Saturday, August 6, 2016

Constricted Viewpoint

In the Liezi there are a couple stories about how people suffer from constricted viewpoints that generate delusional behaviour.
In one a fellow misses his axe and develops the idea that the neighbour boy stole it. He notes that when he looks and talks to the boy, the boy looks guilty. After a while, though, the fellow finds the axe on his property where he had been using it last. Later on, he sees the neighbour's boy and decides that he doesn't look guilty at all.

In the other, a fellow walking through the market sees a display by a jeweler who has an ingot of gold sitting on his table. The fellow impulsively snatches the ingot and runs away. The jeweler yells "thief" and he is quickly caught by the crowd and handed over to the police who take him to the magistrate. The judge asks him why he would try to steal something so brazenly in the middle of crowded market. Didn't he see all the people around him who would grab him if he took the gold? The response by the thief is that all he could see was the gold.

This is a problem that happens to us all the time. We look at a situation and refuse to see what is right in front of us. Instead, we start off with a narrative and selectively seek out information that reinforces that original story and ignore anything that that doesn't fit.  The boy looks guilty, the gold will make my life better---.


Yesterday I watched a press conference by Hillary Clinton and saw a side of her that impressed me. She seemed to me to be a politician who are seriously concerned about how to make America a better place. What I found quite interesting was towards the end of the event. A reporter asked her to relate a specifically formative conversation that she had had with a black person. She fumbled greatly to come up with an anecdote and instead spent her time listing off all the great black friends she has and has had in her life. Eventually, she said that she just couldn't think of any incident that she'd like to share with the press. Another reporter then asked her to reassure people that she just wouldn't take Latino voters for granted. How would she make sure that she actually did some of the things that she promised to do? Hillary fumbled a bit to show the steps she'd take.  This is a difficult question for a presidential candidate to answer, as it is very hard to do much if Congress refuses to help any initiative---but I think she did a good job.

But at the end, she kinda answered the previous question. She mentioned that when she was twelve years old she volunteered in her church to do baby sitting for migrant farm workers. That's an interesting story that answers something that I want to know about a politician. I want to know that someone comes from a background that included doing this sort of "hands on" stuff for the greater good. I don't need Hillary to be a gushing bag of emotions---in fact I'd like her to be a hard-nosed politician who is also a policy wonk. But underneath all of that, I want a genuine human being who genuinely seems to care. And, to be honest, it seems more genuine to me if someone finds it hard to expose that part of themselves in a public setting. Really deep emotions are privately held.

I made a comment on the original news site to the effect that Clinton had totally "nailed" this news conference. I expected some negative comments, but I was saddened to see what really amounted to a "pile on" of Hillary haters. I just don't understand where this is coming from. Of course, she did a bit of prevaricating, that's what politicians do when reporters ask "gotcha questions" and they know that the viewing audience adamantly refuses to understand how hard it is to shepherd real change through the American maze of checks and balances. But all politicians do this sort of dance, and, usually a lot more glibly. I can't help but wonder if she really is being held to a much higher standard than other politicians. Maybe this is because she was the wife of another President, or, maybe it's because she's a woman. I suspect a bit of both mixed together.

She often gets tarred with the brush of having supported her husbands social policies that led to things like the dramatic reduction in welfare support. She's also attacked for supporting "tough on crime" legislation from her husband. She's also attacked for initially supporting the TPP treaty. But the thing to remember about these is that she never actually initiated these programs, instead, she was supporting someone else's ideas. And I know enough couples to realize that just because people are married, or, work as Secretary of State for another, doesn't mean that they hold exactly the same values and world view. Could it be possible that Hillary has different ideas from Bill on things like welfare reform and criminal justice?  Could it be that her understanding of these complex issues has evolved since she was the First Lady? As for the TPP, she is a lawyer and lawyers are trained to not state their own beliefs, but rather to advocate for the worldview of their client. As Secretary of State for Barack Obama---who most certainly does support the TPP---it was her job to promote his policy, not hers.

I have to ask, why are people so angry with her about things like this? What do people think, that every woman has her independent will sucked out of her whenever they get married or take a job? Or do they believe that anyone who makes a compromise in order to make a relationship or job work is some sort of vile "sell out"? If you can believe that, I would suggest that you spend a long time looking at the mirror, because you are far more deluded than the folks in Liezi's stories.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Black Lives Matter, Policing, and, Street Level Politics

I'm like an old war horse. When I hear the trumpet calling "charge", I want to rush off into action. This means that with all the demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter a big part of me wants to help out. But I'm old, I have responsibilities, and, I no longer have the time to do that sort of thing. What I can do, however, is write and I have a gift for explaining complex issues in a way that most people can understand. So what follows is my little attempt to explain what is happening between black folks and the police in the USA. I know, I'm not black and don't live in the USA, so if anyone thinks that I am getting things totally wrong, feel free to comment to that affect. I actually do read and think about any constructive criticism I receive. If you just want to call me names, don't bother. I just delete that sort of thing. If you believe that what follows has merit, please send links out on social media to others. I'm trying to cut through the fog that dominates this issue and it doesn't do any good if no one knows about it.


One of the memes that comes out in discussions is that people have to be "compliant" when they are stopped by police. Actually, there is a lot to be said for this point of view.

But having said that, there are also important caveats that need to be pointed out.

First, it is sometimes said that statistics point out that black citizens stopped by police are not killed in any larger percentages than white people. But it needs to be remembered that blacks are stopped in much, much, much greater numbers---in many communities, but not all---than whites. Moreover, studies indicate that when blacks are stopped by police in those areas the odds are much higher that the whites being stopped will have some sort of major criminal problem. This clearly indicates that different criteria---based on race---are being used by officers when they decide to stop cars. (Take a look at this Vox article, it deals with some of these statistical issues.)

Now it would be easy to stop at this point and say that this is evidence that most police officers have an unconscious or conscious bias against black people and stop there. But it's important not to jump to conclusions. It is well known that lots of small jurisdictions in the US run their police departments as revenue generation machines. Travelers from Canada often have stories about "speed traps" in small towns that are obviously designed to fleece people traveling through. As well, it is also well known that if you have a large amount of cash money on hand police will often just take it because of civil forfeiture "laws".

But fewer people know about the way some communities use municipal bylaws to fund their police departments. Just think about this for a moment. My home town spends about half of its total tax revenue on policing. For a police department to actually break even---let alone make a profit---it must be running its department in a radically different way.

They do this by taking something that is supposed to be about changing people's behaviours---fines---and making it into a "gotcha" that allows them to shake down people for doing things that almost everyone does. Recently people have been riveted by the horrific video that Philando Castile's partner took of him being shot and bleeding out in his car. (I'm not going to post that video, as I don't want to watch a woman document her partner bleeding out again.) What many people don't know is that Mr. Castile had been stopped 52 times over the past few years for various minor infractions.  A full 50% of those tickets had been tossed by judges, but still the remainder of fines probably represented a significant fraction of his disposable income. This problem has been very well documented by researchers in St. Louis Missouri.

Now, consider the fact that Castile had been able to "beat" 50% of those tickets. Everything I've read about this man seems to indicate that he was very intelligent, had a pretty good job, and, excellent interpersonal skills. These are very important assets if you are wanting to fight against an unfair ticket. America is far from a meritocracy, but as a general rule, people who are born poor, become poor, and, remain poor, tend to not have these qualities. Obviously, they don't have a good job. Intelligence is basically innate, but it can be damaged by lack of opportunity---such as an education. And in the US, there are HUGE differences in quality of public schools depending on what neighbourhood you live in. Mr. Castile had big advantages over lots of other people, which is why he was able to "beat" so many tickets. What would have the impact of those tickets have been if he lacked the skills necessary to get out of paying half of them? Wouldn't this have been the equivalent of the police putting boot on his neck and forcing his face into the dirt?

It's also very important to understand that interpersonal skills can be very different depending on what milieu you are used to. I read a book titled Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America  about murder in the rough parts of LA. The author made the startling disclosure that in the LA police department being a homicide detective is considered a low-prestige job. Police officers believe that the real job is in "crime prevention", which involves driving around, identifying "bad guys", and, keeping them from doing anything wrong. There are no "beat cops" in South LA, just macho guys riding around in cars who "hassle" people who seem to be "up to no good". As a result, you have this awful situation where most young men have been pushed around for just being "young men" and the rest of the population that have almost no interaction with police officers and know that if something bad happens, the police are not going to put any real resources into finding out who caused the problem.

This means that even though South LA feels like it is under the thumb of an "occupying army" of police, it is actually under-policed. This means that people feel that they have no recourse but to "take matters into their own hands" if they are going to not end up being considered "easy pickings". This is a prescription to teach people to massively retaliate to perceived slights.  This maximizes the number of violent interactions between people. People who have never lived in "under policed" areas have a hard time understanding this, as we know that all you have to do to deal with a problem is dial "911" and within 15 minutes or so, help will be on the way. If you know that that isn't going to happen, you are left to your own devices.

A lot of people won't understand how this operates, so I'm going to spell out with an example that was related from a Justice of the Peace to a friend of mine. People who sell drugs are totally "under policed" because they have no recourse at all to the courts system. A fellow had fronted some drugs to another guy, who failed to bring in money for the drugs at an agreed upon time. Since the first fellow couldn't sue the second one for breach of contract, he had no recourse other than violence to force compliance. Even worse, if word got out that he was an "easy mark", he would probably have other people trying to rip him off. As a result, he felt obligated to do something to harm the fellow who hadn't brought in the money. So he stabbed the guy in the leg in order to "get the message across". He clearly thought that this would just hurt a lot without being life threatening. But instead, he severed a main artery and the guy bled out. So as a result of being in a business that is "under policed" he ended up being charged with murder with the result of losing the next 20 or so odd years of his life to prison.

I'm sure that lots of people will think "so just don't sell drugs", but in many communities this is simply the only way a person can make any money at all. (This is part of the reason why the war on drugs is such a terrible idea.) But even if you totally choose to avoid criminality, in a lot of "sketchy places" it is pretty darn hard to go through life without learning how to push back pretty hard. If you don't, the word gets out that you are weak and that makes you "easy pickings". In those places, you learn that aggression is the only way to protect yourself.

The above is an example of what you have to learn to do if you are going to survive in some areas of the world---including many parts of the USA. Teaching people to "always be compliant" isn't really a smart life strategy in many cases. Unfortunately, "you play the way you train", and if your experience is that you have to protect yourself your instincts are going to react the same way when you are being menaced by a thug with a uniform and a badge. Just by way of a bookend, take a look at what sort of thing happens if people are too passive and refuse to get aggressive.

I kept hoping that someone who wasn't "compliant" would get involved and kick that man's ass. But if you teach everyone to be compliant and non-aggressive all the time, this is what happens. Again, you can't just turn your response to injustice on and off. If you live your life caring about right and wrong, you simply cannot turn it off when the person doing wrong is wearing a badge and a gun.

The above, very funny Chris Rock video recommends that people "shut the fuck up" and "be polite" if they want to avoid a police beating. But people's anger has to be put into a context. If you have repeatedly been "shaken down" by the police, have no ability to defend yourself in a court setting, and, have learned through life experience that "compliance" in most settings makes things escalate, you are going be at risk of "losing it" and mouthing off to the police.

A second point that needs to be considered is that all those municipal fines have consequence. If you cannot pay them because you are very poor, you can end up in jail. And, if you are in jail, you usually lose your job. And, to a large extend---in many places---having a criminal record will ruin your life. Many jurisdictions will not allow people who have served time to vote or access benefits like subsidized housing or even welfare. It is a lot harder to get work too. As a result, many people try to avoid the whole legal process---which means that they get served with a warrant. Remember Chris Rock suggesting you ask all your friends if they have a warrant issued against them? In some neighbourhoods this can be a very large percentage of the population---mostly for very minor municipal offenses. A police stop can totally trash your life---is it really surprising that some people "explode" at a "routine police stop"?

Now let's add a little cherry to the top of this "shit sundae". Do you think that the police are encouraged to go after wealthy, white people for petty revenue generating reasons? Not likely. It can be a "career limiting move" to ticket an "important person". Even if you did, these people hire lawyers and they take issues to court instead of just meekly paying the fine. Court time costs money, and even if you win the case, the revenue from the fine is not going to pay for the cost of bringing in a police officer, paying for the judge, bailiff, prosecutor, etc. What this means is that the police are going to be encouraged to only go after poor people. And for various reasons that usually means black people. So blacks are pretty darn sure that there is a racial component to the way policing is done in large parts of the USA.


Having written all of the above, let's look at things from the point of view of police.

You don't even have to be working for one of those services that are systematically jerking around the citizenry to routinely come across people who have been primed to absolutely loathe police officers. This is because policing in the US is decentralized in a way that no other country in the world would allow. Each tiny little town or municipality has its own police force. This happened, bye and large, because of slavery and Jim Crow. Because of slavery, the racist slave states were absolutely adamant about decentralizing as much power as possible to the lowest level possible. This is generally described as "state's rights". They wanted this to prevent the more powerful North from forcing them to treat black people like human beings. Moreover, after the Second World war large cities began to desegregate, which meant that huge numbers of whites moved from large cities to small municipalities where they would still dominate local government and be able to preserve their "right" to treat black people like shit. Of course, you can't really treat blacks like crap unless you control the police force---which is why policing was never amalgamated, like it has been in Canada. This means that you can drive a couple miles from one area with a fairly progressive police force to one that is little more than an occupying army keeping the "coloureds" under control.

Now let's add some gasoline to this slowly smoldering fire. The gun lobby in the USA has been progressively stripping-away every last vestige of gun control legislation. This means that in many parts of the country it is tremendously easy to legally purchase and carry fire arms. "Conceal carry" permits are literally easier to get in many states than a driver's license. As well, many states have laws that allow anyone to carry around a long gun or pistol as long as it isn't hidden.

So a police officer may or may not be in the process of shaking down a marginalized "under class", but he wears a uniform and people who are oppressed rarely make such fine distinctions. So that means that no matter what, a significant fraction of the public that they have to deal with ABSOLUTELY HATE POLICE. Add to that the fact that there is a very good chance that those people may have a military grade weapon at their disposal.

Now, let's look at the internal dynamics of the police. Most police are just "regular folks" who are trying to get by in one of the few working class jobs that actually pays something like a good wage. That means that they try to keep their heads down and avoid "making waves". As one ex-officer puts it,
On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
This shouldn't be all that surprising. Only a small percentage of people in the general population make any effort to think for themselves or show any initiative. Mostly, they just follow other people's lead. This is what causes the phenomenon known as the "unresponsive bystander".

In most occupations, this is no big deal. But the problem with police is that they hold a monopoly of force in society. Moreover, the legal system is set up to give preferential weight to the testimony of police officers. This means that when that 15 percent of bad officers get into trouble---and the other 70 percent back them up---the police can literally get away with murder. This has been going on for a very long time, as various investigations of police have shown over the years. But what has changed now is the proliferation of video evidence in the form of security and cell phone recordings, and, Social Media on the Internet to disseminate it all over the world. This is important because while in the past there were eye witnesses to various crimes, the courts automatically discounted any testimony that contradicted the police. Moreover, the "Lame-Stream Media" routinely refused to publish anything that contradicted the police narrative because crime reporters require access to the police to do their job. Anything that jeopardized that access would be avoided. But now there is an alternative to the crappy newspaper, radio or television news that fed people pablum. Now we have websites like "Democracy Now" and "The Young Turks" that will show you exactly what happened---because their reporters don't get any access to the police anyway and as a result have nothing to lose. As a result, a lot of people are really pissed off with the police now---even people who have never been shaken down by the cops. This is creating a lot of confrontation in society.


This isn't the first time that increased visibility has led to social unrest. I grew up in the 1960s and can remember a time when city after city would routinely explode into race riots all across the USA. I am of the opinion that a lot of this came from television coverage of the civil rights movement.

Society back then was facing an impasse over whether or not black people were going to get the real right to vote. The political parties originally refused to pass legislation that would give them this right for a very good reason---whichever party did so would suffer huge electoral consequences. Eventually, the Democratic Party did so, and its support totally collapsed in the Southern USA. This destroyed the old "New Deal" machine. The Republicans instituted a "Southern Strategy" which allowed them to vacuum-up all the racist voters and elect people like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and so on. Democrats became terrified of pushing too hard for helping out the poor and blacks because they don't want to see support for their party collapse like it did when LBJ brought in the Civil Rights Act.

Bill Clinton only brought the Democrats back to power through pushing left wing politics into what was called the "neo-liberal consensus". This is an idea that the role of government is quite limited and instead the free market---through things like deregulation and free trade agreements---should be allowed to govern most of human interactions. This is what led to NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagal, which in turn led to America losing huge numbers of good-paying manufacturing jobs and the 2008 crash. Clinton was not alone in shifting to the right, as the New Democratic Party in Canada also did so, as did Labour---under Tony Blair---in the United Kingdom. Because of this consensus, "taxes" became a dirty word and everywhere government was starved of funds, and, social and physical infrastructure was left to fall apart. (This is why so many of those municipalities have turned their police departments into revenue generation machines---their rich citizens refuse to pay more taxes, and, their poorer ones simply cannot.)

Clinton didn't sell this shift to the Democratic party as "capitulation" to Republican ideology (even though that's exactly what it was), but rather as "triangulation". That is to say, he was arguing that what he was doing was finding some common ground that would allow him to peel away part of the Republican base in order to get enough votes to win an election. This was based on the unspoken assumption that the Democratic base (blacks, progressives, etc) couldn't possible go towards the Republican party, so they could be totally ignored when it came to developing policy.

The problem with triangulation is that eventually progressive voters realised that they were being played for fools. There was no viable third party in the USA, so the only way they could show their anger with the Democrats adoption of the neo-liberal consensus and triangulation was to simply not bother to vote. This is why so many people argued that "there's no difference between the two, so I'm not bothering to vote". Of course, the problem with not voting is that it plays into the hands of the Republicans and allows them to win election after election. As a result, Republicans have been able to win both Congress and far too many state governments, which has resulted in regressive policies that have accelerated the stratification of wealth in society. Vote in the Republicans and you will get worse poverty than if you vote Democrat---although the difference can sometimes seem slight.

This association of Democrats with neo-liberalism and triangulation hasn't been helped by the rise of Hillary Clinton. While it is very important to remember that she isn't her husband, she still is associated in many people's minds with neo-liberalism. This is why progressives are so often grudging in her support. One hopeful sign seems to be that she is actually much more willing to listen to other people and change her policies as a result. More importantly, the surprisingly strong campaign of Bernie Sanders seems to be an object lesson to the Democratic party that if they stop trying to triangulate towards elements of the Republican voter base, they will be able to get huge numbers of progressive voters to come out to the polls. If the Democrats can increase the voter turnout, they can not only win but probably annihilate the Republican party.


I have focused on the politics of triangulation because the underlying causes that created the battle between blacks and police all come from economic policy. And that means you simply cannot fix the problem without getting progressive politicians elected into office. If you still have wild wealth stratification and penny-ante police forces in tiny little municipalities, you are going to have police forces that are out to extort poor people.  As a result, you are going to have a lot of people who hate the police. If you don't have decent gun laws, you are going to have police officers who are terrified of getting shot. As a result, they are going to continue to be trigger happy. This means that if people really want to stop this mayhem, they are going to have to vote the Republicans out of office and ensure that the Democrats they elect are really progressive, instead of Bill Clinton-style "New Democrats".

I think the Dallas police chief was getting at the need to get beyond the neo-liberal consensus and start instituting a new "New Deal" in American society when he said that America asks too much of the police. One of the saddest things about the sniper attacks on the Dallas police seems to be that it is probably one of the most progressive police departments in the country---probably one that has made the greatest strides towards dealing with the issues that Black Lives Matter has been bringing to people's attention. But, as many people over the years have said, "life ain't fair".

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Request for Some Feed Back: Daoism As A Practical Philosophy

It's been a while since I posted something on this blog. Instead, I've been working on a new book, which I've tentatively titled "Daoism as a Practical Philosophy". It's not a diary about my life, like this blog, but more of an introduction to the key elements of Daoism.

I'm not just writing for my own edification, as I will soon be retiring and I think it would be nice if I could augment my pension through a little extra income. To that end, I won't just be offering it for free like my other writing projects. I'm new to publishing, however, so I thought it might be a good idea to ask my readers what they think. I'm going to give a sample of the book plus a couple questions. I'd like responses, either in the comments on the blog or through direct email to "". 

My first question is "Do you think it would be a better idea to self-publish an ebook through SmashWords and an on-demand publisher like Lulu, or, should I try to find a press that would print and sell it for me?  If anyone reading this is associated with publishing and would like to talk to me about this, I would be open to any inquiries. 

My second question is "If you do think that I should self-publish as an  e-book, what do you think would be an fair price?" I'm not interested in giving it away for free, as I think that the subject is a lot more popular than my earlier book about environmental issues. But I really don't have a clue about what people think is a fair price anymore. 

So here's some of the work I've been doing already. It should give people an idea about what the book is about. 


Practical Philosophy

In modern times “philosophy” has become a purely academic pursuit. Professors at universities write papers for each other where they discuss very abstract concepts. I'm not going to say that this is a totally worthless pursuit, as some of the ideas that they develop end up becoming extremely important for science, literature, politics, and so on. Human society cannot evolve without creating new ways of thinking about the world, and to do this someone has to create new ways of looking at the world.

But philosophy used to also be about how ordinary people learned how to live a life of meaning and purpose. In the late Roman Empire there were schools of philosophy that helped people learn how to live better lives. The most famous were Stoicism, Cynicism, and Skepticism. Each of these were systemic ways of looking at and living in the world. They allowed followers to find meaning and coherence in turbulent times. Unfortunately, they were suppressed by the Christian church once it became the official---and exclusive---religion of the Roman Empire. Philosophy continued in academic settings, but it was never again allowed to escape into the lives of ordinary citizens.

At roughly the same time, philosophy also arose in India and China. India's most famous examples are Yoga and Buddhism. In China, some examples were Confucianism, Moism, Daoism, and Legalism. In India its practical philosophies became overlaid by religious thinking to the point where for most people their original teachings pretty much disappeared. In China this also happened to Daoism. Confucianism did the same as Western philosophy and disappeared into something of an Ivory Tower---but because China lacked universities, this tended to instead be the Imperial bureaucracy. Moism (a socialist/utilitarian/scientific worldview) was effectively exterminated after its followers lost a literal war with Legalism (at totalitarian worldview based on rigid rule of law.) Legalism's success at founding the first Chinese Empire proved a Pyrrhic victory, because it's extremely harsh treatment of ordinary people resulted in rebellions that quickly destroyed that dynasty and it's governing philosophy.

(Of course, this is all a grotesque over-simplification, but people have to start somewhere and this book is not an academic, historical treatise.)

OK. There was this thing in the past. Why should anyone care today?

When I was a child one of my teachers used to write sayings on the blackboard every morning. One that stuck out in my mind was “Be a live wire and you won't get stepped on!”. At the time, I thought that it meant that people shouldn't be afraid of standing up for their rights, asserting their interests, or, showing off their abilities. It struck me as an advertisement in favour of the value of being “pushy”. As a child, I thought that this was a bit odd, as my family had always taught me that that was being rude.

Why did that teacher write it on the black board?

Totally unconsciously, she was promoting a “practical philosophy”. In particular, she was promoting a sort of optimistic, liberal, 20th century view of “individual progress”. Contrast that with this similar piece of folk wisdom:  “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.” That is a Japanese proverb that seems to suggest that it is dangerous to be a “live wire”. Not only will being “live” not keep you from being “stepped on”---it will positively ensure that you will be.

Which one is right?

Well, that's an important question. One that requires the right answer because depending on how you choose, you will live your life in a particular way and suffer the consequences. The practical philosophies that I mentioned above---Greek, Indian, and, Chinese---are all coherent collections of ideas about how you should live your life. They all suggest that it is better to follow a internally consistent series of maxims instead of simply bouncing through life following whatever random ideas your culture (eg my elementary school teacher) chooses to insert into your consciousness. This book is an attempt to expose the reader to one of those schools of practical philosophy:  Daoism. My hope is that some of you will see the great wisdom that I have found that it brought to my life, and how it helps me navigate the day-to-day problems that I face.

And in the case of that woman in the classroom, a Daoist would probably have written “Be like water”. That is, find effective “work arounds” for problems instead of either fighting against them or just doing what everyone else does.


The Different Frames Used to Study Daoism

One of the problems I often see when looking at Daoism is the “frame” that people use to look at it. That is to say, people approach it from a specific viewpoint based on their particular interest or area of expertise. Unfortunately, these folks often have zero appreciatioin of people who come to the subject from a different point of view. The result is often like the parable of the blind men and the elephant:  everyone touches a very different part and comes up with very different ideas about the beast.

For example, people with personal experience as with an individual sect sometimes make very definitive statements about Daoism in general. This is because they don't know anything about other sects (and there are a great many), or, the consensus amongst the scholarly community about its history and literature.

Also, some academics who focus on the culture of Daoism believe that only someone who is fluent in Chinese and who has spent a long time assimilating into traditional Chinese culture can have any affinity to Daoism. Moreover, long study in Daoist Temples under Chinese Daoist masters is essential. Anyone who studies books in translation and follows specific disciplines is merely fooling themselves if they believe that they are really “Daoists”. The problem with this point of view is that it would seem to suggest that there is no objective “trans-cultural” core of Daoist philosophy or value in things like Daoist meditation techniques. It has mere aesthetic interest, but no more ultimate value than an ethnic cuisine or style of dress.

Other folks seem to see Daoism as primarily a mechanism for personal expression. One example of this are the folks who take it upon themselves to write “versions” of the Dao De Jing without educating themselves about the meaning of the original text. Another example are the guys who teach taijiquan as a “artistic dance” without trying to understand it as a martial art and holistic exercise system.

I don't really have much of a problem with any of these approaches as long as they aren't assumed to be the only one that has any legitimacy. Unfortunately, too many folks tend to assume that whoever isn't with them is---by definition---against them. I can see some merit in each of those frames. But in my own case I am approaching Daoism through the frame of philosophy. That is to say, I am looking for the ideas in the entire tradition that have merit and how I can apply them to my everyday life.


Hard Versus Soft, or, Keeping Your Spirit “Whole”

At one point in my taijiquan training I was taught how to take a punch. What I had to do was stand in a particular stance and another student hit me as hard as he could on the chest. If I flinched or tightened up the result was a horrible bruise that would last for weeks. But I learned that if I kept totally relaxed the force of the punch would flow through my rib cage, into my spine, and through my legs and feet into the floor. This isn't a metaphor. I could feel the force flow like an electric current through my body---leaving me totally unharmed.

The soft overcame the hard.

This wasn't the result of some occult power. It was just that the inherent resilience of my bodily structure is enough to avoid injury as long as I don't “freeze” it by tensing my muscles. It's exactly the same principle that a high school chemistry teacher shows when he dips a rubber ball in liquid nitrogen and the shatters it like glass by trying to bounce it off the floor.

Zhuangzi relates that Confucius was once watching a huge cataract:  “No tortoise, alligator, fish or turtle could swim there.” Yet he was surprised to see an old man swimming in the middle of the rapids. Thinking that he had fallen in, Confucius sent his disciples out along the river to try to save him. After a while, this fellow came out of the water on his own, which amazed the sage.
Confucious followed after the man and inquired of him, saying, 

“I thought you were a ghost, but when I looked more closely I saw that you are a man. May I ask if you have a special way for treading the water?
“No, I have no special way. I began with what was innate, grew up with my nature, and completed my destiny. I enter the very centre of the whirlpools and emerge as a companion of the torrent. I follow along with the way of the water and do not impose myself on it. That's how I do my treading.”
“What do you mean by 'began with what was innate, grew up with your nature, and completed your destiny'?” asked Confucious.
“I was born among these hills and feel secure among them---that's what's innate. I grew up in the water and feel secure in it---that's my nature. I do not know why I am like this, yet that's how I am---that's my destiny.”
(Zhuangzi, “Outer Chapters”, “Understanding Life”, Section Eight, Victor Mair trans.)
Instead of fighting against the current, the old man flowed with it. When the current pushed him away from his destination, he let himself go with it. When it pushed him towards it, he added a few strokes. Before long, he arrived where he wanted to go.

Being soft is not the same thing as being weak. Instead, it about being “non-resisting”.

And non-resisting is not about just deciding to be non-resistant. Tensing up before the fist hits you is not a voluntary response---it is instinctive. So being “soft” requires more than just a conscious decision, it requires a revolution in your being. Zhuangzi talks about this at length. He has Liezi (a master of the Dao) ask another sage (Director Yin) about what is required.
“The ultimate man can walk under water without drowning, can tread upon fire without feeling hot, and can soar above the myriad things without fear. May I ask how he achieves this?”
“It's because he guards the purity of his vital breath,” said Director Yin, “it's not a demonstration of his expertise or daring.
He goes on to give a revealing example.
“If a drunk falls from a carriage, even if it is going very fast, he will not die. His bones and joints are the same as those of other people, but the injuries he receives are different. It's because his spirit is whole. He was not aware of getting into the carriage, nor was he aware of falling out of it. Life and death, alarm and fear do not enter his breast. Therefore, he confronts things without apprehension. If someone who has gotten his wholeness from wine is like this, how much more so would one be who gets his wholeness from heaven! The sage hides within his heavenly qualities, thus nothing can harm him...”
(Zhuangzi, “Understanding Life”, Part Two, Mair trans)

Yet another example comes from a boatman.

Yen YƱan inquired of Confucius,saying,
”When I was crossing the gulf of Goblet Deep, the ferryman handled the boat like a spirit. I asked him about it, saying, 'Can handling a boat be learned?' 'Yes', said he, 'good swimmers can learn quickly. As for divers, they can handle a boat right away without ever having seen one.' I asked him why this was so, but he didn't tell me. I venture to ask what you think he meant.”
“A good swimmer can learn quickly because he forgets about the water,” said Confucius. “As for a diver being able to handle a boat right away without ever having seen one, it's because he regards the watery depths as if they were a mound and the capsizing of a boat as if it were the rolling back of a carriage. Capsizing and rolling back could unfold a myriad times before him without affecting his heart, so he is relaxed wherever he goes.”
Confucius then goes on and gives another example that stresses the importance of keeping your “spirit whole”

“He who competes for a piece of tile displays all of his skill;  he competes for a belt buckle gets nervous;  he who competes for gold gets flustered. His skill is still the same, but there is something that distracts him and causes him to focus on externals. Whoever focuses on externals will be clumsy inside.”
(Zhuangzi, “Understanding Life”, Part Three, Mair trans)
The archer who is competing for a prize is not afraid of drowning or getting nasty bruises. But his mind is distracted from the act of shooting his bow by considering what he would do with his prize. This is the point of the following apocryphal story:
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”
The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”
The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

Being “soft” instead of “hard” is a relatively easy concept to understand. But how one becomes truly “soft” is not. “Hardness” involves separating yourself from the universe (or Dao) around you. That punching exercise that I introduced this section was not called “taking a punch” in my school, but rather “exchanging energy”. It was not considered a skill that was to be developed to protect you in a fight, but a way of helping one another to develop a deeper understanding of the Dao.


So I'd like some help here on my book.  Should I try to sell it to a publisher? Or should I self-publish? And if I do self-publish, what do you think would be a fair price for an e-book?  Make a comment on the blog or email me at .  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Putting Yourself in Another's Skin, Empathy, and Art

I've been watching a lot of episodes of the television show "House" lately. I don't watch ordinary tv, just Netflix on my computer. And Netflix Canada just uploaded the entire series. So now I get to see what all the fuss about this very popular program is about. I admit, it is quite mesmerizing. I've been feeling guilty about all the time, but it occurred to me that watching the show isn't a complete waste. 

In the first season there is an on-going subplot involving a wealthy pharmaceutical magnate, Edward Vogler, who "gives" the hospital $100 million (actually, buys control of it) and ends up being chairman of the board of directors. I've sat on charity boards and I have to admit that this portrayal is probably the most dysfunctional depiction of a board chair I've ever seen. He steps in and starts micro-managing decisions by the CEO and bullies the members of the board---including ordering it to fire both individual doctors and any board member that opposes him. (I'm not going to suggest that this can't happen---some truly awful things happen on non-profit boards---but this was a HUGE divergence from how things are supposed to work.) 

One of the things that this monster does is tell Dr. House that at a medical conference he has to flog some new drug that Vogler has recently put on the market. Since House is considered one of the best diagnostic doctors in the world, this is a big deal. The problem is that the drug in question is simply a rehash of an older drug who's patent has expired. A much cheaper---and equally effective---generic is available. If doctors prescribe this new product, they will be seriously harming poor patients without a drug plan and helping artificially jack-up the cost of health care in the USA (already much higher than anywhere else in the world, due to shenanigans like this.) 
House and Vogler
The problem is that Vogler has told House that if he doesn't give this speech he will have to fire one of the young doctors that make up his diagnostic team. This has nothing at all to do with money, as Vogler admits that he is doing this just to punish House and force him to learn how to do as he is told. (This is why a properly run non-profit board creates a fire-wall between the board and the CEO, who is supposed to make these sorts of decisions. This would make for bad drama, however, and, unfortunately isn't always the way things really work.)

House tries, but ultimately gags when he tries to make the speech as ordered, so he simply explains why the drug is a waste of money. Vogler freaks and orders the board to fire House. Since firing a tenured doctor requires a unanimous verdict, House's friend Wilson invokes a effective veto by refusing to vote for this. Vogler responds by ordering the Board to vote to have Wilson kicked off the Board. 

Drama ensues. And, as you might imagine, the character that the series is named after ends up victorious. Vogler leaves the hospital and takes his $100 million with him. 


Why am I making such a fuss about this tv show?

Actually I was so upset by this fictional arc that I found myself having to put the computer on hold and walk around my home until I had cooled off enough to watch the show without exploding.

What the heck is wrong with me? Am I so immature that I can't tell the difference between a story and real life?

I fussed about my behaviour for a while and then I thought, "let's stop being judgmental and look at my mental phenomenon objectively".  After all, I am both a philosopher and a Daoist. Both are supposed to look at the world as it really is and not beat ourselves up because it (including ourselves) aren't the way we think we "should" be.


Let's start by looking at the following YouTube clip from the classic movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird". 

There are two important points here. First Atticus tells Scout about the importance of "considering things from someone else's point of view" or to "climb inside another's skin and walk around in it". (The second, where he talks about the value of compromise which he calls "an agreement reached by mutual consent" but which Scout defines as "bending the law", is also very important---but not relevant to this discussion.)  Like a lot of things in this movie, it appears to be a heartwarming simple father/daughter conversation, but it actually deals with some pretty complex issues. 

What exactly does it mean to "consider things from another's point of view" or "walk in someone else's skin"?

It seems to me that what it is about is using our imagination to try to identify those elements of a person's life that are similar and different to our own, put them together, and create a holistic vision of the motivations behind another person's behaviour. This requires, amongst other things, an attempt to stop thinking about how that person's behaviour affects your life and instead to consider how those actions exclusively affect the other person.  Another way of saying this is to treat other people as "subjects" instead of "objects".


This is not a trivial thing to do, as the show "House" neatly identifies.

One of the people on House's team is a brilliant young immunologist by the name of "Allison Cameron". Her character is motivated by an extreme sense of personal empathy towards others---to the point where she married a man dying of cancer while in med school. House misses no chance to tell her that this is a profoundly dysfunctional attitude for a doctor to have. It not only will create chaos in her personal life, but it will make her a worse doctor because her extreme empathy with patients will prevent her from objectively assessing their maladies. This is obviously true in the series, as whenever she has a patient with a terminal illness her response is to frantically try to find some other---treatable---cause for the symptoms instead of accepting the patient's death.
Allison Cameron from "House"
In the middle of the House/Vogler battle, however, a strange thing happens. Even though she has a very strong crush on House and sees him as some sort of "saviour doctor", she is very hurt by the fact that House refuses to "knuckle under" in order to save her job. (House has to fire one of his doctors and she takes the choice away from him by resigning.) As she resigns she complains that House really doesn't care about anyone else. He only saves his patients as a byproduct of his drive to always be "right".

What is surprising about this is the fact that from an outside perspective House is being extremely altruistic by refusing to "go along" with the insane drug industry system that is causing immense misery to poor people all over the USA. Cameron is very empathetic, but she has a failure in her inability to extend it beyond the person right in front of her to a person she's never met. This is a profound problem in our society because so many people "personalize" issues and cannot get emotionally engaged with issues on a theoretical level. House can, and that is one of the things that sets him apart from other people in the show and makes him seem so bizarre. (More on this specific issue in one of my old blog posts: "The Button Problem".)


OK, what does this have to do with my agitation about watching a mere television show?

Years ago I had a boss at a janitorial job who really liked to hear himself talk. One day he was blathering on about being in India with some friends who are really freaked out by a beggar who had no legs and was going around on a little cart asking for alms. He said he was dumbfounded by his friends who acted like they were afraid of him. He said he couldn't figure out the attitude. At this
This is an actor, I think, but this is what my boss was talking about.
point I offered an opinion that went something to the effect that "Perhaps his existence scared them because he popped the illusion that life is fair or that really, really bad stuff cannot happen to them. He is, after all, a living embodiment of how grotesquely fucked up their lives could potentially become---." My boss's jaw literally dropped. He thought for a while and said "Hey, you might have something there."

The important issue I am talking about is imagination. You cannot "put yourself in another's skin" without have a powerful imagination. And some people have a lot stronger imagination than others. I don't know how much it plays into people's intelligence, but it must have an awful lot to do with it.
Any sort of problem solver needs to be able to consider a lot of different things. Of course they also have to be able to discard most of them and decide which most effectively explains the facts, but there have to be ideas in the first place.

The value of good art---like the television show "House"---is that it allows people to get "into" the heads of other people and imagine what it must be like. This gives them the opportunity to "try out" that other perspective. I'll never be a doctor dealing with life and death issues, but watching how Gregory House and his colleagues work through these issues gives me an opportunity to work through a lot of different complex issues.


Jean Buridan
But why do I have to be so emotionally caught up in this story? Contrary to what a lot of our society tells us, emotions are an integral part of the thinking process. This is explained by the following thought experiment. Consider an intelligent donkey that is placed an absolutely equal distance between two absolutely equal piles of hay. Which one does it go towards? If there is absolutely no difference between the two, then there can be no rational reason for it to go from one to another. Yet it still chooses. How?

This is a teaching story is attributed to the medieval philosopher and physicist Jean Buridan. Actually, more than anything else, it's value resides in reminding people of the common experience of being "on the horns of a dilemma". This is the situation all people find themselves in at one time or another where they see two different options that seem to have equal value and so cannot make up our minds which way to go. Generally, what people have to do is "go with their gut instinct" and accept the consequences.

It could be argued that this decision isn't an "emotion" but some sort of random decision-making feature of the brain (sort of like flipping a coin.) But if so, I would argue that it must be somewhat related---even if only in function. That's because from self-observation my emotions seem to be very tightly connected to what motivates me to perform actions in life. I get very upset about the death of nature, so I've devoted huge swathes of my life to environmental activism. Similarly, when I proposed to my dear, sweet, lovely wife there was no conscious volition on my part. I simply asked her totally without premeditation. I suspect her response was similarly emotionally driven, as without hesitation she said yes.


Once we accept that emotions are part of a decision-making process, then I think I've explained why I had to stop the action and walk around the house for a while before I resumed watching the television show. The exercise of watching a good drama is about becoming engaged with the fictional character, or, as Atticus Finch says, "putting yourself in another's skin". And when I do that, I activate the emotions that come from the situation he finds himself in. The result is nervous energy that threatens to overwhelm my self-control. So instead of "losing it" and throwing something at my computer monitor, I put the show on pause and make a pot of tea.

Why do people do this sort of thing to themselves? Is it pleasurable? Not really. It made me feel so uncomfortable that I am writing a blog post about it. But obviously there is something to it, or else people like me wouldn't give Netflix money to serve this stuff up to us.

I would argue that it is because it serves a useful social purpose in that it allows us a safe, convenient way to exercise empathy towards people we have never met in situations we will probably never experience. This is tremendously important to the human race because it allows us to work through very important problems. In the episodes I referred to, many serious issues were raised.  For example, here are two: "How much power should a boss have over our behaviour?", and, "How do we balance conflicting demands between people we've never met versus those of us we see right in front of us?"

This is exactly the same sort of thing that all creatures indulge in as preparation for life. For example, look at the following YouTube clip of a snow leopard kitten playing with its mother. It's very obvious that it's play is preparation for hunting.

In much the same way, when people watch drama, read novels, etc, we are working through the complexities of social interactions. This is tremendously important to humanity, because our "evolutionary advantage" isn't thick fur or claws, like the snow leopard. Instead, it's our ability to create complex social communities. Humans have a very rare, but enormous useful evolutionary strategy:  Eusociality. That is what scientists call the ability of animals to work together in large colonies. Examples include ants, termites, bees, naked mole rats, people, and very few other animals. And I would argue that the human interest in drama is directly connected to it. That's why I get upset when I watch "House"---I'm learning how to think about some of the complex issues that face the human hive.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Dao is Not Sentimental

The first part of Chapter Five of the Dao De Jing is like vinegar to many people. But I think that contains a deep truth that everyone should understand.
Heaven and Earth are not humane (jen),
They treat the ten thousand beings as straw dogs (ch'u kou).
The sage is not humane (jen), 
He treats the hundred families as straw dogs (ch'u kou).  
Ellen Chen trans.
I thought about this after I saw yet another weepy news story about the recent bombings in Brussels. Society is flailing and the news media is sending story after story over the airwaves. But let's think about this. According to Wikipedia, there were thirty-five deaths and three hundred injuries. Lets compare that death toll to a real catastrophe, like World War II. That war lasted a little under six years (Sept 1/39 to Aug 14/45). The total deaths due to the war in that period---including soldiers killed due to battle, civilians due to war crimes, disease, and, starvation---are estimated at between 70 and 85 million. This means that at the most conservative estimate of casualty estimates, 70 million, about 32,000 people died every day during WWII. If we want to get a little closer to home, let's consider the number of people who've died in Iraq and Syria.  According to the website "Iraq Body Count", 242,000 people have died there since the American invasion. And in Syria, according to Wikipedia, 147,000 people have died in the Civil war.

Seen from this perspective, it strikes me that our society's collective reaction to a few minor terrorist attacks is wildly, crazily, insanely, over the top.


In contrast. I've been watching the way our political classes have been responding to the prospect of runaway climate change. Various celebrities and elected officials, for example, have been going on about how unfair and "over the top" it is to expect Alberta to not be allowed any way of shipping their tar sands oil to market. In contrast to the minor casualties predicted from the terrorist attacks, there are serious climate scientists who are arguing that climate change will do things like flood all the coastal cities of the world, disrupt seasonal rains in many areas, and cause the deaths of millions---if not billions---due to drought, starvation, and disease.

Look at these two YouTube videos to explain the two points of view.

It seems so crazy that so many people go berzerk about a few people losing their jobs in Alberta or a tiny number of commuters getting blown up by bombs, yet seem so totally blase about millions of people dying nasty horrible deaths due to climate change. What makes it even worse is that the majority of these other people will admit that climate change is real, they just don't want to do anything about it. The person in the second YouTube video is bang on, if you won't do anything about preventing climate change, no matter what you say, you are still a denier.


What's going on here? It seems to me that the big problem is sentimentality. By that, I mean an emotional reaction that is un-tempered  by rational thought. Take a look at the following poster that I see on the my local bus.

What exactly is the argument here? Did a video tape slap this crying child on the side of her head? Was she strapped to a chair and forced to watch it? Was she forced to take part in the creation of a pornographic movie? Was her mommy neglecting her because she wanted to watch or make pornography? What is it? Frankly, I don't know. I suspect people are just expected to see a crying child and come up with their own ideas. This is the problem with sentimentality, it isn't based on evidence, reason or much of anything at all. But a lot of people build their lives around it.

And the thing to remember about the anti-pornography laws is that they were used to do things like prevent birth control information. Margaret Sanger, for example, found that her pamphlets written to spread information about birth control methods were considered "pornographic" and banned under the "Comstock Laws". In addition, any attempt to portray non-"traditional" sexual orientation was also considered "pornographic", which is why the gay friendly bookstore "Little Sister's" found it's gay-friendly materials being seized at the border by Canada Customs and Revenue agents.  Since women who don't know about birth control often die due to self-induced abortions and gays of both sexes often commit suicide because they cannot find a place in society, anti-pornography laws are of life-and-death importance.
Margaret Sanger, Icky Pornographer

The thing to recognize about the anti-pornography poster that I put up above is that the "hurt" that it is referring to is the sense of "icky fear" that people feel when they are confronted by emotions and urges that people don't know how to understand. For a lot of people who haven't come to terms with their "animal nature", lust is something that is profoundly scary. It puts the lie to the idea that people are somehow different than all the other animals in the world.

In fact, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote a short story about this issue, titled "Welcome to the Monkey House". The title refers to the discomfort that many people feel when they visit the monkey house at the zoo. It is clear to everyone---not matter how much they might deny it---that there is a profound resemblance between human beings and monkeys. (We are all primates, after all.) But monkeys have none of the inhibitions surrounding their bodies that human beings do. In
Kurt Vonnegut, Supporter of Icky Pornography
Vonnegut's story, this discomfort leads a druggist to develop a drug that inhibits human sexual desire and the government promotes it as a means of population control. But a rebel underground fights against this program and instead encourages a different type of birth control that leaves people's instincts whole. When a woman makes the transition from supporting the establishment and instead becomes a rebel (called a "nothing-head"), her first batch of birth control pills comes with the label "Welcome to the Monkey House".

In other words, going into the "Monkey House" is admitting that some aspects of being a human being---such as lust---should be admitted and accepted instead of ignored and denied. Women do want to have sex, so just preaching abstinence is not going to prevent unwanted pregnancies. (Not to mention the women in abusive relationships who have no choice in the matter.) Homosexuality is an innate condition, not a chosen lifestyle. So not allowing anyone to discuss it openly will not prevent it, but it will make it almost impossible for many young people to understand what they are going through. Wanting to keep on having good paying jobs in the oil patch is not going to change the horrendous consequences of runaway climate change. And refusing to put a few deaths from terrorist attacks in a larger context is bound to severely damage a free society.


Sentimentality is defined by Google as "excessive tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia". And the sentimental response to terrorism, job layoffs, and, pornography is dangerous. As human beings our sentiments need to be tempered by our reason and experience. If we don't, we thrash around like wounded bears, creating pain all around us.

That's why as Daoists we need to always remember to not be excessively sentimental. And this is part of the point that the famous "vinegar tasters" painting is meant to express. The rational way of looking at the world needs to temper our feelings. One of the traditional ways that Daoists used to teach this idea is through this image. A Confucian, a Buddhist and a Daoist are depicted surrounding a vat of vinegar, which all three are tasting. From the expressions on the faces of the Confucian and the Buddhist, you can see that both consider this a bad-tasting element of life that must be fought against or endured. But the Daoist smiles, because he sees it as just another part of existence and something that must be accepted on its own terms and even enjoyed if possible. Pornography doesn't really "hurt", it is just our inhibitions that cause the pain. A transition to a carbon-free economy is essential to avoiding disaster. And whether we like it or not, we are all going to die, so freaking out about a very small number of terrorist killings is not really necessary.

Wisdom of the Ages---May We All Absorb It!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Volunteerism, or, Yes You Should Do Work for Free

I recently got into an unfortunate exchange on FaceBook that resulted in my "unfriending" an acquaintance that I met through politics. He'd posted an image from a Batman movie that I found particularly annoying and used the opportunity to work through why it bugged me. He responded with a call to "lighten up", which I refused to do.

The Offending Image

There are two things about this image that I find really annoying. First of all, I do not like Heath Ledger's portrayal of "the Joker" in the movie "The Dark Knight". I didn't like the movie at all. It was a reactionary fantasy about a world where the biggest problems that society faces are anarchic street criminals that a "politically-correct" and hopelessly corrupt government finds itself incapable of opposing. The problem with this portrayal is that it is ridiculous. The fundamental problem that society faces aren't bank robbers, it's the owners of the banks. And the worst criminals aren't criminally-insane people who dress-up in pancake make-up and create spectacular explosions, but rather psychopathic "snakes in suits" who are able to worm their way into organizations and twist them to their own ends. The way this movie (and the entire Batman franchise) plays on this reactionary trope came home to me after Barack Obama was elected president of the US. Almost immediately, my hometown was blanketed with the posters that portrayed him as the Joker.

Obama as Joker
Frankly, I found these posters offensive and racist. What was really annoying is that my town isn't even in the USA, it's in Canada. And Obama wouldn't even be considered much of a progressive by most Canadian political parties---let alone a "socialist". But the way right and wrong are expressed in the Batman world appeals to reactionaries, so it makes total sense that someone would use the Heath Ledger Joker portrayal to riff on the "Kenyan Usurper" motif.


Even worse, from my point of view, is the message that "The Offending Image" attempts to portray. I sometimes hear from "creative types" (artists, musicians, writers) that they are being horribly exploited in that they are sometimes asked to "work for free" and that this is a vile, awful idea. The argument is that no one expects anyone else to do stuff for free, so why the heck should they? How could I possibly disagree with such an idea?

My response is that the idea that no one should work for free is supporting the idea that every human interaction should be transactional in nature. Even if no money changes hands, people need to reciprocate in every interaction. This does tremendous violence to the way human society operates. Did you pay your mother for raising you? Did the people who led your scout troupe get paid? How many human institutions would collapse if everyone who worked for them expected to be paid? No more volunteer fire departments. No more food bank. No more soup kitchens. No more community orchestras. No more political parties. No more activist groups. Linux wouldn't exist. You get the picture.


Paul Mason
I recently heard a talk on the CBC show "Ideas" by Paul Mason about his book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. He argued, among other things, that a new society is coming down the pipes, one where non-transactional (my word) relationships will become more and more important. His argument is that modern technology is increasingly dominated by processes that are almost impossible to monetize. That is to say, the information economy is based on ideas instead of things, and by definition ideas are better given away for free instead of sold.

Science and technology only flourish in a world where information flows freely through journals and conferences. If you try to monetize it through patent protection, you stifle innovation and encourage the creation of "junk science". Open source software is inherently better because it benefits from the insight and creativity of everyone in the world who knows enough to participate rather than a very small pool of engineers who are being paid to work on it. Music and literature that exist as digital files instead of vinyl records or paper books can be copied and shipped all over the world for a fraction of the previous costs. The big issue for creatives is marketing, not distribution---which means the biggest problem for most artists isn't having your work copied and shared for free, it's seeing your work being ignored.

Reactionary and neo-liberal politics is increasingly all about putting this genie back into the bottle. For example, I understand that one of the biggest elements of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement involves patent protection. As well, increasingly professions have become arbitrarily exclusionary in order to allow "rent-seeking" by those members of society that are lucky enough to have the right credentials. That is part of the reason why, for example, the legal system has become so insanely complex---lawyers don't want it to be to simple enough for an intelligent person to be able to navigate it without paying a lot of money to experts. Fighting against these attempts to limit the
Pirate Party Logo
free flow of ideas and creative content has fueled the rise of groups such as the Pirate Parties of Europe.

Mason argues that instead of trying to fight against the new technologies that make it harder and harder to reduce relationships between people into monetary transactions, government should be working to make it easier. This isn't as startling as it sounds, as what we call the "free market" is actually a government creation that was put into place through centuries of government intervention. To cite one example, the legal artifact known as the "limited liability corporation" was specifically created by European legal systems to foster the creation of large trading companies. This was because the sums of money required to build fleets of ships to travel overseas were far too large---and the enterprise too risky---for even the wealthiest individuals to attempt. So the legal fiction of the "corporation" was created which holds the liability instead of the individual shareholders who are not personally obliged to "make good" on the company's debts.

One suggestion that Mason makes is that the post-capitalist society could be fostered by the creation of a guaranteed annual income. His concern is that unless the "safety net" becomes better we will see a stratification in society between the people who have paid employment and those who do not. Moreover, the ones that do have employment will become more and more militant about keeping it. The result will be a lot of "rent seeking" in society as people fight tooth and nail against efficiencies that would shrink the work force. And without a good safety net to protect against catastrophic failure, a lot of "ideas workers" won't take the personal financial risks necessary to devote their personal time into creating "the next great idea" on their home computer. Trapeze artists always develop new moves while using a safety net. Why shouldn't inventors and entrepeneurs have one too?


One of the important points that Mason emphasized in his talk is that we are the first society in the world that has solved the problem of scarcity. That is to say, there are no absolute reasons why people should find themselves living in poverty. Any scarcity that people currently find themselves in has been manufactured by human society instead of being intrinsic to the nature of existence. Artificial scarcity can come about for various reasons. One of which is simply because society refuses to redistribute wealth. Another is to create a society where people's wants have been artificially enhanced through things like advertising to the point where people feel that they are being deprived if they lack any number of unnecessary consumer goods. Another one is to design societies in ways that make it very difficult to live without wasting resources---such as housing people in suburban sprawl so people have to use personal automobiles instead of public transit. One last way is to refuse to control population growth so that any surplus production gets eaten up by creating a surplus of consumers.

If we are going to survive past the climate change "bottle neck" however, this creation of artificial scarcity has to end. Instead, we need to create social mechanisms to enhance the ability of people to live within the current abundance instead of feeling the need to always get "more". The creation of an economy based upon the free exchange of ideas is pretty important to that. And, I believe that this is an aesthetic that is at the core of the Daoist ideal. In Journey to the West there is an exchange between two characters where they talk about living a simple life. One of them has a poem about living the simple life of a fisherman who supports his family with the bounty of the lakes and streams. He says when times are bad and there are no fish, they can always eat the leaves of the Tree of Heaven. (I wouldn't recommend this as this could very well be an example of a bad translation confusing one type of tree with another.) The point being that the man of Dao lives in a state of abundance all the time. Partially, this is because he lives a frugal life. And partially, this is because his willingness to learn from nature (a kung fu) gives him the ability to adapt to and see resources that are hidden to the majority of people.

These two old immortals in Journey to the West are living a life of simple abundance because they have made the transition from the old transactional economy based on "things" to the gift economy based on "ideas". Mason's point is that our entire society needs to make this transition now if we are going to survive as a civilization. That's why I fundamentally reject the idea that all creative people need to be paid for everything they do. It is a view of existence that is fundamentally out of harmony with the Dao.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Competition is a Very Bad Idea

I had some conversations recently that reminded me about some very bad ideas that infect many people's minds and create chaos in our civilization. I thought I'd explain one to my readers.



A fellow I know has been asking me a lot about a Canadian institution known as "French Immersion". Canada is an officially bilingual country. This means that the government has mandated that all over the nation everyone is entitled to being served in both French and English. A practical upshot of this is that lots and lots of good-paying government jobs require or strongly recommend fluency in both languages. This ranges from high ranked civil servants down to the woman who sells you stamps at the post office.

This has had a lot of results in our society. One of which was the beautiful mother and young daughter I heard talking away in French when I came back from the Farmer's Market on Saturday. This is a good thing. Another result was the fear from middle class English speakers that their children would never be able to "get ahead" if they weren't fluent in both languages. Since most parts of Canada outside of Quebec are totally English speaking, this created pressure for school boards to create public schools where children from English speaking homes are taught only in French. The result is supposed to be children who are fluently bilingual when they graduate.

This has created several big problems.

First of all, it is really expensive to create a second public school system that parallels the existing one. Second, it costs a lot of money to bus those students who's parents want their children to attend a French immersion school across town. Third, it breaks up communities as children who live next door to each other are often strangers because they do not go to the same school. And fourth, it is the most talented children with the most engaged and supportive parents who go to these French immersion schools. This is a problem because it leaves English public school teachers with a higher percentage of demanding students to look after and the schools lose the students who are often good role models for  the ones that struggle.

In essence, French immersion schools have become elite private schools that are part of the public system.

Space is limited in these public/private schools. This means that the competition for placement in a French immersion school has become intense. Parents sit in cars for days waiting for the doors to open so they can register in the "first come, first served" system. In other districts where people can register by phone, people create "parties" where parents co-operate in order to get to the first. (They all dial until one gets through then the rest pile on and register their children through that connection.) School boards are trying to deal with the issue through creating a lottery. But this doesn't satisfy parents who still want their children to get into the school but fail to win a place.

The fundamental flaw fueling this idiotic situation is the issue of competition for a limited number of positions.

To understand this idea we have to do some thinking from game theory. Let's consider a competition by a population that is larger than the limited number of slots that are open. For example, 100 couples want to get their child into one of 50 slots in a school. If one couple decides to "game the system" by taking extra-ordinary measures---such as sitting out all night in a car so they can be first in line when the doors open---they will end up increasing their chances of getting their child into the program from 50% to 100%. Unfortunately, other parents will see that this strategy works, which means that they will start camping out, which will mean that people have to wait longer and longer periods in order to make sure that they are in line. (According to one article I read, in some areas parents are already waiting for three days ahead of time.)  This is an inevitable outcome in a "first-come-first-serve" system where people are selfishly competing with each other. That's why more and more school boards are using a lottery to assign positions.

But the system gaming for placement is just a minor subset of competitive gaming. The entire concept of a French immersion school system is an attempt to "game" the labour market. Middle class parents who cannot afford to send their children to a real private school are trying to use the French immersion program to give their kids a "leg up" over the others when it comes to finding good jobs when they graduate. Again, the problem with this is that there are only so many jobs where being bilingual will give their children an advantage. So getting your child involved in the immersion program is no guarantee that they will actually get one of those jobs. But one thing we can be sure of, however, is that the more competitive we make the educational system, the more miserable we will make the children who are in it.


One of the big flaws in competition is that people almost never consider the opportunity costs  that flow from it. These can be both personal and communal.

In the case of communal opportunity costs, parents are not considering several things. First, in "gaming" the application system, they are creating a system that makes it harder and harder to go through the mechanics of actually enrolling their child. Secondly, by making such a fetish out of French immersion, they are damaging local English public schools, disrupting the community, and creating excessive and unnecessary costs for all the schools. Finally, by dramatically expanding the pool of bilingual citizens they are making competition for a limited number of government jobs just that more intense.

In terms of personal opportunity costs. The pressure that parents are putting on children to "excel" in their education so they can be more competitive with regard to the other members of their generational cohort lowers the quality of life for everyone. In other nations where society is more competitive than ours, this competition for good schools and good jobs has gotten to a place that most North Americans would find appalling. For example, my ex once explained to me that in India middle class children are usually expected not only to work hard at school, but they are also tutored in their "spare" time in order to get a "leg up" (actually, to just keep up) with their class mates. In addition, they are usually expected to do things like seriously practice a musical instrument (in order to discipline the mind.)

This same intense competition for scarce "entry tickets" to good middle-class jobs also exists in other countries such as China and Japan. Indeed one fairly successful book on this subject is "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". I haven't read it myself, but my understanding that it describes what the author, Amy Chua, calls "traditional Chinese parenting".
Amy Chua: Tiger Mom

There are several problems with this system.

First of all, it puts enormous stress on children and I suspect this damages many of them. Secondly, it is based on the assumption that it is possible to teach a child how to do "everything" or "the important things". I suspect that it is possible to teach or train a child to do many different things, but some of the most important come from unplanned or unpredictable experiences. And those things are by definition unteachable. The child needs some time to spend in an unstructured environment in order to find his or herself. I'd be interested in seeing long term studies that would show how many people who came through this sort of up bringing suffered from some sort of psychological problems in later life. I'd also be interested in seeing how many of them actually became trail-blazers in their fields as opposed to "middle-men" and technicians. I would suspect that the sort of rigorous imposed training in routine and practice costs in terms of creativity and courage.

On a macro level, this intensive pressure on individuals to compete within a system does nothing at all to change it. And that is probably the biggest opportunity cost. Society needs to do something about wealth inequality and the power dynamic that fuels it. Putting huge pressure on our children to become better and better at competing for the small number of jobs needed to support a super wealthy elite does nothing to change the system into something better. For the individual, this strategy might seem to be "more realistic", but for the society as a whole it is suicidal.


When I was young I was taken to a special event at our local agricultural co-op. The guest speaker was a famous Canadian fiddler by the name of Al Cherny. He told a little story about a man who died and when he came before St. Peter he was told that he had been accepted into Heaven. The fellow was a bit of skeptic, so he asked if he'd be able to check out both Heaven and Hell before he made up his mind about where he wanted to go. The saint said that this was OK, so the fellow went off to Hell to check it out.

Being a practical sort, the man went off to the mess hall to see what the food was like in Hell. He said that the devil chefs were serving soup that day and it looked and smelled pretty good. When the denizens came trooping in the door they were all given spoons. But they were strange in that they had impossibly long handles. This meant that when one of the citizens of Hell tried to eat the soup, it all fell out of the spoon and all they got were tiny dribbles of the soup. As you might imagine, this was pretty frustrating.

The fellow thought this was not terribly good, so he then decided that he wanted to see how things fared in Heaven. Again, he went to the mess hall. In Heaven the angels were serving soup too. And surprisingly, when the people of Heaven came in to eat they were given exactly the same types of spoons as the people in Hell! But when they ate they took the long spoons and fed the people sitting across them them at the table. Everyone had lots to eat and all proclaimed the soup was delish.

The point of the story was obvious. If we want to create a Heaven on Earth, we are going to have to help one another instead of competing!