Saturday, October 29, 2011

The 99%

Say you wanted to build a Movement by appealing directly to the Cult Mind, that part of the brain that most desires to be part of a herd. You'd need a slogan to imply that following a crowd leads to Truth. Such a maxim would suggest that being in the majority, or having membership in the biggest tribe, somehow confers moral superiority. You'd want the slogan to be well-suited to sheep, while scrupulously avoiding any speck of human critical thinking.

I submit that "We are the 99%" fits these criteria perfectly.

For the benefit of readers who have been living in caves: "We are the 99%," or slight variations thereof, is a battle cry appearing on countless posters and placards in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests around the world, and used by its supporters in the media and blogsphere.

"We are the 99%!" is found alongside signs like "Eat the Rich," suggesting anger directed at the top 1% measured by finances. Demonizing the wealthy is hardly a new phenomenon.

It's also common in our history to aim derision at those at the very top of the intelligence/education pyramid. Think of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or of George Wallace referring sneeringly to "pointy-headed intellectuals," those with too much book-learnin'. Anti-intellectual movements gain traction precisely because they're aimed at a minority.

Protesters with a lesser slice of the IQ pie could occupy universities. People with PhDs make up less than 1% of the American adult population; imagine mobs trying to disrupt doctorate programs while proudly shouting "We are the MORE THAN 99%!" How is that any less coherent than the Occupy Wall Street motto?

What's so special about the OWS number anyway? If it's OK to demonize 1%, why not 2%? There's ample precedence for slurring the Jews. Why begrudge anti-Semitic demonstrators the mathematically-accurate claim "We are the 98.3%!"

Where to draw the line? At what magic number is there a moral distinction? Aren't rallies against African-Americans entitled to the motto "We are the 87.7%!" And other than the need for larger signs, where's the problem with anti-gay mobs using slogans like "It depends on which study you believe, but we're confident that we're somewhere between the 87% and the 98%!"

Maybe there are some people carrying "99%" signs with the intention of attacking a relatively small number of people who have cheated larger numbers of people. If that's the case, if they're rallying against wrongdoing like lying or stealing, why not direct energy and anger against those specific behaviors? Aren't we rational enough to argue that a deception or theft causes harm, and condemn it whether the criminal is rich or poor, whether there's one culprit or ten thousand?

It's hypocritical to direct condemnation only at those we consider to be outside of the herd. There's little moral authority in "We're protesting against those who commit violent assaults... but only if they're a lot more attractive (or smarter, or stronger, or richer) than we are!"

Personally, I'd find the 99%ers a whole lot less creepy if they based the protest on a principle... rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator, using a mindless bandwagon slogan that relies on a dubious, self-proclaimed head count.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Best Zen Talks Never Mention "Zen"

"Of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Jobs said: 'I wish him the best, I really do. I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He'd be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.'"

Monday, May 30, 2011

Belief, Doubt, Then What?

While pondering the posting I made last month re belief, I surfed to a relevant discussion at the Church of the Churchless blog. Someone had written in:
Is there anyone here on this blog who is looking to realise the truth, or are we more interested in realising how right we are, how wrong others are?

Are we into defending our beliefs and condemning others for theirs?
The blog-master responded:
Speaking for myself, and I'm pretty sure this holds generally for churchless folk, I gave up blind faith because I wanted a clearer view of reality. My motivation for ditching dogma was to find a better path to truth, not to give up the search for it.
Here's the comment I contributed:
My Zen teacher would say that of all the buttons on a calculator, the most important is the Clear button. If you don't press that "C" and return to zero, then whatever calculation you try to do will yield the wrong result.

If we start off with a dogma (a belief we won't doubt or question), then even if we analyze rationally, our conclusions will be colored by that dogma. If we can, for a moment anyway, question everything... then we can return to zero, and from there we have a chance of seeing clearly.

So why doesn't everyone embrace doubt? Because while certainty clouds our vision, uncertainty can be so... unpleasant.

We all start out with a clean slate, but as children, we can hardly prevent developing a blind belief in what our parents tell us. As we mature, we learn to question these childhood dogmas. When the doubt becomes too uncomfortable, we grab onto some replacement dogma: religious, political, whatever.

It seems to me that this process is generally repeated. We become churchless by doubting one set of beliefs. Our motivation may be the recognition that clinging to those beliefs prevents a clear view of the world. At that point, there's nothing stopping us from trading one dogma for a new one. The new beliefs will be less blatant, more subtle... but if we're holding any unexamined beliefs, our inner calculators will produce skewed answers.

Surely, sometimes we leave aside a dogma with the intention of clearing the calculator, and in fact the leaving-aside brings us to clarity/zero (or at least close to it). And at other times, we end up (intentionally or otherwise) discarding one dogma, and adopting a new one just as rigidly.

Maybe that means that it's not sufficient to question and reject a dogma, then rest on our laurels. Maybe clarity is reached by continuously questioning what we still believe in now, and repeating that questioning over and over, with each new "certainty" that arises.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ya Don't Gotta Believe!

The recent article Religious belief is human nature huge new study claims begins, "Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests."

This is no surprise if we consider our distant ancestors. Cavemen who failed to see tigers in the bushes often died too early to pass on their genes. Those who saw tigers even when they weren't there may have been stressed-out, but they survived and procreated just fine.

Evolution must therefore favor those who perceive patterns, whether they really exist or not. (If you have any doubts of this, look up at the clouds and see the duckies.) Perceiving patterns leads to perceiving meaning and purpose, where they exist and where they don't. Hence, the natural and instinctive "religion" that CNN reports.

Buddhists -- not to mention Existentialists -- would say that originally there's no meaning or purpose. If we want them, then we make them ourselves. This view can be learned and practiced, but it doesn't come instinctively to us from the get-go.

There's evidence all around that religious belief is inherent. Consider the May 21 doomsday scare. Ordinary-appearing people devoted their lives to a belief in end-times prophesy, based on the flimsiest of evidence.

Or watch Sister Wives on the TLC cable channel. Perfectly functional people, risking arrest by following a polygamous belief-system. God bless 'em, it's horrific that the government harasses them... but how can these otherwise intelligent people follow a religion that defies simple arithmetic? (If men have multiple wives, but no women have multiple husbands, it simply doesn't add up.)

The majority of us follow religions that are obviously silly; this is solid evidence that we're hard-wired to believe. Yet it's possible to live and learn. As I go through life, I find less and less interest in holding beliefs, and more and more in questioning, watching, wondering.

Often I've encountered people proclaiming beliefs unsupported by logic or evidence. Many seem to embrace a belief purely because it's old, or popular, or written in a dusty book, or asserted by charismatic people in fancy costumes. I ask the faithful why they choose to hold their beliefs, and have repeatedly heard responses like, "You've got to believe in something. You can't live without belief."

A while back, in the ayahuasca-soaked web zine Reality Sandwich, Charles Eisenstein wrote:
Last time I wrote about this, a commentator suggested that we not “believe” anything. I find this position disingenuous, akin to certain misunderstood Eastern teachings about non-attachment. We are born into the world of flesh and dust, and are not meant to be aloof from it. We are meant to experience the joys and sorrows of attachment. If you want to build a bridge, or a relationship, you have to believe something and act accordingly. You believe the steel will hold. You believe someone will do as she has said. Life in the world is built of beliefs. The world is built of stories. We enact them and live in the world that they create.
I suspect that the commentator he's referring to is me. Whatever. To the above assertion, I replied thusly:
The point isn't believing vs not-believing. It's whether or not you recognize belief for what it is. When you embrace a belief, do you recognize it as your own creation? As a choice that you can examine and question? Or do you assume that your chosen beliefs represent substantial truth (as "religious" people do)?

The use of the passive-voice "meant to be" belies our own power to examine and question beliefs. Who or what is it that "means" for us to do this or that? Are we assuming there's some God or Force that decides that we're "meant to" feel this or that? Or do we take responsibility for how we choose and create our own meaning?

You could say, e.g., "I choose to see myself as living in a world of flesh and dust, and I want to be attached to the joys and sorrows of this world." Wouldn't that be clearer than speculating about what's "meant to be"?

To question your chosen beliefs is hardly being "aloof" from the world. Indeed, taking refuge in a belief-system is a common strategy to avoid engaging with the living experience of each moment. When these joys and sorrows appear... how much are you present for the experience itself? How much are these experiences filtered through a belief-system?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Putting It All Down

Zen Master Dae Kwang, at Empty Gate Zen Center of Berkeley:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I've been seeing the occasional billboard, and bold advertisements on the side of RVs, heralding the end of the world on May 21, 2011. See Huffington Post, Believers Warn Neighbors of Impending Doom. Apparently, the prediction comes from "Biblical scholar" Harold Camping.
Judgment Day is coming May 21, 2011 -- not sometime this decade, not sometime this year, but precisely on May 21.
Jeez. It's almost three years since I first blogged about a rise in apocalyptic warnings. Back then, it was penciled in for December 21, 2012 (Mayan calendar/I Ching stuff). At the time, it made me ponder how believing in the end of the world could be a zig-zag way of considering our own mortality.

As a youngest child, I sometimes felt left-out of the activities of my older siblings. In those pre-DVR days, I'd have to go to bed at 9pm, and endure the sounds of the rest of the family watching Hawaii 5-0 episodes that I'd never see. As a result, my fear of death is entangled with bitterness that other people may be enjoying a futuristic earth while I'm stuck in the ground (or in some Whatever realm). Thinking about the End of Time can thus be easier than facing the possibility that Time will go on without me.

In any case: I wish the doomsday folks would come to some sort of agreement re what the date will be. This is the type of thing that requires some advanced planning. Perhaps some enhanced risk-taking behavior is in order, maybe even hedonism.

In one of the articles I've read about the May 21 Doomsday people, a follower mentioned that he was on a diet, and of course the journalist asked Why?? I'm not sure what I'd do if I really believed that the end was so near, but I sure as hell wouldn't be counting carbs.

Update... The Christian end-times warnings now have resulted in a competing billboard going up in Oakland:

Breaking news: the world failed to end on May 21. There was, though, a little 3.6 earthquake in the Bay Area around 6pm, which made me nervous for a few seconds. Camping has rescheduled The End for October 12.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Buffoons and Bimbos

Last night I watched the finale of season 3 of Jersey Shore. Season 4 will be filmed in Italy.

Italian-American interest group UNICO opined: It will not only hurt Italians but all Americans … their outrageous, reprehensible behavior will make us look like buffoons and bimbos.

Read about it here. And more on Snookie here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Artificial Intelligence is Gaining on Us (Jeopardy! part 2)

I watched the first 2 episodes of the Jeopary! challenge between former champions and an IBM super-computer. Humanity isn't fairing well.

We may live long enough to watch the debate in Congress over whether computers should get the vote (once they become indistinguishable from humans). Kurzweil points out that when we build a machine as intelligent as we are, it'll be the last machine we have to build, since the machine itself can create all future machines. This means that if we allow robots to vote, they'll simply overwhelm us by replicating, and then exploiting the power of "one 'man' one vote." Wouldn't this make universal suffrage for all beings (whether bio or techno) impossible in practice, even if philosophically or morally imperative?

(We could e.g. legislate that all beings that are exactly the same get just one vote collectively... but that'd piss off a whole bunch of identical twins!)

Even now, human groups with high birth-rates eventually gain more power at the ballot box. This doesn't create immediate crisis, since humans are so slow and inaccurate in our efforts to reproduce ourselves. When computers can do so without friction -- making their replicas quickly and flawlessly -- it'll be a different matter.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kurzweil on Computers on Jeopardy

This coming Monday, 2/14/2011, a computer will compete against two human champions on the TV show Jeopardy. If the computer is able to understand the quiz show questions (which often use puns, metaphors, and other word-play), some artificial intelligence experts will consider it a great leap forward. After all, understanding complex language is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence. And if the machine can understand the question, it will surely win, as it's got a monstrous advantage over any biological brain when it comes to searching for answers through massive amounts of data.

Here's artificial intelligence wizard and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicting that the computer will triumph.

I've been intrigued by Kurzweil since I read his book The Singularity is Near (and even understood some of it). And I was impressed by his accessibility when I emailed him about the Buddhist perspective of consciousness.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Thoreau Would Love Snookie

...this year there are some 320 reality shows on the air worldwide, compared with four in 2000.

Season 3 of "Jersey Shore" is underway, and God forgive me, I never miss an episode.

For the pop-culture challenged... "Jersey Shore" is a reality show on MTV, in which 8 East Coast Italian-Americans (self-described "Guidos" and "Guidettes") live together in a beach house. It's been wildly successful domestically and abroad. See Newsweek's article America's New Icons, source of the photo and all italicized quotes.

Jersey Shore debuted last year... party-hearty youngsters move into a lavish house and wait for the drama to ensue... Snooki and her castmates ... out-outraged the reality stars who came before them with more self-absorption, public drunkenness, bar brawls, and ill-advised hookups than your average guilty pleasure. Three Italian-American groups demanded that MTV pull Jersey Shore. ...the crude cast of the show gives viewers license to indulge in a little class pornography.

[Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson says,] “People... watch so they can look down on those people who make these unfortunate choices... I call it ‘Masterpiece Stupidity.’” [Executive Producer SallyAnn] Salsano bristles at this view. “These are just good kids with good hearts who want to come to the shore and have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

It's true that the housemates engage in plenty of objectionable behavior. The public drunkenness, lying, fighting, and irresponsibility. The way they disrespect and objectify members of the opposite sex, in their quest for daily hook-ups. And yet I don't feel I'm indulging in class pornography, or looking down on these people. In spite of what my brain tells me, there's something I find likable about the characters. What's that about?

I think the answer lies in the housemates' simplicity . (Illustrated, for example, by how the guys abbreviate their daily obligations as GTL: gym, tan, laundry.) It's satisfying to look into this complex, chaotic world, and find something simple enough to understand.

Why does almost everyone love animals? Because if you're nice to a puppy -- feed and pet it every day etc -- it will be nice back at you. The pattern, symmetry, cause/effect is clear and pleasing. Even when the puppy is yapping, we don't get angry with it. We figure it's just responding to something frightening, and that if we offer the puppy some affection, it will respond to that stimulus also.

Likewise with babies. People don't get mad at babies when they cry, because it's easy enough to see that their moods and actions are just reflecting what's around them. Rather than consider the baby's behavior evil, we accept it as a response to their situation.

Even as adults, whatever we do is ultimately the natural functioning of cause and effect. But when our minds become sufficiently complex, it's no longer possible to perceive the connection between our [mis]behavior and our environment. We no longer understand the whole chain of effects, so we assign inherent evil to the individual.

It's not that Snookie and the gang act in ways that are "good" by any moral standard. It's that their lives and motivations are so wonderfully simple. This allows us to view their antics as we would those of children, rather than of demons.