Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The mind of a sick individual

Another tragedy. What is it with the world these days? A man sets off a car bomb in Oslo outside the Norwegian Prime Minister's office, and then goes to a summer camp - where friends of the Prime Minister were in attendance - disguised as a police officer, and guns down 68 people.
This guy then turns around and says that he did these things to defend Norway against Marxists and Muslims. Wow! When are people going to let these two groups off the hook? Muslims have been persecuted (along with other groups) since the dark ages, and continue to be the target of stereotyping and discrimination because of a relatively small radicalized few who carry out terrorist attacks in name of Allah (the compassionate, the merciful). Marxists have been the target of right-wing vitriol worldwide, and very specifically in the United States, since the Communist Revolution in 1919, and throughout the 20th century as countries throughout the world tried their hands at communism or socialism (they get lumped in as the same ideology, despite their differences). Although, I must say that all countries that have been described as "communist", have not actually followed through with Marx's vision to the endpoint, and have instead all stagnated in the "dictatorship of the proletariat" stage, with the Communist Party becoming a de facto dictator, with the head of the party as the head of the state (e.g. Chairman Mao, Premier Stalin, President Castro). But I digress...
What is scary about a man like this, and I guess people with mental health issues in general, is that their perspective of the world is so warped, that basically any and all other perspectives are at risk for offending them. This man described himself as being "at war", implying that what he's doing is essentially a crusade of sorts, and therefore he's not only right, but morally obligated to do what he did.
We've heard this story time and time again from fanatics with mental health issues (do all fanatics not have some mental health issues?), but I can't help but wonder why their mental state seems to so often manifest itself in religious or social intolerance and violence. What is it about our society that causes crazy (I use this word for ease, but I don't like it, and don't think that it gives the complexity of mental health issues their proper dues) people to often be crazy in specific ways? Are these people genetically inclined to be terrorist religious fanatics? Bombing churches, mosques, Planned Parenthood centers, or military recruiting posts. It's all just very strange to me. I cannot understand what makes these people do what they do, and I probably never will, I just thought it was an interesting thing to think about why they do what they do - or more specifically why they are the way they are - instead of just calling them crazy or insane, or some other euphemistic word that doesn't really do justice to the range of mental health issues that they may be dealing with.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A simple issue made complicated

I was reading an article in the NY Times today that was asking New York kids what they thought about the legalization of gay marriage, and it got me to thinking that I haven't talked about this issue once since starting my blog.
I guess the reason I haven't addressed the issue is because I don't see there being much of an argument, since it's a simple civil rights issue. However, the fact that there have been some major changes that have been made in the last few years is worth taking note of.
First off, I must say that after reading the article I'm incredibly heartened by the fact that [it seems] as we move forward generations, we're exposed to more and more, and therefore are more open to difference and change, and kids actually embrace said change. Although, I think I would be remiss if I did not mention that kids in New York City are obviously going to be exposed to a lot more, and be much more open than kids anywhere else in the United States. That being said, I think the trend is universal, even if it's to a lesser degree.
Alright, onto the actual discussion of gay marriage, gay marriage vs. civil unions, DOD, anti-gay marriage amendment to the constitution, etc.
For me - and I will state "for me" from the outset, because I suppose I have a different perspective than a lot of people, because I have so many gay friends - the issue of gay marriage is a simple one. Marriage began as a religious ceremony, where two people pledged their unity before whatever god it was that they worshiped. The ceremony was, at that time, not recognized by "the state", because there was no state to recognize it; and even if there was, there was nothing especially important to recognize. So, on through the ages, marriage continued to be defined as a religious institution. However, as soon as "the state" began to recognize marriage, and provide rights for people based therein, it ceased to be a purely religious ceremony, and became a civil ceremony, and a civil union. So, when people don't support "gay marriage", but support civil unions, they're actually supporting gay marriage, because marriage, outside of a religious context, is actually just a civil union with a different name. Now, that doesn't mean that I support civil unions over marriage, because there is an important distinction that cannot be overlooked, and that the obvious legal ramifications of upholding a law that is creating a "separate but equal" situation.
Why do you think the anti-gay marriage amendment has not had more traction in congress, even when President Bush supported it, and he had a Republican senate and Republican house? The reason is that politicians know that a law like this would never survive scrutiny before the Supreme Court, because even conservative justices like Scalia and Thomas could not overlook the fact that this is a blatantly discriminatory policy. And by bringing the argument before the court, and losing on discriminatory grounds, the anti-gay marriage side would essentially be codifying the national right for gay couples to marry. This, in fact, will most likely end up being how gay marriage will become legal nationally; and then there may be a law that will follow.
I try to understand the other side's perspective on this issue, as I think that a lot of people have fear about what they are not exposed to, but while individuals - or even religious institutions - may not support the right of gay couples to wed, there is really no legal basis for this argument, and therefore I'm still at a loss for how states continue to uphold open discrimination. The anti-gay marriage advocates should relish this time, however, because the days of discriminating against gay couples who wish to marry are numbered; CT, IA, NH, VT, NY and the District have set the tone, and the rest of the states will start falling in line.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Let's create some happiness

I was sitting at work today, and my gaze happened to drift up to one of the many pictures/quotes/speeches that I have hanging in my office, and for some reason a line in one of them really got me to thinking.

The movie speech in question was Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from the end of The Great Dictator (The movie is pretty ridiculous – standard Charlie Chaplin shtick – but the speech is worth checking out on YouTube, it’s wonderful). Several paragraphs into the speech, Chaplin as The Jewish Barber (character name), pretending to be the dictator Hynkel, speaking to the Tomanian (representing Nazi) soldiers and people, says:

“You, the people, have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful – to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men the chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security.

What struck me about this passage is not the words themselves, but how odd it is that we spend so much energy combating hatred and evil, and such little time we spend trying to spread love and happiness (thanks Al). Honestly, it’s just as easy to make someone feel great as it is to make someone feel awful. You give them a compliment, you make someone feel better; you give them an insult, you make them feel awful. And yet, too often we break each other down, instead of build each other up.

And why is that?

I think that we as a world and as a people have become cynical. We think that life is simply a struggle; therefore, we’ve reverted to the Hobbesian world of every person for themselves, and putting people down is the only way we’ve learned to build ourselves up. The problem with this philosophy is that we thrive, but no one is happy, and because of that no one cares about one another.

It’s time we change the tide; stem the anger, aggression and meanness. I’m not suggesting we fight human nature, but I am suggesting we fight human nurture. We all as humans – or at least most of us – are rational; therefore, the decisions we make typically derive from a thought out position, even if that position was thought out previously and have become a learned reaction. What we need to train ourselves to do is stop and think before we act about how we’re treating others. Instead of making a job at someone expense, say something nice about them. Instead of lashing out at your significant other because they were late for dinner, tell them that you were really anxious to see them, and therefore it was difficult to you to wait for them. Next time your child make you seething angry, remember that creating life is an amazing gift, and tell them that you love them, despite the fact that they’ve done something to make you angry (especially since they probably didn’t even know they did something to make you angry).

The bottom line is that we just need to stop and think about how we treat others, and how our treatment affects them. Stop, think and change our behavior to the positive, instead of the negative.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Breaking through the Ceiling

I was on a family vacation last week, and as we usually do, my family got into a number of political debates. Most of them surrounded the economy, but we didn't specifically address the debt ceiling issue. However, I didn't realize how apropos the arguments were until reading an article today about the debate between Republicans and the President.
My family is mostly made up of Democrats. Parents and five out of six sisters are all Democrats - several of us staunch liberals. The last sister is a touch of both religious and fiscal conservative. However, the argument was not with my other sister, the argument was with one of my other sister's husband.
He will listen to a reasoned argument, but then respond with boilerplate conservative arguments against the rational point I just made. The argument in question was regarding raising taxes vs. cutting spending. He threw out the standard "can't raise taxes, have to cut spending" argument, which I let him have. However, I then asked him what specific spending he would like to see cut, and this is where he ran into a speed bump. You see, to say that we need to "cut spending" is easy; but what people fail to realize is that while Republicans continue to try and cut their way out of this fiscal mess, it's impossible to do so without raising taxes, because the programs that we're currently offering are a bare bones of what they once were, because they've all already been cut. That is why we see Republicans taking a swipe at Medicare (not a smart move); this is the largest expenditure in the budget, and one of the only things left that actually could be trimmed (or at least that could be trimmed enough to make a fiscal impact on the budget).
Though I certainly don't espouse to be a fan of John Boehner, I have to say that I appreciate his somewhat pragmatic approach to this debt ceiling argument; although, I have to say that I'm sure he's looked at the political ramifications of letting our national credit rating downgrade, and he's having visions of 1996 dancing in his head. Eric Cantor on the other hand, has chosen to side with the obstinate Republicans in the House, and is willing to go down in flames simply to make a point (a point that no one cares about or is paying any attention to).
Okay, I understand that Republicans want to stand up for less government, less taxes, less regulation, less government spending; those are the issues they stand for. However, government officials and national policy cannot be created in such a dogmatic way. We live in a society that we call a democracy, and [unfortunately for Republicans] the overarching principle of Democracy is compromise. Mark my words: the debt ceiling will be raised (one way or another), and the Republicans, especially the hard-line tea party Republicans, will be shown to be ill-equipped legislators, will have egg on their face, and the Democrats will slaughter Republicans in both local and national elections across the country in 2012. The tea party impact on the Republican party has been hazardous to both the party, and the political process, and it's proving once again that an unwillingness to face reality does not make for good government.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Death of the Bet

I was reading another blog this morning, discussing how smartphones had revolutionized our world, and how that revolution was a good thing. While I don't fully disagree with this, I do think that both smartphones, and I would argue the internet in general, has taken the fun out of many conversations.
Remember the days when you and your friends would be talking (actually paying attention to one another, because you weren't both just passively listening as you were texting with someone else), and one person would say some random fact, the other person would dispute it, and you would then "bet" that the other person was incorrect; typically using some small monetary value or inane task as the wager.

A: Did you know that Charles Darwin had a turtle that lived to be 175 years old.
B: No chance. Turtles don't live that long.
A: No, I'm serious. Turtles do live that long, and his turtle is actually one of the longest lived.
B: I don't think so, that's ridiculous.
A: I'll bet you ten dollars that his turtle lived to be 175 years old.
B: Alright, I accept.

There would then be standard delay of several days or weeks, in which time both parties forget the original argument and bet, until something reminds one or the other of the argument, and they actually decide to consult their encyclopedia or library to find the correct answer. There would then be another delay of several days or weeks before the parties were together again with one or the other (whoever looked it up) finally remembering that they had looked up the fact, and that they had either been proven right or wrong. The other party would then have to very the fact, which would add another several days or weeks. So this process could last up to several months if both of these parties were rather slothful.
However, in our modern age, the question is pretty always answered before its even been finished.*

A: Did you know that Darwin's turtle...(cut-off)
B: (cuts-in)...Darwin's tortoise Harriet; she lived to be 175 years old, and was the third oldest living tortoise ever.
A: Yeah... (totally deflated)

Smartphones, or the internet in general, just ruined both this conversation, as well as argument and bet that was sure to ensue. Now I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't have knowledge at our fingertips, but it certainly makes conversations a lot less interesting when everyone already knows everything we're going to say, or at least can verify it immediately after we say it. Makes it hard to bullshit; and bullshit has really the basis of conversation throughout the ages.
Basically, I think that we should take a step back from all the smartphone/internet detective stuff, and just go back to having conversations. Even if you look up the answer an hour later, at least you were interested in the conversation enough not to interrupt it with the proof of your own rightness.

*I won't even go into the fact that because of the sheer amount of information - and sources of information - on the internet, facts have actually become less reliable instead of more, because everyone out there has an opinion on everything, and the internet gives them a good forum to present their opinions as fact; just like I do on this blog.