Got to find the reason, reason things went wrong…

I once attended a forum for black students held at York University, where there were a number of seminars and sessions to try to broaden the discussion and (I guess) impart some life skills. One of these forums was about developing and harnessing economic power, moderated by two women who had a successful business consulting firm. Some of the stuff was useful (invest in real estate, work closely with other black businesses to keep money ‘in the community’), while some of the stuff was a bit… different (sell your real estate and buy platinum bouillon!). In a fit of mysticism that I have found to be distressingly common among black intellectuals, they encouraged us to think of ‘money’ as part of an acronym:

Mobilize Our Natural Energy Yield

Which is, y’know… not where the word comes from, but whatever. Small quibble.

The point of the acronym was, I think, to divorce our minds from the concept that paper money is actually worth something in and of itself. Money is, and always has been, a proxy for the time and skill that goes in to the production of goods or services. Since its very early days, it has grown and expanded to represent a lot of other things as well, but at its fundamental level money is what you exchange for goods and services according to the level to which you value them.

The recent economic collapse revealed that our concept of ‘money’ had moved dangerously far away from anything resembling goods and services, and has instead mutated into a seemingly-arbitrary score that different groups use to decide who is better than the other. And when we started realizing “hey, wait a second, this whole thing is built on fairy dust and leprechaun tears”, it collapsed. But at some point, there was MONEY flowing between places, right? So where the hell did it all go? Did it just disappear into the ghost of the machine? Maybe. Then again, maybe not: [Read more…]

Science vs Philosophy

Recently, a number of people have opened their mouth to deride Philosophy. Notably, they tend to be people who are well-placed academics such as Krauss and Dawkins. Likewise, Atheistlogic has stuck their oar in too, though much more articulately. Atheistlogic spells out the general objection quite well, I think, so I’m going to focus on their comments as a stepping off point.

[Read more…]

Is this racist? You can bank on it.

Part of the challenge of incorporating anti-racism into mainstream skepticism is that skepticism has been primarily focused on developing techniques of inquiry honed in material sciences (by which I mean the study of physical systems like cosmology, biology, and physics – not materials science which is an entirely different thing). Ask most mainstream skeptics, and they’ll display an admirable grasp on at least the basics of astronomy, evolution, mechanics, some quantum physics, and if you’re lucky a bit of biochemistry to go with it. Many questions that atheistic skeptics have had to learn to answer are focussed on the origins of the universe and of life, necessitating this basic ‘toolkit’ of scientific knowledge.

We have not yet, and I mean yet, turned our eye toward the study of human sociopolitical systems (although I am enthused to note that most people have a fair-to-middling grasp on some core psychology, which builds part of the foundation). I am certainly not exempt from these educational blind spots, despite my impression of myself as a skeptic who is more interested in sociology than average. Without the same basic knowledge of methods of sociological inquiry (which surely extend to history, literary analysis, and other things that aren’t, in the strictest sense, ‘sciences’), it becomes very difficult to parse the often labyrinthine mechanisms of cause and effect in human organizations, especially in a way that satisfies the more ‘tactile’ minds among us.

Luckily, every now and then racism expresses itself so clearly and unequivocally that it transcends the need for rigorous study to unravel the mechanism behind the effect: [Read more…]

The unbearable whiteness of TVing

There have been few times in my life where I have had a single-race group of friends. Living when and where I have, there have even been few examples where I was the only person of colour (PoC) in my immediate social circle. Part of it came, to be sure, from the fact that my high school was ludicrously multicultural, and I went to university for the next 6 years of my life before moving to Vancouver, a city with a huge PoC population. Simple probability theory dictates that you can’t really put together a monoracial group without more than a little bit of intentionality behind your friend selection.

Which is why shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and How I Met Your Mother annoy the living shit out of me. Well, to be fair to HIMYM, they eventually cast Kal Penn, so now the only thing that annoys me is the terrible writing. Anyway, these shows somehow manage to be about a group of white people living in one of the most multicultural cities in the world who only have ny kind of meaningful contact with other white people. Sure, PoCs occasionally pop into existence on these shows, but it’s almost always as either one-off characters or as “hilarious” jokes based on stereotype.

Last week I invited you to think about privilege as a pair of coloured goggles that prevented you from being able to see certain parts of the spectrum. Of course, if it were simply the case that privilege caused you to ‘miss out’ on things, it wouldn’t be much of a privilege, would it? Here’s the thing – that kind of selective blindness has consequences: [Read more…]

British Columbia flooded with drug money

The great challenge of being politically conscious is to remain critical (one might say ‘skeptical’, although I don’t think that word means the same thing in this context that we usually mean) of propaganda and showy announcements. Whether you think politicians are cravenly trying to pull a fast one on the populace, or if you’re like me and think that politicians simply begin to think in propagandist terms, the sign of a person who is cognitively engaged with politics is the ability to parse both the positives and negatives from political announcements.

To give you an idea of the way in which I wrestle through the political landscape, here’s an example of a recent development that I found particularly interesting: [Read more…]

Racism, elections, and how we measure up

A while back, a writer I like got in trouble with a lot of people who would otherwise be fans over something she wrote:

In it, Dr. Harris-Perry (who I follow on Twitter) lays out an argument for why white voters, who supported Barack Obama in the first election, may be abandoning him now at a greater rate than they did President Clinton in the 90′s – despite the many political and situational similarities between the two. Given that so many of the ostensible reasons for withdrawing support are balanced between the two administrations, racism may explain, at least in part, any differences in voter support and approval. It’s hard to argue that race and racism have not played a role in this particular presidency far more than in others.

Because I liked both this article and a related one that more closely explored the racial attitudes of Bill Clinton more specifically and liberals more generally, I fired a quick message to Dr. Harris-Perry in support, because I knew that she was taking quite a bit of flack for her audacious temerity to suggest that liberals weren’t the immaculate paragons of fairness that we make ourselves out to be. Basically, just a “hey, I liked your piece in the Nation.”

The problem, of course, is that racism is notoriously difficult to pin down as a single causal factor. Because we’ve gotten so good at obfuscating it through clever language and self-inflicted racial blindness, it’s particularly challenging to detect positively. Usually you have to try and remove all other potential causal factors and then measure the size of a racial disparity and say “well this has to be racism, because what else could it be?” That is far less psychologically satisfying than being able to point at something definitively, objectively racist and say “look, there’s your monster”.

Which is why I find this a particularly fascinating exercise: [Read more…]

Changing my tune

Oh neat! It’s time for one of my rare (but fun) retractions!

Last Monday, I put the boots to James Croft for a conversation we had over Twitter. To summarize, I thought that his advocacy for increasing the use of song as part of humanist gatherings was a) offputting, and b) dangerous. A, because there are a lot of people who identify as humanist after fleeing religion, and that adding secular hymns to humanist functions was going to make those people intensely uncomfortable and unwelcome. B, because the function of liturgical music is to make messaging more palatable by bypassing the rational parts of the brain, and that rationality is what makes humanism more than just “religion for atheists”.

James took his time in responding, but when he did, he kicked my ass: [Read more…]

We’ve got a job to do

I remember my first job interview. I had applied for a position as a stock boy at a bulk food store, and the owner called me on the phone the day after I dropped off my resume. My interview was one question, three words: “are you big?” I replied that I was, indeed, big. “Come in and start tomorrow,” was the reply. I was there for nearly 3 years. Since that time I’ve taught violin, I’ve packed boxes onto trucks, I’ve managed an amusement park cleaning crew (easily the worst job I’ve ever had), I’ve been a doorman, a karaoke host (easily the best job I’ve ever had), and spent two mortifying shifts serving tables in a tapas restaurant. None of those jobs were particularly hard to get – in fact, when I was offered my current job I could scarcely believe it and spent the first year dreading the day when my boss would realized they hired the wrong guy.

At no point in my various job searches did I really actively stress over race. Like most people I’ve been rejected from more jobs than I’ve been given – even then, it never occurred to me to wonder whether or not race played a role. Why would it? After all, I live in the 21st century, and certainly nobody ever said to me “we don’t hire your kind” or anything so overt as that. I will likely never know the role, positive or negative, that race played in me getting my various jobs. However, I know too much to think that racism isn’t still very much a part of the hiring process: [Read more…]

Less relevant by the minute

Since I was a little kid, I’ve loved stories. Even as an adult, I am drawn to the narrative arc – the pacing, the twists and turns of a good plot, the art of a well-crafted climax – these have always been like magic to me. In my younger days though, I was drawn to Greek mythology in a big way. It wasn’t just the fanciful tales, although I liked that aspect a lot – it was the fact that each story was attached to some kind of lesson. They weren’t just stories told for amusement – they were expositions of human foibles and an accounting of how ancient peoples saw the world.

While Aesop’s Fables are not, strictly speaking, Greek mythology, they are perhaps the best exemplar of that type of morality and psychology as taught through story that we have. While Jesus of Nazareth (supposedly) taught in parables, it can often be an arduous exercise to pick out the nuggets of useful knowledge from the heaps of nonsense (what kind of shepherd abandons an entire flock to search for a single lost sheep? A bad one, I’d imagine). The fables attributed to Aesop are far clearer and more real-to-life.

One of the most famous, at least among the secular community, is the Emperor’s New Clothes. The reason it’s famous in our clique is because it so perfectly mirrors the public perception of religion – everyone is told how important and meaningful and significant it is, but as soon as someone takes a critical look at it the whole edifice quickly unravels to reveal one naked fallacy after another. However, turned on its head, there’s another valuable lesson contained in that story. One about the vanity and blindness that accompanies unchecked power and how it can lead people into situations where they completely fucking embarrass themselves: [Read more…]

The paradox of science and conservatism

I expend a great deal of time and effort in the disparagement of conservative ideologies. They oversimplify complex issues to the point where the ‘solutions’ that arise from such ideologies are often more harmful than the problems they purport to ‘fix’. Reality is a multifaceted state of affairs with a lot of moving parts that defy the panacaea of upper-class tax cuts and ‘common sense’, and yet those who hold conservative ideologies are often openly contemptuous of the nuanced view of the world that is required to make any headway or improvement.

Despite my irritation, I must confess a certain sympathy for conservatism. Not a sympathy borne of pity (considering the way in which conservative policies are decimating not only my own country but others around the world, there is no room left for pity), but one borne of understanding. The conservative impulse, in its essence, is the human tendency to grind to a halt when new challenges face us. To put that another way, it is to address new problems with the solutions that have worked before – tradition and ‘common sense’ (which, in light of this view of conservatism, is simply what we call those things which used to confound us but we have answers for now). [Read more…]