Aug 31, 2009

An Abbreviated History (part 2). The Power of Myths & Ideas

Why Do People Believe Crazy Stuff?

[continued from an earlier post, Abbreviated History]

Are you ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the "Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya"? No? Well, it's all right, but Colonel Qaddafi, like the Pope, rely on lots of people to buy his message.The Soviet Union had a brutal regime, yet it had lots of sympathizers, many in the West! Another brutal regime in theocratic Iran relies on violence & suppression and on a large mass of Iranians who see modernity and the liberal democracies as evil.

Any benevolent supreme ruler would tell you that his people don't know what's in their best interest so he decides for them. Any ruthless leader would also use threats and violence to make people behave. Do as I say or I you'll experience hell--in this life or ..later. Sounds familiar? Both types of leaders don't trust their flock. They establish a system whereas sheepish behavior and obedience is encouraged.

But how do people get certain ideas? Well, it varies. Parents, at first, schools, and society at large imbue everyone with ideas and concepts. Many ideas become part of a person's identity and they are not revisited, never to be changed. Obviously, some ideas are good some are bad. Some are useful some are against the individual's own interest and against the interest of the majority of society. Yet, they persist!

Culture provides society with a value system, a way of doing things, stability of custom, and, guess what, notions of preserving the status quo. The masses used to be rather ignorant and in the absence of education, open dialogue, and freedom, they followed the "tried & true." Conservatism is no accident. It's a disposition based on perceptions deeply implanted in the human mind. The power of ideas, of myths, of belief systems, is immense. More so, if you don't have the means to critically evaluate them. Besides, it takes effort to blaze your own trails. Fear of the unknown or the incomprehensible is unsettling. Uncertainty is for the brave. Responsibility is for the strong. Inquiry for the curious. Reality is for those who can handle the truth.

Imagine that you believe you'll be super-rich tomorrow. Or, that you'll die of an evil spell cast on you. Or, that by strapping explosives on your body and detonating them in a crowded place, you're actually doing God's work. Or, that those who have another faith, nationality, color, whatever, are not worth anything but the worst treatment. You get the picture. Your actions will be based on those beliefs.

History can be seen as a clash of civilizations and ideas (belief systems). Humankind has raised hell on earth because of the power of myths that reached a critical mass of people who accepted them. There's always an excuse for embarking on a destruction of another civilization, culture, peoples. And, it doesn't have to make lot of sense. The key is to accept the first premise.

or example, you may accept the premise that you exist in a lovely building that was made for the chosen ones. The first step is crucial. Once a "foundation" belief is embedded in your brain, then the rest of assumptions and actions can be reasonable. Sure, you can imagine such a building needing several rooms for specific purposes, beautiful furnishings, and ambient music! You can argue that a sun room should face south--a good choice! Then you can argue that all the residents must please the landlord of this building so he won't throw you out of punish you--a rational choice; no one wants to be evicted, right?

Another interesting fact is that the human brain is capable of holding several contradictory ideas at the same time. Logical inconsistencies exist in all of us. The difference is what do you do when you discover one? Can you amend your views? Or, like in US politics, you can never appear as someone who admits he was wrong and changed his mind? Consistency at the expense of accuracy! Also--and this is important--can you question something that millions of people for thousands of years believe as true? Suppose such a belief is given to you as part of your identity. What do you do, how do you approach this?.. Can you even touch the subject with a critical mind?

Without singling our Catholics, why do many believe the Pope is infallible in matters of dogma? Why do they follow his edicts? Over the millennia, Popes have reversed their predecessors. What does this imply? Why there wasn't much of criticism when the current Pope declared that even AIDS (and other sexually-transmitted diseases) is bad, condoms are worse! Seriously, people will die because of such a stupid statement--translated into policy. Has anyone pointed out this contradiction: Thou shall not kill, one Commandment instructs us. But, married men who have AIDS can transmit a death sentence to their wives because condoms are not to be used under any circumstances!

Do you remember the Bill Moyers-Joseph Campbell series on the Power of Myth back in the 1980s? That got me interested in the power of ideas and how peoples' behavior is based on their ideologies. [By the way, Moyers has a great resource on Faith & Reason on the PBS site] What I find discouraging is that in this 21st century, at least in the so-called advanced countries, there should be lots fewer ignorant people. I wouldn't be surprised if Qaddafi still commands a majority support from Libyans, for the latter don't know any better and can't entertain any alternatives to the former. But, in the US there shouldn't be so many kooks, charlatans, con artists, and b.s. dispensers. They would all be irrelevant if there was no critical mass supporting them.

How come the largest Catholic country, Brazil, didn't rise in disgust to the latest official stance of the Catholic Church (in Brazil and the Vatican) when a man who raped his 9 year old step daughter and got her pregnant didn't earn excommunication but her mother and the doctor who performed the abortion did?.. It's the same scenario where a critical mass of people support genital mutilation, keeping women as chattel [term derived from cattle], and silencing any free expression.

Our political discourse would have been much better. The current health reform "debate" would've been more reasonable. But, how do you communicate with someone who doesn't want reform because he doesn't like Obama turning this country into a socialist/communist one?! In a democracy the people have to be convinced to vote against their own interests.... especially those who could afford it the least!


PS>You may want to click on the first picture to get it to open bigger so you can read about the norms of the American society of our parents. I can't vouch for the content authenticity, but I can tell you it's accurate in its essense. I'm old enough to have met people who were adults in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and even women accepted those traditional roles. I'm glad there's been progress but not as fast as I'd like. Yet, even in the last 15-20 years, there's been serious change. There's support for repealing the "don't ask, don't tell policy"; several states are legalizing same-sex marriage; we elected a black man to the presidency; and we may do away with a conservative party fit for the Dark Ages. For an advanced industrialized country it's a shame that we have so much violence, so many people in prisons, so much religiocity, no universal health care, and such a huge gap of wealth between the elites and the rest of society.

Aug 27, 2009

What's a Privilege Versus a Right? Health Care Can Be Boiled Down to this Simple Test. Ted Kennedy Got it Right!

I think the best memorial to someone is to remember his/her actions that contributed to making the world a better place to live--even if it's one person at a time. Ted Kennedy came from a family of privilege but advocated for the many who weren't as fortunate as the elites of this country.

Morality is how we treat others, not how one behaves in his/her private domain. Teddy believed that the government of the people should be in place to work for the people. ["by"the people has meant approval and not that the common people of modest means have a good chance of being elected to high office!] It's amazing when 72% of Americans want health care reform that includes a strong public option their representatives in Congress can't seem to get it!

High stake [steak?] game is being played in front of the American public. There's lots of willful misinformation and scare tactics that have nothing to do with a rational discussion on how to reform a broken system and ensure that thousands of Americans don't die & suffer unnecessarily. It does come down to a simple question: is health care (like education) a right or a privilege? I was stunned to hear many Republicans actually say [including presidential candidate McCain] it's a ..privilege!

As for the cost, of course we can afford it if we can afford to spend much more on armaments than the whole world combined! Besides, the skyrocketing of health care costs in the US, under the current system, cannot be sustained. There will be more "death panels"... when insurance companies deny claims for necessary medical life-saving procedures and when they reject people with pre-existing conditions. How can anyone defend such a system is beyond me...

Here's an excellent treatment on this subject, as recently shown on Bill Moyers Journal. Is there anyone who can argue against the main points raised? Honestly, those opposed to health care reform with a public option don't make sense. It's not just a matter of values and priorities--that would be understandable--but those opponents are incoherent. It's a failure of leadership to confuse the public, distort the facts [those facts], and allow Americans to suffer and die.

PROFITS OVER PEOPLE: Video on Bill Moyers Journal. It includes an interview with W. Potter who served the insurance industry for 20 years. The Money Driven Medicine video has excerpts from the acclaimed Critical Condition, "a documentary in which ordinary hard-working Americans tell their stories of battling critical illnesses without health insurance. They discover that being uninsured can cost them their jobs, health, homes, savings, and even their lives."

Here's N. Kristof's (NYT columnist) take on the issue:
Opponents suggest that a “government takeover” of health care will be a milestone on the road to “socialized medicine,” and when he hears those terms, Wendell Potter cringes. He’s embarrassed that opponents are using a playbook that he helped devise. “Over the years I helped craft this messaging and deliver it,” he noted. Mr. Potter was an executive in the health insurance industry for nearly 20 years before his conscience got the better of him.

Blue Dog (Conservative) Democrats & President Obama Share the Blame for the Impasse
Finally, I have to be extremely critical of president Obama. He's the only person who holds such a big megaphone. Now, I dare to ask: Can you tell me what is Obama's health care proposal? Seriously, try to answer this especially if you're a supporter of the president and for health care reform... He has failed to put forth a succinct plan and a clear message. Even his secretary of Health, Sibelius, said on national TV that a public option could be off the table! Really??!!

I hope that Kennedy's death can serve as a catalyst for meaningful health care reform that includes a strong public option.


Aug 14, 2009

An Abbreviated (and edited) History of Humankind. Faulty Design and Conservatives With Closed Minds.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Once upon a time there was a land where everything was beautiful, peaceful, prosperous, with plentiful natural resources so no one went hungry, homeless or gotten sick. It was how the Supreme Designer had made that world. There were no arguments or strife because everybody had to obey the absolute rules the Designer had demanded of his subjects. There wasn't much contemplating either because all the thinking the people had to do was for their daily routines and how to demonstrate their love & devotion to their master. What was it to ponder about? As a matter of fact, abstract thinking was down right dangerous for it could lead to questioning, or even relativism!

Most people believed this was the best blissful existence that could be had, so they scorned "free will" and any discussion on "controversial" topics. Discussing the weather was appropriate but only in general terms and in appreciation of the Designer's skill to create sunsets and rainbows. They didn't want to jeopardize their fortune so they avoided all extraneous knowledge; everything they needed was inscribed in the Holy Book.

One day the Designer decided to make things interesting for himself and created an evil force to tempt his subjects into sin. That would be fun, he thought, even though he knew how it'd turn out, it could be entertaining nevertheless! It's like watching a good movie again.... You know the plot, the characters, and the ending, but it's OK; You sit there and spend a couple hours watching it; same with tv reruns. Everybody has done it at some point.

Unfortunately, the Designer had not given his subjects much experience in rational thought and skeptical inquiry. It was no surprise that they were easily manipulated and tricked by the evil force. Sadly, this led to their fall from grace. Soon after their poor choice and exit from utopia, they had to deal with all sorts of ills: disease, pestilence, murder, starvation, death, ugliness, strife, unwanted hair, and soap operas.

Prostitution, politics, and mind/mood altering substances entered the mix of human condition with varying effects & social impact. Sometimes it was good, sometimes is was bad; they brought pleasure or pain, often both at the same time. For a long time, people kept appealing to the Designer; they asked for favors, they bargained for forgiveness and other stuff, and above all they hoped that one day--even after they were dead--conditions would improve.

Thousands of years went by. More and more people began to use the rational mind employing reason and inquiry. Skeptics soon dared to challenge the "old divine wisdom." They began to argue--those audacious creatures--that life is what we make of it. That the universe wasn't designed to support human society as it was prescribed in the Holy Book--which, somehow, had been left behind in Utopia but re-dictated by the Creator to only one special person in the middle of nowhere.

Such rational thinkers were spurned by society at-large, especially by those in power who wanted to maintain the status quo. They preferred simple stuff, like black or white, good or evil, patriot or traitor, moral or immoral, chosen or untouchables, with us or against us, god or devil, bad/no healt hcare or communism. Easy choices. Not much brain power required for the answers. Gut feelings and thruthiness trumped all contrarian evidence. Those people kept consuming myths that had no factual basis but these myths were the guiding principles for decision-making on important matters. Their leaders played upon their fears, illusions and delusions with much success. It got to a point that Republicans in the US became like obstinate little brats refusing to grow up.

Fortunately over time, many more people accepted a reality-based world and demanded change; all sorts of change. They challenged the ways traditional society was formed and those ruled over it by fiat. They demanded that meaningful freedom was good because it fostered thining persons and helped create favorable conditi
ons for people to pursue their own bliss. The also realized that their society should be organized for the benefit of most members not just the few. Social justice became desirable. That their government should represent the people's interests and that such a vested authority had an important role to play. That the people's government did not cede the responsibility of a social contract to private corporations.

Such an enlightened polity believed that not everything had to be evaluated by being submitted to the "monied principle of profit." Interestingly enough those who preferred the marketplace as the best arbitror of ecomic acitivity and human behavior were aga
inst prostitution and recreational drug use!


[to be continued]

PS. August 14th is celebrated for Hans Christian Orsted who in 1820 noticed that an electric current generated a magnetic field. This observation was put to practical use; it the principle behind electric motors and for parts of the machine you're using to read this today. Orsted founded a society devoted to spreading scientific knowledge among the public. Despite the advances of modern science and all sorts of verifiable knowledge, many people continue to live in the Dark Ages preferring superstition and ignorance to enlightenment.