Post with 32 notes
A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
- Sir Winston Churchill
I’ve known a few fanatics in my life. I’ve even been one. There’s a comfort in certainty. It’s not just the smug confidence that you know and they don’t and that makes you smarter than the average bear. It’s that you don’t have to keep looking at the facts and making decisions. It’s all done. You already have all the answers. Relax! The hard part’s done. Scratch “resolve all the ambiguities of life” off your to-do list and get on with cleaning out the garage.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Fanatics don’t just know the answer, they know The One True Answer:
One Truth to rule them all, One Truth to find them,
One Truth to bring them all and in its rightness bind them.
That’s the most beautiful part, of course. That One Truth explains everything. Ask the Time Cube guy. We laugh at him because his One Truth is so far beyond the popular pale, and because he expresses it with so much surreal vigor. But that’s symptom, not disease. That’s the expression of his insistence on the same fundamental concept held dear by millions whose differing grace is a more palatable presentation. And that’s the long-sought Holy Grail of every monomaniac since our ancestors stood up and started talking: what’s the explanation for everything?
A healthy mind looks for an answer to each question: discrete questions, discrete answers. Yes, we pattern-making monkeys can find the bigger picture with both lobes. But sometimes the quest for the bigger picture is like looking back up the microscope. We get distorted results, and maybe just a look at our own funhoused reflections.
You take each question as it comes and each fact just as you find it. You cut away what’s false, what fails. And in the end you have something faceted, brilliant, and enduring.
It’s slow going. Short cuts are generally short circuits. Finding the truth is a long, painful process. Maybe even a “long wait for a train that don’t come”. And some people can’t accept that there’s no single answer, no capital-T truth. They feel a deep need for comprehensibility: they want to live in a world where things make easy sense.
So they do exactly what the rest of us do - they fill in the gaps. We all write our own scripts with the characters and settings we’re given. But where most of us reach out for color, depth, and novelty to enliven our visions, fanatics fill every gap with the same god. Imagine Hamlet reduced to Hamlet, Claudius, Opheila, and the ghost. Any time another character would have been there or done something, just insert the ghost in their place.
Now how much would you pay for front-row seats to that?
How do we answer these bad writers? Well, the traditional response has been the classic “fire with fire” scenario. Give them the right answers to their questions. But that’s like trying to answer your four-year-old in “why” mode: “why is the sky blue? why does that make the sky blue? why does light have colors? why are there colors at all?” It’s exhausting because it’s exhaustive - you’d have to answer every question, fill in every blank, connect every dot.
Good luck with that.
In Among the Truthers, Jonathan Kay suggests a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills in school to help people avoid the pitfalls of conspiracist thinking. (Conspiracists are a subset of the monomaniacs - the woman who sees a vast web of intrigue behind the 9/11 attacks is just a hop, skip, and a jump from embracing “4 corner days”.) Show them how to connect the dots, and how not to connect the dots. Then let them paint their own pictures.
Post with 20 notes
Amy Winehouse was found dead in her home yesterday. As of this writing, the cause of her death remains unknown. But there are those who’d rather say “I told you so” than “I am so sorry”, and they’re out in force right now.
Let’s decode a little of what they’re saying.
Character is crucial. We work hard to instill it in our children and cultivate it in ourselves. We hone it on trouble and polish it with joy. But character isn’t everything. Will doesn’t trump biology or psychology.
Let’s suppose Amy Winehouse died as some result of her addictions. Where’s the weakness in succumbing to a disease? What flaw can we see in her character from the fact that she got addicted to substances that are banned precisely because they are dangerously addictive? How do we condemn her for suffering from the same disease that kills about 20,000 people a year in the US alone?
That’s an awful lot of weaklings and ne’er-do-wells.
Drug addiction and abuse are no more about a weakness of character than alcoholism, depression, or schizophrenia. Yes, the substance abuser at one point made a choice to take drugs. That one mistake shouldn’t cost them their lives or our compassion. And chalking up every misstep to character flaws is setting a destructively high standard for human behavior.
It’s one thing to condemn celebrity culture - our society’s obsession with the lives and loves of the rich and famous. It’s another to use that to bash real people who are enduring real suffering.
Amy Winehouse’s family and friends are hurting. The fact that she was famous (and famously troubled) doesn’t make that any easier. We all got to see Amy Winehouse the singer, the songwriter, the entertainer and artist. But to her loved ones that’s the daughter that made her own piggy bank in woodshop, the sister that told off the abusive girlfriend, the friend who was always there no matter what. And she’s gone, and because she was famous they get to hear all the judgments about her, and about them.
We don’t know what they did or didn’t do to help their loved one with her problems. We can sit outside and assume that they failed her, that they were all selfish hangers-on using her for every cent they could get, that the rich and famous can neither experience nor deserve the love of those close to them. Or we can remember that no matter how high the pedestal there’s a real flesh-and-blood human being behind those paparazzi snaps, magazine covers, and gossip columns.
People die of their diseases every day. Most of us manage to find sympathy for them instead of sitting in judgment. Unless they’re famous, in which case we reserve the right to relish the sight of the mighty brought low.
My sister, who is one of the wisest and most compassionate people I know, once said “there’s enough pain to go around”. There’s no need to compete over whose hurt is worse, whose wounds are deeper, and who deserves more compassion. But we do it.
Amy Winehouse’s death is her own doing, the thinking goes. Her talent brought her fame and fortune, and instead of doing something virtuous she chose the vice that killed her. Whereas those kids in Norway did nothing to deserve death …
And that’s the point where that thought needs to hit the brakes hard. Nobody deserves to die. I don’t question the innocence of those killed in the attacks in Norway. I don’t diminish the loss felt by those who loved them, or the heartache the whole world shares right now.
But do we really think we can sift fine the ashes from one tragedy and set them in a scale with another? Pain is pain. Loss is loss.
We weigh the value of human life according to the character that lived it. We all mourn for the kids and snicker for the singer. Her narrative rewards us with the payout we expect: the wicked and the weak suffer for their flaws. The Norwegian children’s narrative is like a movie where the villain wins. It thwarts our expectations, our desire to see justice done. It shows us a world that’s messier and more final than the one we want to see, and the fact that it’s often closer to the truth is no comfort.
The cult of character - the idea that failings have their roots in some innate but remediable flaw - is a comfort. It’s a way of writing justice in big red letters over the mad messy scramble of the world. It’s a way to hold on to the hope that the heroine will win, the star-crossed lovers will live happily ever after, and everything will make sense. It’s a gross over-simplification of our very complex world.
We want suffering to have meaning. We cherish the myth of pain as the fire that refines. But tell a mother that her child’s death will make her nobler, stronger, better. It doesn’t matter whether that child died with a needle in her arm or a bullet in her gut. All that mother knows is that her baby is gone. Her world is brittle shards and the sick pain of an empty place. There’s no meaning in tragedy, no sense in suffering. There’s just pain echoing through the void.
The more our world evolves the less we can afford those pretty fairy tales we tell ourselves. We need to remember that there is no “good pain”, no “virtuous suffering”, no one less deserving of compassion than anyone else. Judgment divides. Compassion unites.
Video with 5 notes
I’ve been managing people on and off most of my adult life. I’ve managed retail stores, sales offices, and call centers. I’ve run little departments that sold a few thousand dollars a month and I’ve led units that brought in eight figures a year.
And none of that would lead me to think I should run for mayor or governor, let alone President. I always smile when businessmen like Donald Trump or Hermain Cain think their executive success makes them strong candidates. There’s a vast difference between directing employees and working with a legislature full of people with their own agendas and no need to answer to you. You can fire an employee who rejects your agenda. You can’t fire Congress.
Trump dropped out of the 2012 race some time ago. It seems like he does this every four years. He makes a big deal about how he’s thinking about it, talks about a few pet issues, complains he’s not getting the deference from the press he seems to think he’s due, and then drops out. I don’t know why we take him any more seriously than Pat Paulsen or the Naked Cowboy.
But pizza magnate Herman Cain is still in it, at least for the moment. In the above video, Mr. Cain explains why he thinks it’s okay for communities in the US to ban mosques. Freedom of religion, you see, only applies to religions that don’t try to legislate their views. This isn’t discrimination, it’s protecting Our American Way of Life and Standing Up For Human Rights. Washington, Jefferson, and Superman would totally approve.
Take Christianity, for example. You couldn’t very well get a court order forbidding the construction of a church in your community, because Christianity passes the Cain test. No one practicing Christianity has ever tried to legislate morality. It’s not like any Christian groups have ever opposed full legal recognition of people’s right to be married simply because those unions run contrary to their own religious beliefs. Certainly no Christians have ever insisted that their creation myths be given equal time in science classrooms of public schools. And the very idea that Christian groups might have put laws on the books restricting the rights of adults to buy liquor on Christian holy days is just absurd.
The Cain test isn’t about Sharia law. None of the opposition to Islam and the construction of mosques is about Sharia law. Are there women being oppressed under some interpretation of Sharia law right now? Certainly. We can all pat ourselves on the back for objecting to this injustice while ignoring those perpetrated under Christian laws. And then we can stop pretending that mosques are vectors for the inexorable spread of Sharia law. We can start realizing that any attempt to keep people from practicing their faith because it’s different and scary is an injustice that’s completely contrary to the very foundations of human rights.
Mr. Cain disagrees. In his America, all you have to do is call “hallowed ground!” and poof! you’ve got a good old-fashioned no-mosque zone. The funny part is that if I tried that (“secular ground!”) I’d get laughed out of court and figuratively stoned in the press. My marginalized public persona would be prayed over as it was sent to the eternal hell of crackpot irrelevance.
Extend that thought, Mr. Cain. You’ve just called for the banning of the public practice of Islam. (He’s already said he would not appoint any Muslims to the judiciary or the Cabinet - at least not without a strong affirmation of their loyalty to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Because that’s just assumed of non-Muslims, you know.) You’ve elevated the NIMBY principle above the bedrock principles of our democracy. And for what? To keep the bogeyman under the bed.
Here’s the other reason I distrust businessmen running for President: they’re too often willing to prioritize the product over the process. Cain doesn’t want this country taken over by Sharia law. But rather than advocate for human rights, equality, and a secular government, he’s willing to use the power of the government to suppress a religion he finds threatening. He’s willing to cut separation of church and state off at the knees because he doesn’t want Islam to get the power of the state. That’s the baby getting tossed with the bath water.
The funny part is that Mr. Cain knows full well that in his business he could never get away with religious tests for prospective employees. The sad part is that he clearly has no idea why.
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