Mass Death, Critical Thinking, and Media Distortion

There is a digital sign, very close to where I live, that lets the passerby know that 457 people have been killed on Texas roads this year.  That is 457 people killed on the roads in the state of Texas only, in just over three months of one year.  There were 2,877 victims during 911.  So roughly one sixth of all of the people that were killed as the result of 911 have been killed through traffic accidents in the state of Texas this year from January 1st to March 24th.

Yet, no one is particularly troubled by this, unless of course they have been some how touched by one of these accidents in a personal way.  Meanwhile when 911 happened we lost our collective shit, resulting in the invasion of a country that in no way was related to 911.  That invasion led to far more death and destruction than 911 did.  I am not saying 911 was not a horrible event.  I am not saying that no response was necessary.  I am only saying that if you compare the results of 911 to the results of what happen all the time, it didn’t warrant the kind of response that it created.  We did not need to change every law in the land, drop bombs on other people, etc.  We should have gone after the people directly responsible, mourned the dead in the way that we should mourn all people that have fallen before their time, and gotten back to business as usual.

I would imagine that most people would agree with this now, especially in concern with our ill advised adventure into Iraq.  So why am I bringing this up?  (And I’m even bringing it up again as I have touched upon this idea before.  I am constantly reminded of this idea from the sign that I see every time I leave my house to go out into greater Austin.)  Today over at Huffington Post the headline is about a plane crash in the Alps where right now 150 are feared dead.  This number is less than a third of all the people that have been killed in Texas highways this year, and it is far away, so the chance of us knowing someone that died is even less.  Yet, this is the HEADLINE at Huffington Post.  I can only imagine what cable news is going to do with a story like this.  I assume, and hopefully I’m wrong, but I doubt that I am, that cable news is going to have a fucking field day with it!

We live in a democracy.  To have a democracy that functions efficiently, it is important that the citizens of the democracy can assess what’s going on and make educated choices concerning problems.  Yet here in America, a sort of tabloid lizard brain runs the show in determining what is important to focus on.  That is if you take the view that things aren’t being actively manipulated to keep us afraid and in the dark.

When horrible events occur, which with news cameras in almost every part of the globe, they are going on consistently in some form or fashion on a daily basis, we must try to maintain some kind of perspective on things.  As citizens of the United States and as citizens of the greater world, what actually concerns us?  What is a tragedy and what is a threat?  Given that we as humans only have so much time in a day to devote to understanding the world around us, what is really important for us to know and what is not?  When is something blown out of proportion to where it actually prevents us from making wise decisions?  This does not meant that we should be callous to suffering.  It only means that we should not let suffering blind us into creating other suffering in the world.

The way that our news media operates actually causes us to be less informed, as we are overloaded with the horrific and the sensational.  Anytime a news story comes on one should ask, “Does this affect me and my life in anyway?  Does this increase the likelihood that I am going to make better decisions about the world?  If it does not, can I acknowledge that I am watching this for mere entertainment or escapism?”

I would prefer that all Americans quit watching TV news.  If they can’t, I would at least prefer that they limited the amount of time they spent viewing it.  TV news, even though I mentioned Huffington Post up above, is the worst at pumping up false threats, while ignoring real events that we should be learning about.  However, if one is not going to stop watching TV news, I think people should at least take the right set of tools with them, as they try to sort through the insanity of the day.

Critical thinking is more important than ever.  In a world full of information, it is those that understand how to interpret information that are going to stand the best of thriving in this world.  Unfortunately our schools are moving more towards standardized testing, more towards rewarding the unthinking worker bee.  These are the exact opposite of the skills that are truly needed in the modern world.

Andrew Sullivan to Retire From Blogging

I am finding out late, as keeping up with my own blog has not allowed me the time to read his like I once did, that Andrew Sullivan is retiring from blogging.  I am deeply saddened at this.  I think Sullivan’s The Dish is the best blog going, a blog which greatly influenced this one.  Sullivan is someone whose interests seem to know no bounds.  You can go there any day and find discussions on politics, religion, art, and any number of topics.  Although his blog skewed slightly to political issues, I would say only slightly.  Some days you will pull up his blog and find a poem at the top of his page.  Sullivan is Catholic, gay, and moderately conservative on some issues.  (If you use the word conservative in the way that it used to be before the anti-science, corporatist, religious right completely took over.)  I am none of those things.  However, I knew that anytime I went to his page I would be opened up to new ideas, and most importantly, made to think.

There are several minor stylistic things that I stole from Sullivan, like not allowing the typical internet comments to play a part in the discussion.  (As they usually just end up consisting of endless tirades and insults.)  If Sullivan had a reader write a thoughtful dissent to what he wrote he would post it.  He allowed the best of his critics a voice.

But more importantly was the idea that a blog didn’t have to be something narrowly defined.  That in its own way it could be a kind of art form and window into the world.  Political ideas, poetry, videos, and all manner of things could exist on a blog in the same way they do in our real lives.  His blog created a community that was hungry for ideas and that wanted to think and be challenged.  His blog inspired critical thinking and how many things in our media saturated world can you say that about?  It was the first blog that I remember that was outward looking and not just a diary of the self.  Although you felt like you got to know Sullivan through his writing, he was much more concerned in trying to shed light on the world.

I am hoping that this is a premature retirement, that like many musical acts he will return after a brief interlude of rest.  If not, his blog was extremely important to my life and I know to many others.  Although there is still talk of The Dish continuing in some form, I advise you to check it out while he is still at the helm:

The Dish

Anti-Science America and More On Experts

Gap Between Scientists and General Public

President Tells Parents to Vaccinate Their Children

The first article is about the gap between the opinions of the general public and the second is about how the President had to remind people that it was safe to get vaccines.  One of my last blogs (I will link it at the end.) was about how our society relies too heavily on experts, especially the kind on TV that are used to shape public opinion on moral and political issues.  However, where experts are really valuable is on technical issues, which Howard Zinn, in the excerpt I published, eludes to, although perhaps not strongly enough.  Scientists can’t teach you morality, but scientists can give you the technical facts on which to base morality on.  Scientists are not experts at complex ethical questions regarding manmade climate change, but they can in fact tell you that man is contributing to climate change.  Scientists should not be the ones laying out the reason why it is ethical to vaccinate your children, but they should be the ones that tell you if vaccines are safe or not.  Yet on climate change, vaccinations, and other topics of the day, we have a large percentage of the population that ignores the cold hard evidence on such issues.  What does it mean when a President has to waste his time telling people that it is safe to get vaccinations when the overwhelming scientific evidence is that it is indeed safe?

Again the only way a democracy can work is if the general population actively tries to stay informed.  We have too many people that believe in nonsensical unsupported gibberish.  There is a great deal of senselessness on the internet, but at the same time it is actually pretty easy to get the correct information if you diligently search for it.  A democracy is supposed to put leadership in the hands of people, but people, in order to deserve that leadership, must also assume the burdens of that leadership.  That means spending at least part of your life trying to stay informed as to what is actually going on.

Why are we spending so much of our time arguing over things that are settled science?  I think it is because of the corrupting influence that the god of money has on our society.  There scores of think-tanks that have been created, often by corporate money, to try to influence public debate and public policy.  There are a great deal of political “leaders” that are often shills for different industries.  Many of the so-called “experts” on TV have been bought and paid for by different industries.  People like the Koch brothers are purposely trying to dismantle education, particularly science education, but really education that gets people to think critically.  In an age when we are bombarded with information, it is more important that people can think critically than ever before.  People need the ability to actually tell the difference between respected technical experts of certain fields and bought and paid for talking heads, which I admit can be hard to do if you don’t actually have the time to read up on stuff.  The media, especially the mainstream corporate media, does not do its duty in telling its audiences who is receiving checks from where.

There is so much to discuss on this topic, but for the time being I will leave it to you to explore on your own.  Try to teach yourself about the role of think-tanks in our society.  Also, google Barry McCaffrey, who was a military expert often brought on TV shows in the lead up to the Iraq War.  Then spend some time googling where he gets his various paychecks from.  He is a great example to understand how money corrodes public debate.

My previous post on experts here:

The Problem With Experts

Hat tip to my friend Peter for the second article.

Ideas of Value and Worshipping at Decaying Alters

I once read part of Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World.  Although I don’t agree with Ferguson on most current political issues and he can often be pompous and arrogant, there were parts of this book that were really interesting and one part in particular that stuck with me.  This was the idea that technology cannot only spread progress and enlightenment, but can also spread bad ideas just as quickly.  In the book he talks about the implementation of rail.  Rail allowed certain regions to progress economically and culturally.  Goods and technology that had not reached parts of the world were now more easily available and allowed civilization to advance.  Different people that had never been in much contact were able to come together, become more familiar with each other, and share worthwhile ideas.  However, things like racism and anti-semitism, that might not have been prevalent in certain areas, were able to spread as well.

We can see in modern times how the internet allows both good and bad ideas to spread more easily.  Not only can the internet be a place where democratic ideas can be shared, but fundamentalists and fascist corporatists are able to spread their message through the internet as well.

Earlier tonight as I drove home from a gig I was listening to Chuck D’s album The Black in Man.  On one of the songs Chuck D raps that,”There’s a difference between censorship and senseless shit.”  I’m against censorship of any kind, the banning of ideas.  However, this does not mean that ideas have equal value and should be regarded as such.  There is not enough critical thinking and bullshit detecting going on in our society.   Whether it is the right’s fear of intellectualism, because facts are often not in their favor, or the left’s fear of things being deemed intolerant, too many of the conversations we have end up being about how people respond to something and not the actual value an idea itself.

Making scientific decisions is better when science is the metric for a decision and not economics.  A culture that treats women equally is flat out better than a culture that tries to keep them subservient.  These, and others, are simple conclusions that can be reached easily when reason and critical thinking are involved.  Now more than ever, in this information age, we need people that can critique our culture in a meaningful way and that aren’t afraid to stand up and be counted.  At the same time we need these same kind of people to be unafraid to change their opinions when facts add up to something different than what we previously thought.   Utilitarianism, what benefits the most amount of people, should be a force in that debate, even if that idea in and of itself isn’t enough.  (No matter how many benefit from something, it should not be at the expense of suffering of the minority.  There needs to be clear ethical lines as safeguards to that utilitarianism.)  What gives the people the best chance to be free of fear, want, and oppression?  How do we as a society prosper and live lives of meaning without creating suffering in others?  What brings long term meaning to life?  What kinds of short term satiation of our desires makes life less meaningful in the long run?

We have all of the information of the world at our fingertips, but kids are taught less and less how to actually parse that information and decide what has value.  People on the right and the left sense their is something sick in our culture, even if they can’t agree on what it is.

In my opinion, although there is still a lot of ill in our culture due to petty tribal and religious differences, our main problem is that we have allowed money to become the thing we worship above all else.  Whatever sells wins, even if in the long run it will lead to our destruction.

As I read the news today I couldn’t help but notice all of the false gods that we worship on a daily basis.  We too often worship the god of the tribe, while allowing money and power to have their way while we are distracted at decaying alters.

I already know, before even reading over what I wrote, that it is somewhat rambling, that it possibly touches on too many different ideas.  But I can’t help but feel these are the kinds of things we should be thinking about, that these are the kinds of questions that we should be asking.

Why the Modern World is Bad For Your Brain

I fucking knew this shit!!!:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload

Just today I thought of throwing my phone in Lady Bird Lake.  I have become acutely aware lately of how much time I have been wasting doing meaningless tasks when I could be doing more meaningful things.  My reading pace has greatly slowed in the last month or two as I have had increasing work to do on my phone.  It isn’t just the time it takes to do the work.  When I do try to slow my mind down to concentrate it takes me longer to focus.  I’ve noticed how few people I know read period, and I know a pretty interesting cross section of folks.  I can’t help but feel these devices are slowly draining our ability to focus and to critically think about complex issues.  It appears science is slowly saying the same thing. 

American Sniper, Groupthink, and Freedom From the Tribe

I remember when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out and there was a lot of controversy.  I felt like I had to see it, because it was a big part of the conversation of the country at the time.  I also didn’t want anyone to make up my mind for me. I wanted to be able to decide for myself if it was good or not.  When something takes off there is usually some kind of hive mind that takes over the better senses of a lot of people.  I didn’t like it.  Not because of the violence.  Mel Gibson’s equally violent Apocalypto is one of my favorite films.  I didn’t feel the film was anti-Semitic, as I felt like Gibson was using the crowd, although Jewish in the film, as a wider judgment of people in general.  I also didn’t mind seeing a religious film, even though I’m not religious.  I felt like in dwelling on the death of Jesus and how horribly he was tortured, the general message of Jesus, to love one another, was lost.  There is probably some poor soul in a third world shithole right now this minute that is being barbarized. There is nothing ennobling or unique about cruelty.

Right now American Sniper is taking off in box offices around the country.  The film could be great or it could be terrible.  I have no idea, not having seen it.  I remember there were many on the left, and my politics are left, that were up in arms about Zero Dark Thirty.  I wanted to see it to understand its place in the conversation and to see if there was validity to the claim that it was a pro-torture film.  Maybe I need to see it again, but I didn’t view that movie as pro-torture for reasons that would be too long to go into here.  (And I am one that definitely thinks that it was a disgrace that we tortured people and that torture is a warcrime.)

At some point I’ll see American Sniper and make up my own mind about it.  Even though I know Clint Eastwood is a moderate Republican, I also know that the movies he directs usually have a degree of complexity to them.  He doesn’t strike me as a propagandist.  If I have any problem with what is going on, which isn’t with the movie itself having not seen it, it is the idea that one can’t be critical of soldiers.  Soldiers are just people, same as all of us, and are capable of good and evil and everything in between.  Just because someone signs up for the armed forces doesn’t make them immune to criticism until the end of time.  This sounds like common sense to me, but reading certain comments in the press makes me think that is not so for everyone.  That being said soldiers should be judged differently.  In civilian life killing someone would be murder.  In war, it is part of the job description.  Therefore, what matters is not the act, but the manner and way in which those killings were carried out.  Were innocent people killed?  If so, was it on purpose or a legitimate accident in the fog of war?  Anyone that has read the slightest amount of history or seen any number of war movies knows this.  I would bet any amount of money that most soldiers would tell you the same thing.  So why is it that so many view a criticism of one soldier as an attack on all soldiers?  It’s a tribal thing.  And if freedom means anything it means freedom from the tribe.  Freedom from the kind of group think that is common in more primitive societies.

Thoughts On Mockingjay – Part 1

hunger_games_mocking_jay_a_p

I just saw a jet black anti-war movie that was actively trying to make the audience use their critical thinking skills.  Surprisingly it was also a tent-pole Hollywood film that was directed at “younger” viewers, even though by now most people know that the series it was from can engage people of any age.  It was the latest in the Hunger Games movies, Mockingjay – Part 1.

I think this is a movie that will have real staying power as every aspect of it is masterfully done, even if some audience members won’t know what to make of it.  (Like the book, this third entry in the series is different in feel than the first two.)  I read some of the audience reviews online and I wasn’t surprised to find many people disappointed as this movie does not jump through the hoops that most have come to expect from modern Hollywood.  This movie is extremely engaging, but it is not light entertainment.  One of my favorite movies is Apocalypto.  Even though that brilliant movie is way more explicitly violent, this movie might be darker.  (And that is saying something!) Other than a few laughs by supporting characters and one early scene of traditional action, this movie never tries to make you feel good about what you are seeing.

What you are seeing in this fully realized world is a very powerful anti-war movie.  It is also a critique of our media saturated super-capitalistic age of endless war.  Now what this movie does brilliantly is that, even though it is highly critical of the society that we see around us, it never draws conclusions for the viewer.  It is one of those rare movies that makes the viewer do the heavy lifting.

While the movie is extremely anti-war, it is not easily described as a leftwing or rightwing movie.  The hero, as anyone that has seen any of the movies or read the books will know, is a character called Katniss Everdeen that is often seen hunting and comes from a place that resembles Appalachia.  She could easily be from red-state America, except that other aspects of her personality don’t fit neatly into that or any stereotype.  The place where her arch-nemisis President Snow is from is called the Capitol.  As in the books, one could easily view it as being big-government or big-business in the way that it is represented.  But either way, the viewer or reader would be missing the point.  It is simply a place where wealth and power coalesce.  The Capitol is a place where the citizens live lives of deluded splendor that comes at the expense of the other areas that it rules.  These movies are not anti-government or anti-corporations in the modern sense, so much as they are anti abusive power and exploitive wealth.  The people that you root for most of all are ordinary individuals that are caught up in the machinations of an abusive system.  Probably the most one-dimensional character in the movie is President Snow, the leader of the Capitol.  He comes the closest to being a symbol, one that simply uses wealth and power to control others.  He is a facist, a representation of that collusion of business and government.  (So yes, the movie is anti rightwing if the kind of right you are describing is facism, but this is still simplifying things a bit.)

Although I think this movie might be too scary for young kids, I think older kids and young teens should definitely see it.  (Anything that helps kids open up to critical thinking is good.)  It constantly makes you aware of how power uses media to manipulate people.  In this movie, even when Katniss is finally in the hands of the rebels, those that are fighting the Capitol, one is made aware of how even those that are on the right side in war use propaganda to manipulate people for their cause.  Even though there is no doubt that the rebels are on the right side of events, their actions are still treated with suspicion.  You are never allowed to feel completely comfortable when Katniss has to do what the rebels want to further their cause.

The movie is constantly using images that we are all too used to now and makes you question them.  At one point the rebels blow up a damn and it is filmed in a way that could have several interpretations.  Are the rebels representing terrorists or are they patriots fighting for the good of the people?  Again, I think the point of the way scenes like this are filmed is to make YOU think.  Not so that any one conclusion is obvious, but so that you will think when you watch the news, which too often draws easy conclusions.  If modern media simplifies things, this movie creates complexity.

War is never viewed as anything other than horrific.  There is one brief scene where Katniss brings down two enemy fighter planes that are trying to bomb a hospital.  This is as closed to traditional action as the movie gets.  In the rest of the movie war is viewed as an insane force that destroys societies, nature, and human life.

While watching the movie I was reminded of this section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals that I posted the other day. The person speaking in quotes is the Secretary of War under Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton:

“Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?

There were also scenes in this movie that paid tribute to other great moments of cinema.  There is a point in the movie when Katniss, after suffering so much from the violence around her, can no longer hunt when she comes across a Moose.  This is very much like a classic scene in the movie The Deer Hunter, one of the best anti-war movies of all time.  The final scene Mockingjay Part 1, that I don’t want to give away, reminded me in the way it was shot of a scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  (In the imagery, not necessarily in what it is trying to communicate.)  I’m not trying to say that this movie is the equal of either one of those all-time masterpieces, only that it is full of ideas and imagery that will make you think in multiple ways if you are open to it.

If you want to go to the movies to simply escape and be entertained, this movie might not be for you, although it does create a fully realized world to dive into.  (If you are a fan of the series you will want to see this regardless, even if it becomes your least favorite of the series so far, as it again does not adhere to typical Hollywood formulas.)  But if you want to see a mass-marketed movie that really does have a lot to offer in terms of imagery and ideas, than I think many of you will find it outstanding.  (And trust me, if you think I am overselling the ideas in this movie, go see it and tell me it is just escapism.  You won’t be able to whether you like it or not.)  There is so much more I could discuss about this movie, but ideas are still bouncing around my head and I’m not even sure how I will come down on certain scenes.  It is a subversive movie because it asks the viewer to question what they are seeing in their own life on a daily basis.  I don’t know if this movie is excellent or just really good, but that constant questioning is good enough for me.