be no kindness, just acquisition. We would always give in to our bodies needs.

People have written about things like altruism and culture, and what the biological reasons for them might be. This doesn't reinforce an absence of free will, however. It actually does quite the opposite. It says volumes about our capabilities. It more than suggests that the ability to choose against our bodies is hardwired in. That making those choices is a beneficial behavior in the long run. It suggests that people have different natural appetites and abilities with which to choose because the universe is an uncertain environment, rife with resource disparities, and having the ability to calculate successes and failures based on multiple strategies is a very useful ability for a species to have.

People are a melange of influences and discontents. If we weren't, we would never make any choices at all.

We don't understand this as a species.

We look for the one silver bullet, fact or feeling, that will address all the situations we are unhappy with. Self help books, happiness research, religion, political beliefs, all that stuff is important because it offers strategies to deal with everyday life. But really, none of them work all the time. It's important to give yourself and the people around you the benefit of the doubt. To make peace with uncertainty, so that you can enjoy your life as is.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Free will as a gilded cage 1

A friend linked this article on Facebook with regards to free will. I had several highly conflicting thoughts on this.

The first is that I think maybe only certain kinds of amateurs, hacks and dilettantes, like me, or people whose professional ethics are constrained by an actual set of ethics, like a neurologist, should be allowed to comment on free will in public. People who get paid for their opinions should be out of the discussion. It's too important a topic to have any economic bias at all inserted into the conversation because it dictates how some people feel about themselves.

The second is that there is a margin of stupidity in the discussion of free will. Free will is self evident. It doesn't matter how or why a decision is made. It's just important that a decision is made. I think the topic of free will should be up for consideration, I just that I think the conversation should be about what it is, not if it is. "If" makes the entire question into a bong conversation.

Like the "question" of existence. If we didn't exist, would we be having a conversation about existence? There is always an appeal to higher reality involved in the question of existence, a la the Matrix. If there was a higher reality, it would be full of gun fights and harrowing escapes and dastardly villains. Of course. Or a sublime understanding of the entirety of the universe. Or maybe not. Maybe that's wish fulfillment, and whatever scale of reality you live in has economics to hold you back. But that makes for lousy pop culture.

The question of free will is really a discussion of consciousness. And not if, but what. Because if this relationship that I have with the universe isn't "consciousness," if I can really only be reduced to some really baroque lichen on the face of the earth, the question becomes "who cares?" What we know about the universe seems to indicate that the only thing consistent is change. Stabilizing your little corner of the universe so that it is more fun is a useful goal. It's probably necessary to existing, because without some sensation of fun now or delayed, there wouldn't be much reason to exist.

The question of whether will is free or not seems Manichean in nature. We want to make decisions totally free from economics or conditioning, as opposed to marginally free. But being as we exist in a universe that consists of inconsistently distributed matter and energy, that is of course, impossible. There will always be a tariff on will, whether it be perspective error or resource needs. The question of "free" will is impractically, mystically Utopian.

So determining the "what" of consciousness is a very useful goal, because at the very least it will allow us to game this corner of eternity to enhance the fun quotient.

The question of free will then becomes effectively irrelevant. And, at the end of the day, any random phenomenon that results in Kim Stanly Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy, or the artwork of Jack Kirby, or the counterculture, has to be appreciated for the... sheer fecundity of it. Consciousness, free or not, is a base condition of humanity that deserves to be admired and cultivated the way color is in flowers.


An armchair speculation, inspired by Freakanomics and The Tipping Point, and all the research they stood on first.

I think that there are probably three parts to a personality: Your genetic predispositions, your learned or conditioned behavior, and the part of your personality that does it's best to respond to the world.

None of these parts are subconscious: We use all of them to make conscious decisions. We even use them to rationalize our behavior to ourselves. But humans are monumentally bad at recognizing cause and effect, so it will come as no surprise that we often mistake correlation with causation when we think about ourselves. This means we often attribute decisions made due to the long-standing behavior patterns to spurious emotions.

Depression and Anxiety disorders, I think, are especially relevant to this conversation because they mimic natural emotions but make choice less effective. You can effectively fail to solve a problem because anxiety or depression results in you focusing on a temporary conflict while ignoring another source of stress that is causing ongoing distress.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Crap of Choice

Why are TV watchers so defensive? It feels like the same reaction you often get as an atheist. Both TV watchers and people of faith are firmly in the cultural majority right now. There's no perceived threat, let alone actual threat, to the hegemony of god or mass produced Hollywood entertainment on cultural consciousness. Fine, naysayers can be hella snotty about your moos. I suppose they should be paid back for their snottyness... if you're an insecure loser who really cares that other people take the effort to dig at your foolishness.

But as per the Techland "vengeance" like above: Is it less snobbish of me to say: I don't watch much TV? How about if I admit that I read a TON of crappy books (though I still think that's a better habit than any TV watching)?

Or is it just more priggish fun to punish someone for their disagreement with your crap of choice? Frankly, Opie's vengeance wouldn't have worked on someone with half a brain. I have exactly half a brain, and I would love hearing about someone's contact with Pynchon, Vonnegut, Gaiman, or Pratt, whatever the venue and however passing. And I love the Simpson's, too. But I still don't watch it. I've got WOW to play, and obtuse fiction to write and not get published.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Five baseless opinions, or I can haz opinion?

1. Authenticity is bullshit.

2. The New Atheists are harsh but fair. The New Church is fair but harsh.

3. Barbie dolls are the Venus of the twentieth century.

4.Truth shouldn't be "handled". It should be avoided or faced, but not spun.

5. Nickleback is not alt rock. The Beatles still are.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Feed warning:

I have opinions. Anybody who has been subjected to my Facebook feed for awhile is probably aware of that.

This is by way of saying that a couple of opinion pieces that I wrote a while back and finally decided were good enough to see the light of day have been scheduled to be published on my blog over the next couple of weeks. It's a sort of... philosophical house cleaning?

This exercise could be akin to Noah getting wasted and showing off his junk at the apocalypse. So, you know, look the other way if you don't want to see. I don't think you'll end up as poorly off as the caananites if you look, but you never know. It might be toxic bullshit that I spew. I can never tell.