Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book Review: Daoist "Cli-Fi"

Last month I got an email from one of my regular readers asking if I'd be interested in reading a book he just published titled Voice of the Elders. When I answered in the affirmative, Greg Ripley (the author) sent me a review version and I've spent the last month reading it in dribs and drabs whenever I had the time. (Between this blog, my other one, working full time, etc, I have to measure my time with an eye-dropper.) I'm glad I made the effort.

Greg Ripley
The plot revolves around a young woman, Rohini Haakonsen, who attends a youth conference on Climate Change at the United Nations. Totally unexpectedly, a representative of a mysterious alien race, "the Elders", arrives and announces that they have decided to help humanity deal with this existential threat. They literally "pop into existence" and "mind dump" huge amounts of information into the heads of various world leaders, engineers, and, scientists about how they can quickly "rejig" the world economy into one that is no longer dependant on fossil fuels. A nefarious industrialist---who is heavily invested in fossil fuels---organises a terrorist campaign against this transition, and, a secret Daoist organisation emerges to help Rohini and the Elders. Daring do, wisdom teachings, and, hints at future conflicts to be resolved in sequel novels are woven together into a pretty good piece of escapist fiction.


Eva Wong, (from YouTube)
"fair use" provision. 
The first thing to understand is that there is a tradition in Daoism of using popular literature as a teaching medium. The idea is based on the idea that "it's easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar". If you want people to learn about what you are teaching, don't bother with ponderous, hard-to-understand books of philosophy, just write an engaging novel that explains your ideas as part of an enjoyable plot. Indeed, it was with this idea in mind that the guy who initiated me into Daoism suggested Eva Wong (another person from my temple) translate Seven Taoist Masters into English. (I don't generally suggest that people read Wong's translations because they are usually horrible. But I've never found another English version of this book, so I've added the link.) Another, much longer, more well known example is Journey to the West. (This link is to the W.J.F. Jenner translation, which is the best one I've found---there are lots of really bad, abridged translations too.)

So the idea of writing a popular novel to explain Daoist ideas is not innovative but rather part of the tradition. Having said that, just how good is the Daoism in Voice of the Elders?

Ripley manages to work in a bit of lore from religious Daoism, including thing like a brief description of the Three Pure Ones and the martial prowess of the Wu Dang Shan monks. Even the name of the mysterious, alien "Elders" is a good choice---that is the what scholars say was the original meaning of the name "Laozi", who is supposed to be the author of the Dao De Jing. On the experiences of the characters, I cannot fault the author. He does a good job of explaining the psychological elements of "sitting and forgetting" and gets right some subtleties that an outsider might not. For example, he mentions the strong emotional responses from people that lead to uncontrollable weeping. In the Temple where I was taught, one of the staff people was assigned to provide towels to people when this happened---and it did. Even the stuff that outsiders might think far-fetched---like the secret international society---aren't as odd as you might think. Indeed, I once met a man who had been taught hung-gar at an early age by a secret society---"the Chinese Free-Masons"---in Victoria, British Columbia.


You may have noticed that I've removed all the advertisements off the blog. This is because the ad market for small guys like me has pretty much dried up. That's OK anyway, because I never really was all that comfortable with advertising in the first place.

Having said that, as I approach retirement and have added another "mouth to feed" to my costs, I am trying to access a little more money for my soon-to-be much less income. In addition, I now see myself as someone who is a member of the "creator class" on the Web, and I think I should "do my bit" to help create a culture where people get used to supporting the people who consume the art they create. To that end, I've added a Patreon button to the top of the right column. I've been using it on my other blog and have started getting subscribers. If anyone feels like they gain from my posts, consider subscribing for a buck a month---or whatever you think best. Feel free to buy a book or make a one time donation too. Everything helps. 

One of the "creatives" that I support with monthly payments articulated something about this Patreon subscription model that I thought worth passing on. He said that people call things like Uber and Air BnB part of an emerging "sharing economy". That's nonsense, these are just businesses like anything else. But providing things through Patreon really is sharing. That's because people who can afford to pay support the opportunities of people who literally cannot pay to read the content. That's the difference between Patreon and a paywall. 


Fair Use copyright provision
The book isn't just about Daoism, it is also something that specifically sets out to be part of the "Cli-Fi" genre. This is an emerging literary style that integrates climate change into the world that book's characters inhabit. Another example is John Michael Greer's Star's Reach, where climate change has melted the ice cap, the Eastern part of the mid-West United States now experiences a monsoon season, Florida is under water, the South West is an uninhabitable desert, and, society is managed by Druid-like priestesses who enforce a strict code of law that provides for things like burying alive anyone who gets caught using fossil fuels. Octavia Butler's "Parable Books" (mentioned in my last post) also loosely fit into the genre.  In that universe, climate change has damaged the USA's society and strengthened Canada---which now has a militarily-defended wall on its Southern border to keep out illegal immigrants.

In the case of Ripley's book, the climate issue serves to create the plot in that the "Elders" are driven by concern about the future of humanity to actively intervene even though it isn't something that they are generally inclined to do. It also drives conflict by creating a motive for shadowy business leaders to fund a campaign of sabotage against renewable energy installations and terrorism against any humans who are working with the Elders. Since a great many environmentalists do get a lot of opposition from big business, this is a perfectly understandable plot device too. Just in my own personal case, I've been called a "terrorist" in print, had lawyers threaten to take away my home and life savings through lawsuits, got death threats over the phone, and, caught private investigators snooping around my life. And, it certainly is the case that lots of environmentalists have been murdered for organising against collective suicide.


So while it is true that there is nothing in this book that either does violence to various teachings in Daoism, or stretches credibility to the snapping point (at least vis-a-vis human society), I do have some quibbles. 

There are different ways of understanding what Daoism is all about. And some people put a lot of emphasis on things like "Qi", "meridians", "energy", etc. I can understand where all of this comes from, as I have experienced the sorts of feelings that people describe as "Qi", felt if "flow" through my body, and so on. It is also something that is definitely part of the tradition. But I am also a modern man who has a graduate from a competent modern university. And I believe that a lot of this stuff is simply---for lack of a long discussion which I'ved had in other blog posts---a lot of "woo-woo" that needs to be discarded.

I come to things from a very different point of view. My emphasis is on the more prosaic goal of becoming a "realized man" in the sense of dispelling delusion and gaining wisdom. My first meditation teacher explained this with a story. He talked about two disciples who were talking about how great their respective teachers were. One of them said that his teacher could hold up a brush on one side of a river and write on a piece of paper someone held on the other side. The second one said that this was nothing---his teacher managed to eat only when he was hungry and sleep when he was tired. (These are two skills that I have yet to master myself.)

I mention this point because as I see it, real Daoists would not be secretive or use special powers, instead, they would be inherently invisible to outside society because the vast majority of people wouldn't have the categories of thought necessary to process the information that they are seeing. Let me illustrate with a martial art called capoeira. For those of you who don't know, capoeira is a martial art native to Brazil and which incorporates a lot of African dancing and music into it. It really is very different from the Chinese or European martial arts. Let me explain to you how I see things when my viewpoint is informed by the small amount of Daoism that I have learned over my life.


Here's a video of "the money game" and something I think is called "the urban ritual" (I'm far from knowing much about capoeira.) Pay really close attention to the first minute or so and you will notice that there is a small bit of folded paper money on the floor of the gym. Watch how the two men go through their movements on the floor and one the fellow maneuvers the other guy away from the money so he can pick it up with his teeth.

What has happened is that there was a strictly strategic competition between two people to gain access to a specific location without making yourself vulnerable to a counter-attack by your opponent.

The majority of the demonstration is something called "the urban ritual". I don't know how capoeira explains this, but it seems obvious to me that what is happening is a very involved exercise in learning how to adapt to the tempo and balance of another person. As such, it is much like the "push hands" of taijiquan. In retrospect, it makes sense that a martial art that comes with African roots and which is practiced in time to music accompaniment would put a huge emphasis on tempo.

So what has all of this got to do with Daoism and Voice of the Elders? Well, I'd suggest that if real "super Daoists" were to intervene into world society in order to prevent an ecological holocaust they'd use some sort of subtle mechanism that ordinary people are pretty much oblivious to---like the tempo that capoeira teacher uses to win the "money game" or show off during the "urban ritual".

Instead, Voice of the Elders uses Daoism as a "back drop" for a fairly conventional "spy thriller" in the same vein as a Tom Clancy novel. There is a lot of flying around the world. Gangs of mercenaries attack secret bases. People are killed. The plot is developed by focusing on the psychological quirks of individual law enforcement officers. So forth and so on. 


Of course, I'm not being particularly fair to Greg Ripley. A novel isn't a book of philosophy and if you are going to write something that appeals to the general public an author has to use the same tropes that exist in every other novel in the genre. Greg knows what these are and plays them like a pro. These include:

  •  The rich benefactor (loosely based on Jackie Chan) who provides the private plane that jets people from New York to the Daoist Temple in Chinese hinterland. 
  • The well-trained secret agent body guard with a heart of gold who's assigned to watch over Rohini.
  • The magic mysterious "oriental monk".
  •  The "good Czar" who understands when all the petty bureaucrats don't, in the form of the US president. 
  • The magic space bats (ie: the Elders) who can fix all the world's problems by intervention.
Indeed, it could be argued that Ripley is simply using the "Dao" of publishing to get his ideas out there. If he didn't use these tropes, then he'd never get anyone to publish or read his book. 

And that is the dilemma authors always face. How can I give readers what I have to offer in a way that they will actually want to receive?  You always have to make a choice between conforming to what the market wants so much that you have to water down the message you are trying to make;  or;  being so true to your beliefs that almost no one is interested in what you have to offer. And being able to make this choice already assumes that you have something useful to say and are a good enough writer to express it well---which pretty much excludes most people in the first place. That is why many years ago a friend told me "Writing is very easy. You just smash your head on the keys of your typewriter until the blood comes forth and makes words on the page."

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sympathy, Empathy, FaceBook, and, Cambridge Analytica

I have a hard time watching videos where people do embarrassing things. I have a really hard time. So much so that I generally have to stop, walk away, and do something else. If this becomes a "regular thing" in a series, I have to stop watching altogether. This is annoying, because a fair number of otherwise very funny programs base a significant amount of their jokes on people doing "over the top" stupid things and then making the character "twist in the wind" as they realise how dumb they've been. And because of some quirk of my mind, I totally self-identify with this situation and it makes me feel absolutely horrible. This has meant that several programs---even some that I really liked---simply have become unwatchable by me because I get so agitated.

A couple examples are "King of the Hill", where "Peggy" routinely gets into problems because she thinks she knows Spanish and "teaches" it as a supply teacher in a Texas public school---with "hilarious" results. Another is "Bob's Burgers", where "Linda" simply cannot control her curiosity and as a results trespasses on other people's property with "hilarious" results.

Peggy embarrassed again
Copyright fair use
Linda gets caught
Fair Use

(I know, I know. I watch too much TV. But I live what most people would consider a very productive life and I have to spend some of my waking hours in undirected activity. And anyway, most of the time I use the plots and character development to think about issues like the one this blog post deals with.)


The late and much missed writer Octavia Butler wrote a couple of speculative fiction novels that came to be called "the Parable series". The central character was a woman named Lauren Oya Olamina who was afflicted with a genetic disorder caused by her mother taking a drug to increase her intellectual powers while pregnant. This disease causes Lauren to literally feel the physical pain of anyone that she sees suffering.

The Late Octavia Butler
Wiki Commons, BrillLyle
Of course, it's very hard to understand exactly how someone could end up with a disease that forces her to feel the agony of something like a having her hand cut off just by seeing it happen to someone else. But as a metaphor it works very well to illustrate how different some people's experience of reality is from others. Without getting into the skin of other people, it seems to me that there are very different levels of empathy expressed in the human population. Obviously psychopaths don't even feel anything when they torture people to death (except, of course, pleasure.) But there are a lot of people who are closer to the middle but somewhere towards the unfeeling end of things. These are the folks who don't care about the implications of various government policies. Cutting welfare will dump people out on the streets? They aren't upset as long as their taxes don't go up.

Westbrook Pegler
Photo c/o Wiki Commons
On the other end are people like me that are sometimes called "bleeding heart liberals".  These are the folks who get an overwhelming desire to help whenever they seem someone in distress. You might get a bit of a feel for how wide the gap between various types of people is by learning where that term comes from. If the World Wide Web can be trusted, it comes from a 1936 newspaper column penned by a fellow named Westbrook Pegler. In it he is complaining about a law being proposed to stop lynchings.


At this point I hope that I've pointed out that how people react to the problems of others is quite complex and differs dramatically from person to person. Unfortunately, it is really hard to talk about this issue because our language on the subject is badly muddled.  People understand that there is a difference between "empathy" and "sympathy", but a brief survey of articles on the Web has shown me that there isn't anything like a consensus about what that would be.

For the purposes of this essay, therefore, I'm going to arbitrarily define "empathy" as "a direct emotional feeling that purports to allow someone to feel a close approximation of what another person is going through when they are in distress".  In contrast, I will define "sympathy" as "a conceptual attempt to understand the perspective and situation of someone who is in distress".  Using these definitions,  Lauren Oya and myself are suffering from empathy when we feel the physical and emotional pain of other people. In contrast, I would say that Octavia Butler sympathized with people who feel extreme empathetic anguish when confronted with the suffering of others---which is why she came up with the character of Lauren Oya in her "Parable" books.

Please note that I have tried to be very precise in my language. I didn't write that people feel the exact same things as others, I wrote "that purports". Indeed, when I get my strong empathetic reaction to television actors and cartoon characters, there is no way I could possibly be really feeling another person's actual emotions---simply because I'm not connecting with real human beings. This is absolutely obvious in my example, because I'm talking about by crudely drawn, two-dimensional animated fictional characters.


So what is empathy? I'd suggest that it is simply an instinctual emotion that forces people to think about the good of other members of the "tribe". From an evolutionary perspective, this might seem to be opposed to the idea of "survival of the fittest", but it fits perfectly into modern ideas about "selfish genes". That idea is that "fitness" boils down to "ability to have offspring that share your DNA". And if the DNA comes from a relative instead of directly from you, that's perfectly OK.

For most of our existence, human beings used to live in very small extended family groups or small tribes where everyone was related to each other. So in that context, the person you save in a difficult situation would very probably be related and shares at least some of the same DNA as you. This means that from a Darwinian point of view, helping other people makes perfect evolutionary sense. And the way we integrate this instinct with the high intelligence and self-consciousness that is our "evolutionary advantage" over all other species is by developing a strong emotion towards other human beings. People who's "heart bleeds" are acting on this instinct.


One important thing to remember about the hypothesis I'm positing above is to remember that from an evolutionary point of view, empathy makes sense for a small tribe where everyone is related to each other. So why would people feel empathy about strangers---such as black people in another state that are being lynched? The thing to remember is that evolution is brainless, so much so that Richard Dawkins called it "the blind watchmaker". That is to say, there are many instances that biologists can point to where evolution came up with something that works well enough, but isn't a very good or elegant solution. That's because evolution is a totally non-rational system of trial and error rather than a process where some intelligence designs a solution to a specific problem.

To understand this point, look at the two images below. They represent two different times that natural selection developed what's called "the camera eye". The left image comes from a vertebrate like us, the other is from an octopus. For some reason in our natural history, the nerve fibres connecting the rod and cones in our eyes ended up on the side towards the lens of our eye. This means that where the nerve fibres come together to leave the eye and connect to the brain---they have to create a gap in the light receptors so the nerve fibers can go through them. This creates a blind spot in our eyes. In the octopus the nerves ended up underneath the light receptors, which means that they don't have a blind spot. This not only shows that the same sort of eye evolved twice, through "convergent evolution", but that it is a trial and error system that creates "good enough" results instead of "the best" ones.
"1" are the light receptors, "2" and "3" are the nerve fibers,
and, "4" is the blind spot.  Image care of Wiki-Commons
In the case of empathy, people existed in small tribal groups already, so there was no "need" for evolution to develop some sort of "filter" to ensure that empathy didn't extend to members of the group that were not related to the individual. This means that humans developed empathy for every human human they met. This worked fine for hunter-gatherers, but the situation changed when we started living in larger communities. Now people feel empathy for total strangers who do not share any DNA.

At this point humanity has made the leap from small "packs" (like wolves) to large complex societies (like ants or termites.) So now we are what are called "eusocial animals". It might be that empathy has "leap-frogged" from being a mechanism to encourage continued spread of tribal DNA to being a mechanism for preserving the human "mega-colony" that covers the entire earth. (I'm possibly stretching the science well past the breaking point here.) But even if the continued existence of empathy is a vestigial hold-over that no longer serves a purpose in modern life, our change of circumstances has happened so quickly, that it would make perfect sense for the majority of people to still feel empathy, even if it no longer serves any evolutionary purpose.


If this is the case, why doesn't everyone's heart bleed? Well it's important to realize that in an entire population of a species there is a fair amount of difference between individuals and this can result from two mechanisms:  sub-populations, and, gene expression.

In the former case, there is an advantage for a small percentage of the population to not have empathy because this means that they can benefit from the help of others while at the same time not having to expend the effort of helping anyone else. This is a parasitical relationship, but one that only works if just a small fraction of the public pursues it. If the majority stops having any empathy, then it no longer gives anyone a competitive advantage to be indifferent to suffering of others, because no one else is going to help you either. And that situation also wipes out the collective benefit of empathy in the first place. This means that there is a homeostatic relationship between empathy and psychopathy in any give population of individuals---that is, with a minority of psychopaths and a majority of empaths.

In the gene expression hypothesis, people are born with a "toolbox" of potential behaviours. Which particular tool becomes part of your personality is based on what happened to you at specific times of you early development. For example, it might be the case that certain types of stresses would push someone towards indifference to the suffering of others;  while others would encourage an empathetic response.   

Please note that there is no conflict between these two different explanations. It might be that they both exist. It might also be the case that there are no people who are inherently psychopathic and they are simply people who've had the gene express itself. Moreover, I'm not dismissing anything like a social influence either. I'm not a scientist, but rather a Daoist philosopher and all I'm trying to do is use my limited understanding of the modern scientific consensus to make sense of a complex social phenomenon.


At least one modern thinker, Paul Bloom, has written a book that suggests that empathy can be a bad thing:  Against Empathy. (To be honest, I haven't read this book, but I did watch an hour long lecture by him where explains his ideas, so I think I have a good feel for his thesis.)

He doesn't say that the empathy, per se, is a bad thing. It does help to have that specific emotion that pushes us towards helping others. The problem comes from the ability of emotions to "shut down" or "over-ride" our rational minds. When that happens we tend to forget that we aren't really experiencing the actual feelings of other people, but rather a projection of what we think they are feeling. Moreover, we also tend to "confabulate" (ie: make up explanations in the absence of any real knowledge) a narrative to explain the situation. These two experiences often bear no resemblance to reality at all and will encourage people to pursue behaviour that will not only not help, but often will make the situation far worse. Moreover, this tendency to insert a made-up narrative can be exploited by "dark" elements in society who can amass power by encouraging people to accept a specific narrative that benefits no one except the people promoting that story.


Let's look at one particularly simple example of this behaviour.
A bus advertisement, c/o Guelph "Pro-Life",
Used under the "fair use" copyright provision.
Canada recently passed legislation that allows for doctor-assisted suicide in the case of terminally-ill patients who are suffering and request it. This advertisement is working on the empathy of viewers by suggesting that their personal situation is exactly the same as everyone else's, and they can make complex social decisions based on this "fact". This is complete and utter nonsense. I wake up most mornings with a little pain from my arthritis, but this is absolutely nothing like the pain that some folks suffer with as they slowly "shuffle off this mortal coil". I simply do not know what it is like to suffer through a particularly nasty slow death, neither do I think that the people who made up this bus advertisement. This is because death is that "undiscovered country" that Shakespeare wrote about.

My reaction is one of "sympathy"---as I have defined the term for the purposes of this essay---in that I am trying to reason through the objective truth of the situation and made a rational decision about what would be objectively in the best interest of another person. In contrast, the poster is consciously trying to by-pass "sympathy" and instead elicit a totally "empathic" reaction (again, as I have defined the term.) It says "we're all in danger"---implying that euthanasia will be done to us whether we want it or not, and, that we won't ever want it because we will never want to die no matter how awful life has become.

The real point of view that the "Pro-Life" people are supporting is that of the government should force you to have a slow, horrible death. Why? I suppose if pressed, they would say something to the effect that "God says so".  Another option might be to say "if we allow assisted suicide for the terminally ill in horrible pain, we start on a "slippery slope" that will end up with us euthanizing all disabled people too".

The problem with these two arguments are that "God says so" is that it an appeal to a totally idiosyncratic, hidden authority. Who gets to speak for God? Which God? As for the "slippery slope", that sort of argument is always based on the premise that society is simply incapable of making the sort of relatively simple distinctions that it makes all the time. For example, almost no one argues no one should have a beer once in a while because that will inevitably lead to alcoholism. Similarly, why do we assume that the government can't tell the difference between a person dying in agony and someone who just has to use a wheelchair?


OK. So why mention the issue of empathy at all? Why should anyone outside of academia care? I raise the issue because empathy has an enormous impact on politics. For example, consider the huge march in favour of gun control that recently happened in Washington DC. Hundreds of thousands of people took part primarily because of several mass shootings at schools in the USA. I'm not opposed to this effort, but I do think that it's important to remember that the odds are completely over-whelmingly against anyone being killed by a mass shooter anywhere---even at school.

A quick Web search found a report from the BBC. In the USA in 2015 there were 372 mass shootings that killed 475 people, of these only 64 happened at a school (no numbers are given for those killed at a school.) In contrast, 13,286 people were killed by guns in total. This means that only 4% of gun deaths happened because of mass shootings and a much smaller fraction of those deaths happened at a school. In comparison, 35,092 people of all ages died in motor vehicle crashes in 2015---with 2,715 being teens. This really does raise the rational question "Why are people marching about gun deaths versus motor vehicle deaths?" I would suggest the difference is these people are acting on the basis of "empathy" instead of "sympathy" (as I have defined the terms.)

I'm not really opposed to gun controls. I grew up around guns and can't understand why anyone except the police, the military, or, a few exceptional civilians (eg: armored car guards) need pistols or semi-automatic rifles. But I am concerned about the impact of empathy on politics, because it is something that can so easily stampede voters into supporting terrible policies. People felt a great deal of empathy towards Alan Kurdi when his lifeless body was photographed. Empathy generated by this picture had a dramatic effect on Canadian government policy and led to over 25,000 Syrian refugees entering the country.

This photo brought in 25,000 people to Canada:
photo c/o Wiki Commons 
Again, I have no problem with this particular policy. But the knife cuts both ways. Donald Trump won his election in part by whipping people into an frenzy of empathy over illegal immigrants. For example, consider this campaign advertisement:

The shoe is now on the other foot. We aren't having our empathy "played" to support refugees from a gruesome civil war, instead we are being told that immigrants are vicious killers who murder our heroic police officers. This means that people are being whipped up into a frenzy to not help people in distress, but rather to dick them over.

In case the Trump ad didn't make my case, take a look at this piece of Polish fascist propaganda I quickly found on the Web. The inference from video is that Muslim immigrants (ie: Alan Kurdi and his family) are as great a threat to Europe as the Turkish invasion of Austria---and they require just as vigorous a response.


A while back a person complained that she was annoyed with me for putting these little blue advertisements in my other blog's posts because she said I was "attacking people for not paying". Last month she gave me $100 and apologized because she said she "finally realized" how much work goes into writing these things. I don't ask for money primarily to make people feel guilty, but more out of a sense of obligation towards everyone else who is trying to help humanity make the transition to a better world. I don't want all our culture to be controlled by algorithms that are designed by advertising companies. And the best way to do that is to get people into the habit of paying directly by services like Patreon.  Once in a while I get a donation and it really does make me feel that I'm actually building an audience for my weird take on reality. And that does help me---both financially and emotionally. So, thanks Irv, for being so awesome!


Some readers might respond by saying "so what? we've always had propaganda, what's so different about this?"

People may have heard something about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but I suspect many really don't know what it's about. In a nutshell, this quite sleazy political consulting firm was hired by the Brexit Campaign, Donald Trump, and, others to use very fine-grained FaceBook data (which they obtained under false pretenses) to create targeted ads to individual voters. On the face of it, this doesn't sound all too nefarious. Who cares if people who are concerned about the environment get ads that deal with this issue, while others who care more about healthcare something else?

The problem is, however, that you can sort people into different types of categories and parse them out based on their psychological makeup instead of their voting priorities. What if an ad agency was able to identify the fraction of the population who are potentially compulsive gamblers and direct on-line gambling adverts towards them that encouraged them to try on-line gambling? Or people who might become impulse shoppers? Or, what if a political party could identify those voters who were potentially fearful of "the Other" and sent them advertisements that stoked that fear to make them even more afraid? And what if no one else ever saw those ads, so their friends and family never got a chance to explain how misleading and fallacious they are?


People who've never been involved in politics at a high level usually don't know how technical and "numbers driven" it can be. Let me give a trivial personal example just to illustrate. Years ago I remember getting ahold of the poll maps for my city. I found out our municipal elections had a very, very low voter turnout---about 30%. I also found out that senior homes had something like 100% turnout. I asked around and found out that for mobility reasons the city clerk set up voting stations in each retirement facility. I also found out that most homes "encouraged" the seniors to vote---sometimes to the point where people complained loudly because they knew nothing about the candidates but felt that they had to vote anyway. Moreover, I found that the then mayor exploited this fact by constantly visiting these places to entertain them (he played the piano.) So for all the elders who didn't know anything about city Council, the one name they recognized on the ballot was of "the nice young man who comes to play the piano".

Things have come a long, long way since then. Political parties have extremely detailed lists of voters. These identify which party they support, which issues are of concern, how likely they are to actually vote, whether they give money, and, if they ever volunteer. These databases are protected and constantly polished like the crown jewels---because they are the biggest asset that any political party owns. Who gets to have access to them is the best indicator of the status that anyone has in the organization.

At the same time, social media companies like FaceBook also have created lists that they polish and cherish. These lists include all the same people as the political parties, and they also identify people according to their psychological profile and tendencies. In addition, these companies also offer advertising agencies the ability to separate these people into different demographics: potential compulsive gamblers, people who have a hard time saying "no" to aggressive advertisements, and, folks who are prepared to believe the worst of foreign peoples. This sort of finely-grained sorting is what allows party consultants to craft specific advertisements that are designed to appeal to the worst elements of their emotions.  This is what the Cambridge Analytica scandal is all about.


One last point. No one is suggesting that the impact of directed internet advertising is enough to win an election. Neither is playing a piano in an old folks home. But democratic politics is additive. That is to say, modern parties don't set out to craft a platform and campaign for everyone and hope that a majority support it. Instead, they do polling and build a "winning coalition". This includes their "base" who will vote for them through thick and thin (these are the people who would vote for a "yellow dog" if it had the right party affiliation.) When you've identified that, then you have to try to find "wedge issues". These are specific policies that are so important to a fraction of the electorate that they will vote on it and ignore everything else the politicians are talking about (eg: abortion.) Add a couple of these to platform, plus the base, and you approach a chance of winning. Toss in Gerrymandering and some voter suppression, and you get even closer. Using a targeted series of ads that will whip that last fraction of the voting public into voting for you can make the difference about whether or not your candidate ends elected or not. 

This doesn't mean that the candidate that a party puts forward (eg: Clinton) doesn't still have an impact on the election. But in "winner takes all" situations, the dirty tricks that parties pursue can push a candidate that last little inch needed to come first across the finish line.


What should readers take away from this monstrous pig of a blog post?

First, they should realize what all the fuss about social media is about. It might not be the case that Cambridge Analytica (or Russian interference for that matter) was all that important in the last US election. Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate and the "neo-liberal consensus" that she is identified with is well past it's "best before date". But even if this is so, it is tremendously useful for people to start being concerned about how the interaction between increasingly complex computer analysis and sophisticated psychology makes a significant fraction of the public easily manipulated. If this is a "fake scandal", it is still a tremendously useful starting point for important collective discussion.

Secondly, as part of that discussion I think it's also very important for us to ask "what is it about our society that makes so many people willing to believe such over-the-top idiocy?" Is it perhaps that the old "mass market" society of the 20th century and an educational system that was designed to make people into docile factory workers simply simply doesn't work in the emerging 21st century society? Perhaps our electoral systems and representative democracies need a significant rethink too.

Fodder for future blog posts by myself or others---.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Scary Monsters and Crazy, Dangerous Worlds

It's been a vacation time for me lately. Part of that has been some total sloth binge-watching Netflix. In particular, I've been immersing myself in "Marvel's Agents of Shield". For those of you who don't follow such stuff, "SHIELD" is an enormous, incredibly well-funded, secret police agency who's task is to protect the entire world's population from the dangerous "super people" who keep popping up in the alternative "Marvel universe".

Watching episode 7 of the 3rd season of the series I heard a little speech by Rosalind Price---a US intelligence leader---talking about how scary it is to live in a world with "super people".

This is a really interesting conversation because Rosalind pretty much embodies the naive fear that people routinely express about any number of issues our society has trouble dealing with. I say "naive" because she is completely oblivious to the danger that she represents to the rest of the world. She suggests that Daisy (the younger woman---who has a super power) can "bring down the plane" and "kill Rosalind", without contemplating the fact that Rosalind can kill Daisy and bring down the plane too. After all, she is a trained killer who carries a gun. Moreover, she ignores the fact that she is the head of a secret police agency that routinely kicks in people's doors, drags them out at gun point, puts them into a coma and warehouses them indefinitely, and, has no compunction at all about shooting people who refuse to comply with their orders. (Heck, that dear plane that they are flying in can also shoot rockets and drop bombs, if you really want to get into it.)

As if it isn't loony enough that it appears that something like 20% of the world's Gross Domestic Product in the Marvel universe seems to be devoted to funding secret police agencies, there is plenty of evidence that plain old, garden-variety human nastiness is still around. The big enemy of SHIELD is a group of neo-NAZIs called "Hydra" (it has the cool slogan "cut off one head and another will grow to replace it"), led by some very nasty villains who were obviously based on folks like Josef Mengele. They like to dirty their hands in stuff like recruiting and brainwashing super-villains, but the concept works even without all this "alternative universe" stuff. It's obvious that there's no sense having to invent a new, hypothetical way of being evil when you can draw on the Niagara Falls of horror known as the Holocaust.

For heaven's sake, the world doesn't need "super heroes" and "super villains" to be an insanely dangerous place, science plus politics is more than enough to come up with nuclear war, genocide, climate change, etc. Can Marvel comics come up with a scenario as nightmare-inducing as Donald Trump in control of the nuclear football? I don't think that the writers of this tv show really have thought through how insanely vicious things like hydrogen bombs and nerve gas really are, or else they'd feel a little sheepish about the "devilish devices" dreamed up by the guys at Hydra. A disk that you throw that can turn you into rock? That's really nothing compared to nerve gas---a single drop of which on the skin is deadly.


The point I'm trying to work towards is that the world is an insanely dangerous place. It always has been. It has always been the case that politics can go bad very fast. The Mongols or Vikings or British Empire can show up, and you end up dead or a slave, and, your entire society being plucked and devoured like the Christmas turkey. You don't even need outsiders. Some bad political events can happen and you end up with a long-term catastrophe like the Wars of the Roses (the real-life inspiration for the Game of Thrones series.)

Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens
(1908) by Henry Arthur Payne
Yup, a bunch of toffs pick flowers and hordes of peasants die
Public Domain Image c/o Wiki-Commons
Do I really need to mention religion? If you don't know why I would say that, do some reading on the "Thirty Years War". It killed off half the population of the German nation. It also inspired some very interesting art.

The Hanging by Jacques Callot
More public domain goodness from the Wiki Commons
If you want to talk about crazy behaviour inspired by fear of "the other", nothing really compares to terror of heretics by fundamentalists. (Something to think about in our current political climate.)


This blog post isn't meant to an attack on "Agents of Shield". I actually really enjoy the show. But the role that Marvel plays in our society is that it allows people to work through the "big issues" that face us as human beings. It is the equivalent of the myths and legends that people used to tell around the hearth when it was too dark to work. As such, it creates a common language and more emotionally neutral way of discussing issues that are terribly important to all of us---but often so fundamentally terrible that people have a hard time talking about them.

And yeah, the basic fragility of life and human society is one of those things that people fool themselves into ignoring because they find the idea too scary to contemplate. We are all somewhat like Rosalind Price---up to our eyeballs in a vicious, dangerous, nasty world yet somehow deluded into thinking that in some way it is safe and stable. It is one of those key, important truths of Daoism that this is just a fantasy. The only thing that is constant is change. The Dao is totally indifferent to the suffering of humans, it treats us like "straw dogs".

This isn't to say that we need to become indifferent to suffering, just that any kindness or compassion that exists comes about because we choose to show it to others---not because it is intrinsic to the way things are. It also should teach us that we need to savour every moment (ie: hold onto the One), because it really may be our last chance to do so.


Yeah. More blue type. Just remember that "creatives" need to eat too. We're happy to share with folks that can't afford to toss something in the tip jar. But if you can, think about doing so. If not for this blog, maybe someone else's. If you think that you gained some insight or even wisdom from my words, how about tossing me a buck? 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What is a Martial Art?

When someone asks me "what is a martial art?" I generally wax on about the spiritual benefits of a sustained discipline aimed at excellence:  kung fu. But in this post I want to talk specifically about the practical, self-defense element. This is a very small part of why anyone should pursue a martial art---the health and spiritual gains are far, far more important. But I do think that it is useful to think about self-defense, primarily because it is a way of understanding a little more about what life is all about. If nothing else, I'd like to try and "push back" against some of the silly notions I routinely hear expressed.


The first thing people should get rid of is the notion that self-defense oriented schools of martial arts should be about training people to become all-powerful super ninja soldiers. (Or at least, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) champions.) This is nonsense. The real background of martial arts for self-defense is about giving weak, relatively soft, moderately wealthy people an "edge" in confrontations with lower class ruffians.

Consider the following scenario. An 18th century fop bumps into a street thug while brothel crawling in England. The thug is a lot tougher and stronger than the fop, and he carries a strong oak cudgel. All the fop has is a small-sword that looks like a toy---plus the fencing lessons his wealthy dad insisted that he take when he was a teen. The thug assumes that his greater strength and experience brawling, plus the longer reach of the cudgel gives him an edge. And it might, if he had ever taken the lessons that the fop has. 

An 18th Century Small Sword of the Sort that Fops wore
But he hasn't. He tries to hit the fop, over-extends, and the fop curls around him, moves in close, and drives his small sword into his heart, killing him. The fop used terrible technique, and if the thug had ever practiced against someone using this move, it would never have worked. But the move is totally new to the thug, and he will never have a chance to learn how to counteract it because he is dead. The fop now vomits into the gutter, runs home, changes his clothes, and tries to sleep. The next day he hires the fencing master to learn new lessons and also to teach his son---whom he now absolutely insists on taking these lessons seriously. Moreover, in conversations with friends and family, he convinces a couple others to also hire the fencing master too.


(I suppose I should put a disclaimer in here. Some people automatically think "Eastern" when the phrase "martial arts" comes up. This is nonsense. Europe and other parts of the world all have martial arts traditions of one sort or another. Sword fighting is sword fighting, stick fighting is stick fighting, etc, and once they advance beyond mere thrashing around, intense competition will create cultural systems that fine tune people's abilities to a very fine level. That's what a martial art is, whether it's fencing, boxing, or, taijiquan.)


The thing to understand about this situation is that fights are often games of "rock, paper, scissors". People talk about about winning fights as being a question of being better than the other guy. But the real way to win a fight is to pit your strengths against the other guy's weakness. In the case of the fop versus the thug, the fop had two strengths that he could pit against the thug's weaknesses. The thug was poor, so he had never been able to train with a fancy fencing coach. Moreover, he was uneducated and low class, so he'd never actually seen how fencing works or been exposed to its theory (like I'm explaining in this blog post.) The fop, on the other hand, was well aware of the fact that he was nowhere near as strong as the thug---and that in an equal, "fair" fight he was doomed. So he played rock to the thug's scissors, or, he played his strengths against the thug's weakness.

In the above clip Butch Cassidy isn't playing any specific fighting skill against the thug's inherent strength and supposed superior knife-fighting skill. But he was playing superior tactical skill against the thug. He first gained the support of the on-lookers by asking about rules and got the thug to accept the lack of them. This means that if he bested the thug he would have settled the larger political issue (ie: "who's the boss of the gang?") and wouldn't have to return to the issue because people carped that "you didn't fight fair". Then, he used a superior knowledge of what chess and martial arts call "tempo" in order to get the first punch in, which created a position of superiority and never allowed the thug to recover from it.


Now I use the terms "soft" and "rich" above in a very limited sense. I don't mean that it is a good thing in the martial arts to be "soft" (in the sense of being physically weak.) Nor do I suggest that only the super rich could learn them either. But I am saying that martial arts are very useful for people who aren't really strong to begin with---even though strength does help you if you want to get good at martial arts. And wealth is only an issue up to the point where you are wealthy enough to be able to pay for lessons and have enough leisure to practice. Really poor people---no matter how strong---often simply don't have the time to be able to practice, even if they could find someone to teach them. 

The sort of guys who taught me taijiquan---Daoshi---and Shaolin monks are not, strictly speaking "soft", "wealthy" people. But they aren't hardened, poverty-stricken peasants, either. They specifically had educational opportunities and leisure time that allowed them to learn things that peasants would never have learned. Of course, not all Buddhist monks or Daoshi learn martial arts, but enough of them did in old China that ruffians would probably think twice before they attacked them. (Their general poverty also made them somewhat not worth the effort, which was probably more important.)


Years ago I used to write lots of free copy for very profitable newspapers in the belief that it was just enough to see my words in print. I know realize that I was doing a disservice to the reporters who were working hard to dig up news. I still write mostly for free, but now I usually put a note in the text reminding people that we really do need to come up with a mechanism for rewarding "creatives" for the work they do. I get a few dollars now and then, pretty much all of which ends up being spent to support other creatives that I support. And I don't mind if people who cannot afford to help out read for free. But if you do have extra money jingling in your pocket, think about making a donation or buying a book.  


Another issue that I should probably deal with comes from the relationship between the martial arts and the military. In modern times hand-to-hand fighting is pretty much irrelevant for most soldiers. Modern weapons ensure that most battles are settled long before people get close enough to throw a punch. You cannot dodge or deflect a bullet, bomb or IED.

Having said that, many people believe that ancient battles were different. If you watch a lot of movies you would be excused for thinking that a battle simply involved a lot of people fighting one-on-one from one side to another. Surely martial arts would help with that? Not really. From ancient to modern times soldiers didn't fight one-on-one, but rather as units. One popular drama that does understand this point to some extent is "Game of Thrones". (I've never seen it, but I have heard others talk about this on YouTube.) Take a look at this video that explains something called the "battle of the bastards". 

You can have all the grooviest martial moves in the planet, but if your general orders you into a cauldron and then the other guy shoots huge numbers of arrows at you, you are going to die. And, if you get stuck in the middle of a bunch of guys with big shields, heavy armor, and, spears, and you have none of these things, you are toast too. Moreover, if in the middle of all this insanity a bunch of heavy cavalry show up from nowhere and attack you in the rear while you are busy slaughtering their friends---you are toast too. (Not to mention if you manage to get into a castle and a giant arrives to smash in the doors.)

This "fantasy" tv show is probably the most accurate vision of ancient battle that I have ever seen anywhere, and it clearly illustrates that soldiers are not martial artists. Instead, they are just cogs in a giant machine who have almost no control at all about whether they live or die. All they can do is what they are told and hope for the best. So let's just discard the idea that soldiers have anything at all to do with martial arts.


In terms of taijiquan---the martial art I know a little about---the "strength" that a person with some training brings to a fight is the insight that being relaxed can be a good defense against some attacks. There is also the point that if you get in close to someone a lot of strikes (punches and kicks) become harder to land. And, if you know a little bit about how to lock someone's joints and where the balance points in the body are, you can move around people that might even be a lot stronger than you. If the other guy has never come across anyone who knows about these things, it might give you a momentary advantage in a fight---just like the fop with his small sword. Obviously, the more and better you train in these techniques, the better you will be. But you don't have to be "Yang the Invincible" to get value from the art, simply because the person you get into a fight with is probably not going to be terribly good at fighting either. 

More importantly, by thinking about the Dao and the subtle ways in which the world operates, you will gain greater insight into all the different ways in which delusion colours and distorts our understanding of the world around us---including self-defense. This will help you in ways that go far beyond the outside chance of meeting someone in a dark alley who wishes to do you harm. (More likely, it will keep you out of that dark alley in the first place.)

Monday, December 4, 2017

What does a Fake Smile Say About How we Treat Women?

Part of my life involves trying to "hold onto the One" as much as possible. This involves trying to pay careful attention to everything in both the world around me and my consciousness. If you do this, you start to notice subtleties that you would miss otherwise.

One thing that I notice that I find somewhat creepy is the "smile mask" that a some women wear. I walk along the street and sometimes this involves looking at the faces of other people. When I do this, I sometimes see that a woman notices me and instantly breaks out a fake smile. It's too fast to be a conscious choice. Nor, I suspect is it a spontaneous statement about how nice it is to see my face. Instead, I strongly suspect, it is a conditioned response. A lot of women have been trained to smile---just like Pavlov's dog was conditioned to salivate whenever he rang a bell.

I suspect that there are two cultural factors at work here. First, being a part of the service economy, being friendly and out-going has ceased to be a personality quirk and instead become a condition of employment. A smile isn't a genuine expression of happiness anymore, it's a necessary activity at your place of employment.

The second element is the socialization process that a lot of girls and young women are subjected to. This is so much of a thing that I found a blog post devoted to this issue. It starts by talking about the author's personal experience of being a woman:
It’s early, and I’m only half awake as I walk down the street to the bus stop. I walk past a group of people going the opposite direction; a man comes towards me to say, “Hey, why aren’t you smiling?” It takes a while before I realize what just happened. I keep walking as I hear him mutter something less nice about me. I feel violated, as if my feelings have been taken ransom. Whatever emotion I have or choose to show is suddenly not mine but for the rest of the world to consider and qualify. What would happen if I chose to smile at the request of that stranger? Would he take my response as a signal for him to try his advances at me? Does my refusal to comply mean I'm the stuck-up bitch he claims I am?
From the blog "Culturacolectiva",
by Maria Suarez

Am I making too big a deal about this? I don't know. I like people who smile and are nice to me just as much as the next guy. But I also like people who are "real" and let me know exactly what they are thinking about things. And I have also met a lot of people who have learned (or maybe a more accurate way of saying it would be "have been trained") to pay so much attention to what other people think of them that they find it impossible to express any emotions that they feel are negative. Can these women who involuntarily smile when I look into their eyes tell a man what they really feel? Or have they internalized a way of relating to men so deeply that they simply can no longer do so?


Time to use blue font and put out my begging bowl.

I suspect that most people think that mendicant monks beg for food only because they are hungry. But that isn't really true. Monks beg because it is something that forces them to put themselves in the position of being at the lowest rung of human society. It forces them to understand what it is like to be totally at the mercy of others. Being a monk is an extremely high-status thing in most Eastern countries, which means that forcing them to beg and having lay people decide what goes into the bowl "inverts" the relationship. It helps both sides of the equation realize that monks are just human beings like everyone else. A Western Zen master, Bernie Glassman, goes to the point of having "street retreats" where he forces middle-class students hand over everything that identifies them, put on rough old clothes, and, force them to beg for food on the streets of American cities---posing as homeless people. He feels that this does a better job of "blowing up" their preconceived notions than a day of intense Zen meditation.

It's the same thing when a creative person puts out an "ask" for support on a Patreon account. You stop being an independent thinker who is above all that stuff and put yourself in the position of being a "money grubber" just like any other human being in a capitalist society. It also puts the reader in the situation of realizing that the piece they are reading isn't something that comes from a "groovy intellectual", but instead arrives from a specific person who has many of the same problems that you do---including how to pay the rent. Nowadays part of that distance is the idea that"all content on the Web should be free".

So if you can, think about making even a token contribution---a dollar a month on Patreon helps. Buy a book. Share the link with friends if you think it is good. And if you really can't afford anything, that's fine too. The monk blesses the person who wants to fill the bowl but cannot offer a copper more than the person who gives a token amount out of their extreme excess. 


I've heard that there is something called a "repressed memory" that keeps people from being able to remember traumatic experiences. I don't know how that would work, but I can attest to there being a totally different situation where you cannot escape a memory---it haunts you day and night---but it is so painful that it is impossible to express to another human being. What happens to people who have to present a pleasant, happy visage to other people that it has become the "default" and they have to force themselves to express their true emotions? 

In Japan a new medical condition has been identified which they call "Smile Mask Syndrome" (SMS). A psychologist first noticed this when she found students who were still smiling and wearing their "happy face" when relating especially painful experiences. Our facial expressions and body language are so important to our ability to communicate with others, it must really screw up our self-image and inter-personal relationships if you have been trained to smile and be happy looking when you are crying inside. Indeed, SMS seems to be associated with depression and physical illness.

I'm kinda lucky in my job because it's the sort of work that is diametrically opposed to this sort of thing. I have to yell at people, look furious, and threaten people with physical arrest. The "happy face" management style just doesn't work when you end up calling the cops and having someone put into handcuffs. (Although that sort of work also takes its toll---I've felt pretty awful some nights after having to deal with a "problem patron".) But truth be told, I'd much rather risk getting my lights punched out than ending up with a permanent "happy face" glued over my real one. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Hard and Easy Paths to Realization

A long time ago I had a conversation with a Zen priest. It was when I was still much more engaged in "cloud-walking" (ie: finding out spiritual people from various traditions to see what I can learn from them) than I am today. Someone mentioned him to me, and it turned out that he worked as a sculpture technician in the fine-arts building right next to library where I work. So there was no excuse not to seek him out.

He was a gruff old man who was very close to retirement. He'd gone to Korea as a soldier during the war and ended up staying on in one of the Temples. I mentioned that I was interested in Zen and he did his best to discourage me. Transcendental meditation was, he opined, a much easier way to find some wisdom in life. He said that there was a temple in Toronto, but I had to be "hard core" or they'd simply throw me out the front door. This is a fairly standard trope from Zen---it's not supposed to be an easy way to gain realization.


Teachers have tended to create easier forms of gaining wisdom "for the masses". These include things like reciting mantras

and performing devotional rituals.

These are very standard moves across all religions. Christianity emphasizes devotional practices, but it also has most of the others too. For example, there is a tradition of chanting in Eastern Orthodoxy that is focused on repeating the mantra "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner". (The Eastern Church usually says that this is nothing like Eastern chanting, but that's nonsense.)

People practicing a specific posture in a Hatha Yoga class
Photo by"Trollderella", c/o the Wikicommons
Mention "yoga" to most people, and they will probably think of something like the above picture. This is what is known as hatha yoga, which has recently become something of a fad. (I will speak of it no more.) But the actual word "yoga" means something like the word "kung fu", a diligent practice that is used to gain insight and knowledge. It has a slightly different emphasis, though. "Yoga" comes from the same root word as "yoke", so the emphasis is on committing yourself to a certain practice or path. (Sanskrit and European languages come from the same source, so there are similarities like this for certain words.) "Kung fu", in contrast, emphasizes the individual's hard work leading to personal excellence or realization.

Indian spiritual teachers have codified the different spiritual "tactics", or "yogas", or "kung fus" one can follow in pursuit of spiritual insight and named them accordingly. Chanting correlates with Japa Yoga, devotional practices correlate with Bhakti Yoga, the route of good works (think Gandhi) is called Karma Yoga, ritual is covered by Tantra Yoga. I'd suggest that Zen is most like Jnana Yoga, or, "the path of knowledge".


The path of knowledge exists in opposition to the path of devotion or ritual. It's about actually knowing the truth instead of having faith or being a loving person. This is an important point, and one I rarely see spelled out in any detail.

Personally, I've always been consumed by wanting to know things. This isn't just a question of curiosity. More importantly---for me at least---it's a strong ethical commitment to the idea that we shouldn't make decisions without finding out the truth that underlies the situation. This has made me the "odd man out" for most of my life because I tend to get absolutely furious with people who are quite happy to "fudge the facts" or even lie in order to get their way. This recently came home to me in an argument I had with some folks about a Canadian academic who has been spreading a bald-faced lie about an abstruse part of Canadian governance in order to whip right-wing Americans into a frenzy. The result has been that this guy seems to have made a fortune on social media and public speaking engagements convincing people that Canada is on the verge of being taken over by radical Muslims.

My argument is that this sort of behaviour should be grounds for dismissing this guy from his tenured university position and revoking his Phd---along the lines of taking away a doctor's license for malpractice. The response by most people has been to suggest that I have a screw loose and I simply don't understand the importance of freedom of speech, and, tenure. What I'd argue is that yes, I do understand the importance of free speech, but these folks don't understand how much damage fake news can have on the lives of innocent people. A small percentage of people actually believe this stuff when they hear it and believe that they need to take action. The result are terrorist attacks on Muslims, like the recent one in Quebec City that killed six and wounded nineteen others.


I raised the above example not because I want to rehash the issues of "fake news" and the tremendous resurgence of Fascist demagoguery our society is currently going through, but simply because I wanted to point out a strange way in which my mental processes are different from almost everyone else. That is, I do not blame the person who picks up a gun and shoots others nearly as much as I blame the person who bombarded the shooter with propaganda about the perfidy of the victims in order to raise money or promote a political agenda. At least the shooter has the courage of his convictions. But the propagandist may not---and I suspect often doesn't---really believe what he is saying, but just does so to take advantage of the gullible.

In effect, I am making the same point that the Gospels make in Matthew 7:15, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." 

Later on, Christ also makes a very strong statement in a similar vein. When asked "Who is the greatest in Heaven's domain?", he replies that saying that it is the people who are like little children. But then he goes on to say that
"Those who entrap one of these little trusting souls would be better off to have millstones hung around their necks and be drowned in the deepest part of the sea!" (Matthew 18:1-6, Scholar's Version of the Gospels)

If this wasn't strong enough, Jesus goes on to curse the people who try to fool the gullible.

"Dam the world for the traps it sets! Even though it's inevitable for traps to be set, nevertheless, damn the person who sets such traps." (Matthew 18:7) 

Looking at these quotes from the Gospels has got me thinking. I've never wanted to put a millstone around the neck of one of these Alt-right propaganda types---but I have contemplated tying ropes attached to cement blocks around their necks and tossing them through holes cut in the ice covering Lake Ontario. (I was actually startled to realize that Jesus's level of rage is comparable to my own. Wow!)

The point I'm trying to make is that the sort of deep, crazy anger that I (and presumably Jesus, too---I can't get over that) have against the "Grima Wormtongues" of politics and social media is actually quite rare. In fact, I've found that most people not only can't understand why I get so upset about this stuff, they are often genuinely concerned about me and the "crazy ideas" that I hold. I suspect that part of the reason is that people simply cannot see the incredible damage this sort of thing can cause. I suppose that ultimately, it's like a good chess player who can see how awful a play is because he looks several moves ahead. The bad player simply doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. In the same way, for example, I get crazy angry about what is going to happen to other people in the future because of climate change, whereas the folks who can't see this just think I am flipping out about absolutely nothing.


So what has this got to do with Zen Buddhism and Bhakti yoga?

Well, the path of knowledge really is too difficult for most people to follow. It involves a constant struggle to fight against your preconceived notions and to stare totally honestly into the face of reality and accept what you see---no matter what. In Zen the mythical story of Bodhidharma staring at the wall of cave for years in order to deepen his understanding illustrates the awful effort that you have to put into tearing away all your illusions.

Bodhidharma staring at the wall
I got the picture from a site without attribution,
But it said it was from the middle ages, so I'm assuming it's public domain.
This sort of horrible, painful effort is common in most religions. Christ on his cross, Daoist stories about students being boiled alive by their masters, even Gandalf's fight with the Balrog from Lord of the Rings, are all metaphors for the enormous struggle that has to be fought in the pursuit of wisdom. But where the path of wisdom parts from others is that the people who follow it often do not encourage their followers to embark on the same journey---they suggest something easier. That's what my neighbour the Zen priest was doing. He was trying to discourage interest in Zen and suggested something easier: transcendental meditation.

Even transcendental meditation is too hard for many people, though. That is why religions instead turn towards the paths of faith and devotion. "Faith" is the idea that we simply have to have hope that it all makes sense in one way or another. If life is a terrible horror for most people, have faith that there is a life after death and everyone gets their just rewards there. Or if that doesn't work, have faith that there is a great God in the sky who's great intelligence is so beyond us, that he sees a way in which it all does make sense. If faith doesn't work for you, there's always devotion. You school yourself to love god or the church or the rituals so much that everything else becomes of secondary importance. The point of faith and devotion is to stop even trying to make sense of things, because it just hurts too much to make the effort.

I can understand this. Most people don't have the time or inclination to put their entire life into the process of gaining wisdom. I put in ten years studying philosophy. I've spent enormous amounts of time meditating, meeting with spiritual teachers, going on retreats, reading sacred and philosophical texts, studying martial arts, etc. Most folks would rather have a career, raise a family, travel, etc. For them the path of knowledge is simply not a "live option".
A proud young man came to Socrates asking for wisdom. He walked up to him and said, “O great Socrates, I come to you for wisdom.” Socrates, recognizing a pompous fool when he saw one, led him down to the sea and took him chest deep into the water. Then he asked him, “What did you say you wanted?” “Wisdom, O great Socrates,” said the young man.
Socrates put his strong hands on the man’s shoulders and pushed him under. Thirty seconds later Socrates let him up. “What do you want?” he asked again. “Wisdom,” the young man sputtered, “O great and wise Socrates.” Socrates pushed him under again. Thirty seconds, thirty-five, forty – then Socrates let him up. The man was gasping. “What do you want, young man?”
Between heavy breaths the fellow wheezed, “Wisdom! O wise and wonderful…” Socrates jammed him under again – forty seconds passed then fifty – then he let him up. “What do you want?” “Air!” the young man yelled. “I need air!”  “When you want wisdom as much as you have just wanted air, then you will begin to find wisdom.” 
(Quote from a blog that I don't endorse, but this is a widely used apocryphal story and this version is just as good as any other for the purposes of this post.)


I can remember when I was "cloudwalking" with Roman Catholics that this decision to pursue knowledge instead of faith was always an unbridgeable crevasse that separated me from them. They simply couldn't understand my commitment to knowledge, and for a long time I couldn't understand their insistence on faith. The other day I woke up with an insight simply about how much different my life would have been if I hadn't had that bizarre obsession with wisdom that Socrates talks about in the above story.

Wisdom is a funny thing. My experience is that it always comes at the price of suffering. Even if it isn't the result of having a particularly painful experience, I have found that deep realization often comes from a period of something very like depression. What happens is that for days I feel deeply introverted and unhappy with life, but then a moment comes when the clouds part and I understand some deep mystery of life that has perplexed me for a long, long time. John of the Cross called this "the dark night of the soul", Saint Ignatius called this process "desolation followed by consolation". My dear sweet wife simply calls it the alternation of Yin and Yang.

John Stuart Mill
Image c/o Wiki Commons,
a pretty smart guy.

The question of happiness and the pursuit of wisdom is something that a lot of people have thought about. It is especially relevant to Utilitarians, or, the school of philosophy that says that moral issues can be settled by creating the greatest amount of good (ie: "utility") for the greatest number of people. One of its founders, John Stuart Mill, raised the wisdom question in the following way:
 “It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. 
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” (Utilitarianism)
The important point here is "they only know their own side of the question". That's why realization is so mysterious. You either get it or you don't.

It's even worse than that. A few people are "fated" to seek knowledge, but most don't. When I was talking to that Zen priest all those years ago, I mentioned something about having had a wild, weird childhood that shattered any illusions I might have had about ordinary life. He instantly responded with "that's just the price of admission" and mentioned his time in the Korean war. (No specifics, but I suspect that he saw some bad craziness. My understanding is that the Canadian contingent got more than it's fair share.) This is where the issue of "fate" or "karma" kicks in. Some people are like Socrates and need knowledge the same way most people need air. Most folks just aren't like that. They are content to just rely upon faith or devotion.


I understand why people lean upon faith. A lot of very bad things happen in life and if it doesn't make any sense (and, to be honest, a lot really doesn't---life is absurd.) It can be a tremendously useful strategy to simply force yourself to assume that it all makes sense and go from there. And devotion is simply a variation in that theme. "Jesus loves me this I know, 'cause the Bible tells me so---". You can't love God unless you have faith that he exists and gives a damn about you and your petty concerns.

But if you hear a particularly scary story about climate change, or you get bummed out because of some horrible atrocity being committed against people on the other side of the planet, or watch YouTube and some horribly trained police officer kills someone, or read about some corporation fudging research to get a dangerous medicine put on the market, or,----you fill in the blank----you still have to wake up in the morning, put your boots on, and, head off to work. Lots of people just don't bother paying attention to the world around them. Lots of others don't really care all that much about what happens to other people. But there are still lots of sensitive types who get upset about this kind of stuff and they don't know how to deal with the pain. For them, faith can be a tremendously good thing because it helps them continue to be functional in a world that they experience as a never-ending horror show.

I finally get the appeal of faith. But it simply doesn't work for me. My mind just isn't designed to work that way. That's why I'm a Daoist who is committed to the path of knowledge instead of the path of faith or devotion. We need people to seek out knowledge because that is how our society moves forward. But I also suspect that we also need people who have faith to keep the the wheels moving.


Out comes the begging bowl. Believe me, I probably hate writing these "asks" more than you do reading them. But if I don't remind people that the guys who tap their fingers on the keyboards and rack their brains coming up with the ideas deserve to make some money too, we continue to support the illusion that all this stuff on the Internet just comes for "free". Not likely. And the guys who do the coding and work on the advertising, and the managers and investors that stand behind them, certainly aren't working for free. In fact, they are making astronomical profits. Do you like that? If not, then remember to support the "creatives" in the best way you can. Toss something in the tip jar, do a little subscription, buy a book, or, just tell your "friends" on social media that they might like to read this blog.