Posts Tagged ‘history’

“Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”

January 3, 2011 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY ninjanoodles

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the fantastic 1999 film, The Matrix, where Cypher and Neo are chatting about their introduction to life outside the matrix via Morpheus’s offer of a choice between the red and blue pills. Cypher laments that he wished he’d taken the blue pill instead, making it clear he’d have preferred to be living a happy fantasy rather than risking everything by fighting against the machines.

One of the great things about Cypher’s character is that you can empathise with him. Nobody can blame him for wanting a simple, easy life — especially as he’s not The One. At that point in the film we all know that he’s just as likely to end up a smudge on the ground as make old bones.

I mention The Matrix because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. And this is where I may lose you as a reader. Either way, so it goes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been consuming the works of two prolific writers and speakers, both world experts in their fields: Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn. Chomsky (now 82) is regarded by many as “the Einstein” of his field of linguistics and cognition at MIT, though outside the classroom he talks almost exclusively about political science. Zinn was regarded similarly in his field of history at Boston University.

I first encountered Chomsky in the early 2000s via his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies [Amazon|UK], a collection of essays and papers focussing mainly on Central American politics and history over the last 40 years. It’s an astounding book that left me truly stunned, wondering about the rest of the world if even half it it was true. He provides full references and consistently avoids a simple answer to, “If the mainstream media is wrong, biased, controlled or corrupt, then where should we turn to get reliable information?” His answer is typically a variation of Ben Goldacre‘s, “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” There is no single source, type or medium of reliable, unbiased or uncorrupt information. You need to look at the mainstream, the margins, including sources you may dislike, and analyse what’s going on for yourself.

Damn. I’m going to have to think for myself. And that’s the point.

Zinn is a fairly recent discovery for me, though most people know him via his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present [Amazon|UK], where he included the viewpoints of non-Europeans in the discovery and conquest of North America. I’ve not yet read it, but I understand that it’s a polarising work, and your reaction to it will depend upon whether or not you’re prepared to revise your views on official history. Interestingly, the FBI kept a large file on him, most notably due to his influence on Martin Luther King, Vietnam anti-war campaigning and the McCarthyist hysteria of the time.

And this is where I think many of Chomsky’s and Zinn’s detractors come from: many seem to regard them as un-American or even traitors. Both authors present alternative versions of recorded history, removing the infantile notion of good (us) versus evil (them), and add insult to that injury by presenting other reasons why such things did or are happening in the first place. It’s not as simple as the official version; it’s not even as simple as the counter-accusations or popular conspiracy theories. It’s a complex mix of power, greed, acquisition, control, domination, influence and coercion, and furthering of interests.

The use of past and present tense is deliberate — these things are still happening. Consider the endless stream of major and minor wars in the 20th and present century, the provision of “foreign aid” weapons and training to brutal and sadistic regimes, the quiet growth of internal enforcement agencies into international intelligence agencies (as has just happened with the DEA), the dismantling of union-protected workplaces that made our workers cheaper than those in some developing countries, and national elections of leaders whose candidates can be differentiated only by their party’s logo. To name a few.

Neither Chomsky nor Zinn pretend to be 100% certain about everything they say. Both admit they may be wrong, and are open to evidence-based correction. Nor should you take it from me as fact, an amateur hack who spends his spare time consuming non-mainstream information, wondering about the world and sharing the occasional thought here whenever I’m not playing computer games or socialising with friends. Use, refine and practise your analytical skills and skepticism to examine what these men say, compare it against what you see, know and/or suspect, read the papers and articles to which they refer, and then judge for yourself.

There is no universal truth, and I’m not declaring that this is it — but it makes you think. However, if you’re unwilling to have your perception of world history and current events challenged, you may want to choose the blue pill…

Here are some of Noam Chomsky’s works that you might want to look at:

  • An American Addiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Case Studies In Hypocrisy [Amazon|UK]
  • Class War: The Attack On Working People [Amazon|UK]
  • The Clinton Vision: Old Wine, New Bottles [Amazon|UK]
  • The Emerging Framework Of World Power [watch online]
  • For A Free Humanity [Amazon|UK]
  • Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism In The Real World [Amazon|UK]
  • The Imperial Presidency [Amazon|UK]
  • The New War On Terrorism: Fact And Fiction [Amazon|UK]
  • Propaganda And The Public Mind [Amazon|UK]
  • Prospects For Democracy [Amazon|UK]

Here are some of Howard Zinn’s works that you might want to look at:

(I haven’t read or seen all of these yet). Both have released many more works, but I think that will keep you busy for some time.

Excellent essay series on Stoicism

November 2, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY euthman

For many years I’ve internally identified with many of the central tenets of the ancient Stoic philosophy, mostly after reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (Amazon|UK), but it’s not something I’ve seen much about so haven’t really considered it beyond the “Yes, I identify with that” concept that many of us do whenever we encounter a whole or partial philosophy.

I’ve written previously about my exploration of some philosophies and religions, but Stoicism is something I’ve not really spoken about with anyone. It, along with my examination of Buddhism have, largely unconsciously, informed much of my mental wiring with regards to topics such as reactions, drives, ambitions and wants. It affects and informs my interactions with family and friends, my view on possessions and consumerism, many aspects of my personal and working life, and even how I behave in the inevitable British traffic queues.

Imagine my surprise to discover recently on BoingBoing, one of my daily reads, an excellent series of essays on the subject of Stoicism by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, entitled Twenty-First Century Stoic:

  1. From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic
  2. Insult Pacifism
  3. Stoic Transformation

They are an excellent introduction to the philosophy, and the comparison to certain aspects of Buddhism resonates with my own experiences. I can’t pretend to agree with everything in these essays, nor do I think the philosophy is without its faults, but by the same measure I don’t completely agree with everything written by atheists or humanists — also worldviews with which I strongly identify.

Even if you are not particularly interested in adopting such a philosophy on life, I recommend looking into what Stoicism is really about. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not really all about emotional passivity and the stiff upper lip. You could read a modern work on the topic, such as Irvine’s own A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Amazon|UK) — or you could go directly to the ancient writings of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Seneca (Letters from a Stoic / Epistulae morales ad Lucilium),  Epictetus, and the logician Chrysippus. Their works aren’t covered by copyright, so are available in many places online, including Project Gutenberg.

The 2,000 year old modern problem

April 16, 2010 Comments off

Following on from my previous post about the Pope’s apparent direct involvement in covering up the illegal sexual activities of some Catholic church staff, here’s something that illustrates how old this so-called “new problem” really is:

The Beast File: Catholic Church Sex Scandals

Two thousand years of sweet fuck-all being done about this problem strongly suggests that exactly the same will continue to be done about it unless the public makes it happen. The right-leaning religiosity of most modern Western governments almost guarantees they won’t be doing anything about it anytime soon.

However, as pointed out by Jack of Kent recently, care does need to be taken to determine whether crimes have actually been committed by Ratzinger. Particularly when you’re looking an international borders and legal differences.

Hat tip: PodBlack Cat

Happy Zombie Jesus Day 2010

April 4, 2010 Comments off

Why reinvent the wheel when I can recycle last year’s seasons greeting?

Well, it’s that time of year again — the long-weekend that a number of Western nations observe as a national holiday: the pagan festival of Eostre, better known as Easter, where millions of people gleefully glorify in the brutal killing of their god, who was the son of their god sent by their god to cleanse the world from sins stipulated by their god, for the appeasement of their god.

I have a computer wallpaper that describes it succinctly:

Christianity, n.: Sending telepathic messages to a Jewish ghost letting him know that you will accept him as your master and to ask him to remove a magical curse that was passed down to you because an old woman that was made from the rib of her partner ate a piece of magical fruit from a magical tree because a talking snake told her to.

Ask me again why I’m an Atheist?

Those who recognise that monotheism is one god too many, know it as:

Zombie Jesus Day!


The Parody
According to popular culture and today’s political-religious voices, this holiday all began with…

Christianity Defined

…the death of a Jewish martyr named Eashoa or Yashua (depending upon which etymology you follow) — who most people know by his translated name of Jesus or Isa — around 2,000 years ago. And then a few days later, it ended with…

The Resurrection

…the apparent resurrection of the martyr to the least objective audience possible: Mary Magdalene, sometimes considered to be a love interest or equal leader. Major opposition to this last point is usually from the same people who naïvely think Jesus’s mother died a virgin. (All of this accepts, for the sake of argument, that the people in the story actually lived at that time, that Jesus was born to Mary, that he had a group of followers, etc).

Then some time afterwards, this strange and little-known sect was chosen to replace the polytheistic Roman pantheon as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church was born, complete with its equally absurd Doctrine of the Trinity (one god is three gods but is really just one god — presumably to keep the polytheistic migrants from pantheism happy).

Protestants, particularly ones from modern fundamentalist sects, don’t like this fact but: Catholicism is Christianity. There was no distinction and, with the exception of the schism over the power of the Pope which lead to the formation of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it remained that way until the 16th century Reformation.

For those who haven’t yet completely signed over their rational and critical faculties, here’s the official story for those looking to join the club…

The rules are simple...

…and is only sanctified by you joining in the cannibalistic ritual of eating the god/man/father/son’s body and drinking his blood. No brains required. Brains…

The Reality
The festival of the Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess Eostre (or Ôstarâ) celebrates the rebirth of life after the long cold winter by marking the coming of spring, and observes the lunar calendar (as seasonal events have done throughout much of civilisation). Most people know it as Easter, and have bought into the claim that it originated with the death of a religious fanatic around 2,000 years ago.

Easter did not originate with the death of Jesus any more than Christmas originated with his birth. As with most Christian holidays, it was piggy-backed onto pre-existing holidays of the culture in which it spread, and then was later enforced and rewritten by the Church as if the original never existed. Hence the Eostre/spring symbolism and timing for Easter, and the Yule/winter solstice symbolism and timing for Christmas. Easter is timed to mark the end of Passover — a national & religious celebration of the story of a brutal god murdering thousands of innocent infants — making them follow a lunar, seasonal calendar. Hence the fact that both occur at seemingly random times between late March and late April, matching the Jewish month of Nisan (also called Aviv, or spring), marking the timing of the barley harvest. And don’t forget the Easter egg and its symbolism of new birth/life.

Rebirth, new life, resurrection… recognising an ongoing theme?


The Incredulity
I’ve clearly parodied the stories surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus, basing them in a more Catholic setting than Protestant as the former has been around the longest and the latter is cherry-picked from the former, but they serve to outline the outlandish beliefs surrounding the holiday being celebrated. I say celebrated, but the facts are that only a tiny percentage of the Christian population actually observe (or even know) all the requirements of this holiday, and the number of people who actually know the popularised Easter story is dwindling yearly. For most of the Western world, Easter is simply a 4-day long-weekend where we may have some nice meals and catch up with family, get away for a few days to the coast or snow, or do some DIY around the house to wash away the winter and prepare the house and garden for the coming spring and summer.

The latter is really what Easter is all about. We’ve come through the harsh winter, those of us left alive and healthy will now rebuild what winter has damaged, and life will begin again for the year — as can be seen all around with plant growth, spring lambs and the returned warmth of the Sun.

It’s a shame that some people voluntarily hang on to Bronze Age superstitions, from a time when humanity wasn’t enlightened enough to realise the reality of the annual wonders occurring around us this time
of year. I understand why church and political leaders encourage and propagate such absurdities as it ensures their unrivalled power — particularly when you can threaten disobedience with eternal torture in a place that the threatened cannot be certain whether such an evil torment exists or not (enter the fallacy of Pascal’s Wager) — but for otherwise intelligent lay-people to do the same thing feels like collusion or appeasement. Something similar to knowing that you don’t need to outrun the lion chasing you to stay alive, merely that you have to outrun the person next to you. It’s a sick rationale from a sick system borne of sick minds.

Despite what believers reading this may think or say: I do not hate people of religion. I can respect the person while despising the belief, whether religious or political. Beliefs do not stop a person from being human, nor from being worthy of treatment as such. That’s the nature of secular humanism.

Humanity is more important than invisible friends.

The illustrated argument for Agnosticism

September 17, 2009 Comments off

I always find it immensely pleasing to discover an image that describes what is often a complex topic in a succinct way. So following on from an earlier post where I discussed the 4 positions of belief, here is a brilliant way to present the argument for Agnosticism:

Why I can't be anything other than Agnostic

Hat tip to Godless Blogger.

NOMA and cognitive dissonance

August 23, 2009 Comments off

Charles Darwin is demonised by many religious people for his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, and for contributing to the discovery that all life on earth is essentially a huge family tree and subject to natural selection — concepts that have stood the test of time and been confirmed with DNA analysis. Theists who consider it their “duty” to conduct ad hominem attacks on those who threaten their fragile worldview are often unaware that this knowledge created a dilemma for Darwin himself, particularly as even while on his historic journey on the Beagle (1831-1836) he was a religious man studying to become a church minister who saw adaptation of the species as proof of God’s design. But to him the truth was more important than wishful thinking.

My suspicion is that those who vilify Darwin not only have never read a single word he wrote, nor understand the magnitude and relevance of what that work has given us, but assume that it was his life’s ambition to be an iconoclast. While in a sane world such patently ignorant people would not rise to the surface and require scraping off, our world is one of vox populi, inadequate or ideologically-manipulated education, idealised and politically-aligned news and media, and what much of the service industry call “80/20 people”: 20% of people cause you 80% of the grief. The vocal minority.

The late biologist, historian and science populariser, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) which referred to his philosophy on science and religion, developed during his many dealings with Young Earth Creationists of which he says:

Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history — a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

Young Earth Creationism is clearly the lunatic fringe by anyone’s rational measure, but there are other forms of Creationism that can’t be dismissed as easily, so tend to fall into the same category as whether there is a god(s).

Gould’s view was that religion and science are two realms that are logical and ethically unable to comment on one another, in the same way that a food chemist is unqualified to comment on matters of architecture. It seems to be a form of cognitive dissonance, separating faith from the world around us in a positive context. The inference being that it’s possible to believe in a god and be a scientist, and never have the two concepts collide in your own head.

I have a good friend who is a PhD scientist and a devout Wiccan: cognitive dissonance and NOMA allow both of those things to exist in her head without clashing. Of course I hope she understands what I’m trying to convey here, and doesn’t take offence! :)

Mainstream social taboos

August 10, 2009 Comments off

While reading a recent post on the always excellent Friendly Atheist blog, I was interested to see a guest blogger writing about the polyamory lifestyle. The article opens as follows:

As atheists, many of us have faced some level of negative reaction from those around us, on account of our deviation from our culture’s expected norms. I’ve found that atheists, in general, tend to support GLBT rights and other civil rights issues despite opposition by an offended religious majority. After all, atheists have no religious inhibitions that lead them to view certain deviations from the norm as anything immoral or harmful to society. Atheists know what it’s like to be demonized and hated by those who fear us for our differences. I’d like to call your attention to another group of people — a group even deeper in the “closet” than atheists — who could use your support: polyamorists.

The rest of the article can be found here: In Defense of Polyamory

Part of what interested me about this article was that I was unaware polyamory was a lifestyle movement outside religion (e.g. Muslims or Mormons) and hedonistic stereotypes (bored marriages, bohemian students or artists, etc). Another interesting point was the author’s comments about deviations from cultural and social norms, which I suspect is most likely the crux of religious and conservative problems with those who don’t fit into the God-fearing, husband & wife, missionary position, change-is-bad, tradition-is-to-be-trusted, meat & 2 veg pigeonhole.

It seems that most old law-giving religions were borne from tribal groups where certain laws and behaviours were established to keep the (relatively small) tribe fit and healthy, with transgression being met with brutal punishment as the survival of the tribe was at stake. (We still do the same thing: consider the penalty for treason in your country). Hence, non-procreative sexual activity was distrusted and, when it let to same-sex relationships, the tribe had lost two potentially viable sources of children and mates for two other people. No more children means no more tribe, and we recognise that concept today in our perfectly correct “children are our future” mindset. It doesn’t matter that the argument is a false dichotomy.

It’s not inconceivable that the tribal prohibition against same-sex relationships could have, as the law gradually became more conservative over time, been extended to include other relationships outside the “proven to work” formula (choose a mate or have one chosen, betrothal and binding, breeding and offspring; rinse and repeat). This simple linear progression has worked since Prehistory but, when enshrined in law or even cultural expectation, it doesn’t allow for what engineers call a corner case: people who don’t fit into the expected behaviours. We see this in both animals and humans, so it’s not people just “choosing to be different.”

However, what struck me the most about the article was that although I have reassessed my opinion on homosexuality — which has naturally expanded to include the LGBT umbrella — polyamory and polygamy are two concepts that I had not yet reassessed. By reassess I mean the thoughts and opinions that we all gather over time, initially as children through young adulthood and into mental and emotional maturity. Some people are constantly re-evaluating their perspective on things as they encounter them, some reach old age without adjusting many opinions formed in childhood, and I suspect the majority fall somewhere in between — perhaps leaning one way or the other based upon our liberalism and conservatism. But especially pronounced if we are religious.

As I’ve blogged about previously, I had minimal formal religious instruction (though various notable influences) until I was 17, then a few years of intensive fundagelicalism during which everything I knew about just about anything was re-forged and realigned into a specific way of thinking — a kind of mental aquaduct designed to funnel everything along a certain route to a certain outcome. When I was eventually spat out of that homogenous situation, every opinion I had was filtered through that lens and my rational self knew almost none of it could be trusted. These opinions were not mine and they had not been formed through critical analysis; they had been overlaid to match the party line. Deconstructing one’s own mind is no trivial undertaking.

So this article has got me thinking about two aspects of life that I haven’t had cause to reassess in 17 years or more. That’s not to say that I will automatically find a way to accomodate acceptance of it, as that is not the application of critical thinking. The way I have managed the deconstruction of my mind is to treat just about every contentious topic as a blank canvas — I have no opinion on many things, allowing me to consider and think about them properly before forming my own opinions.

Those opinions may turn out to be wrong, but they’re mine. From there it’s relatively straightforward and clear sailing…