Bad Memes

There is an infectious agent (I forget whether it’s a virus or a bacterium) that causes ants to crawl out to the tips of grass leaves. This change in the ant’s behavior is of no value to the ant — the value is to the infectious agent. A cow eats the grass and ingests the ant. The virus (we’ll say it’s a virus) needs to be in the digestive tract of a cow in order to reproduce.

There’s another virus that causes rodents to become fearless around cats. Same deal. The infection results in the death of the rodent, who is now behaving in an irrational manner, charging around in front of the cat instead of running. The behavior is, however, advantageous to the virus, which needs to be in the digestive tract of the cat in order to reproduce.

These examples explain a great deal about the current political environment in the United States.

I’ve been reading about memes. The idea is, a meme is not a physical thing like a virus, but it can act in an analogous way. A meme is a pattern of mental behavior, and the pattern can either reproduce successfully by spreading through a human culture, or it can die out. Patterns of behavior that are well suited to the human brain tend to spread. Those patterns are called memes.

The behavior, in many cases, is verbal behavior. An idea that lodges successfully in your brain and urges you to speak (or write) that idea so that your fellow humans can ingest it is going to survive. That’s how the meme reproduces. It’s evolution in action.

A meme that causes your brain to bypass the fact-checking process has an advantage. It’s more likely to survive, because it’s streamlined. Fact-checking is not only expensive biologically (in terms of brain effort), fact-checking can also kill bad memes. So if the meme can bypass fact-checking by appealing to your emotions, it’s more likely to survive.

This is how the idea of “God” has become so pervasive. It appeals to our emotions. The “God” idea has to bypass fact-checking in order to survive, because fact-checking would kill it.

Many conservative ideas survive in exactly the same way: Fact-checking would kill them. Racial bigotry, for example (a very popular meme among conservatives), appeals to our fear of the stranger. Someone who is Not Like Me And My Friends is a source of fear. The meme — the idea that other races are inferior to mine — hijacks that fear and uses it to reproduce itself, spreading through a population.

This morning I got into one of those pointless Facebook wrangles with a fellow who insisted on thinking that there’s a debate about global warming. There isn’t, not really. The details are still somewhat unsettled, but the facts are clear. The polar ice caps are melting (fact). Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (fact). Human activity produces an enormous excess of carbon dioxide (fact). Therefore, humans are causing global warming. Them’s the facts.

What seems to happen is the the meme “global warming is a hoax” has hijacked the emotional mechanism that says, “I’m just as smart as anybody else.” And also, “My friend says this, and I trust my friend.” Those are simple, emotionally appealing ideas. The meme uses those emotions to spread itself. In the absence of those emotions, fact-checking would be a lot more likely to kick in. Fact-checking would destroy the meme.

I feel sorry for people whose brains have been hijacked by bad memes. Also, those people scare me, because they’re dangerous. They’re in the grip of these mentally transmitted infectious ideas, and they’re quite likely to destroy all that’s good in our shared future.

They’re rodents dancing fearlessly in front of the cats. And they don’t know why they’re doing it. Memes are mind control agents. Check yourself.

Reframing the Debate

Today’s lightning bolt is an interview with George Lakoff in Salon. I hope you’ll read it, but I hope you’ll continue reading what I’m about to say before you jet off to Salon. The short version: The festering pile of slime won the election because he knows how to work the media. The Democrats lost because they let him walk away with it. The only way to keep this country from crashing and burning (perhaps literally) is to get out in front of him and reframe the debate.

Even before the election, I could see it happening. I get most of my news from Huffington Post, which in theory is a liberal outlet. But day after day, week after week, in the run-up to the election there were four or five times as many photos of the oozing pile of pus who is now our president as there were of his smart and possibly well-intentioned but undeniably cautious opponent.

Can you say “free publicity”? I thought you could.

The same dynamic is still going on. That’s what the stream of outrageous tweets is about. It’s a deliberate distraction, and it’s more free publicity. Every time you go over to Facebook and post a link to an article slamming President Steaming Dog Turd for his latest preposterous tweet, you’re strengthening him. You’re giving him free publicity, and you’re allowing him to put up a wall of distractions between ordinary people and the real issues. You’re letting him frame the terms of the public discourse.

Don’t do it. Just stop.

What we need to do instead (and by “we” I mean our political leadership, but ordinary folks can help) is get out in front of the debate with our own messages. We need two kinds of messages, I think. First, we need positives. As the Republicans attempt to dismantle government in order to turn everything over to private enterprise, we need people — specifically, the leadership of our allegedly liberal Democratic Party — to stand up and say, “Look at all the good things government does for us!” Make it clear to everyone that we need strong government.

Just in case you feel inspired to start the conversation, here are a few talking points.

  • Today I’m eating food that’s free of poisons and harmful bacteria, because government inspectors are on the job, making sure food is prepared and distributed safely.
  • Today I’m driving on a street that was paved by the government. There are very few collisions, because the government keeps the stop lights in good repair, and because people who break the traffic laws are arrested.
  • Today I’m using the Internet, which was first developed by the government.
  • Today I have clean air to breathe, because the government has and enforces laws against air pollution.
  • Today I’m free to worship in whatever church, synagogue, or temple I choose, because our government and laws give equal respect to all religions.
  • Today the government helps take care of those who are old and sick.
  • Today if I have an emergency, I can call 911 and well-trained emergency responders will arrive at my door quickly, courtesy of the government.

Okay, that’s enough for starters. You get the idea. Make up some bullet points of your own, and spread them around. Don’t let the other side get away with peddling the idea that smaller government is good.

On the other side of the coin, I’m willing to consider disseminating some hateful rhetoric of our own. This morning some yobbo or other was spotted referring to last week’s protest event as “the million skank march.” And guess what? He got picked up by Right Wing Watch and then splashed all over Facebook. How about we try giving these folks a dose of their own medicine? How about, rather than Nancy Pelosi and Al Franken wringing their hands and trying to be civil, they come out swinging? How about, “Too many of our Republican legislators are rapists and drug dealers. But I’m sure some of them are good people.”

Just a modest suggestion.

Turn Left at Stop Sign

Some things are more important than selling books.

I’ve been thinking out loud on this blog for some years now. Long-time readers (of whom there may be three or four) will have noticed that last year I repurposed the blog, writing exclusively about writing. This was an attempt (which doubtless would have proved completely ineffectual) to use “social media” to promote the series of novels that I’m planning to publish this year. I don’t tweet, but by golly I blog. Or blob. Or glob.

In view of the current political situation, however, I’m going to have to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I commented about anything and everything. Writers who appreciate my take on other topics will of course want to stick around, and will find occasional posts on writing tucked in amongst the musing, ranting, and other ill-considered verbiage. If you’ve been enjoying the discussion of writing but find that you’re not in sympathy with my political views, all I can say is, “Fine. Go away. And good riddance.”

The time for being accommodating, for “agreeing to disagree,” has passed. It’s time to resist.

I would leave the United States in a hot New York second, but it’s hard to get a resident visa to live anywhere else when you’re retired — or at least, to live anywhere that I’d want to live. You can get a work visa, but even that is difficult to acquire, and I don’t feel much like working full-time now that I’m nearing 70. I could go to college in New Zealand, I’m sure, but when the student visa expired I’d have to come back to the U.S.

So I’m stuck here. And you’re stuck with me. Sound like a plan?

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Taking a little break here from blogging about writing — the election this week has kind of thrown me for a loop, emotionally. Being a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-take-care-of-business kind of guy, I asked myself, “What can I actually do to maybe improve the dreadful situation a tiny bit?”

Well, there’s the Green Party. They’re pretty much a joke, unfortunately. But I agree with most of their policy ideas. I have a lot more sympathy for them than for the hawkish, Wall-Street-crony Democrats. Is there any way I might be able to put some energy into the Green Party of California (GPCA) so that they have a chance to actually influence future elections or get bits of their agenda enacted into law?

On exploring the website of the California Greens, I sensed what I feel is a basic problem: There’s no leadership. Ordinary people don’t vote for policies or ideas so much — they vote for charismatic leaders. A political party needs dynamic leaders. The Greens’ shortage of leaders is, I think, by design. It’s a result of their guiding philosophy. They love the idea of “grassroots democracy.” They want everybody to have a voice in the decision-making process. While this is a noble ideal, it tends not to produce high-profile leaders.

It also tends to get in the way of effective organization. Getting progressives to work toward a common goal is like herding cats. They just want to stay home and grow organic vegetables. The right wing is better organized because their ideals call for regimentation. (Well, except for the ideal of “freedom.” But don’t ask them if that means being free to be an atheist, a homosexual, or an undocumented immigrant.) As I like to put it, “The fascists have all the good marching songs.” Sitting in a circle and singing “We Shall Overcome” is not, on the whole, very effective as an organizing strategy.

I emailed a couple of the — what shall we call them, functionaries? — on the GPCA website. In the email I said, “It seems to me that this would be an ideal time for the Green Party to get into high gear. The outrage is palpable! Recruiting new party registration and putting forward a progressive agenda — the time is now. Is the GPCA doing anything to mobilize, recruit, and start running qualified candidates for statewide office? Are there plans in the works? … If there’s to be any hope for the party in the future, the time to seize the initiative is now. Where can I learn about a Green Party power plan for 2017 and beyond?”

I got a prompt response from Mike Feinstein, one of the three spokespeople listed on the website. He asked if I’d like to talk on the phone. I said sure. This afternoon we had a nice 15-minute conversation.

The first thing to remark on, I suppose, is that one of the three spokespeople for the statewide party had time for a 15-minute chat with a total stranger who confessed (as I did) to being a former registered Green who had re-registered some years ago as a Democrat. I’m not sure whether this means he doesn’t have many duties, or whether it means they’re desperate to register anybody who shows the slightest interest. Or maybe he’s just extremely courteous and not many people ever get in touch with him about Party business. Take your pick.

He never addressed in any way the substance of the question I had asked in the email. I didn’t push him on it — I was just curious to hear what he had to say. What he did, primarily, was give me some insight into how difficult it is for the Green Party to get any electoral traction.

He pointed out that in places like Germany, where the Green Party does better, election results lead to what’s called proportional representation. That is, if a small party gets 5% of the vote, they get 5% of the seats in Parliament. This is quite different from the district-based winner-take-all system in the U.S.

He also mentioned that the Democratic Party views the Green Party as the enemy. They do things to push the Greens aside. I didn’t ask for specifics, but he did mention the 2003 mayor’s race in San Francisco, when Matt Gonzalez (Green) was narrowly defeated by Gavin Newsom (Democrat). Newsom is now, of course, our Lieutenant Governor. Winning the mayor’s race was an important stepping-stone for him. Feinstein (Mike, remember, not Dianne — probably no relation, though I didn’t ask) told me Bill Clinton was involved somehow in supporting Newsom. That doesn’t surprise me. That’s how big league politics works.

Today the Green Party boasts one mayor in California. He’s the mayor of a town called Marina, which has a population of about 20,000. That and half a dozen city council seats, also in marginal locations, are the Greens’ big electoral accomplishments. Also, their registered membership has declined steadily over the past 15 years, from 150,000 in 2003 to about 110,000 today. You’d think recruiting a few thousand disappointed and distressed Democrats would be a priority this week, but apparently it’s not.

At the end of the conversation, I was left with the impression that Mike was being defensive rather than proactive. He blamed the electoral system and the Democrats for the Green Party’s threadbare accomplishments. Of course these are huge factors — he’s not wrong — but blaming the system for your failures is not smart and it’s not effective. It’s a way of remaining a victim.

Another huge factor is the fact that the Greens don’t attract much in the way of financial support. They can’t run an efficient party organization, because it’s all volunteers. There’s no paid staff, and certainly no money for TV ads. This is probably an inevitable problem — but what are you going to do about it?

No fund-raising efforts are mentioned on the GPCA website, not even on the page describing the Finance Committee.

Those are our options, sports fans — a Democratic Party too mired in dysfunction to mount an effective challenge to a preposterous and dangerous demagogue, or a marginal party that entirely lacks leadership, vision, and money.

Color me disgusted.

Shrill and Over the Hill

Okay, here’s a considered response to the Paglia interview in Salon.

I agree with her assessment of Bernie Sanders, which is tucked away at the end of the piece. Other than that, it’s pretty much a farrago of nonsense by an over-the-hill media figure who is trying to get back in the spotlight by stirring up some shit.

First paragraph: She goes out of her way to insult her fellow atheists, based not on any specific things they have said, but because she has a deep respect for “the great world religions.” Does that strike anyone as even slightly self-contradictory?

It’s certainly the case, as she then points out, that cultural values have changed over the past century. It’s true that “the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles … no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of Western civilization.” Apparently her objection to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris is that they show insufficient respect for religion as a central part of “the heritage of Western civilization.” The difficulty with this line of attack is that their criticism of religion has nothing whatever to do with its importance as part of the heritage of Western civilization. Their criticism of religion is on other grounds entirely. They’re concerned with the negative impact that religion can and often does have on ordinary people’s lives. Culture doesn’t enter into it.

In essence, she’s criticizing them for failing to do what she would have done; yet she fails to address in any way what they are doing. The fact that they have spent years chronicling and railing against the dire abuses of religion is not even on her radar.

She waxes nostalgic about the Sixties, and indeed she’s right that there was a lot more attention being paid (at least in the media) to Eastern religions in the Sixties than there is today. Two observations need to be made about this. First, interest in Eastern religions is still very much with us today — it’s just that she isn’t aware of it, because it’s not in the media the way the Beatles were when they visited the Maharishi. Contrary to her assertion, sitars were not “everywhere in rock music.” There were a maybe three or four hit records that had sitar. Hinduism and Indian influences were a fad, that’s all. And second, who was it that derailed what she calls “this great period of religious syncretism” that was supposedly in the offing? It was the conservatives. She would rather blame pop culture, of course. And hip-hop is not blameless. But who controls pop culture, after all? Multinational corporations, which are the bastion of conservatism.

“There are no truly major stars left,” she complains. Could this possibly be the nostalgic lament of a woman who is getting old, who doesn’t understand what young people are up to these days? Is it possible that pop culture has moved past the need for major stars, or that young people are savvy enough not to trust major stars? Hmm.

She doesn’t like snark. Okay, it’s part of pop culture, and she feels alienated by pop culture, but let’s give her that. She then dismisses God Is Not Great as snark. “He appears to have done very little scholarly study,” she cries. And that’s true enough — but it’s entirely beside the point. Hitchens did not set out to do a scholarly study. His book is frankly a polemic. It was written for the purpose of stating his opinions in a way that would force people to consider them. But Paglia has no interest in actually entering into a dialog with Hitchens’s opinions. She only wants to complain because he didn’t write the scholarly book she would have written.

Paglia claims to be a scholar of pre-Christian religions. Let’s accept that description at face value, though not without noting that her best known book was published 25 years ago, and was as much a polemic as a work of scholarship. It should also be noted that some of the quotes on that are attributed to Paglia seem less scholarly than polemical in the manner of Christopher Hitchens. “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.” One might be forgiven for wondering whether she actually interviewed any prostitutes before writing this. And this: “Gay men are guardians of the masculine impulse. To have anonymous sex in a dark alleyway is to pay homage to the dream of male freedom. The unknown stranger is a wandering pagan god. The altar, as in pre-history, is anywhere you kneel.” This is a shocking stereotype — not at all the sort of thing one would associate with a scholar.

In congratulating herself on her scholarly tendency to do “the necessary research into religion,” she says this: “In the last few years, I’ve been studying Native American culture, in particular the Paleo-Indian period at the close of the Ice Age.  In the early 1990s, when I first arrived on the scene, I got several letters from Native Americans saying my view of religion, women, and sexuality resembled the traditional Native American view.” This is a bit odd on two levels. First, it’s not possible to study culture as it existed at the close of the Ice Age. There are no written records of the culture. All we can study are the artifacts that were accidentally left behind. We can make guesses about the culture based on the artifacts, but any reputable scholar will tell you how error-prone such a procedure is. How reliably could an archeologist reconstruct the culture of the Sixties (of which Paglia has such fond memories) based on a hash pipe, a bowling trophy, the chassis of a Dodge Dart, and the rabbit ears from a TV? Second, it’s very much open to question whether modern Native American women really know what their own cultural traditions were in the pre-Columbian period, much less ten thousand years ago. Are “a few letters” from unnamed sources whose views may have been contaminated by Anglo writers in the Sixties a reliable indicator that Paglia’s scholarship is solid?

She then turns to Jon Stewart. Okay, she doesn’t like his snarky style of comedy. She thinks he compares unfavorably with Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Joan Rivers. We might be forgiven for asking whether Paglia’s scholarly research into pre-Columbian Native American culture has made her an expert on modern comedy … but let’s not go there. Let’s look instead at this. Jon Stewart, she says, “has debased political discourse…. As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.”

Let’s deconstruct that startling assertion a bit. What she’s saying is that if Stewart weren’t criticizing Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, and other conservatives (or were criticizing them more in the manner that Mort Sahl would have done) there would be less polarization in our political discourse. It’s not what they’re actually doing that matters, ordering up trillion-dollar wars and all. It’s Jon Stewart’s tone that is to blame. Or possibly the fact that he has the temerity to bring these issues to our attention at all.

She tells us explicitly that she doesn’t “demonize Fox News.” No matter how consistently they lie, no matter how vociferously they skew the political discourse, they’re not demons in her book. No, it’s Jon Stewart who is to be blamed.

And then this: “Historically, talk radio arose via Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s precisely because of this stranglehold by liberal [media] discourse.” Liberals had a stranglehold on the media until Limbaugh came along? Really? That must have been why Ronald Reagan’s candidacy was so decisively trounced in 1980 and again in 1984.

The essence of her rant, and the main reason a few folks have been commenting on it on Facebook, is this passage: “Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true! Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology, with people barricaded in their comfortable little cells. They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers. It’s so simplistic!”

Let’s dissect this a little. First we have to ask, what liberals is she talking about? All liberals, or only some of them? Implicitly, she’s talking about all liberals, since she doesn’t bother to qualify her accusation. This is hardly a scholarly analysis, is it? Second, it can hardly be said that Occupy protesters or Black Lives Matter protesters are “barricaded in their comfortable little cells.” She’s not talking about political activist liberals at all — she’s talking about the supposedly liberal professors at universities whom she has encountered. Earlier in the interview, she put it this way: “[I]n the 1990s, I was saying that the academic leftists were such frauds — sitting around applying Foucault to texts and thinking that was leftism! No it wasn’t! It was a snippy, prim, smug bourgeois armchair leftism.” There may be a lot of truth in that; I wasn’t there at the time. But that’s her experience of liberals, in a nutshell, and that seems to be all she knows about liberals.

Given the diversity of opinion in liberal circles, it’s a bit hard to take seriously the idea that she’s talking about “comfortable little cells” in a doctrinal sense. I have liberal friends who love Occupy Democrats. I have liberal friends who despise Occupy Democrats. What “knee-jerk ideology” is she referring to, exactly? We’re not given a clue. She’s not discussing ideas at all; she’s just slinging insults. She has no interest in specifics, or in reasoned discourse. She’s a troll.

She brings up the recent Planned Parenthood video, and slams “liberal thought in the media” for not giving it a big play in the news. She calls this “censorship.” And she complains about this even though she claims to support Planned Parenthood. Does she mention that the video has since proven to have been deceptively edited, or that the practice described in the video is entirely legal and goes to covering their operating costs? It wasn’t news at all, it was a Swift Boat attack. No, she doesn’t bother to mention that. Her real agenda is to slam the supposedly liberal mainstream media for ignoring yet another pointless Benghazi hoo-hah.

The supposedly liberal mainstream media has, meanwhile, given Donald Trump an enormous amount of undeserved coverage. She says, “So far this year, I’m happy with what Trump has done, because he’s totally blown up the media!” She has just contradicted her own view of the media — and now she’s praising Trump (whom she correctly characterizes as “a carnival barker”). She thinks he’s “more of a comedian than Jon Stewart is.” Never mind how dangerous the emotions may be that Trump stirs up among right-wing voters. She doesn’t mind that. It’s not even on her radar.

In sum, Camille Paglia is very, very dishonest intellectually. She’s happy to attack people she doesn’t like without bothering to examine or even mention the content of their ideas. Also, she’s living in the past.

Cognitive Defects

In yet another of those annoying, pointless Facebook wrangles, I found myself stating that conservatives don’t know how to think. This concept requires a bit more explication than Facebook’s slim user interface can conveniently handle, so here we are.

I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives never think. The brighter ones often do. The problem is that their thought processes don’t work correctly. Kurt Vonnegut once compared fascism to a clock. The clock, he said, keeps time perfectly for 5 hours and 32 minutes — and then the hands spin wildly as it backs up to 2 hours and 6 minutes earlier. It then runs perfectly for 27 seconds and then jumps ahead by an hour and 41 minutes, after which it runs perfectly for another 3 hours and 14 minutes…. You get the idea. The problem lies in those strange lapses, those moments when the mechanism (of thought or social organization) breaks down.

I see a couple of reasons why this happens.

First, conservatives conspicuously lack compassion. It is a cardinal rule of conservative thought that if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault, and that if you don’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, no one else has any obligation to offer you a hand. Conservatives will sometimes have great compassion for others in their peer group, while actively demonizing those who are not part of their group. It’s not an accident that most racists are conservative: Racist thinking is much like conservative thinking. It’s a deliberate failure to acknowledge the suffering of other people, and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions in causing or perpetuating that suffering.

It’s lack of compassion that causes conservatives to love war. The enemy isn’t seen as human. If the enemy isn’t human, the normal strictures of morality don’t apply.

Conservatives are addicted to winning. They will do whatever it takes to win. If that means keeping the content of an important piece of legislation secret, or shutting up witnesses at a hearing, they have no problem with that.

Just as important as the lack of compassion is that conservatism is ideologically based rather than evidence-based. Conservatives typically ignore evidence that’s right in front of them, because to acknowledge the evidence would force them to re-examine their ideology. The economic policies of Republican lawmakers in the United States are a fine example of this. When their policies tank the economy, the solution they propose is generally more of the same.

Those who are in the grip of ideology have Holy Texts, whose content is not to be questioned. The Holy Text could be the Bible, or it could be the novels of Ayn Rand (who was certainly not a fan of the Bible). It doesn’t matter what the text is; what matters is that when anxiety arises over reality’s failure to adhere to your fond expectations, you can take refuge in the Holy Text, which must be right.

In chemical dependency, refusal to confront the evidence is called denial. Projection is a related mental strategy. In projection, you accuse the other person of engaging in the precise behavior that you’re engaging in yourself. I don’t know whether this is a modern manifestation of conservatism, or whether it’s of long standing, but it’s certainly prominent today. If you mention racial injustice or even suggest that some particular injustice might be racially based, you’re accused of being a racist. If you mention that rich people oppress and cheat poor people, you’re the one who is engaged in “class warfare.” If you’re a Christian of a certain stripe, you claim the right to demand that everybody else should adhere to the rules for personal comportment that are espoused by your church — and if they say they’d rather not, you’re the one who is being persecuted.

I don’t think this is always a conscious ploy. I think many conservative Christians really do feel that they’re being persecuted when they’re denied the privilege of persecuting others. Liberals, in contrast, generally understand that we’re living in a pluralistic society, and that we all need to respect one another’s diverse needs and desires, as long as they don’t cause problems for other people.

And of course, if you point out the defects in conservative thinking, you’re the one who is intolerant of opinions different from your own. The conservative position is that if you don’t smile and nod at whatever egregious nonsense they’re peddling, you’re exhibiting intolerance and bias. The widespread and preposterous attempt to paint mainstream media as having a liberal bias is a good example. If a news organization doesn’t toe the most hidebound conservative party line 100%, that’s a liberal bias.

A corollary of the tendency to cling to ideology is that when presented with a rational argument that debunks their ideology, conservatives will change the subject rather than changing their minds. I saw a good example of this a couple of years ago, while discussing gay marriage with a conservative friend. My friend is no dummy — he has a Ph.D. in a technical field. He was also raised Catholic, which may or may not be relevant. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t see the point of legalizing gay marriage.

I asked him why. The purpose of marriage is procreation, he said. Gay couples can’t have babies, so there’s no reason why they should be able to marry.

I pointed out that our laws allow women who are past menopause and men who have had vasectomies to marry. By his logic, that shouldn’t be allowed.

Well, that wasn’t the point, he said. The point was that children should have a mother and a father as role models. I asked him whether that meant that the children of single mothers and single fathers should therefore be taken away from their parents and put up for adoption, so they could grow up in a household with two parents of opposite sexes.

Well, no, that wasn’t what he meant either. What he meant was that marriage had always, traditionally, been defined as between a man and a woman, and there was no reason to change that.

I pointed out to him, first, that traditional marriage in many parts of the world included polygamy, and that in the European tradition until rather recently, divorce was impossible. Traditions, patently, can and do change.

But why do they need to call it marriage, he asked. Aren’t domestic partnerships the same thing? Well, no, I explained. Not in a legal sense. There are many reasons why gay couples may need the legal benefits of marriage — the right to family hospital visits, inheritance law, the right not to testify against a spouse in court, and so on.

Well, all that was beside the point, my friend said. The point of a marriage was to raise a family, and gay couples can’t have kids.

But many gay people do have children, I pointed out. Well, adopted children, he said. No, I said — not just adopted children. Many gay people have already had biological children before coming out as gay. Isn’t it better that those children should be raised in a stable two-parent household?

At this point my friend switched back to one of his earlier talking points. We had gone around in a circle. I had convinced him of nothing. The reason I had failed was that he had already made up his mind (for reasons that were, I’m sure, mostly unconscious) before the discussion started. My demolishing his talking points one by one had no effect at all, because he wasn’t interested in having a rational discussion. He was only attempting to demonstrate his rationality in order to preserve his own good opinion of himself.

So I yelled at him. I called him a fuckin’ bigot and stomped out.

We’re still friends. And he’s probably still a bigot. He probably still doesn’t get it — and he probably still thinks his position is rational. That’s what I mean when I say conservatives don’t know how to think.

The Rot Starts at the Top

According to a Huffington Post story this morning, President Obama’s response to yesterday’s widespread protest marches was this:

“President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying one of the chief issues at stake is ‘making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally.'”

No, Mr. President. People having confidence is not the issue. The issue is, the police are killing unarmed citizens (most of them African-American) as a result of minor infractions or for no reason at all — and getting away with it. That is the issue.

We can read Obama’s comment one of two ways. Possibly he doesn’t even know what the real issue is — but I doubt that. I think he knows. The problem is that he can’t say it out loud. He’s so embedded in the structure of wantonly brutal power in this country that he feels he has no alternative but to support that power structure by consciously, publicly, and cravenly misrepresenting what’s going on.

How can people have confidence in something that isn’t the case? They’ll have confidence only if they’re deluded and benumbed by a barrage of propaganda. What Obama is saying boils down to, “Our propaganda isn’t working.” Well, yeah, it isn’t. You got that right, dude.

What he conspicuously isn’t saying is, “The protesters are right. The system is fucked up, and we need to change it.”

One Nation Under What?

Sometimes I get a little steamed up. This morning on Facebook, one of my friends posted an item about the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. This led immediately to a diatribe from one of his Christian friends (whose name I will omit, because I’m a considerate person):

“I visited this site and I read all the comments regarding the pledge. You know full well that this nation was founded on religious principles…..specifically the principles of Jesus Christ. To deny that is foolish. All one has to do is read the writings of the founders to know their heart. I was deeply offended by the incredibly noxious comments and vicious screed directed at those of us that are followers of Christ. And all this from a crowd that preaches tolerance. I simply can’t believe that you could align yourself with something this low.”

Another friend of my friend responded to this ridiculous statement as follows:

“With all due respect, you do know that Thomas Jefferson had his own version of the Gospels. He took out all the voodoo and the Hocus Pocus and left the direct words of Christ. This country was not found on religious principles and most decidedly NOT on the principles of Jesus Christ. That is why the Constitution has a provision that mandates that NO RELIGIOUS TEST be required for ANY Constitutionally mandated position in our government.”

I then added my two cents’ worth:

“As a matter of historical fact, you’re wrong. The founding fathers were very careful to keep religion OUT of political life. The fact that you fail to understand this shows very clearly exactly WHY they chose that path. It should also suggest to you why people get a little testy on the subject. To be specific, the Christians in this country fucking don’t get it.”

The Christian guy then fired back with this:

“First of all, my comments were directed to [the original poster], not any of you. Your revisionist view of history is typical atheistic garbage. Jim, I don’t fail to understand anything. I have devoted most of my sixty years to intensely studying the Bible and history and all I can say is that you and your ilk have succeeded in turning this once great nation into a third world rat hole. By the way, don’t use that kind of offensive language when you address me.”

Of course, there are numerous deep-seated problems with this, most remarkably the bizarre notion that the United States would be a wonderful nation today if it weren’t for the atheists. Also, I find myself wondering whether this fellow has ever done a point-by-point comparison between, say, a nice clean suburb in Southern California and an actual “third world rat hole,” such as, oh, maybe Somalia or the slums of Bangladesh. Probably not. The supposed horrifying collapse of the United States is not entirely in his mind — things have gotten pretty bad around here, though they weren’t exactly great in the 1950s, were they? There’s also a whiff of racism about his phrase, isn’t there? Just a little whiff.

In any case, I lost it, okay? Here’s how I responded:

“So you’re an intolerant asshole and an ignorant schmuck. I might have expected better of a so-called ‘Christian,’ but I don’t, usually. And fuck yourself in the ass if you don’t like my language, you piece of dogshit.”

I’m afraid I’m just not very tolerant of religious people anymore. Religious patriots are worse. Ignorant religious patriots … well, that’s a redundant phrase. All religious patriots are ignorant, by definition.

I do think it’s charming that this guy is posting on Facebook and thinking he has the right or can expect to control other people’s use of words like “fuck.” That level of cluelessness is a highlight of the conversation.

But the underlying problem is not that the guy is ignorant. We’re all ignorant about various things. The underlying problem, and the reason I get so tweaked about his brand of idiocy, is this: His religion forces him to be ignorant. His religion is one-size-fits-all. There is no room in his world view for divergent opinions. As far as he can see, Christianity is the One Holy Truth, and because he loves his country (a separate failing, and a topic for another time) he cannot conceive that his country was founded on other than Christian principles.

The logic (if you want to call it that) seems to be this: All good things come from God. Therefore, anything that is not good is due to people’s failure to worship God.

Never mind that the God of the Old Testament was, according to the documentary evidence, a sadistic motherfucker. Pay no attention to the deity behind the curtain.

Last night I was part of a very interesting discussion about tolerance. It seems to me that tolerance is a two-way street. Religious people tend to expect (if not demand) tolerance for their views — but many of them fail to return the favor. Their dogmatic belief is that they’re right — and if they’re right, atheists must be wrong. The stakes being (in their pathetic little minds) very high, they have little hesitation in striding out forthrightly to smite and bring low the evils of atheism. Of course they’re quite willing to love you as an individual … but only after you become a convert to their brand of hoo-hah, whatever it happens to be.

Last night somebody said, “Tolerance is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t mean you have to put up with assholes.” If a religious person demands that you be respectful of their religion, while they’re refusing to be respectful of your secular values as an atheist, and then they accuse you of being intolerant because you ask them to hop off of their high horse and come down to earth — no. Fuck that.

Culture, Creativity, and Copyright

The law of copyright is a modern innovation. Copyright protection was developed for an important reason — to enable creative people to earn a living by doing creative work. Before the law assumed its present form, authors and composers routinely saw their popular works pirated. Unless an artist was fortunate enough to have a wealthy patron, the artist’s income was precarious.

As valuable as this legal framework has been to thousands of artists, there’s a downside. Works that captivate the public (and also, for that matter, works that remain little-known) remain exclusively owned and controlled for a number of years by the owner of the copyright. During the term of the copyright, nobody else can make use of the materials in a creative work.

Here’s a neat example of why this is a bad thing. In 1562, a long-forgotten author named Arthur Brooke published an English translation, in verse, of an Italian love story. He called it “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Only 30 years later, Shakespeare recast the story in a play, Romeo and Juliet. If modern copyright law had been in existence in England in the 16th century, we would not be able to enjoy that play today, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have written it. Just as likely, Brooke couldn’t have published his translation either, so Shakespeare would never have been inspired by it.

Technically, Shakespeare could have written the play — and then put it away in a drawer for 50 or 75 years, until Brooke’s copyright expired. But why would he have written it if he couldn’t publish it or have it performed?

Culture is not a private act. It’s a shared public experience, a shared human experience. Culture should not be kept locked away in tight little boxes that nobody is allowed to open unless they’ve checked out an authorized key from the Official Keeper of the Authorized Keys.

The law of copyright turns culture into a commodity. It turns the recipients and beneficiaries of culture (that is, all of us) into passive consumers. We’re allowed to enjoy the hallowed works of culture, but we’re not allowed to participate in them in any significant creative way.

Unless, of course, the copyright holder gives permission, either tacitly or overtly. The world of fanfic (fan fiction) is apparently quite healthy. People write their own Harry Potter stories, their own Star Wars and Star Trek stories. Some authors (such as J. K. Rowling) allow it. Others (such as George R. R. Martin) don’t. It’s up to the author — or, if the author has died or sold the rights, to the current owner of the copyright.

I’m sure most fanfic is dreadful, but that’s neither here nor there. The people who write fanfic are actively participating in their own culture, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Eventually, after the passage of years (and the law differs from one nation to another with respect to how many years have to pass) a copyrighted work passes into the public domain. When that happens, anybody can exercise their own creativity by freely adapting the material. Anybody can write Sherlock Holmes stories or Wizard of Oz stories, because those books are in the public domain.

To be more specific, the L. Frank Baum Oz books are in the public domain. Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books aren’t, so you can use the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, but you can’t use any characters that Thompson created.

As that caveat suggests, you have to be careful. Want to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon? It was published in 1930. The legal situation in the United States is murky, but many novels published since 1923 are still protected by copyright. You might have the makings of a terrific mystery starring Sam Spade rattling around in your head, but unless the copyright owner (whoever that happens to be) is feeling charitably disposed, you could be in for a world of hurt.

This is not how culture and creativity are supposed to work. I don’t have a solution to offer, but there is damn well a problem here.

Indemnification Blues

I fuckin’ hate lawyers. Twice this week, I have looked at legal documents that include blanket indemnification clauses. One was a contract presented to freelance writers by one of the magazines for which I’m a semi-regular contributor. The other was a form I might want to fill out and sign, requesting exhibitor space at the local public library.

The contract for freelance writers I don’t propose to comment on at this time. Negotiations are ongoing. Instead, let’s look at the library’s “Display/Exhibit Space Request.”

This document includes the following charming clause: “I agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless, the City of Livermore, its officers, employees, appointive boards and the Livermore Public Library from and against any and all loss, liability, claims, lawsuits, damage or injury of any kind, including, without limitation, claims for monetary loss, intellectual property infringement, property damage, equitable relief, personal injury, or wrongful death, arising out of or in any way connected to the display or exhibit.”

Lawyers are not, by and large, concerned with what is fair, equitable, or just. They are concerned solely and entirely with protecting their clients from legal exposure or liability. That’s what this clause is about. We can be fairly certain it was drafted by someone in the city attorney’s office. I think we can safely conclude that whoever drafted it does not give a flying crap about the local citizens who might want to use the library’s wonderful exhibit space. The attorneys who drafted and signed off on this sentence care only about protecting the city from any sort of financial risk. That’s their job.

The key phrases are “any and all,” “without limitation,” and “in any way connected.” Only a suicidal moron would sign a document containing this kind of language. If you’ve ever exhibited at the library under this policy, then either you haven’t thought it through, or you secretly like the idea that you might end up homeless, or possibly both.

Oh, but what could possibly go wrong? Let’s see if we can think of an example.

Some of the paintings I’m interested in exhibiting (my father’s work) are large. They would be hanging from the wall. So let’s suppose a painting comes loose from its hook, topples outward, and a corner hits a three-year-old child in the eye, causing irreparable damage to the child’s eye. Let’s further suppose that the reason the painting comes loose is due to either a structural defect in the library’s art hanging system, or to the fact that a previous visitor had pulled on the painting to try to get it loose, in an act of vandalism.

I would be liable. I would have to write a huge check to cover both the child’s medical bills and possibly an award for emotional damages, even though I did nothing to contribute to the accident. What’s more, the legal document doesn’t include any language that would require a finding in court that I was at fault. No — the city attorney could offer the child and its family an out-of-court settlement, and I would still have to write the check. That’s what the word “claims” means. If there’s a claim, I have to pay.

Do I feel like fighting city hall? Not this week, thanks. The library’s visitors are the losers in this situation: They will never get to see an exhibit of my father’s work. Vita brevis, ars in dumpstero, as the Romans might have put it.