Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Nature of Sympathy

Recently, at the end of a work day, I parked the company car at a public parking lot. When I exited the car I happened to notice, just in front of the left rear wheel, a curled-up baby mouse. I knelt down and saw that its eyes were closed and it was periodically shivering. I wondered whether I’d struck the mouse with the car, but there was no sign of blood. Perhaps the mouse was cowering before the giant vehicle, as I had only nearly crushed it. More likely the mouse had been abandoned by its mother, since there were no other mice I could see nearby. I wondered whether there was anything I could do to help. But I quickly realized I might do more harm than good, since as soon as I left with the baby, its mother might return to fetch it. Cynically, I reminded myself that the world is cruel, that untold millions of animals everywhere suffer unspeakably, that the mouse might carry some disease, that even if I did somehow rescue it, I’d thereby be depriving some other hungry creature of an easy meal. In any case, I didn’t have the time during the day and night to care for a baby mouse. Later, I checked the internet and there are indeed steps that could be taken to rescue an abandoned mouse, one of which is to drop it off at an animal shelter, which I didn’t think of at the time. In any case, I left the shivering baby to its devices, my rationalizations overcoming a pang of anguish I suffered on the mouse’s behalf. 

The next day, I returned to the car, expecting to see a tiny corpse in front of the wheel, but there was none. Had its mother returned? Had a raccoon gobbled it up during the night? I’d never know.

This raises several issues, but I want to focus on the nature of that spasm of pity that provided the backdrop for my musings on what to do as I stared at the helpless rodent. What exactly is sympathy? The least helpful answer is the rationalist’s, which is that sympathy is in recognition of the golden rule that we feel for others in need because we fear to contradict ourselves. Ethics in that case would be a matter of logic. We ought to help others, because we’re no better than they and we would want to be aided in return or if the situation were reversed. All of this may be so, except that it has nothing to do with logic. Instead, it’s based on the implicit social contract: if I scratch your back, you scratch mine; otherwise, society breaks down and we all lose out. But the free-rider, who takes that chance, violating social expectations such as by accepting a favour but failing to return the good deed, hasn’t acted irrationally by gambling, since the odds are indeed in his or her favour. Society likely won’t crumble as long as the majority dutifully respects the social contract while only a minority has the audacity to be selfish. Indeed, in so far as logic is at issue, unethical behaviour has the merit of being supported by that probabilistic inference. The free-rider (the con artist, sociopath, or criminal) who excels at pretending to care about others or who is protected from the victim’s reprisals, by wealth or social connections, can have the best of both worlds, including society’s protection from the elements and the benefits of enriching herself at everyone else’s expense. Life is short and so a pragmatic decision might well be in favour of selfishness, in which case the Golden Rule is for dupes who are merely lacking in self-confidence.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Democrats begin Impeachment Proceedings on the Grounds that Donald Trump is an Old Man

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—After the 2018 U.S. congressional election, Democrats won back enough seats to bring impeachment proceedings, but they decided to simplify their case against Donald Trump, citing only the undeniable fact, as the reason for the urgent need for Trump’s immediate removal from office, that Trump is “an old man.”

There are hundreds of scandals, crimes, conflicts of interests, gaffes, inadequacies, or other embarrassments that can be attributed to Trump’s presidency, but leading Democrats believe they can avoid getting into the details by reminding everyone that, after all, Trump is just an old man and thus is obviously unfit for high office.

“There’s something that happens to you when you get old,” said Senator Al Franken. “You go downhill, as they say. That means your brain doesn’t work as well as it used to. Why should your brain stay the same when the rest of your body is clearly deteriorating? I mean, your skin sags and gets full of wrinkles, you lose muscle mass and bone density.

“You go downhill. At the bottom of that hill is the sort of old guy ridiculed in The Simpsons. You get to be like Homer’s dad who babbles incoherently and can’t take care of himself anymore because, you know, he’s gotten, like, really, really old. That’s what’s happened to Donald Trump: he got old, far too old to run a country.”

Democrats contend that, although he’s always been a boor, Trump’s senility is responsible for the outlandish scope of his incompetence. Thus, there’s no reason “to get into the weeds,” as one Democrat put it. “You just go with what’s obvious and can’t be denied. Trump is super old and he acts like it. So he needs to be pushed into retirement.”

Republicans have accused Democrats, in turn, of being hypocritical, since numerous top Democrats are over seventy years old, including Bernie Sanders, Barbara Boxer, Pat Leahy, Harry Reid, Carl Levin, and Dianne Feinstein.

Franken replied that while many Democrats may likewise technically be far too old to be entrusted with driving a car, let alone with the enormous responsibilities of holding high political office, they’re “functional old fogies,” whereas Trump is “off his rocker and off his meds.”

Sociologist Millie Hildebrand credited the PR firm Old Folks Rule for conspiring to generate the misplaced confidence most people have in the elderly, which is why, she said, the elderly are often reelected.

“In an election,” Hildebrand said, “voters see the old man or woman next to the fresh-faced challenger, and the young gun doesn’t stand a chance because he or she lacks experience. That’s what most voters think; they go with the greater experience.

“What these voters forget is that the more experience you have, the older you must be, and after a certain number of years you suddenly become simply an old man or an old woman. When that happens, it becomes absurd for others to expect much in the way of competence from you.

“For example, an old politician won’t be able to keep to a tight schedule, because he or she will be in the bathroom all day and all night. How are you going to talk tough to dictators on the phone when you’re always sitting on the toilet?”

Jay Wackadoodle, a political pseudoscientist at the Machiavelli Institute, offered a different explanation for old people’s success in politics, pointing to the fact that most American voters are themselves elderly, given the shockingly-low voter turnout in all U.S. elections over many decades.

“We vote for people like us,” he said. “Bald guys are more likely to vote for baldies. Blondes vote for blondes, racists vote for racists, and the elderly vote for the elderly.

“That’s how narcissism works, and we’re self-obsessed because our materialistic culture drives us to be consumers, first and foremost. We have to attend to all our needs and wants, and so we have to buy all these products; we think the world revolves around us. Naturally, then, we presume we ought to run the country, but because we’re too fat and lazy to do so, we vote for the next best thing, someone who reminds us of ourselves.” 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Reason, Faith, and the Authentic Self

In a society dependent on technoscientific progress, the conflict between faith and reason is liable to be underestimated, due to a rationalist bias. Faith or intuition will be interpreted as an inferior form of cognition, the assumption being that knowledge is the ultimate goal of both science and religion or art. But this rationalist interpretation understates the magnitude of the conflict.

Reason versus Faith

Reason has mostly been a weapon we’ve deployed against obstacles in the social and natural environments: we devise hypothetical models and test them to discover regularities we can exploit. The problem is that the regularities we find in most of the world are perfectly inhuman. The more we exercised reason to know what nature is and how it works, the more we had to doubt our intuitions and our comforting self-image. To take the most glaring example, the natural world we observed, measured and modeled got larger and older, the more objectively we examined it. We once thought we were at the center of a universe that consisted only of our solar system, and that the universe began only “days” before our arrival in the animal kingdom, just several thousand years ago, as the biblical Creation myth speculates. Now we know the universe is unimaginably larger and older than that, consisting of trillions of galaxies and having begun billions of years ago. And that’s just the observable universe. Natural reality includes dark energy and matter, which dwarf the universe as we experience it. Plus, there may be a multiverse which dwarfs even that vaster universe.  

In fact, the smart money is on meta-cynicism. Anthropocentrism has been proven wrong at every turn, and so we can induce that the end of human knowledge will be some supremely negative form of self-effacing anti-humanism. If you want to picture the most rational worldview, you should begin by imagining a monstrous form of objectivity, such as the kind we attribute to the baddies in science fiction, to the indifferent aliens or to the cold and calculating robots. This objectivity devours every precious illusion, including all the life-preserving myths and fairytales that nurture our pride in the human enterprise. But objectivity doesn’t stop there, as indicated by its postmodern, deconstructive phase. Reason embarrasses the life-affirming emotions and intuitions, but it eventually turns on itself so that science and knowledge in general become de-sentimentalized. Knowledge turns out not to be a tool or a weapon, after all, but something like a black hole that negates everything in its path, finally devouring itself. Reason is for understanding the world, but in standing under or apart from phenomena, as we learn to detach from them to see them as they really are, we learn to do the same for ourselves. As a result, the Cartesian divide is undone and the posthuman vision is of a natural universe of amoral, inhuman processes that can’t exactly be affirmed as such, since reason ultimately reveals the world to be indifferent to meaning, truth, value, and other such anthropocentric illusions. The universe as we objectively present it to ourselves is utterly inhospitable, a source of horror or anxiety for enlightened creatures. 

The honourary saint of Reason is thus the devil, beginning with Prometheus or the serpent of Eden whom the Gnostics revered as the first skeptic and truth-teller, because he subverted the shaky divine order as it was naively intuited by the animal slaves that adhered to Yahweh’s commandments. The serpent warned Adam and Eve that their creator was tricking them and holding them back, whereas they had the power to investigate and to exploit natural processes to their advantage. But Reason as symbolized by the nay-saying serpent turned out to be cursed, since the cost of knowledge is death, the banishment from the paradise that the world seemed to be when we encountered it in our innocence as a young species. (We still perceive the world to be a magical paradise when we’re children and don’t know better.) The mythical character Satan became the cynic who challenged Yahweh with doubts as to whether Creation was as magnificent as it seemed, as in the Book of Job. In the New Testament, the devil is demonized, because Christianity began as a barbaric, anti-intellectual form of Judaism that obliged everyone not only to moderate our behaviour but to think as children and to banish ungodly thoughts, to avoid everlasting punishment. Failing those superhuman feats, believers merely had to worship Jesus in a cult of personality to be saved from original sin and from the other flaws of Creation, in a new world to come at the cataclysmic end of time.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Man unable to apply a Lifetime’s Research into Self-Improvement, dies wholly Unsuccessful in Life

Dateline: NEW YORK CITY—A connoisseur of self-help books has died alone and impoverished after having spent years locked in his apartment, practicing to be a better person.

Albert Dunderhead had an impressive collection of self-help manuals, as attested by the landlord who found Albert’s body. “Albert once showed me his library,” said the landlord, “and he boasted he was learning everything there is to know about techniques for increasing your confidence, winning friends and succeeding in business and romance.

“‘One day,’ Albert told me, ‘I’ll have learned enough to put my knowledge into practice, to apply the lessons in real life. And then nothing will stop me. I’ll finally have a job and a family and a life I can be proud of. Until then, I’ve got to keep hitting the books.’”

Albert’s body was found in front of a mirror, his hand on an open book turned to a passage about mastering your fears by reciting mantras in front of a mirror.

Having no friends or family, living on a small inheritance from his grandmother, Albert ventured out of his apartment only to purchase groceries and to peruse the self-help section of bookstores.

Albert’s neighbours sometimes complained about the noise from his apartment, when Albert practiced his lessons by holding conversations with imaginary employers, coworkers, and romantic prospects.

“The conversations went on for hours on end,” said one neighbour, “but it wasn’t the volume that bothered me so much as the annoying repetition. He tried out every conceivable variation on a job interview, for example, playing both parts himself.

“Or he’d imagine he was trying to pick up a girl at a grocery store, and he’d say, ‘I see you’re interested in avocados.’ ‘Why, yes I am,’ he’d say in response. And then he’d launch into a disquisition about the merits of different recipes for guacamole.

“But that wasn’t the end of it—not by a long shot. He’d carry on the same conversation over and over again, but switching from avocados to bananas, and then to spinach and watermelons and every other fruit or vegetable in turn. It was really, really annoying having to hear that blather through the wall throughout the evening and night.”

Albert received a posthumous award for “Most Ironic Life” from the Irony Association of America.

“Ironically,” said the Association’s founder, “our awards have no cash value, nor do we publicize them. Had Mr. Dunderhead been alive, he wouldn’t have been eligible for the award, since his life would have been ongoing. But even if he would have been eligible, he wouldn’t have known he’d won, because no one would have told him. And even if he found out about us and our awards, he may not have cared, because, as I said, our awards have zero prestige. There’s nothing to them, not even a little statue or anything. 

"All we do is whisper about the winner for a while, maybe writing up a certificate and then quickly burning it so as not to spoil the irony of the self-effacing honours.” 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Prophets of Woe

Woe to men, for you shall be replaced by machines and shall lose your manhood.

Woe to women, for you shall have no men to shelter and comfort you in the wasteland to come.

Woe to children, for their cuteness promotes their self-love, and they lack the reason to see that love is a puppet string.

Woe to consumers, for you’ve sucked the earth almost dry.

Woe to advertisers, for you’ve made an art of deception and manipulation, and are cursed to wander as cynics in a herd of dupes. 

Woe to movers and shakers, for you’ve moved to outer space, making aliens of yourselves, and have shaken the peasants from their slumber, endangering your material foundations to which they tend.

Woe to environmentalists, for you love wild animals that wouldn’t hesitate to eat you for breakfast.

Woe to Americans, for your time has nearly come to join the legions of peasants in other lands whom you’ve squeezed and exploited since the end of the Second World War.

And woe to anti-Americans, for your sanctimonious rage betrays the ugly American within you.

Woe to liberals, for there’s no longer faith in your worn-out myths, and you’ve become scholastics idling until the next renaissance.

Woe to conservatives, for your talk of old-fashioned utopia is a smokescreen for a return to the primitive state wherein the dominators succumb to the temptations of godhood, are swiftly corrupted by their power, and drag their slaves down with them.

Woe to you professional philosophers, for your title is an oxymoron: a lover of knowledge must cower in angst rather than adjust to the horrors of nature to make of philosophy an academic field of study for charlatans, pseudoscientists, and bored young transients in colleges that have turned into mere businesses.

Woe to the gods, for they’ve failed to grace us with their existence.

Woe to monotheists, for you have poor taste in fiction.

Woe to optimists, for you dishonour the multitudes that have fallen.

Woe to pessimists, for you waste your life in grief.

Woe to Hollywood, for your creativity is as bankrupt as that of the Chinese market you seek to plunder with remakes and superheroic trivialities, which market is a giant, ravenous copying machine.

Woe to the computer, for digitization drains the value from that which is encoded, and the internet and the smartphone erase the humanity from their addicted users.

Woe to pornography, for it proves that sex is a ridiculous spectacle.

Woe to sex, for its pleasures must be kept secret to preserve the sophisticate’s illusion of superiority.

Woe to the large, for it is comprised of myriad small things and is at their mercy.

Woe to the small, for it is confined within the behemoth and is blind to the latter’s grandeur.

Woe unto the earth, for once it has killed off the wise apes, there shall be none to cry foul at its monstrosity.

And woe to dabblers in prophecy who pilfer the language of the fictional Jesus, which has become a cliché.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Delaware Man Masters Martial Arts, using only Initial Free Lessons

Dateline: NEW JERSEY—A man from Delaware earned the equivalent of a black belt in Taekwondo, Karate, Jiu-jitsu and several other martial arts, by exploiting the free initial first lesson offered by hundreds of martial arts schools across North America.

Johnny Mayhew began his martial arts training in 1997, having been invited by his friend and martial arts enthusiast to attend a trial lesson at Tiger Kicks Taekwondo, in Wilmington.

“The first lesson’s free,” Mayhew remembers his friend telling him. “After that, once you get hooked on how wonderful taekwondo is, you’ll of course need to pay for the yearly membership.”

After that first lesson, Mayhew was indeed hooked, he said, but he conceived of an alternative to paying the membership. “The next day,” Mayhew said, “instead of returning to Tiger Kicks Taekwondo, where I would have had to pay hundreds of dollars in advance for a year’s worth of classes, I went down the street to Master Myung’s Taekwondo Academy and enjoyed their free lesson, since Master Myung also offered the first lesson for free.

What Mayhew realized is that since every martial arts school offers its first lesson for free, he could master the martial arts without having to pay the schools any money, just by travelling from one school to the next, never attending the same dojo twice.

“So I moved into a motorhome and travelled the country,” he said, “visiting each town’s assortment of martial arts schools and making the most of the free classes. At first, I was a novice, so the lessons were arduous.

“But eventually, as I became fitter and more practiced in striking and grappling, the instructors became puzzled and even suspicious of my skills. I must not have seemed like a novice who needed a free hour’s instruction from some backwoods karate school, because I was kicking the daylights out of the heavy bag and hurling my sparring partners across the mat.”

Mayhew still remembers one evening in Yonkers, at Fuck ‘em Up Karate Academy, when Master Moo confronted him. “You no fight like beginner,” Master Moo told him. “You kicking the ass of my best students. Why you here? The free lesson for beginners.”

Mayhew reminded him that he was a beginner, since he had never before been to Fuck ‘em Up Karate Academy. “But Master Moo was having none of it,” said Mayhew. “He kicked me out, and I only got half a free lesson that day. After that, I vowed I would get the full free lesson at each martial arts academy I visited, by feigning ignorance and secretly absorbing the advanced techniques.”

At Dragon Tail Karate School, Mayhew pretended not to know how to throw a punch, while he carefully observed the master and his top students, picking up ways of improving his skills. “That way I made the most of each free lesson, whether it was at Big Butt Brazilian Jiu Jitsu School, in New York, Paint the Fence Karate Academy, in Dallas, or Eagle Claw Kung Fu, in Los Angeles.

Mayhew studied each of several martial arts in turn, from Karate to Aikido, only switching from one to the next when he had successfully beaten the pants off of the master during one of the free lessons. “I’d pretend to be a novice, begging the master near the end of the free hour to take pity on my ignorance and favour me with a sparring match. Then I’d unleash all I’d learned from the hundreds of free lessons, and beat him down six ways from Sunday. That’s when I knew I’d have to move on to a different fighting tradition, just to keep it fresh.”

While Mayhew is unapologetic about his approach to martial arts, some instructors are indignant. “What he’s doing may not be illegal,” said Master Li, of Muay Thai Kick Ass Academy, “but I fear something’s gone wrong somewhere. Why doesn’t he just pay his instructors, instead of paying the gas companies for all the fuel he’s used exploiting the trial lessons?”

“Martial arts training isn’t just about self-defense,” said Master Kwon, of Warrior Way Academy. “We train for honour. There’s no honour in what this Mayhew creep is doing.”  

In response to this criticism, Mayhew said, “What did honour do for the fatheaded samurai, when the ninja killed them in their sleep? I may not have honour, but I can kick ass, beeyatch!”

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Republicans and al Qaeda face Conundrum of how to Continue their Escalating Evil

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—With its escalating insanity in the choice of its presidential nominees, from Reagan to George W. Bush to Donald Trump, the Republican Party has borrowed a strategy from al Qaeda to maximize terror in the American public, according to some political experts.

After bin Ladin declared war on the United States in 1996, al Qaeda began attacking the US with its bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Then came the more deadly and spectacular attacks of 911.

According to Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Doctrine, “Al Qaeda wouldn't want to act [in the US after 2001] unless it could top the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with something even more devastating, creating an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation as to what, then, would follow.”

Suskind’s view is that the terrorists are trying to maximize Americans’ fear, by leaving them to wonder whether, given the pattern of attacks leading up to 911, Americans could now expect a biological or nuclear attack—and after that: Armageddon, the end of the world.

Some political pseudoscientists believe Republicans are pursuing a similar strategy. Tommy Whataninny, political pseudoscientist at the University of Chicago, said, “The strategy would have begun with Ronald Reagan’s moderate lunacy, as revealed by his interest in astrology, the Iran-Contra scandal, his declining mental health due to Alzheimer’s, and his governing more or less like a neoliberal Democrat—which would have seemed crazy, at least, to twenty-first century Republicans.”

Leaving aside George H.W. Bush, “the madness would have ramped up with his son, George W. Bush, as evidenced by Bush’s verbal incoherence, his embarrassing ignorance about world affairs, his spending more than 500 days on vacation while in office, his stealing the election from Al Gore, his religious mania, his being a tool for neocons, his fiasco of attacking the wrong Middle Eastern country after 911, his lying about Iraq’s WMD, and his elitism that resulted in the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

“Then came the psycho clown Trump whose incompetence, mendacity, and narcissism ‘trump’ even the grotesque vices of his predecessors combined, resulting in an escalation of terror much like al Qaeda’s. The questions Americans are left with are, ‘How can Republicans top themselves? Who can be worse than Trump? Are Republicans and Islamist terrorists for some reason playing similar roles in trying to end the civilized world?’”

As to how George W. Bush’s father fits into this picture, Professor Margaret Smoot, of the Machiavelli Institute, concedes that “the Republican who served as president between Reagan and Clinton was arguably more professional than Reagan, let alone the catastrophic Bush who came after Clinton.” But Smoot surmises that there are different factions within the Republican establishment and that while some favour the apocalyptic al Qaeda approach, others “prefer an even keel, the sort of social stability that benefits Wall Street.”

In response to this political hypothesis, Gallup polled ordinary Americans, asking them how they figure Republicans might try to top themselves with respect to their increasingly insane choices of leaders. Some answered Republicans would next attempt to elect Vladimir Putin directly, although legal technicalities might hamper that effort. Others apparently believe the GOP would select a wild animal of some sort, such as a monkey or an elephant, “to create chaos and humiliation and to sink the US for good,” said the Gallup summary of the poll’s results. Still others thought an inanimate object might suffice, such as a lunchbox or a handgun.

For his part, Whataninny criticized the latter two options for failing to trump Trump’s villainy, since animals are morally neutral and inanimate objects would “just sit there rather than wreaking havoc.” He added, “Sure, a chimpanzee as president would do a lot of damage. For starters, he’d physically mess up the White House. And his advisors’ recommendations would fall on deaf ears. But that could also serve the country well, assuming the advisors were corrupt, which they typically are. Likewise, if Republicans elected a lunchbox as president, the lunchbox could take neither constructive nor destructive actions.

“No, what Republicans would seem to need is a demon or some other supernaturally evil entity. Perhaps only the devil could complete this pattern and secure Republican’s evident fantasy of an apocalyptic end of the American experiment.”

Friday, May 5, 2017

Lonely Single Man seeks someone just to Laugh at his Jokes

Dateline: OMAHA—A lonely Nebraskan man is wistful about the many years he’s spent with no life partner to marvel at his witty remarks.

Douglas Cunningham, aged 53, is single and has lived alone in a small apartment in Omaha for decades. In all that time, he attests to having made countless amusing gibes while watching all manner of TV shows and movies.

“The worst part about living alone,” he said, “isn’t the lack of love or sex in my life. It’s that I’ve got no audience to appreciate my brilliance. I mean, I’m watching Wolf Blitzer and in any given ten seconds I’ll have fired off wisecracks left and right at his expense. But there’s no one else in the room to hear them.

“Sure, I can make myself laugh, but what sort of comedian laughs at his own jokes?

“Or I’ll be watching an episode of some sitcom and at the end I’ll have analyzed the whole show, I’ll have it all wrapped up in my mind, but there’s no one else there to nod in amazement at the keenness of my insights.

“It’s a travesty!” he added. “And as the saying goes, if no one hears a tree fall in the forest, does it really make a sound?”

For Cunningham, the most important duty a romantic partner can perform is to serve as a captive audience to placate the other’s sense of comedic entitlement.

“Sure, most men want sex or a family,” he said, “but I’m getting old and I don’t care about those things. The world’s overpopulated as it is, but there’s never enough masterful pop cultural commentary. Meanwhile, I’m firing off cutting-edge gems of criticism and they’re all going to waste.

“It’s not even a ‘pearls before swine’ situation, because I don’t have the swine! I’d take a sow as a partner if only she’d sit quietly and bask in the glow of my analytical deconstructions of pop cultural discourse.

“So many wasted bon mots, I can’t even count them all. They just drift into the ether and now that I’ve forgotten half of them, they’re gone forever. That’s the real tragedy here.”

Cunningham has attempted to recruit a mate by posting profiles on online dating services, but to no avail. “I can’t fathom,” he said, “why no woman seems interested in being my life partner just to help me relax after a long day’s work, sitting in amazement by the TV with me as I serve up one dazzling observation after another.”

Asked why he doesn’t try his hand at stand-up comedy or publishing a book of jokes, Cunningham said, “No, it’s got to be in front of the TV and my audience can’t be just perfect strangers. I’m not interested in making money off of my talent. That’s how selfless I am.

“I just think it would have been swell to have had a special someone who chooses to sit there with me to laugh along with my grasp of the depth of the world’s idiocy. But it seems my comedic genius will go unrequited.” 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Canadians Obsessed with American Politics, seek to Vote as Honourary Americans

Dateline: TORONTO—Thousands of Canadians are lobbying the United States government to allow them to vote as honourary Americans in US elections, despite their lacking US citizenship, because they know more about the United States than Canada.

According to their lobbyist, Hughie Sketcher, these Canadians “yearn to be politically active, but they lament the fact that Canada isn’t interesting enough to hold their attention even for a moment.”

Most of these “practically disenfranchised” Canadians live in Ontario, confirmed Sketcher, but that province “might as well be a crater on the moon, for all the rest of the world is concerned.”

One of the Ontarians seeking the right to vote in the US is John Smith. “No one outside of Canada knows where Ontario is,” said Smith. “No one else even knows that Ontario is a place. It’s richer and more populous than numerous whole countries, but because it’s objectively dull, no one cares, not even most Ontarians. So how am I supposed to summon the energy to study Ontarian politics? Do I look superhuman?”

By contrast, American politics is “infinitely amusing,” said Smith, “like a slapstick comedy or a Hollywood thriller in which there’s a sinister turn of events every two minutes.” American politics is thus irresistible to bored Canadians who just want to feel like they’re engaged citizens and who don’t want to “fall asleep at the voting booth.”

These Canadians admit to “studying American political shenanigans religiously,” said Sketcher. They follow the scandals on CNN and Fox News. “Meanwhile, nothing ever happens in Canada. It’s all in stasis there to maintain the peace in that multicultural society.”

“We talk about American politics all the time in Canada,” said Smith. “On the bus, waiting in line at the movies, at the water cooler, at a restaurant—the latest American political travesty is typically the hottest topic of conversation.” 

Asked why these Canadians don’t leave Canada and become American citizens, Smith said, “We don’t want to actually live there and get shot in the streets or take a chance of dying as homeless bums with the rest of the bottom seventy percent. We’re not lunatics.

“We just want to vote in the US for our fifteen minutes of fame, to participate in the greatest show on Earth.”

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Walter White’s Special Love for his Baby Blue

Here are two incongruous statements from the Wikipedia article on the television show Breaking Bad:Breaking Bad is widely regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time. By the time the series finale aired, the series was among the most-watched cable shows on American television.” Typically, when anything is extremely high in quality, it’s consumed or even known about only by a small minority. Quality and quantity thus have a zero-sum relationship, at least in a “free” society: the greater the quality of some consumer good, the lower the quantity of consumers who might enjoy it, and the larger the mass of consumers who circle around something, the lower that thing’s expected quality. This is because the less a society is regulated, the greater is its economic inequality and so the finer things in life happen only for the upper class. For example, while sex may occur even in slums, the finest bodies and minds will flock to each other within walled-off mansions. Even in the case of television, which used to be a low-brow medium but which has been elevated in its current golden age, thanks to HBO, AMC, and other premium outlets, most viewers don’t watch the premium channels, just as most movie viewers don’t watch the Oscar contenders. But Breaking Bad was an exception—at least in part, since the viewership was relatively low for most of the show’s episodes. This is still especially surprising because the show’s message is subversive.

What, then, is the meaning of the award-winning and thus strangely popular television show Breaking Bad? (Spoilers follow.)

The show is about a character named Walter White who begins as a beta male high-school chemistry teacher, but who decides to “break bad” or go rogue when he contracts lung cancer. He uses his expertise to cook and sell the illicit drug methamphetamine, to make a fortune and to leave something of value behind for his family in the short time he has left before his presumed imminent death. His cancer, however, goes into remission, which allows him to pursue his ambition, but the tragedy is that the further he ventures into the dark side, as it were, the more his character must transform to suit the criminal underworld. He comes to prefer his alter ego, whom he calls Heisenberg, the criminal mastermind and supervillain who even has a costume (the black brimmed hat and sunglasses).

The final episode includes the revelation that while Walter repeatedly told himself and his wife and child, Skyler and Flynn, that the end justified his criminal means, because he meant to steal and murder altruistically, to sacrifice himself for his family’s benefit, he learned to face the truth that he did it all for himself, because he preferred the dark side. He tells his wife, just prior to his last hurrah, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.” Walter then performs his final “sacrificial” acts, by massacring the neo-Nazi gang that stole most of the money he made as the drug kingpin and that posed a threat to his family, and by saving his wayward partner Jesse Pinkman, whom the gang kept as their slave to cook high-quality crystal meth for them. In the process Walter is hit by shrapnel in his side, and just before he dies (or perhaps is arrested, treated, and imprisoned) he visits the gang’s meth lab, smiling as he admires the labequipment, the police arriving in the background. Walter collapses, leaving a symbolic blood stain on the apparatus, and the song “Baby Blue” plays, sending him off. That song by Badfinger is actually about a young woman named Dixie, but the first two stanzas take on exquisite double meanings, because Walter’s brand of crystal meth features a blue colour that’s a byproduct of his ingenious method of producing it. The lyrics of the song the show ends with read:

Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long, my love
All that time without a word
Didn't know you'd think that I'd forget or I'd regret
The special love I had for you, my baby blue 

All the days became so long
Did you really think, I'd do you wrong?
Dixie, when I let you go
Thought you'd realize that I would know
I would show the special love I have for you, my baby blue