Poe’s Law Keeps Getting Harder and Harder

I comment regularly in the letters section of my regional newspaper.  It’s probably as close to a social life as anything else I have, other than my regular Saturday night role playing game session on line.  It’s a good time, and I can usually work satire and parody in to my commentary and reactions to the commentary of others, which is half the fun, when I think about it.  Often that comes in the form of stating the opinions of various right wing religious god-botherers, gun-fondlers, and others in as ridiculous a form as I can think of, if for no other reason than to point out the silliness of their position.  Unfortunately, these people are often nearly impossible to parody.  Which brings me to Poe’s Law.

I am learning that I must include a sarcasm tag if I am going to indulge, as I have been mistaken for someone who really means the most ridiculous statements.  I have been told to think before I post, that I am a horible human being, and that I should have my computer taken away.

Poe’s Law states that “Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”

The sad thing is that I’ve been taken in myself by a group on Facebook that makes the Westboro Baptist Church look like a bunch of bleeding heart liberals.  It took me all of half an hour to look them up and figure out it was a hoax, but I was actually quite impressed by their attention to detail.

I’m not a big fan of fundamentalism.  Personally I think that the Christian Right is as big a threat to our democracy as anything ISIS can think of.

But in the long run, the only real defense against fanatacism of any kind is to find the chinks in its adherents armor of belief, at least to the point where their certainty conflicts with observable reality. That won’t help with the 27% that are completely nuts, but those are not the dangerous ones. It’s the ones that can be persuaded to vote with the nuts despite knowing better, because they they are willingly distracted by the shiny objects of tribalism, fear and anger.

Not to go all Godwin, but these are the same tactics used by fascist regimes of the past to take power. Get people to blame their troubles on a convenient scapegoat and profit. Any group can fit the bill, whether it be the poor, who are freeloading from the rest of us, the Muslims, who are all bloodthirsty terrorists, the LGBTs, who are out to recruit our children and force Godfearing people to perform wedding ceremonies, the illegal immigrants who are taking our jobs and soaking up welfare, or the liberals, who want to do whatever, the Right has lots and lots of paranoid fantasies which they use to scare and anger people from realizing they’re voting away the hardfought rights of the past that they no longer even value because they take them for granted.

The worst part is that mockery and satire don’t work like they used to. One must have a modicum of self awareness before that can happen, and many of the leading figures of the Tea Party and their ilk appear to either have none or can ill afford to admit that they are mockable, which means that being outraged at the most trivial of things, and a distinct lack of humor about having it pointed out, becomes their stock in trade.

So in the end, what’s left? All we can do is try to point out ridiculousness as we see it, and hope someday that the purveyors of this stuff will be laughed out of power. I’m not holding my breath on that,, but I’m doing my part.

The Pragmatist Manifesto

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I came to my own set of political beliefs..  I’m not sure I really fit the mold of a progressive or a conservative, more of that of a pragmatist.

1.  I didn’t think Jesus was kidding about that whole “do unto others” thing.  Even though I’m an agnostic, I’m still strongly influenced by my upbringing, especially since as I’ve learned about other cultures, and faiths, most of them seem to say something very similar.  Doing things that are mutually beneficial seems to be the optimal way to organize human society, so I believe it should be the ultimate objective of public policy.

2. I like to learn about other cultures and people without worrying about missing something because I’m too busy judging them.  Usually I find they’re just as interested in learning about me as I am about them.  Dismissing ideas because they came from somewhere else is a good way to miss out on solutions.

3. I trust evidence and science, and am willing to change my beliefs if science and evidence provide proof that my beliefs are mistaken.  Dogmatic devotion to political or religious beliefs to the exclusion of any evidence to the contrary only blinds one to solutions or ideas that may result on solutions.

4. I believe that change is inevitable, the only question is whether or not I can find ways to adapt to it, not how long I can forestall it.  No culture on this planet has ever survived unchanged.

5. I believe that the interests of society trump the interests of business.

6. I believe that long term thinking must be a component of public policy even in the face of public opposition. Often public opposition is based on immediate needs, while public policy is based on long term opportunity.  For example, had we made the investments in renewable fuels and energy conservation during the first energy crisis of the 70s, the 90’s and 00’s might have looked entirely different.  Our interests and obligations in the Middle Easts would look entirely different absent a compromising interest in energy.

7. I believe that government is a better solution than private enterprise for problems that require long term planning and thinking though private enterprise can be an effective partner.   Private enterprise by its very nature is risk averse, and unwilling to commit resources unless there is a potential for return.  Government does and can direct resources to private enterprise to research and build solutions for longer term problems or opportunities.  See the Interstate Highway System, the Internet, the Space Program, REC and other projects where the government at the state or federal level gathered and redistributed the resources and used private enterprise to either research or build the project, thus creating economic opportunity.

8. I believe that when attempting to resolve an issue, people with actual training and experience in the subject being discussed should be deferred to over politicians with little or no knowledge.  To do so is not “elitist” or “snobbish” but common sense.  I no more want climate change policy set by an economist than I want my brain surgery performed by a dentist.

9. I believe that a thorough discussion of the the ins and outs of issues  is more valuable than talking points and sound bites.  To the extent that we reduce complex issues to bumper stickers and slogans we insult the intelligence of not only the general population but we reduce their interest and ability to debate the issues in the future.  If people fall out of practice because they’ve been trained not to think beyond the talking points fed them by talk radio and consultants, they will lose the ability to question what they’re being told and think critically about it.  The rise in prominence in sites like Infowars.com, HotAir.com and personalities like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh are a perfect example of this.

We are in danger of becoming an Idiotocracy.  I only hope that we can come to our senses before there is no turning back.

Terrorism, Loneliness and where we go from here

Loneliness has always been a problem for me.  I’ve never felt particularly accepted in any group I’ve been part of, regardless of other’s efforts to the contrary.  My dad was the same way.  I think we both just preferred our own thoughts to having to figure out what other people were thinking or to feign interest when our mind was elsewhere.  Oddly enough I think a lot of people might have considered both of us extroverts in a lot of ways, though I think in both cases, it was as a defense mechanism rather than any innate desire to put ourselves out there.

In my darkest hours, I’ve never considered hurting anyone else because I felt isolated and alone.  I guess I’m not built that way.  But I can understand how someone more vulnerable to peer pressure or the influence of other people might be pushed to doing something horrible.  In looking at the horrible events of the past few weeks and months (Aurora, Sandy Hook, Boston) I don’t see a political problem, I see a cultural problem.  We have become so isolated from each other that it just becomes much easier to lose track of our collective humanity and empathy for each other.  The Me decade of the 70s and the elevation of selfishness to a virtue in the 80s are leading us to the disintegration of our culture and our society.

Lest you think I’m being too harsh, listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or any of the other people who seem to spend most of their time telling their listeners that they are the only ones that know the Truth and that everyone else is a liberal stooge or worse a sheeple.  Or listen to the conspiracy theorists who feel so insignificant and small that they have to invent conspiracies that only they know about to ease those feelings.

But if you’re not involving yourself in your community or with other people on even a minimal basis, you’re part of the problem.  Hell, I’m part of the problem.  My wife and I made a new years resolution to do at least an hour of community service a month, unfortunately, that has turned into another paving stone, but now that I’m starting to feel like I might be able to get out of bed without being in agonizing pain in the morning (Get Off My Lawn!) I might just be able to manage going out and helping someone else feel better instead of feeling sorry for myself.

I Lost My Brother to Hate and Fear

John (not his real name) and I were very close friends in college.  He was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a brother.  I think he felt the same way about me.  We drank together, laughed together, and I was the first person he came to see when his mom passed away.  At the time, I was still inhibited enough by my midwestern upbringing that I wasn’t really comfortable hugging another man, but I did, because my friend was hurting.  As he sobbed in my arms, I rubbed his back and let him know I loved him.  After that, we always ended each phone call with “I love you man!” and although we were referring to an old Budweiser commercial, we both knew that we would each do anything for the other.

John joined the Navy after college and we lost touch for a while, until one day he called me out of the blue.  It was a happy reunion and it seemed like we had never really parted company.  I had gotten divorced and was living a pretty dull existence other than going to work.  It was the mid 90’s and my life consisted of going to work, coming home to surf the web and play computer games, and going to bed, only to repeat the same inane activities the next day.

As the years went by, John tried to get me to move closer to him, but I didn’t want to move away from my kids, since I didn’t get to see them very much as it was.  It became a sort of joke between us.  He would do his best to lure me with promises of good trout fishing and a ready supply of new people to meet, and I would put him off with the same answer, I can’t move that far away from my kids.

When Anne and I met, and finally got engaged, my first call was to him to be my best man.  I had always regretted that he wasn’t able to be my best man at my first wedding.  He came and it was like we hadn’t been apart at all.  We still finished each other’s sentences and could riff off each other with the same old jokes.  I was really glad that he was able to be there.  He mentioned preparing for the turn of the century, convinced that he needed to be ready in case the year 2000 bug caused a total collapse of society.  Being in the IT industry, I tried to reassure him that the problem was not as severe as he feared, but he seemed more dedicated to the fantasy of being one of the survivors than he was in critically considering the possibility that nothing was going to happen.

Fast forward 9 years.  I am not sure what changed.  I had always thought of him as pretty sensible, a good critical thinker.  He had always had a bit of a tendency to feel that feminism and political correctness had gone too far, which wasn’t necessarily something I disagreed with in some respects.  Of course my idea of a rampant feminist was someone like Andrea Dworkin, who was not so much a feminist as she was a sexist.  I have always disliked extremes, in politics, religion, philosophy or anything else, simply because they so often make their adherents blind to other possibilities.   Where we parted company was that he increasingly felt that white males were becoming an oppressed underclass.  My sense was that while they were not an endangered species the way he seemed to feel they were, they were in the process of losing their assumed privilege  which I wasn’t really sure was entirely a bad thing.

During the run up to the 2008 election, we had several conversations, and it became increasingly apparent that his view of the world and my view had diverged not only radically but somewhat violently in the interim.  I was not a George W Bush fan because I felt he had been a bad president.  Many of his decisions seemed to me to be poorly thought out and knee jerk reactions rather than plans with the consequences considered and accounted for.  While I supported the actions we took in Afghanistan, the diversion of men and other resources to Iraq seemed to be the most foolish thing we could do when we were already fighting one war.

I was an early supporter of President Obama.  I liked his pragmatism.  I liked the fact that he was cerebral, that he appeared to be someone who thought things through before taking action, the exact opposite of many of the people he ran against in both the primaries and the eventual election.  John McCain scared me, not because he was a strong supporter of the military, in fact, I had considered if I would have crossed party lines to vote for him if things had turned out differently.  But he made one decision that led me to believe that he showed incredibly poor judgement, but that he was also a coward.  I refer of course to his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Sarah Palin scared me.  She seemed to me to be the literal embodiment of everything that George Bush and Dick Cheney had wrought on the body politic during the eight years they were in power.  The contempt for critical thinking, the dislike of science or anything else that meant that someone might actually have an idea of what they were talking about.  People that actually had expertise were “elitist”.  In other words, she hit every hot button that every conservative white male in America had exposed.  She confirmed a great deal of their preconcieved notions and in fact told them that they were the ones being persecuted by the liberal elites, the media, and anyone else who didn’t think the way they did.

John and I sparred a few times over politics, him insisting that liberals were beneath contempt, myself arguing that neither side had a monopoly on truth but that it was important that they talk to each other and try to solve problems.  It became apparent that he had become “radicalized” when he started quoting World Net Daily writer and well known conspiracist and birther Jerome Corsi as an expert on President Obama’s motives and background.  When we talked about terrorism and Islam, he was prone to quoting people like Robert Spencer, a well known Islamaphobe, whose Stop Islamization of America organization and Freedom Defense Initiative were both designated as hate groups by the Anti-defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It became increasingly apparent that he had somehow bought into the hateful rhetoric of the far right.

He seemed to buy into every crazy conspiracy theory about President Obama that the right wing was tossing out.  For a while it seemed like people like Rush Limbaugh and others of the right wing noise machine were throwing whatever rhetoric they could just to see if anything would stick.  And it did, but only among those who were already convinced that someone who didn’t look like them running the country was some sort of disaster.  Old prejudices about minorities of faith or race came boiling to the surface, enhanced by those who fanned the flames of old resentments into white hot fires of anger and fear.

They were made to feel like a persecuted minority, when they were simply being forced to compete on a level playing field against people of color, women, and other people that they had always assumed they were superior to.  I think it scared them as it still scares them today.  Change is hard, especially when it feels like it’s imposed from without rather than embraced from within.  I’ve always said that the only person who likes change is a baby with a full diaper, but even they will scream bloody murder until the new diaper is safely on and fastened up tight.

Things continued to get worse.

I won’t dismiss my role in this whole thing.  I was as absolutely convinced I was right as he was.  My sense of correctness didn’t come from knowing I was right, but because I was willing to admit that I had no way of knowing if I was right or wrong about much of anything except that I had empirical evidence on my side and a willingness to consider evidence to the contrary.  Absolute certainty about anything tends to make me suspicious.  That’s perhaps a personal failing, that inability to have unquestioning faith.  Frankly if you think you’re right regardless of whether there is evidence to the contrary your grasp on reality is a bit loose.

Finally, it became painfully apparent that John lumped me in with everyone else who didn’t share his beliefs and thus was not worth consideration.  I was the one that ended the relationship, in what was perhaps a fit of pique, but I’m willing to own that.  We’ve not communicated for 3 years now, and I feel his absence every single day.  I also realize that I just need to grieve because he’s not coming back to sanity anytime soon.

I have looked him up on Facebook a few times, and what I see tells me he’s not gotten any better and in fact gotten much much worse.  His friends are all like minded “patriots” and talk shows specializing in crazy conspiracy theories and fearmongering.  The amount of hate and fear is overwhelming.  I don’t go there very often.  It hurts too much, like losing someone to a cult.

So that’s that.  John I’m sorry.  Sometimes you have to accept that while someone will always be in your heart, you can’t have them in your life.