All posts by metareader

Post-Midterm Elections Hangover

voting

Did you vote yesterday? I did, even though I knew that my vote would not have an immediate impact on anything, since I live in California and there were no close races on the ballot. I still believe, though, that voting is fundamental, even and especially when you are angry with the only available options. Here’s why.

The majority of commentators on the 2014 U.S. midterm elections have lamented that the electoral system in the U.S. is broken and dysfunctional (and here)  after yet another record-low voter turnout. I strongly disagree. In fact, I would argue, the electoral system is working perfectly well.

“People feel they’re victims of the process, that politics isn’t something to participate in, it’s something that is done to them. The feeling is getting worse, it’s getting much deeper, it’s covering larger and larger groups within the electorate….Their frustration is much worse than anything I’ve heard before,” said a Democratic Party pollster… in 1990! Since then, there have been 48 elections cycles, all of them with more or less low turnouts. If there was any political will to get the population more involved with democracy, don’t you think the results would have been felt by now? But that’s exactly my point: the way the system is set up benefits those in power, therefore they have no incentive to change it.

Remember that the goal of any political system is to maintain power with the elite group in charge of that system. The obvious correlation is that power should not be allowed to devolve to others outside of the elite group. As I’ve discussed before, in 21st century America, the locus of power is with those who control the most capital, whether large corporations, hedge funds or investment bankers.

Ever since the Nixon administration, the U.S. has moved towards a form of capitalocracy. The events of the 60s deeply worried the entrenched elites. For the first time in the history of the U.S. they could see glimpses of what their society would be like if power was allowed to actually trickle down to the people. And they didn’t like what they saw. At all.

So in the last 40 years, there has been a push to favor capital over people in order to not only overturn the concessions given to us in the 60s, but also, and most importantly, to make sure that nothing like the 60s ever happens again. Outsourcing of jobs, the relaxation of numerous banking and finance regulations, the strangling of unions, the demise of our education system, and other similar measures have created very favorable conditions for high returns on capital investments. Not surprisingly, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated in his Capital in the 21st Century, the rates of return on capital have exploded, while real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) have stagnated in the last 30 years. In other words, while the rich are getting richer, the vast majority of us just toil along.

What does this have to do with these last elections though? While the turnout was abysmal, these midterm elections represented an all-time record in spending! At first glance this seems absurd: both parties (and private donors) spent nearly $4 BILLION on these elections and yet they still couldn’t get most of the population to come out to vote? But that was never their intention! In a society ruled by capital, people are expendable.

The Supreme Court’s “money is speech” decisions paved the way for today’s extremist political landscape. Politicians no longer need to convince undecided people to vote for them based on a rational analysis of their political programs. Instead, whoever can muster the most capital can just sling mud on his/her opponents and drown the airwaves with favorable ads. This achieves a double effect: it turns away moderates from the political arena altogether, and it fires up their base.

In other words, if you’re not a die-hard Republican or Democrat, if you are generally disgusted with all politicians and don’t believe that any change—or hope—can come out of Washington, candidates don’t care about you. They won’t waste their money attempting to coax you to vote for them. And once they are in office, they will not bother addressing any of the issues you stand for. You are completely useless to them, and they will treat you as such.

The only way to revert this trend and give yourself a voice is trough a protest vote, especially if you disagree with both candidates from the main parties. Cast a blank ballot. Or vote for some candidate on the fringes. This sends the strong message that you are in the mix, that you are politically active, that you WILL vote in the next election, so that candidates cannot simply disregard you. It also sends the message that you will not fall for fear-mongering (every Republican campaign) or naive dreams (Obama 2008).

60% of the voting population turning in a blank ballot sends the strong message that the system is indeed broken, that the population cares about the future of its country and will not allow the elites and their interests groups to decide that future for them. But 60% of the population not showing up at polling stations and not casting a vote is not a problem at all for politicians. It simply tells them that the system they designed is working as planned, by keeping those they can’t reach at bay, while allowing their core constituencies to carry the day for them. Is this democracy? No. But the real question is: next time around, will you make your voice heard or will you stay on your couch?

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

blood meridian

Bloody scalps, dry and darkened human ears necklaces and random acts of unspeakable violence. If you are wondering why Cormac McCarthy’s most famous novel has not been adapted to film yet, unlike his No Country For Old Men or On the Road, look no farther than the other-worldly levels of violence in the book (full disclosure: here is a limited teaser by James Franco, of all people). Trees with dead babies hanging, scalping scenes, companions in arms shot like horses when they are too banged up to ride on, “Injins,” Americans and Mexicans tortured in the most cruel ways imaginable… These images are not exactly made for the silver screen. And there’s so many of them, that if you sanitized them out of the book, you wouldn’t be left with much.

While the amount of gore in the book is suitable for a horror movie, the storyline is much more conventional Western flick. The riding and hunting scenes, at times, feel right out of a Karl May novel. The second main theme, besides the violence, is traveling the open plain. Or desert. Or mountains. On horseback mostly. But the most moving episodes of the journey are by foot, over infinite landscapes—barren deserts, cold autumn freezing mountains, with almost no chance of survival.

Survival is the third main theme of this novel. We follow the story of “the Kid,” a 14 year old boy who escapes from the poverty of his parents’ house in Tennessee to make his way out West in the late-1840s. Eventually, he joins an ill-advised U.S. Army captain, who leads his company deep into Mexico only to lose most of his men in an Apache ambush. The Kid miraculously escapes the ambush and the subsequent crossing of the dessert by foot, only to be jailed as a foreign soldier in the first Mexican town he reaches. While incarcerated, he meets other Americans who tell him about Glanton’s Gang (and more here) and its infamous contract with the governor of Chihuaha: $100 for each Apache scalp they can bring back.

Mercifully, the author does not follow the easy “fame-and-fortune seeker” storyline, so common in traditional Western literature. In fact, neither fame nor fortune constitutes important themes in the book. Whatever money the band does earn, they spend it almost immediately in debaucheries or new equipment. All of the members of the Gang are imbued with a strong sense of the tragic, from John Glanton, their inhumanly cruel leader, to Tobin, the ex-priest, to the Delaware Indians who serve as scouts, to the two Jacksons, one black and one white. They are all men who are no longer expecting much from life in the long term. They are just living day-to-day, strong in their conviction that as long as there are Indians still living across the Southwest, there will be business for them. But most of the men know that they cannot return to the US because of arrests warrants or other similar problems. Life on the run in the Southwest is all they have, and whenever they get off their horses, it is game over, sometimes quite literally.

This book resonated with me because it has three underlying themes dear to my heart: the white man’s unspeakable cruelty when dealing with others it considers “savages;” the brutal and systematic nature of the Native American genocide; and the thin line between good and evil, the moral and the immoral.

Noam Chomsky’s observation that White men have been the most cruel and barbaric group in history finds resonance at nearly every page. Not only does Glanton’s Gang fulfill its contract for Apache scalps, but they also scalp any other human that crosses their path, whether peaceful Indian agricultural communities, Mexican peasants or even Mexican soldiers! They have a profound disdain for everything and everyone that is not American, and won’t hesitate to shoot down a Mexican for giving them a wrong look—while Indians are pretty much scalped on sight, whether warriors or not.

Regarding the North American genocide of Natives, the book sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of it, that is Mexico’s involvement. Starting in the 1830s, the government of the states of Sonora and Chihuahua put a prize on Apache scalps, which attracted an eclectic mix of local bounty hunters, U.S. prize seekers, as well rival Indian tribes. When discussing the genocidal aspect of the extermination of Native Americans, one of the main counter-arguments for apologists is that there was no direct government policy supporting the killing of Indians. Sure, they’ll say, Indians were killed (after all it’s pretty hard to deny facts) but it was always a by-product, or it was done in self-defense, it was not the government’s policy to kill them to clear the land for White pioneers. While self-defense was also used by the two Mexican states that implemented scalps bounties, McCarthy exposes the hypocrisy of it throughout the pages of Blood Meridian.

The third main theme is thin line between good and evil. The Kid keeps the reader’s sympathy throughout the book. While he is obviously a member of the infamous Glanton Gang, we’ve known him before his involvement, and we follow him long after the gang disbands. McCarthy achieves the minor tour-de-force of making the Kid sympathetic throughout by not focusing on him during the goriest scenes of massacres. At those times, we barely have a glimpse of the Kid, while the description focuses on the actions of other members of the Gang. Later, after the split up of the Gang, the Judge (more on him below) even attacks the Kid for having judged his companions for their barbaric acts while he was still a part of the Gang.

While the Glanton Gang was undeniably evil, and so the Kid should be judged harshly for his participation in it, it was also his only chance of escaping a Mexican jail—and a potential hanging as an enemy combatant. Overall, McCarthy does a very good job of eschewing simple, black and white moral judgments.

The character of the Judge is almost as central as the Kid to the book. We first encounter him in a town on the Mexican border, where he sentences a perfectly innocent preacher to a beating by the mob for no other apparent reason than his own personal amusement. We then run into him again as a companion to the Glanton Gang—not a member of it, as the difference will turn out to be crucial—a relationship he would later explain as part of his project to look at humanity in its lowest depths of depravity and barbarism.

A very tall, large man with not a hair on his body, Judge Holden has an allegorical dimension to him: an erudite scholar, avid dancer and musician, a man generally skilled in all fields of Western knowledge, yet so enamored with the destruction of Indians and their civilizations, he represents in some sense Progress as it was understood in the 19th Century, scary and unfair, but in the final analysis inescapable. Others have made parallels between the Judge and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Others, still, see him a representation of the Devil. The Judge can be interpreted in a few different ways because of the quasi-fantastic light that surrounds him.

He appeared to Glanton’s Gang in the middle of the desert, he doesn’t seem to grow old, he has an unnatural talent at everything he tries, the extreme contrast between his erudition and his barbaric cruelty, his complete lack of compassion… As I kept reading on, I couldn’t help but think of Frank, the ruthless, cold-hearted murderer in Ruy Murakami’s  In the Miso Soup. Like Frank, the Judge’s character is a bit too over-the-top to be fully believable as only a man, yet the author keeps the supernatural references to the level of suggestions, overall giving the character a slightly mystic air.

A word on the style of the book: the author painstakingly recreates a lost language, the American English of the mid 19th century Southwest, for the length of the book. At times it can make for a difficult lecture, as some of the words or expressions are hard to decipher even with a dictionary. But it certainly adds a distinct feel to the novel. Finally, this is a book about violence, seen mostly from the eyes of the perpetrators, and as such it is almost completely devoid of women. Fittingly or not (would it be sexist to say that women are not capable of these levels of violence?), women do not feature much in the book, except as victims, among the old men and children that are indiscriminately massacred by the Gang.

All in all, Blood Meridian is not for the faint of heart. While its ever-present violence and gore can make the reader flinch at times, it is a profound study on the depravity of men (especially White men), as well as the thin dividing line between the moral, the immoral and the amoral. And if your only mental images of the “Conquest of the West” come from Winnetou novels or John Wayne Westerns, Blood Meridian is a must. Beware though, this book will haunt you for quite some time…

Tired Of The Outrage Over Columbus Day

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Another Columbus Day comes around, and another round of outrage inevitably follows. But this year we have an extra twist: Seattle passed a new law inaugurating “Indigenous People’s Day” on the same day as Columbus Day. It is not a first (Berkley did something similar way back in 1992), but it is the biggest US city to officially turn its back on Columbus Day and instead celebrate the original people of North America.

While I certainly agree with the concept of an Indigenous Day, and I would be in favor of making it a federal (thus national) holiday, the hatred spewed on Columbus Day smacks of hypocrisy.

Let’s not forget this very basic fact: if it wasn’t for Columbus, 95% of the current US population would not be in this country at all. So unless you are part of the 5% of Native Americans still left in the US population (and that is generous, official statistics only list 1.7% of the population as Native American) YOU would currently live in either Europe, Africa, Asia or on some Pacific Island right now, possibly living under an autocratic regime, or in a society stiffened by adherence to millennia-old misogynistic culture, or not even being able to cover your basic food and shelter needs. Take it from a more recent immigrant: the U.S. in the year 2014 is the best country you could possibly live in!

There is no denying that Columbus was a cruel, gold-loving murderer who inflicted a lot of suffering on the native populations that he encountered. After all, he was a white European, and throughout the history of the world it has been proved time and time again that white Europeans and their descendants/allies have been the most brutal, barbaric and cold-hearted group of people in the history of humanity. But there’s also no denying that Columbus is one of the reason most Americans call the US home.

So should he be celebrated at all? Or should he be indicted as a criminal against humanity, as the Huffington Post proposes? It’s at this juncture that hypocrisy rears its ugly head, and I decide to distance myself from the outrage over Columbus Day. By the Huffington Post’s logic, EVERY single US President from Independence until the early 20th century should be found guilty of the genocide of the Native Americans (see also , and this). Columbus was an amateur in comparison to what 18th and 19th century White Americans did to the Natives. Yet we celebrate all of our presidents and even have a federal holiday for the purpose, while nobody gets outraged! How strange…

The second reason why I find this outrage hypocritical is because it is sterile, as most social media-fueled outrage usually is. While thousands find 30 seconds today to post a comment on social media criticizing Columbus and supporting Native Americans, how many of them take ANY action the remaining 364 days of the year on this issue? So while the myth around Columbus has been busted decades ago, and his atrocities have been well documented for years, the “conquest of the West” is still a strong part of the curriculum of most schools in the US. “Manifest Destiny” is still the prevalent belief, albeit not as overtly expressed as it was in the 19th century. After all, if I ask you “which country should lead the World,” what would your immediate response be?

In the end, I could live in an America without Columbus Day, but could you live in an America that teaches about the Greatest Genocide in History instead of the “conquest of the West”? Or in an America that teaches about the “US war crimes in Vietnam” instead of the Vietnam War (and for those who think that atrocities were confined to only a few army units and isolated incidents, recently declassified papers showed that abuses against civilians were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam)?

Unless you decide to fully lift the veil of hypocrisy surrounding your understanding of US history, especially concerning the treatment of Native Americans, the outrage over Columbus Day is quite useless…

What Rape Culture?

slut-walk

The first time I heard the term “rape culture” being used in the mainstream media was following the horrid Delhi bus rape in 2012. Of course, at that time, it was used in a mostly racist way to describe Indian rape culture. The unspoken implications were that this is not the kind of thing that happens in the civilized West, only in foreign cultures where tradition still holds a stranglehold over society.

Back then, I was quick to point out both that rape is not a culturally accepted practice in India (however, as I later realized, maybe there is a rape culture in India), as well as the very real rape problem in the West as well, highlighted by the Steubenville High School rape and subsequent cover-up by the local community.

In 2014 though, following many slut walks, which have by now become mainstream, the debate over rape culture has clearly shifted to our own society. Scores of feminist are denouncing Western society as a “rape culture,” which quite frankly bothers me. It bothers me because it dilutes the term until it can be made to mean anything at all. It bothers me because there are still many societies in which the rape culture is alive and well—Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, just to name a few—societies in which honor killings, honor rapes and female genital mutilation are not only happening, but are ENCOURAGED. It bothers me because in our own society, rape and sexual assault were acceptable until a few hundred years ago. And most of all, it bothers me because the feminists who attack the so-called Western rape culture do not bother with the vast majority of rape victims: men.

To me there is threshold between a rape culture society and a society in which there are rapes. Because let’s not kid ourselves: rape has always been a part of human history. As long as certain men choose to not control their instincts (or, some argue, cannot) there will be rapes. And yes, I will be quick to concede the point that rape perpetrators are by and large men. However, trying to eradicate rape is like trying to eradicate murder: as long as there are psychopaths out there, it ain’t happening.

But to talk of a rape culture, you need to show more than just rapes happening. You need to show society’s acceptance or even encouragement of rapes and other forms of sexual violence. And this is where I part ways with the feminists and others who call our society a rape culture.

Traditional Rape Cultures

In societies traditionally associated with the rape culture, rapes and sexual assaults are much clearer than in Western society.

Let’s take the case of Afghanistan as an example. One of the worst forms of sexual violence against women in that country are “virgin loans.” These are essentially loans taken by farmers secured against one of their virgin daughters. There is no age requirement, so the daughters could be as young as 9 or 10 years old. If the farmer, after having sold his crop, cannot repay the loan back, he has to give his daughter in marriage to his creditor. As soon as she becomes married, she becomes the creditor’s property, which gives him the right to use her in any way he chooses, including sexually.

Or let’s look at Saudi Arabia, where adultery is a crime, and apparently rape is an accepted form of punishment, at least among certain parts of society. I am referring, of course, to the infamous Qatif rape, when a woman who was found in a car with a man not her husband—they may, or may not have been engaging in the act—was raped by 7 strangers. In the subsequent rape trial, the perpetrators were given prison sentences, but the shocking part was that the woman (and her lover) was also sentenced to a public lashing for committing adultery in the first place (she was later pardoned)!

Finally, we have the gruesome situation of Female Genital Mutilation (“FGM”), mostly in Africa and some parts of the Middle East. The statistics are staggering: FGM affects 98% of all women in Somalia, 91% in Egypt, 88% in Sudan… The girls are cut between the ages of 9 and 14, at the onset of puberty in order to maintain their chastity. By and large, their respective societies condone the practice, even when FGM is legally outlawed.

All of the above are examples of sexual assaults against women that are widely supported in the underlying culture. To talk of “rape culture” in these contexts makes eminent sense.

Rape Culture in Western Society?

Now let’s look at what is being defined as “rape culture” in western society. The advocates of the term point out to this absurd statistic:

jailed-rapists

As we know by now, statistics can be made to say anything, so let’s break this one down. Firstly, it is interesting to note that the studies cited range from 1999 to 2012. Considering that the US population has increased by over 40 million (about a 15% increase) in that timespan, it is hard to imagine that statistics that are 13 years apart have much in common. But let’s skip over and keep going with our breakdown.

“40% of rapes get reported to the police… 10% lead to an arrest” How do you know that 60% of “rapes” that are not reported are in fact rapes? How do you know that the 30% of reported rapes that don’t lead to an arrest are rapes? As defined in our laws, rape is a crime. In America everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of his/her peers. Before an accused is brought to trial, there is a police investigation. How does RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) suggest handling this issue? Simply take the victim’s word for it and forego the legal process? But then you would be taking away another citizen’s rights and freedom without due process!

Believe it or not, that is one of the cornerstones of the “rape culture in America” argument. That the legal system is slanted against victims, making it hard for them to come out in public because of the antagonism of (male) police officers, judges, attorneys, etc… The fact of the matter is, any kind of accusations are looked upon suspiciously when there is no hard evidence to support them. And when it comes to rape, because of the nature of the crime, it is very hard to collect evidence unless done immediately (that’s why colleges and other high-risk areas have rape kits).

The second main issue with rape statistics has to do with the nature of the crime: most victims were raped by someone they knew, not a stranger. Between the 6% of completely fabricated rape accusations and the 3% conviction rate, there lies a huge gray area.

What if both participants in a sexual encounter were drunk, even blacked out, at the time? Who raped who? If the girl wakes up in the morning and feels like she was raped since they had sex, but can’t remember it and neither can the guy, should he be sent to prison?

What if a girl had only one drink, meets a guy she likes who can really handle his liquor and who happily follows her to her place, 10 shots deep. In the morning he has no idea who she is or where he is. Did she rape him? What if the roles were reversed?

I recently had a conversation with a young female friend in San Francisco. She was describing her experience at a “sketchy” bar/club, notorious for sexual predators who slip drugs into their victims’ drinks and engage in other devious behavior. Long story short: her and her friend were drugged and barely found their way home that night, but luckily no pervert got to them. Things could have been a lot worse.

Based on this, my friend was telling me why she supports slut walks and why she believes the US is a rape culture: because young women cannot dress up however slutty they desire, walk into an unsafe environment, proceed to get intoxicated (alcohol or drugs of their choice) and be allowed to simply “dance” the night away without being groped, drugged or worse. She said that as long as that will not happen, the US will be a rape culture.

Her argument speaks more to millennials’ confused stance on life and their puerile desire to have their cake and eat it too. But it also echoes many other feminists’ comments in support of slut walks and female sexual freedom.

Now don’t get me wrong: I believe women should be just as free as men to be sexually promiscuous, or to dress provocatively. However, both sexes must be aware of what the likely consequences of their actions will be. As recently exemplified by the violent beatings of pranksters who ventured into inner cities and other “hot” areas, provocative actions can have violent, unforeseen consequences.

Sure, a young attractive girl is free to dress as skimpily as she wants. But as soon as she leaves the comfort and security of her home, she needs to be aware that her outfit, and accompanying behavior, will gather male attention. Depending on where (and when) she goes, that sort of attention can manifest itself in violent ways, for example in bars where men are intoxicated, and therefore much less likely to behave in a rational manner.

“Let’s Teach Men Not to Rape”?!?!?

This brings me to the topic of “teaching men not to rape.” But most men in America already know and understand that rape, just like murder, or stealing, is a crime. Most men understand that “No means no.” Rape education has long been a staple of sex/health eduction in high school, and it is doing a good job. By the time a high school male reaches college, he has been taught that no means no, unconscious means no, and incoherent means no.

And the small minority who doesn’t get it, most likely never will. This is the equivalent of saying “we need to teach people not to kill each other.” Well, Jesus and his followers have been preaching that for the last 2,000 years, and yet murder has still not been eradicated! Same with teaching kids abstinence or the use of contraceptives: judging by the rates of teenage pregnancy and teenagers with STDs, education, while important, has its limits.

However, if one even dares to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we should teach women how to protect themselves from rape, all gates of feminist wrath sway open and the harpies spew venom on the poor soul who dared to come up with such an insulting suggestion. Listen carefully to what Stephen A. Smith said the first time around: he didn’t say it was a woman’s fault for getting beat up/abused, what he said was that we need to teach women not to put themselves in those situations.

My stance is very similar to his: I don’t believe that any women, no matter how intoxicated or scantily dressed, deserves to be raped. However, I do believe that people should be held accountable for their actions. If I decide to walk around a bad part of Detroit at night, conspicuously wearing a gold watch, I don’t deserve to be mugged, and maybe even murdered. But most people would agree I am begging for something bad to happen. Why should rape victims be held to a different standard than mugging/murder victims?

As a brother to a sister (and potential father of daughters, who knows?) I truly believe that women should be taught how to defend themselves, both physically and emotionally. I know this is an extremely controversial position to hold in America in the year 2014, but think about it: we teach our children how to protect themselves against pedophiles, teach bus riders how to defend against pick-pockets, homeowners how to protect their homes, why is it taboo to teach the same to our women? It is surely more effective to teach an intelligent person not to put himself/herself in a bad situation than trying to teach a psychopath not to act like a psychopath.

Edited: In the original version I sounded like I believe ALL rape education is useless, when what I mean is that we are already promoting rape education in our high schools, so no male with a HS degree can use the excuse that he “didn’t know better.” If I am wrong, and if there are men out there who are not clear about the concepts of consent, freedom of choice, etc… then by all means educate them.

Dress Like a Slut, Beware the Consequences

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly believe that the perpetrators of assault crimes, sexual and otherwise, should be punished to the full extent of the law. The fact that someone walks around the wrong part of town at the wrong time of day, or that a woman chooses to dress provocatively, should not be a mitigating factor when dishing out the punishment to the perpetrator. However, you cannot paint the victim as “blameless” when the crime she suffered was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of her actions. No, rape victims who dress provocatively are not “asking for it,” nor are they to be blamed equally with the monster(s) who rapes them. But if they put themselves in the wrong situation knowingly and intentionally, then they have to shoulder some of the blame.

While feminists will go to great lengths to emphasize that the way someone dresses should not affect how they will be treated (the aforementioned “slut walks”), empirical evidence suggests the contrary. RAINN, quoting a U.S. Department of Justice study, tells us that sexual assault rates are up to 10% higher in the summer than in winter. Can this have anything to do with the difference in the amount of clothing that is worn in the two seasons?

Men: the Real Victims of Our Rape Culture 

Prison rape, interestingly, is not a topic that feminists cover. Like AT ALL. A quick search on Jezebel (the modern feminist bible and news source) yields exactly 0 results on the topic. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the vast majority of victims are men?

According to one research group, 200,000 men are raped in prison in the US every year. Some of them are raped—and killed—while awaiting trial, because they cannot afford bail. It is interesting to compare this number with the number RAINN provides for total sexual assaults in the US per year, about 238,000, which excludes prison rape. If you combine the two statistics, it would imply that close to 50% of rape victims in America are men!

The ridiculously high incarceration numbers in the US—don’t forget, we incarcerate more people than China and Russia!—coupled with the general public’s acceptance of what goes on behind bars, comes suspiciously close to a “rape culture.”

While our constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment” at the hands of the Federal, state or local government, we accept that 12% of our prisoners will be raped. If we cannot agree that getting raped is cruel and unusual punishment, then what is? Especially in the case of sexual crimes perpetrators , who are known to be targeted themselves as soon as they enter the prison system, we either turn the other way, or we agree that them being sexually assaulted is a fair punishment for their crimes. Well, hello: this is exactly what rape culture is all about! It is a culture in which sexual assault as a form of punishment is acceptable. Just because Jezebel won’t talk about it, should we keep quiet about the real victims of the rape culture in the US?

Edit: I did the math wrong on the rape-per-year statistics, initially claiming that 84% of rape victims were male. Thanks to my friend Lily for pointing out that RAINN did NOT include prison rape in its 238,000 sexual assaults-per-year figure.

The Donald Sterling Affair – Farce and Tragedy

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That a known racist should make racist comment is not very surprising, yet there seems to be a rare consensus among the media, NBA players and fans, and the general public over the coordinated outcry over the nasty comments Donald Sterling made to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano.

They are all lashing out at Sterling now, calling for a general banishment for Evil Donald. They seem to believe that because they are no longer comfortable associating with him, nobody else will either.

But let’s take a step back to look at the self-serving hypocrisy behind a lot of the accusers now righteously waging fingers at Sterling. For starters, Al Sharpton and the NAACP have some explaining to do relating to their decision to give a third achievement award to a known racist.

And what about the players and coaching staff? In the immediate aftermath of the release of the tape, a lot of indignation and frustration came out from this group, with reports that during a players meeting with Doc Rivers they even considered boycotting their next playoff games. But Donald was a known racist before anyone of them signed for the Clippers! Doc Rivers, with characteristic diplomacy, was positioning himself in the early days of the scandal as implying that he now found it inadmissible to work for Sterling and will not stay past the end of the season if the owner were allowed to stay. But Doc, Donald settled his lawsuit for discrimination of minorities in housing way back in 2009! His many incidents in which he shows his racist character in the naked light of day have been documented for years. Didn’t that bother you when you signed that big contract this past summer?

And the NBA and their owners, who are now hiding behind the new leadership of David Silver, as if they were not complicit during the last 30 years in which they knew what a vile person Sterling was, yet did not try to dissociate themselves from him.

We are now getting to the crux of the issue: despite the general congratulatory mood over the Sterling virtual “banishment” from public life, the reality of the situation is that Sterling will not be affected at all, beyond the sale of the team.

Do you seriously think that Sterling’s peers will turn against him? I certainly don’t believe it for one second. Listen closely to what he says on the tape: he doesn’t care if his girlfriend sleeps with Magic or other minorities, he just doesn’t want her to take pictures with them and appear with them in public because Donald doesn’t want his friends to know that anyone associated with also associates with minorities.

Donald’s racists directives to his mistress were motivated by a desire to please his friends! While most of the media has tried to paint him as a relic of the past, a dinosaur of the days when racism was overtly accepted in the US, essentially an old man out-of-touch with his time, the reality of the situation is very different.

The very fact that Donald would go to such lengths of ‘racism’ to please his friends illustrates the uncomfortable fact, which to my knowledge has not been brought out in the main stream media, that his views are not only accepted, but encouraged in certain elite circles.

Because let’s not forget who Donald is. He is a billionaire landlord, among other activities. It’s because of him, and other racist landlords like him who decided not to rent to minorities in certain parts of town (see also), as well as colluded with the insurance companies to “redline” entire neighborhoods, that we now have ghettos in the richest country on earth.

In the final analysis, while the over-reaction over the Donald Sterling Affair is laughable, the remarks themselves show how racism is alive and well in America in the year 2014. But then again, we didn’t need Sterling to find that out. A look at our overcrowded prison system (let’s not forget that we incarcerate the hightest percentage of our population of ANY country on Earth, meaning we beat Russia and China) tells a very vivid tale: 60% of inmates are minorities.

While this racism is not overt, like under Jim Crow, it manifests itself in insidious ways that have just as real an impact on the target populations as earlier, more open methods of control. In one of the most striking examples, we have been waging a “War on Drugs” for 40 years against specific segments of the population, overwhelmingly minorities, in an effort to overturn any gains made in the Civil Rights movement.

In the long run, the Donald Sterling Affair could be just another bleep on the radar before we all go back to the same old normal, racist state of affairs, or we could use the momentum that it created to educate each other about racism in America today and to organize each other to fight against it. The choice belongs to you.

Russia Will Have Its Way in Ukraine

Russia Will Have Its Way in Ukraine

If Chomsky is right in his analysis of the geopolitics of the U.S. empire of client-states (or check out this article from the New York Times if you want a more mainstream view on this: notice the author is not denying that the U.S. Empire exists and is responsible for a lot of bad things around the world, he is simply arguing that its positive effects somehow outweigh all the negatives), this is how the conflict in Ukraine will turn out: Russia, who is already sending troops into the country, will try to get Yanukovich recognized up until the upcoming elections, and will crank up the military demonstrations and other manipulation devices in order to try to influence the result and get a pro-Russian government elected.

If that fails, Russia will move to dismantle Ukraine, first by declaring Crimea an independent state. That sort of makes sense both strategically, considering the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed there, as well as on self-governance principles as Crimea is comprised mostly of non-ethnic Ukrainians, and historically the region was never associated with Ukraine before Kruschev arbitrarily decided to integrate it into Ukraine in 1954. After that, will Russia also carve a chunk out of Eastern Ukraine into some sort of puppet-state? Or will they carve out the whole Eastern half and attach it to Crimea as the Republic of Eastern Ukraine? Both are possibilities as long as Putin claims the right to intervene militarily in whichever part of the country is necessary to preserve the rights and interests of Russian citizens. And both options have been openly discussed by Putin before.

The point is, the West is not going to intervene militarily no matter what Russia will decide to do. Sure, there will be the standard threats and warnings, and maybe we’ll impose sanctions on Russia and even in the last extreme kick them out of international institutions like the World Trade Organization or, why not, even the UN itself. But that means nothing. Remember the powerlessness of the League of Nations throughout the 1930s as its numerous denunciations of various illegal attacks on autonomous states had no effects on the aggressor. The worst the League could do was to threaten to expel countries and impose meaningless sanctions. Looking back, we can’t say that the punishment dished out by the League had any deterrent effect on future aggression, to the contrary, it just showed the powerlessness of the League in the face of aggressive nations, which encouraged Germany and Japan to be even more aggressive.

In the current Ukrainian crisis, similarly, the West will not intervene militarily. Firstly, because in the current configuration of the U.S. empire of client-states, we never fight against an enemy who can match us. During the Cold War, we never fought against Russia or China head on. Instead we waged a war on North Vietnam and another one against North Korea, countries at a huge disadvantage against U.S. forces. We couldn’t even win those wars though, so the military leaders learned their lesson and since the 1970s we don’t even wage war against anybody who could fight back.

We were willing to intervene in Grenada in 1983, a country of 91,000 people defended by around 2,000 soldiers, or in Panama in 1989 where we already had a military presence there since the beginning of the century that was far superior to the local military forces. We were willing to bomb Serbia in 1999 because, hey, what can they do to us? Bomb U.S. bases in nearby Italy? Of course not, at that point NATO would wipe out their entire country, so Serbia was basically defenseless against U.S. aggression. Or Iraq in both invasions? In 1990 the war was pretty much over the minute U.S. troops landed in Kuwait. The Iraqi forces were defeated in a matter of days. And yet, Bush Senior was so terrified of Sadam’s army (and he had good reasons to be: we were the ones who sold him weapons and provided training to his officers) that he refused to march on Baghdad and depose the dictator.

But we were not willing to intervene in Iran in 1979 when the Shah, our loyal ally, was brought down. Iran had been a huge part of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle-East: it was considered one of our two Guardians in the Middle-East, the other one being Israel, so losing the country to a deeply anti-American fundamentalist theological elite was a devastating blow to U.S. interests. Yet we didn’t dare to send troops in. In recent years, especially under Bush Junior, we singled out Iran as one of our main enemies, yet a military invasion has never been seriously considered.

Iran is simply too big, too advanced and has a military that is just too strong to simply brush aside like the Iraqi army. During the Balkan wars in the 1990s, US troops were never on the ground while fighting was going on. They only came after, as part of the peace/stabilizing mission. The U.S. would never risk sending its troops against a well-prepared, well-equipped modern army like the Bosnian Serbs. Or remember Hungary in 1956 or the Prague Spring of 1968: these people were revolting against the Communist system that we were fighting against, they were fighting to have the right to essentially become U.S. client-states, and yet we did not dare to protect them in the face of heavy Russian military intervention.

Secondly, remember what happened with Georgia in 2008. All of the European states and the U.S. “supported” Georgia morally, but didn’t lift a finger to help it fight off the Russians. And since then, the Russians, with complete impunity, have imposed their candidate into power and firmly reattached the country to the Russian block, and away from the West.

And Ukraine is much closer to Putin’s heart than Georgia is. Losing Ukraine from his orbit would be a tragedy for him both economically (loss of a market of 46 million people) and politically (loss of face for losing a client-country historically and culturally inter-linked with Russia for hundreds of years). He will do anything in his power to maintain Ukraine in Russia’s orbit, and the West won’t lift a finger to prevent him.

And this is why, at the end of the day, Russia will have its way in Ukraine. The only element of surprise remains the Ukrainian population. Will it mobilize along ethnic lines and start organizing militias in anticipation of a Yugoslavia-type descent into civil war? Or will it unite in supporting the integrity of the country in the face of foreign aggression? At the end of the day, it will be the regular people who will have to defend Ukraine from Russia, with no military support from the West.

 

 

Capitalism vs. Democracy

Capitalism vs. Democracy

A book came out in France a few months ago that sent shock waves through economics and political science circles: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Author Thomas Piketty makes the seemingly outlandish claim that capitalism is inherently incompatible with democracy. Can this be?

Most Westerners have been indoctrinated their entire lives into believing that capitalism and democracy work hand in hand (for me it was only the last 24 years since I was born in a Communist state). Putting the indoctrination aside for now, let’s take a fresh look at the two notions of Democracy and Capitalism from the “think for yourself” perspective.

Democracy literally means “the rule of the people” or “power of the people.” So in a “real” democracy, the people have the power, that’s pretty simple. When looking at historic examples though, it immediately becomes clear that all of the people can never be included. Depending on the socio-economical and historical circumstances of the day, various democratic systems have excluded children, women, slaves, foreigners, mentally challenged individuals, criminals, etc… from having a say.

Athens during the Golden Age, for example, is sometimes presented as a near-utopian democracy. Well, if you consider a state that excludes nearly 80% of its population from the political process as an example of a vibrant democracy, the bar is set pretty low. A historical survey of democracies will show that the main concern of those in charge of setting up the system is who to exclude and who to include. While the concept of democracy as “power to the people” is a useful tool for indoctrinating the population and getting it to rally behind the regime, shrewd politicians have always been careful not to allow too much power to trickle down to too many independent-thinking people.

Since a utopian democracy is not to be found anywhere in History, we need to look at the level of meaningful political participation as the measure for how efficient a particular democracy is. What do I mean by “meaningful” political participation? I don’t mean simply giving a high percentage of the population the right to vote, or even the percentage of those who do vote. For example for U.S. presidential elections, the average turnout over the last century hovers in the high 50s%. On the face of it, this seems much better than the Athenians’ numbers and it would support, on the surface, the argument that the U.S. has a much higher level of political participation and is therefore a better democracy. But is this participation, as seen in presidential elections, really meaningful?

For example, here in California where I live, my vote has absolutely no bearing on the election result. Whether or not I vote, a Democrat will take the state. If I lived in Alabama, it would be the opposite result, regardless of my vote. In addition, I don’t feel represented by neither party. To push it even further, having lived in a number of democratic systems in Europe with much broader political spectrums, both the Democrats and Republicans look very similar. In many European countries they could safely sit in the Center and even merge, no one would find it strange, as their ideological differences are unremarkable. So, sure, I am allowed to vote in Presidential elections for one of two candidates, neither of whom I support, but my vote doesn’t matter anyway because of the electoral college system. Is this “meaningful” participation? I don’t think so.

If I disagree with the policies of the Government, I have to rely on my representatives and senator to carry my views. But most likely my vote in the elections that put them in power had no bearing either, as gerrymandering has made the majority of districts “safe” in the U.S. It is just another method of insulating those in power from popular pressures.

So under the U.S. democratic system, most of the population has the right to vote (let’s not forget that 1/3 of the people living in the US don’t vote: children, undocumented immigrants, and felons are excluded), but it is only a token right, since the political system has insulated itself from the popular vote.

This is exactly why I use the term “meaningful” participation. I define it as the percentage of the population who has an actual say in policy making. Simply being given the right to vote is not enough.

So let’s go back to the Athens example and compare it to the US version of democracy. Certainly the US compares favorably to it when looking at raw participation numbers. But when digging under the surface, we begin to see why Athenian democracy is still held in such high esteem. For starters the Athenian model was based on direct democracy, not a representative one like here in the U.S. Out of the 30,000 to 60,000 of citizens who were actually allowed to vote, every single one of them was allowed to walk into the Assembly (their version of Congress) and participate in decision making. Every one of them was allowed to have his voice heard. Looked at it from this perspective, the 20% figure of citizen participation in direct decision-making is absolutely bewildering. To compare, in the U.S. today this percentage would be 0.002% if we took into account only elected officials, high-level executive officers and life-time appointed judges, who can all influence policy (I tallied all U.S. representatives [435], senators [100], state senators [about 1,000] and representatives [2510], federal judges [3,294], cabinet members including pres [24]=7,363).

The 0.002% figure though does not take into account the people whose interests the politicians cater to: the business community. And this is where democracy and capitalism interact:  under the U.S. representative model of democracy, the officials in power don’t represent the interest of the “people,” they represent the interests of those who control capital flows.

You probably heard before that the wealthiest 1%  of Americans control over 30% of the wealth in this country. But did you know that the top 10% control over 75% of the wealth? The official ideological line in the U.S. is that it doesn’t matter who controls the wealth for two reasons: because everyone’s vote counts the same (US egalitarian myth) and because everyone who works hard enough can make it big (the American Dream myth).

As far as voting, by now you should seriously question whether your individual vote has any weight at all in the political process. And as far as the rags-to-riches myth, it is simply not feasible for the vast majority of people. Sure there are your Mark Cubans and other wildly successful entrepreneurs who were not born in wealth. But the vast majority of the top 10%, and virtually the unanimity of the top 1%, was born into wealth. And this only makes sense: under a capitalist system, the more capital you control, the more capital you can acquire. Regardless of what the feel good/ self-help literature is telling you, it takes money to make REAL money. Of course a hard-working individual with 0 resources can make enough money for him and his family to live at ease, even luxuriously. But that is not the kind of money that matters when it comes to having a say in decision making at the societal level.

The role of ANY political system is to divest resources from the general population towards the elite group. The only difference between various systems is in how the elite group is defined, who is allowed in, and its permeability.

What I am getting at is that the undemocratic nature of the U.S. political system is not “natural,” it is not the only alternative possible. However, it is a natural outgrowth of the political organization of this country in the 18th century. Remember the Founding Fathers: they were not ordinary citizens, they were part of the socio-economic elite of their time: “Almost all of them were well-educated men of means who were dominant in their communities and states.”

They were the ones controlling capital in 18th century America. Therefore, it only makes sense that they set up the country in the way that best served their interests. That is what every political elite has always done, throughout History. And one of their main interests was not to allow the general population a say in politics, which could potentially lead to a divestment of important resources allocated to their group.

Of course, because of the huge imbalance in sheer numbers between the elite group and the rest of the population, the average people need to be kept in line, or all hell could break loose. Under authoritarian regimes, this is done mainly by force and somewhat through ideology (while ideological indoctrination is heavily handed in authoritarian states, the level of internalization by the population is never very high; in other words people understand they have to act in certain accepted ways and speak in certain accepted terms, but most of them only pay lip-service to ideology, they don’t actually believe it). In a democracy, this is done mainly through ideology, while the use of force is more covert (by the way, if you don’t think that the U.S. has used force against its own people, I would recommend you read up on the FBI’s Operation COINTELPRO from the FBI’s own website!!!!!). As long as they can lead you to believe that your vote counts, that the U.S. is a beacon of light among the nations of the world who supports Human Rights around the globe and who fights for individual freedoms worldwide, you are way more indoctrinated than any citizen of the former-USSR ever was.

In conclusion, under a capitalist economic system, “real” democracy cannot be achieved. By definition, the economic model favors those who can accumulate vast quantities of capital. Because the supply of capital is not infinite, by concentrating it, fewer and fewer people have access to it. Those who are able to successfully accumulate it over time become the elite. They will then fight tooth and nail in order to create and/or maintain ideal conditions for their continuing accumulation of capital. And the number one condition is to keep power concentrated in their hands, in order to be able to influence all other factors in the equation. Since in the long term “soft” control has proved much more adequate than control by force, democracy is the political system of choice for capitalists. It has nothing to do with the “rule of the people” and everything to do with the rule of money.

In the final analysis I don’t believe that simply because we call our system “democratic” we live in a Democracy in the true sense of the word, just like no one would argue that the Socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (also known as North Korea) is a democracy or a people’s republic. Rather we live in a “capitalocracy” and that is a scary thought.

The end of the book in America?

Recently my friend Lily sent me an interesting article about the declining number of book readers in America.

As usual, with an article based on a statistical study, you have to be very careful. As we all know by now, statistics can be made to say anything. Here the author’s premise is fairly straight forward: while the number of American non-readers is increasing at an alarming rate, there is hope since more and more people get a college education these days; better educated people read more, therefore the non-reader trend should reverse in the future.

Studies since 2012 show that about a quarter of Americans don’t even read ONE book a year (here’s the 2012 study, here’s the 2014 one). Is this shocking? Not exactly… If I had to take a guess, I would have said at least 50% of Americans don’t read books, so the actual figure is significantly better than my pessimistic prediction. But then I looked at the questions that were asked in the study.

“During the past 12 months, about how many BOOKS did you read either all or part of the way through?” (my emphasis)

Turd alert! The phrasing of this central question discredits the entire study, at least as applied to the author’s hypothesis. All that the study shows is that 75% of Americans leafed through one or more books last year, not how many of them actually read a book cover to cover.

What the author finds significant is that the number of non-book readers has nearly tripled since 1978. Alarm bells are ringing! The Death of the Book is near! But in the second half of the article the author finds some solace in the fact that the growth of the college-educated population means more and more readers in the future. I wouldn’t be so sure though, considering the number of college educated friends that I have who openly admit to barely reading outside of their professional/academic requirements.

To confirm my fears, the author rolls out another study that found that nearly half of American adults DID NOT read a book for pleasure  last year(my initial guess looks a lot better now). But again, I disagree with the author’s interpretation of the study.

“Most importantly, the percentage of young folks reading for pleasure stopped declining” Indeed, it made a dramatic climb from 51% to 52%! To me that looks more like stagnation than anything else, certainly not enough grounds to proclaim, as the author does in his conclusion that “Perhaps the worst of the fall is over.” Sure, and perhaps finding the cure for HIV is around the corner, but the hard statistics do not support the author’s conclusion, as usual.

From my own observations, Americans seem the least book-friendly nation in the Western world. Walk into a packed Tokyo subway car and you will see dozens of people reading books on their way to work. In fact, books are published in Japan in a special format that can fit inside your pocket, since so many people read on their commute. Stroll though the Quartier Latin in Paris on a weekend and you will find thousands of passers-by crowding the many bookstores along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. But walk into a Barnes and Nobles, and you notice that half the store is devoted to music CDs, DVDs, magazines, even kid toys!

And yet, America publishes the largest amount of new titles every year out of any country in the world at 292,037! This means 1 new title published for every 1068 citizen. Compare to France (41,902 new titles per year): 1 new title for every 1570 citizen or Japan (78,349 new titles per year): 1 new title for every 1629 citizen. Out of any country in the world, only Germany does slighly better than the US, with a near perfect 1 to 1000 ratio. So according to these numbers, the US per-capita totals fare much better than most countries in the world. The conclusion seems inevitable: Americans are among the most avid readers in the world!

What all the studies presented here show is the increasing stratification of US society. A shrinking percentage of the population is very intellectually curious, while a growing percentage finds it very hard to disconnect from the day-to-day reign of useless distractions that we constantly surround ourselves with (sitcoms, soap operas, reality TV, Candy Crusher, Words with Friends, etc…), lest we could become bored and would then be forced to actually start doing some thinking.

KYMATICA: Expand your consciousness

(here‘s an HD version for the video)

Watch this and expand your consciousness… or not! Bias notice: I am highly suspicious of all New Age movements and of conspiracy theories in general. My main objection to both is that they simply replace one authoritative discourse about the world (the one you learn about in your History classes and hear about on the news) with their own authoritative discourse about salvation or secret societies that run the world.

Another objection: simply because the facts fit the premise doesn’t automatically validate the premise and certainly doesn’t validate the conclusion. For example, if I come home from work and my dog is gone I can postulate that aliens abducted him or that he became some sort of Dog-Messiah and flew up to Dog-Heaven. Yet it’s a simple explanation (I forgot the patio door cracked and he simply ran away) that makes the most sense, regardless of how many other alternative theories I can come up with. A lot of conspiracy theories and New Age pseudo-philosophies can fit some of the evidence, but they simply do not offer a valid explanation when confronted with other competing theories or with the entire body of evidence (or lack of). With that being said, I am certainly willing to hear or read someone’s theory of the world, as long as it’s not just some rehashing of others’ views.

Not to hold the suspense much longer: Kymatica doesn’t have much to say that’s new. It’s a mumbo-jumbo of electromagnetics and religious-spiritual superficialities centered on a denunciation of technology/globalization and a return to ancient, “shamanic” traditions that once were practiced in a same pattern all over the globe.

Benjamin and Daniel Stewart, the guys who made this film, seem to buy Freud wholesale (16:40), perhaps unaware that his theories are hotly debated. Most importantly for our purposes: Freud’s theories are a product of his thinking, they are a human construct, just like nationalism, capitalism, the legal system, and other structures the movie berates. So the movie that’s supposed to free our consciousness starts by anchoring itself strongly in Freudian thought. It tells us terrifying stories about the Evil false-ego, who is the polar opposite of the ego. The interaction of the too opposite poles creates a magnetic impulse, which the filmmakers define as consciousness.

Wait, but I thought there was more to consciousness than a simple magnetic impulse, after all even a car battery can create such an impulse, yet would you consider it a “conscious being”? Consciousness at the level of planets? Yup, at the level of all things! That’s an interesting definition. But if you don’t buy it, you will probably not find the supportive “studies” the filmmakers use, such as linking electromagnetics and mystical chanting (21:10), very convincing either.

The main theme of the documentary is that humanity is blindly controlled by agents of the false-ego bloodlines. The documentary goes on to deplore the effects of colonialism and globalization, which were directed, according to the filmmakers, to destroy traces of ancient “shamanic” traditions that are viewed by the elites as dangerous to their rule because revealer of an “ancient truth.”

To be fair to the moviemakers, I salute their attempt to at least question the world around them and to try to see what is happening beyond the curtains. The movie starts with a call for action: stop blaming others, you have the power to change your own life. Later, at 23:50: “There are hundreds or thousands of boundaries on your freedom, from government regulations to societal norms;” or “all [conflict] begins with a breakdown in communication” (19:00); or at 32:00 when it warns us to be aware of the perversion of language and be aware of how we form our beliefs and concepts of the world.

Unfortunately, the movie does not dig deeper into any of these questions. Instead the entire movie is a circular, superficial discussion around Kymatica (20:00), a vague dualistic concept positing that everything in the universe is organized along two poles, which do not necessarily exclude each other, yet are opposites. The film focuses on electro-magnetics because of the negative and positive poles of each living thing. Supposedly when speaking ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit, the speaker produces vibrations that move matter into sacred geometrical patterns (21:10), which somehow proves the filmmakers’ point.

The film goes on to quote an eccentric thinker like William Comyns Beaumont for the proposition that the Central American civilizations “never originated on American soil,” to support the film’s theme that pre-historic shamans were traveling from continent to continent to help the dawn of civilization. Yet how could Mr. Beaumont himself assert such a claim when he never traveled to Central America. His analysis consists in comparing Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan symbols, yet the two have nothing to do with each other and do not function at all in the same way. But how could Mr. Beaumont have known this, since Mayan symbols were not fully decoded until 10-15 years after he passed away. The fact that the documentary has no shame quoting his (proven) false “analysis,” really makes me question the integrity of the filmmakers.

Undaunted, the movie then presents the works of Barry Fell, the author of America B.C. and other works of pseudo-archeology that claim that America was settled by Celtic Druids [hint: virtually interchangeable with shamans in New Age terminology] and other civilizations, including Egyptians. Needless to say the accuracy of his findings has been greatly debated, and never accepted at the academic level. The producers’ response would certainly be that his works are not well accepted because they attack the existing orthodoxy in the field and because Mr. Fell was neither an archeologist nor a linguist, yet relied intensely on both disciplines. In other words, he was an outsider and the system rejects him as such.

This is one of the running themes in Kymatica: that the “establishment” is fighting tooth and nail to keep the disturbing “truth” from being exposed. Unfortunately, once again this is a straw argument. When Einstein first presented the theory of relativity in 1905 he was attacking the 200 year-old Newtonian dogma. His views were hotly debated. But eventually, they were accepted because his works were peer-reviewed and the body of evidence in support of his theory became too large to ignore.

For another similar example, look no further than the incredible story of architect Michael Ventris cracking the Linear B script in 1952. Mr. Ventris, like Mr. Fell, was not academically trained in linguistics or archeology, yet his findings were accepted by the mainstream establishment almost immediately. A miracle? Not even close. In fact, Mr. Ventris did two things that Mr. Fell, and other pseudo-researchers, failed to do: firstly, he constantly kept in communication with experts in the field, exchanging notes and keeping a dialogue open. Secondly, he also kept an open mind and accepted to change his starting hypothesis when it didn’t match the facts.

Kymatica presents just too many false believes to de-bunk them all in a review. Some notable ones though: a discussion starts at 29:00 about the “law society” comprised of judges, attorneys and enforcement agents who decide upon our laws and control our society in secret ways (I will skip the part where the movie claims that the organization of Western society rests entirely on maritime law). Disclaimer here: I am an attorney, so maybe I’m also trying to influence you in secret ways with this review!

At 39:00 we are told that all power structures created throughout the history of Humanity are a result of our false-ego. Forget about Michel Foucault’s profound critique of power in modern society, it is of no importance to the filmmakers and therefore simply not mentioned anywhere.

At 45:33, to show the grip of the elite (the “Bloodline”) over our society, the movie claims that George W. Bush is “closely related to every European monarch on and off the throne.” While I can’t judge the claim—not enough background on this and no desire to research it either—I can look at who the quoted author is: Michael Tsarion. A guy who apparently made a fortune out of recycling conspiracy theories, but does not engage in debate over his ideas other than by using his fists (check out the link to see if I’m exaggerating).

But I saved the best for last! Two claims in Kymatica really bothered me, to the point where I had to write this review. Firstly, at 14:15, the claim that “Only in esoteric religions, mysticism and in quantum physics do we find any attempt at explaining how thoughts and emotions fit into the sensory-perceptive word.” This is clearly a false claim: on the one hand, it omits Philosophy and Psychology, the two most important fields in the study of the interaction of our thoughts/emotions and the world around us. On the other hand, it throws in “quantum physics,” which DOES NOT deal with thoughts and emotions. But hey, it sounds fancy!

The second claim, which comes right at the end (1:21:30) seems solid at first: “you can control your life by how you respond to the world.” But then, as the idea develops I started cringing. Are they really trying to throw-in intelligent design in the mix? Their claim develops along these lines: all organisms have a consciousness… therefore all organisms have a free will… therefore cells, just like humans, make choices about how to evolve! While a staggering 50% of Americans still don’t believe in evolution, the theory of evolution through random mutations is one of the most proved scientific ideas of our time. Intelligent design, like creationism, was never a valid scientific theory.

Overall, Kymatica does address some important issues, yet it fails to answer them in any meaningful way. In addition, the methodology of the film creators simply does not hold water and many of their supporting sources are either taken out of context or simply wrong.  While the movies’ prescription (“you can control your life by how you respond to the world”) is a good starting point for some deep thinking on our own individual consciousness, we still need to make sense of the world around us. But for that to happen, we need to do a lot of researching, thinking, reading and discussing. Simply replacing the West’s dominant Platonic-Christian discourse with a ready-made worldview, like that of Kymatica, will only lead us to persist in our delusions.

Nassim Taleb – The Black Swan

The_black_swan_taleb_cover

Nassim Taleb – The Black Swan
Random House, New York (2007) 1st Edition

[A second edition of the book is now available, with an added chapter]

The central concept in this book is interesting enough, especially useful for those (like myself) who do not have a tight grip on statistics, advanced mathematics and financial markets. The central idea of Black Swan is simple: most important events in our lives, and in History in general, are outliers that could not have been predicted, even though after the event we tend to construct narratives that explain how the event could have been predicted in hindsight.  Beware of Gaussian statistics (based on bell curves) says Mr. Taleb: they tend to simply ignore these outlier events, thus exposing themselves blindly to them. But most of all, beware of so-called experts, whether financial planners, hedge fund managers or Historians, who try to trick you into accepting their Gaussian models, because they are in fact as helpless as the ignorant man off the street when it comes to predicting the next major event.

Mr. Taleb urges his readers who want to succeed to expose themselves to as many potential positive Black Swans as they can, while minimizing their exposure to negative Black Swans. However, outside of the world of finances, he does not give any clear indication of how this could be accomplished. When he tries, over the course of a few shot paragraphs, it sounds like classic self-help terminology: “Seize any opportunities, or anything that looks like opportunity” (p. 208).

Overall, the book feels like a drawn-out denunciation of charlatan-experts, parceled with real life anecdotes that support the author’s conclusions. Take out all the fluff, and the central message could fit in less than 50 pages. Quite frankly, if you have a genuine interest in non-Gaussian statistics, you are better off reading one of a myriad of papers on the subject (including some very good ones from Mr. Taleb himself). One the other hand, if you are interested in Malcolm Gladwell-style pseudo-scientific writing intertwined with smart anecdotes, you might want to give this book a try.

Though, I have to warn you from the get-go that Mr. Taleb is a poorer writer than Mr. Gladwell, yet of an arrogance without limits. He thinks that HE is very smart, and that his reader is very dumb. He specializes in trading in “complicated financial instruments” (he repeats himself twice in the same note) that require “advanced mathematics” (Note p. 20). Mr. Taleb speaks French with a Parisian accent and makes fun of those who express themselves in “broken French.” Mr. Taleb is a mathematical genius who has a reserve of “F—k you money” (p. 20, his own words) so that he does not have to resort to “prostituting [his] mind” to an “outside authority” (p. 21). When Mr. Taleb stopped reading newspapers or watching the news, he was able to free up one hour or more a day, which allows him to read “more than a hundred additional books per year” (p. 17). But was it not Mr. Taleb himself who told us in the Prologue that only idiots fawn over the amount of books others read, while really smart people do not brag about it (p. 1)? And if I may add my humble opinion, Mr. Taleb would benefit from reading fewer books, but taking more time to discuss those books with others in an effort to better understand those books. Alas, as would become clear by reading the book, Mr. Taleb is a fan of the monologue, not the dialogue.

Mr. Taleb’s true passion and calling in life is Philosophy, he makes sure to point that out very early in the book. Of course, not “philosophy” as it has been practiced in the academic world for most of this and the last century, centered on problems of language, identity and consciousness. Mr. Taleb flies above the fray, sweeping Wittgenstein and the entire field of the philosophy of language away in the prologue of his book as exploring unimportant pursuits, which are best left “for the weekend” (Prologue, Page XXVI, emphasis in the original). Mr. Taleb does not want to focus on these “phony” philosophers (his word), instead he chooses to focus on the “real ones” (p. 290). However, it soon becomes clear that those “real” philosophers happen to be the ones Mr. Taleb agrees with. If you have a different opinion than him, then you too are phony or simply deluded!

In fact, the absence of an intellectual dialogue is one of the most glaring flaws in Black Swan. Firstly, Mr. Taleb fails to give proper weight to any philosopher or “expert” who happens to share different views or different pursuits than him. At best Mr. Taleb presents a caricature of a straw argument, which he then hastily destroys. At worst, as with the great Ludwig W., Mr. Taleb does not even take the time to explain to us dim-witted readers why he thinks that 20th century philosophy has NO relevance to our every-day lives (he certainly emphasizes his point, why not also take the time to explain his reasoning?).

Secondly, Mr. Taleb presents a lot of the material in his book as original, when in fact it is not. Take a look here for a good overview of the evolution of the concept of risk in financial models. Or look at what he coins the fallacy of the “silent evidence” (page 100), which he traces back to Cicero, Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon. The concept is simple: when we want to replicate success in a field, we tend to focus on other people who succeeded before us (let’s call them “survivors”), instead of focusing on the myriads of people who failed (“casualties”). But this approach fails to take chance into consideration because luck is unquantifiable. So instead we focus on the actual processes the survivors used, which in fact do not give us any guarantees that we will replicate the same result. A better recipe for success would be to focus on all the things the casualties did wrong, and try to improve on those.

Sounds like a pretty neat concept doesn’t it? And the “fallacy of silent evidence” is a nice, smart name for it, isn’t it? But then why would Bacon’s “great observations” on the subject be “rapidly forgotten” (p. 101) until, of course, Mr. Taleb resuscitates them for us, nearly four centuries later? A deeper look into the subject, starting from Mr. Taleb’s own notes, tells us that in fact such observations were NOT forgotten, but were further developed and are now routinely taught and used in the fields of statistics, physics and philosophy. (P. 318, Chapter 8 Notes). For a better understanding of the subject, I recommend reading more on survivorship bias.

Other reviews pointed out that the book shipwrecks on the Yevgenia Krasnova story (Mr. Taleb dedicates a full chapter to this fictional character to exemplify a Black Swan event in real life, until he points out—in a footnote no less!—in the next chapter that he made up the entire story). But I believe the book already starts to sink when Mr. Taleb transposes his Black Swan model from the world of finance to History. Ironically for someone who hates “experts” as much as Mr. Taleb does, his book completely loses steam when he ventures into an area—History—in which he has less expertise than in his main field.

One glaring example among many: Mr. Taleb considers World War II to have been a Black Swan event. By his very definition, a Black Swan is an event that was unpredictable and unpredicted. Mr. Taleb uses only two arguments to advance his claim that the Second World War was such an event. Firstly, he uses the journal of W. Shirer, a radio correspondent in Berlin from 1934-1941 (pp. 12-14) to show that even the people who were in the middle of the “action” had no idea what was taking place. Ironically, this is the only mention of a journalist in the entire book who he is not smeared by Mr. Taleb, who apparently has a visceral disgust for them (remember he no longer reads newspapers). After all, journalists, he tells us, are “industrial producers of the [survivorship bias] distortion” (p. 102). These are vile creatures! So why would Mr. Taleb use the diary of a delusioned falsifier of information in order to prove his point? Oh that’s right, because in this instance it supports his conclusion!

Mr. Taleb’s second argument, based on a historical study, is that no one predicted the beginning of the War because the price of British imperial bonds did not reflect an anticipation of war (Note p. 14). But I ask: “who sets these bond prices?” Investors, usually following the advice of “experts.” Again, why would Mr. Taleb expect experts, whom he derides throughout his book, to have predicted anything? And in fact, in the rest of the book, he is happy to remind us that he does not expect them to ever be right.

I would then argue than an event that was not only predictable, but also predicted could not qualify as a Black Swan. So did anyone predict the Second World War, if the financial experts were not able to do so? Well, there is at least one obscure British politician who made a career out of speaking up against Germany, as early as 1932. His name… Winston Churchill. And there was another politician, who not only predicted the War and the ensuing desolation as early as 1925, but also worked his entire life to bring the conflict to a head. You might have also heard of Adolf Hitler.

While I could agree with him that 9/11 was a Black Swan event, his other historical examples simply do not fit the definition: the fall of the Soviet Union, which “no social scientist saw coming” (p. 151), except this guy, and this guy; even the financial crisis of 2007/2008, which was predicted, ironically, by Mr. Taleb himself!

In conclusion, Black Swan is not only poorly written and full of internal contradictions, but it also manages to drown the gems of truly original thinking in a sea of controversy, mostly manufactured by the author, anecdotes that could be true or false, and historical events of which the author has a poor understanding.

I would humbly suggest to Mr. Taleb to stick to the fields he is familiar with—writing certainly not being one of them— and leave philosophy to those who truly have a vocation for it.