Friday, December 10, 2010

The Limits of a Paradigm: Sam Harris

I've been meaning to write about Sam Harris for a while. This is because I think that if he just had one slight change in his thinking, his ideas would make a lot more sense. I say this because I believe science is in desperate need of a paradigm shift, in the sense that Kuhn talks about in "Theory of Scientific Revolutions" (great historian/philosopher of science). Currently science is in a materialist paradigm. What is real is defined by the ability for humans to think logically about a phenomenon. Empirical observations and the scientific truths that follow are the only kind of truths that individuals or society can really think or do anything about, so it is the only meaningful aspect of reality. This is what the scientific paradigm purports. Of course the average person does not necessarily think this way. But this does not mean that the paradigm does not effect society as a whole. The beliefs of scientists shape the direction of our thinking--they define aspects of what it means to be human, they lead the development of our new technologies, and they serve as the first lens with which we interpret the material world. And don't get me wrong--there have been amazing strides in improving the well being and equal treatment of humans within this paradigm. But now we are at the paradigm's limits, as illustrated by Sam Harris's dilemma. 

Here's what Mr. Harris is grappling with, in my view: He is fully committed to the materialist paradigm. This has lead him to many drastic conclusions about religion, namely that it is a useless, and at times harmful conglomeration of myths and beliefs that need to be done away with. But then he is faced with the question of morality. After all, many people cite religion as the source of their moral compass. So when he is campaigning against religion, some in his opposition respond by saying that religion dictates morality--without it, people would be amoral. So, Sam Harris has written a book to explain that no, science can be and *should* be the source of morality. 

But here is where Harris comes up against the issue of his paradigm. Harris claims that "values are facts about the well being of conscious creatures". Thus, we can reach logical, objective conclusions about what is a moral act by determining whether the act "increases well-being". He then imagines there being a 'moral landscape' where there are peaks and valleys in terms of behaviors that increase well being more or less. With this structure in place, scientists can then make objective claims about moral behavior. Thus, we can objectively say that killing a woman because she was raped is amoral. 

Well duh. After reading countless articles and speeches that Sam Harris has made about this book "The Moral Landscape", I couldn't find anything in his moral theory that makes it significantly different from Utilitarianism. The idea that in a given situation, people should commit the act that will have the best consequences for the most people has been around for at least 200 years. The twist, it seems, is that to Harris, we can investigate empirically what increases human 'well-being' and then prescribe those things as moral acts. 

So if this idea has already been around, why hasn't it caught on already? Why do we need people like Sam Harris to remind us of it's virtues? 

Well for one, it's very difficult to define 'well-being' or any other word you'd like to replace it with. Take a minute just to think about your closest friends, and the huge range of activities they like to participate in, ways they like to relate to people and ambitions that they have in life, and you'll begin to have a picture of why constructing a general sense of 'well being' (that goes beyond meeting one's basic survival needs) is a monumental, if not impossible task. 

But there is a missing piece of information here. Because cognitive scientists and neuroscientists have been studying moral judgments for quite a while now. Instead of trying to determine what morality should be, however, they have been attempting to study how people do behave morally. Jonathan Haidt has been one of the central investigators. And what have they found? 

That moral decision making is committed on the basis of emotional reactions, not 'rational' decision making. So here is the real  difficulty of science trying to make moral prescriptions. Because science has shown us that we do NOT reason our way into our moral decision making. So a process like the one Sam Harris describes has been proven by science to not be the way people actually act. 

So on the one hand, Sam Harris is interested in winning his argument against religion by constructing a  moral basis that is completely objective. By doing this, he wants to prove his paradigm. Not only that, but I think Harris is genuinely disturbed by the proliferation of moral relativism that has followed from the scientific paradigm that we are currently in.  But the scientific paradigm includes a belief that empirical observations and the scientific truths that follow are the only kind of truths that individuals can really think or do anything about. This makes them the only meaningful aspect of reality, and thus the only source for objectivity---the only things that are 'true'." And religion contends that there are moral truths that can not be understood in the scientific method of finding truth. This conflicts with the current scientific paradigm. So Sam Harris, being a good scientist, feels compelled to remedy this aberration within the paradigm. 

But on the other hand, the scientific method/paradigm itself, in studying individual moral behavior, has proven that people do not think rationally, or scientifically, about how to behave morally. More often than not, the motivation for moral behavior is emotional, not 'reasonable'. So why wouldn't Sam Harris, who so firmly believes in the reality of this paradigm, not construct a 'scientific' moral system that somehow appeals to people's emotions? One that causes them to shift the way they feel about other people and encourages them to act for the well-being of conscious creatures. After all, this would be the method that is scientifically proven to get people to behave morally--and isn't that the purpose of creating any moral system?

Of course, Sam Harris can't do that--because what would that look like, if not religion. So, in this way, Sam Harris is stuck within his own paradigm. He can only suggest a moral system that his own paradigm has proven would be ineffective. Without it, if one believes in the scientific paradigm one can very easily conclude a moral relativity that Sam Harris and many others find very disturbing. But what if he could shift his paradigm, just a little bit? 

So instead of trying to find objective morality empirically and then using that as a tool for moral decision making, why don't we accept the idea that there may be objective, non-rational truths that can not be quantified, but can only be experienced. And experiencing and living these truths will make you a more moral person. And let's also agree that there are thousands upon thousands of people out there who claim they know these truths--priests, rabbis, monks, nuns, cult-leaders, healers, psychics, self-help gurus--who actually don't. And that these people should be found, and outed for what they actually are--fakers. (And I have reason to believe this could be done in a scientific fashion). But let's also suggest that perhaps there are people out there who have experienced those truths, and have honestly useful methods for other people to experience those truths that could benefit other people. And that some of these people might be related to religious sects, but this does not necessarily mean their truths are automatically discounted. 

If the paradigm could shift to accept the existence of a relevant reality that cannot be discovered scientifically, perhaps Sam Harris' quandary could be solved. I believe that there are many discrepancies like this that we are currently butting heads with and a shift in this direction could be very positive for humanity's quest for truth. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How do you know what you want?

Making decisions in life is difficult. With even the simplest choices, I find myself tearing through the given options, imagining distant consequences that create entire lives I have to choose to lead or not. In this way, everything can be seen as life-altering, and thus paralyzing. To me, what makes it so difficult is that I actually want two conflicting things. I have strong values in life that conflict with each other, and make me consider different options.

But let's define the soul as: the a priori subjective belief that you are a unique, individual, unified perspective. So accepting the objectivity of yourself. You cannot observe yourself. You can not perceive yourself. You are yourself. But "I" thinks it can perceive itself. It is the I that explains to 'you' who you are and what you can or can't do, the I that tells other people the same, the I that narrates your experiences. But you,  the soul, the perspective, have your experiences. It is often the I that makes the decisions about who you should or shouldn't date, what you should or shouldn't do, where you should or shouldn't live. But you can also act.

So what does this mean for decision making, the suggestion that there is a real you, a you that is separate from most of your conscious thoughts? Before the idea of a 'real' you, the conflicting values that lead to indecision seem to be of equal weight. The introduction of  a 'real' you implies that one value is wrong (not the 'real' you) and another value is right (the 'real' you). So now decision making is not a gamble. It is a real tangible something. We must investigate this 'you' and find out what he or she wants, and then do that thing.

Of course, investigation of this you, as the I should know by now, is fundamentally impossible. Only you can know you. The I can only know what lays outside of you. So we can not rationally determine or describe who we are. We can only experience who we are.

It is my assertion here that most decision making is gambling--and people rarely do what the soul 'them' actually wants. This is again because the I has no way of knowing what you want. It can only look outside of you and construct an identity that the I wants. But this will always feel empty, because the soul or 'real' part of you who perceives and has feelings and experiences is not getting what it wants. Some people, because of the stress and doubt that difficult decisions cause them, choose to completely ignore their conflicting feelings, and become increasingly attached to the I that has been constructed. Others, because of the sadness felt when you think what you want is impossible or out of the question for you never make any decisions. (because of the I's convictions--you are of course meant to do exactly what you are meant to do).

My definition of the soul may be hard to swallow. But instead of wondering whether it is objectively true (something that would be impossible) think instead about the consequences of believing it is true.When you are conflicted about a decision, just imagine that you are a unified consciousness. That there is indeed, something that you actually feel--not just think--that you want.

As a young person, when I try this exercise, I often come up with the feeling of: "I don't know". This may seem like a stopping point, or a loop. You can't decide what to do, so you feel that you don't know what to do. Duh. But it is actually an invitation. Having the real and deep experience of not knowing, of ignorance, turns quickly into curiosity. It the spark of real passion and investigation.

I suggest these things not only as a way to determine what you want in life. I suggest them because people's inability to have accurate ideas about what the 'real' them wants is actually extremely damaging to the outside, material world and other individuals in it. A central desire for most people in American consumerist culture is to make money, and then more of it. Another strong desire that most people express is to be 'successful', which I think roughly means be recognized by their relevant peers to have more value than the average person. And yet, it's not difficult to see that both of these 'desires' have immediate detrimental effects on the environment as well as our fellow humans.  We have ravaged the earth with our insatiable need to consume material goods, as advertising agencies have convinced us that only their products will make us feel good enough. And we operate daily under the conviction that some people are just better, and of more worth, than others, and it is our purpose to prove our individual power to others.

But I am for better or worse completely convinced that at the end of the day individuals are good and want to do what is good. And yet, most people claim to have these desires, that are very damaging for things outside of them. Some might then conclude that people are actually at the core not good. But I instead suggest that these desires aren't actually real. Even if you feel them strongly, what about the other desires that you have, buried deep, that can sometimes conflict? How about your desire for the people around you to be happy? For you to feel and trust real love around you? For there to be less suffering around you? Your desire to relax and enjoy the inherent beauty in artful creation or natural evolution? Your desire to no longer strive, no longer want? To just be?

A world where these desires could be met could be created. But it would first require a shift in our beliefs about what we actually want. What world do we want to live in? What are we doing to achieve that world, instead of striving to make our place in this world we can agree is not ideal? Which aspect of our desires would we like to be real? The choice is ours to make.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How do you know when you are acting freely?

I've been thinking lately about what defines a free act. Societal definitions do not seem to help. As a child, I was told that "with freedom, comes responsibility". This implied to me that free acts were often paired with negative consequences. As we grow up, our freedoms are granted to us only if we act responsibly and prove to our parents, our schools, our society in general that we have earned it. As I've grown up, I've realized how strange this sense of societal freedom really is.

After all, it's not actually the case that the more responsibly we act the more freedom we gain in society. Instead, it is those who exploit the most and take responsibility for the least (i.e. huge corporations) that have the most freedom, as measured by monetary power, to enact their desires upon the world. In a recent study cited by Timothy Noah in his excellent Slate series "The United States of Inequality", USA, along with Italy and Great Britain, have become one of the least upwardly mobile rich countries in the world. It seems that we are increasingly granted the 'freedom' to live up to the expectations that are set up for us simply by where and under what financial circumstances we were born into. Any hopes to deviate from this given 'freedom' becomes tied to the able-ness of our bodies, the sharpness of our minds, the beauty of our faces, and still, somehow, courageously, the will of our souls.

Yes. Despite the ever-increasing infringements upon individual will and desire, the constant and relentless bombardment of advertisements convincing us of what we want, the barrage of 'news' media that perpetuates stereotypes and incites fear, despite the wave of brain scientists and psychologists that attempt to explain and predict as many of our behaviors as they can, our childhoods where we are taught to conform or be punished, and the psychiatric drugs that encourage us to not investigate our feelings of depression and loneliness---almost everyone I have ever encountered still firmly believes that they have free will. That, on some level, they are in charge of the decisions they make and the directions they go. That they cannot be predicted.

It's very difficult to identify something that almost every individual agrees upon. That's why I'm so curious to find a path to freedom, to know when I am acting freely, and to chase after those experiences. So where to begin. In a way the answer comes easily: When am I free? When I'm doing what I want to do. When I am doing whatever I want.

Again, this definition was like a dead end. Who is this unified I? How will I know her when I see her, when I hear her? So much of my consciousness is a continuing conversation, a voice from the observer, voices of girls I used to be, girls I think I should be, voices I know to be damaging, hurtful, or wasteful. Which one is I? Which one knows what I want?

Perhaps this struggle is not familiar to many, I know for a long time I was mostly unaware of it. As the dreamwork continues to awaken me to the feelings I work so hard to repress, though, I come to see that it wasn't that I knew what I wanted, but rather that I knew how I wanted seem. That I was making my decisions based on the part of me that thinks, that observes and reacts, not the aspect of myself that feels, that perceives and creates.

So if knowing what you want is confusing, how do you know if you are acting freely? I'm temped to respond that one knows they are free because they feel it. Of course this is vague, and confusing. There are plenty of things I do because they make me 'feel' good, things that I do because I feel 'free' to do so--vegging out in front of the tv, eating too much, drinking too much, sleeping in, buying gossip magazines, blowing off friends, spending money I don't have, skipping activities I know I'll enjoy-- and yet they always seems to result in the opposite emotion, a feeling that I am stuck in a monotonous life, unable to make any real positive changes. It is only after I do the things that took effort to accomplish--making a new friend, going for a bike ride, learning about a topic I didn't know about before, trying new activities, pushing myself in my work, writing, reading--that I begin to feel that kind of elation that one can only recognize as freedom---a lifting of the veil, hints to the areas of needed growth, the chance to become something you were not before.

So I've come to a suggestion. It's only a small change from my childhood definition. Instead of thinking of responsibility a tiresome after effect of freedom, I think freedom should be an effect of taking responsibility. It is the act of taking responsibility itself that sets you free. It frees you from the oppression of others making decisions for you, and ensures that you are mindful of the ways that you are oppressing others (both relationships being a type of enslavement). Being responsible and educating yourself about what you consume will free you from crimes of corporate america. Taking responsibility for your own happiness will motivate you to make the difficult changes that are often necessary for positive growth. Taking responsibility for your actions, your every action, will require the patience and thoughtful consideration that is necessary for you to begin to really see all the possibilities and open you to ways of thinking you had not considered before.

Freedom is such a complicated term, there are certainly many of its aspects that aren't encompassed by my definition here. But I do think it's a very workable personal definition, a way of steering the boat. How can I take more responsibility in my life? What effects am I having that I am ignoring? What parts of myself do I blame on others? How can I feel free?

Thursday, July 15, 2010


...but hipsters seem to be on their way out. I first came to the realization after a 2 hour long gaze at LATFH (look at that fucking hipster) back in September. Because being a hipster has now become identifiable, being a hipster is against the hipster ethos. Those who are desperate to establish an identity that lies outside of the mainstream are going to have to turn somewhere else. So, then, where are the hipsters going to go? What's coming up next? I guess I want to make a suggestion. It might take me a minute to get there but bear with me.

I recently watched a documentary series that was broadcasted by the BBC called "Century of Self". If you've ever wanted to understand the 20th century through the lens of the psychological theories that dominated the times and its connection to consumerism, capitalism and democracy, this is the documentary for you. It's amazing. In Century of Self, the writer/director Adam Curtis explains how the beatnik/hippie desire for free internal self-expression became fulfilled by corporations and consumerism. The ego was coaxed away from the individuals duty to society and into the idea that the individual duty is to be oneself, Jerry Rubin perhaps being the best example. It is through marketing and the relentless engine of capitalism that we have become an individualistic society of sub-cultures, a vast array of lifestyles that we can choose from to express ourselves, buy the goods for, and be accepted by, all by a click of a button (as long as we are signed up for 1-click shopping on

Of course, these 'choices' are empty once they have been externally produced and marketed to us. After all, corporations do not accept us for who we are in ourselves. Instead advertising must insist that there is something wrong with who we are, something missing, something that will only be restored by whatever product they are peddling. Marketing preys on our insecurities, and it is only through the perpetuation of our insecurities that the overconsumption necessary to maintain our economy can exist. Seen in this light, the hipster is something of an implosion of consumerism. The successful hipster is a viral insecurity creating machine, perhaps their most unifying attribute being their ability to disdain, disapprove, dismiss and anyone around them that has not been able to appropriately signify their individualism. As such, they perpetuate feelings of insecurity that fuel consumerist behavior, while at the same time condemning the conformist tendencies of any consumerist society. So, on one hand, hipster-dom is a corporations wet dream: the consumer who is constantly and ferociously determined to find and purchase the goods that will define them to others as themselves--no matter how obscure or useless that good is. On the other, their commitment to individuality and free expression are values with teeth, and hearkens back to the legacy of other powerful, anti-materialist social movements throughout history.

This is only the way to define the hipster in economic terms--hardly the only way to look at it. Another, perhaps more important lens is that of the hipster psychology. A primary attribute of hipsters is their pervasive lack of definition, and refusal to associate with their obvious group. An aspiring hipster at times myself, I know that hipsters like it that way. They joined the movement so that they would not be a member of any movement. Groups lead to conformity, a fakeness and inauthenticity that is inherently uncool. They wanted to be hipsters to show everyone else around them that they could be exactly themselves, with no affiliation to any particular group. And so, their movement has no advocates. I admire and emulate in a lot of ways individualism that is attempted through the hipster ethos. Through them, anything can be 'cool': homosexuals, sexual experimenters, the hula hoopers, the crisp organic farmers from Vermont, the biracial, the broken family, the anti-social, the trendy, the OCD, the depressed, the drug addicted, the intellectuals, the country bumpkins, the obscure, the old, the very very young. The voracious pace at which music, books, art, clubs, bars, restaurants, themes, trends, travel destinations, charities, objects and clothes are discovered and then discarded as they are popularized demonstrates the desperation to create an individual identity. I think think this goal is worthy. Unfortunately, any successful expression of individuality becomes eclipsed once the society identifies such a person as 'cool'. Then, the individual expression becomes motivated by societal acceptance, which is where, I think, the hipster was born.

And so, my prayer for the progression of hipsterdom: that individuals will decide to be themselves for themselves, not for the group. That hipsters will believe in themselves as the powerful arbiters of cultural, societal and political change that they could be, if only they stopped caring whether it was cool or not. That it will do away with irony in order to better achieve what I think was its broader goal: free self-expression and individualism. That it won't succumb to the quick fixes that consumerist culture provide to be accepted, but instead be committed to the difficult, frightening and staggering work of trying to be precisely who you are in a society full of messages and opinions and demands explaining how you should be.

In the "new" hipsters search for individual expression, they should not dismiss or disdain others, but embrace them. For, the more you learn to embrace other's differences in a non judgmental way, the easier it is for you to embrace yourself. Cool could actually become a dirty word, meaning someone who was too concerned with other's acceptance of them to worry about what they actually cared about.

I hope there is some way for this to be a non-ironic goal. After all, it does not take much looking around to realize that our earth is increasingly and increasingly getting fucked up. That's certainly not ironic, it's reality. But I also firmly believe that individuals united in a movement can be arbiters for a new order, and be catalysts for real change. And personally, I believe that movement already exists, in hipster-ness. It just needs a little self-confidence, a big lack of irony, and the courage to stand up for what it believes in, no matter if its cool or not. I also think Lady Gaga is the leader of this movement, and a leading proponent of its philosophy. But that's for a different post :).

Getting Over Yourself

I think one of the hardest thing to do in life is get over yourself, the more I think about all the different things this phrase could mean.

For a long time, I considered it a way to explain what haughty or stuck up people ought to do. Get over themselves. Realize that they are like every body else. If you were self-involved, I thought, you should get over yourself. Open up your eyes and realize what is actually important, relevant, etc.

For the past five years, until March, I had not been in a committed relationship. During this single period, all of my most nagging insecurities, about my weight, my attractiveness level, my craziness, my ability to achieve my goals were externalized on to this future person, my boyfriend. This imaginary man would know the exact ways to act and the exact things to say that would reassure me I was perfect and beautiful and lovable, and would soar me into a lifetime of success.

Then, in March, I started dating my boyfriend. And he didn't say or do any of those things. One night I pressed him for about an hour about my attractiveness and his first reaction was just, "Is this one of those weird girl things?". He did not even nibble at any of my bait, just wondered why in the world his girlfriend, who he would obviously choose because he thought she was attractive, would not think so. He tried his best to reassure me, but I realized that there was nothing he could say that would. The words, the actions, the feeling that I had been waiting for was never going to come from some outside source. After all, I will never see myself from anyone else's perspective but my own. Nor should I. If I did I would no longer be myself. And so, I realized that these insecurities were something that I had to get over myself. If I wanted to feel the way I had fantasized about, I would have to learn how to forgive myself, how to support myself, and how to be myself without waiting for any external validation from others.

In many ways this process has been very difficult. It seemed obvious to me that insecurities are obstacles that you place in front of your growth. But what has surprised me is what else they stand in the way of: your deeper, more subconscious fears. Yes I am insecure about my attractiveness: but even scarier, if I just felt beautiful because I am a woman, and all women are beautiful (as this guy said...or Eve Ensler here) . Then, beauty would no longer be a goal I would have to attain, clothing I could wear or a diet I could go on to feel reassured, superior to others. So then what would fulfill me? What would validate me? Yes I am insecure about people liking me: but even scarier, if I no longer cared what people think? Then who would I be? How would I act? What would I care about? Yes I am insecure that I'm not living up to my 'potential', not treading the path to success that was laid out for me in the Ivy League: but even scarier, to realize I don't even know what I would consider actual success without these society-imposed measures? That I basically need to start from scratch to determine what is actually important to me, this time as myself, not as a reflection of what I think others want me to be.

And thus, to what I see as the last meaning of this phrase. Realizing that 'yourself' in getting over yourself, isn't actually you at all. It's someone you have constructed out of others interpretations, someone that strives to meet expectations, paints convenient, safe narratives about your past and your future, helps you to cling to your bitterness, to make assumptions about who's better and who's worse, about what's important and what's not, all along pushing down farther and farther who you actually are.

So, onward to get over my self. It becomes more and more frightening the more successful I am. But I'm beginning to see that it is not the fear itself but our reactions to it, our avoidance of it, that prevents us from change, hardens us, and makes us hateful. Being uncomfortable does not always mean something is wrong. It could simply mean that you are beginning to grow.

**Many thanks to Marc Bregman, without whom I never would have gotten where I am right now**

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The United States Social Forum

Last week I attended the United States Social Forum, which was a week long summit of 15,000 progressive individuals from around our country and around the world. 'Progressive' in the broadest sense possible: the term as appropriated by many who associate with the democratic party was not intended, rather individuals who are committed, in some substantial way, to social/political/economic change.

It was inspiring to say the least. One of the first shockers was the absolute diversity of participants. I have never been in a group of individuals with such diversity of interests, socio-economic class, hometowns, ages, skills, educational background, ethnic background and political opinion (besides general 'left'). In one workshop, I sat and listened to representatives from the Nigerian River Delta decry the exploitation of their environment. In a discussion afterwards, a middle aged Colombian woman argued with an older white sociologist from the University of Kansas who had been researching the relationship between native governments and the World Bank. A young gay rights activist from California mediated as me and a girl from Eunice, LA tried to make the connection between Nigeria and BP spill. In another, where an extremely passionate man from Move To Amend explained that a law that is 'legally' instituted that gives corporations the same rights as people contradicts democracy and is thus illegal by nature. An 80-year-old man, clearly hard of hearing, raised his hand to say, "Thanks so much for telling me about this issue! I had no idea there were people out there trying to amend the constitution". An 80 year old discovering new causes, new ways to look at the problems at hand and figure out one's place? To say inspiring hardly does it justice.

As the conference went on, the energy among the participants was palpable. Everyone there was doing something, wanting something, imagining something, pleading, arguing, debating, listening, participating, rejecting. It's not to say that everyone was doing the right thing, but just to have so many people fully engaged with this whirlwind of life: it demanded that you consider your role. Where do I fit into this society where this person is oppressed, that person is suffering, exploitation is here and here and here, communities are falling apart, individuals are fighting for their rights, artists are putting their images to the cause, photographers, dancers, puppeteers? Most people there, I would say, were already set into their cause/purpose, had been fighting the good fight for something for a while already, so it's not to say that everyone was having this experience. But I do think that even for those deeply entrenched in their cause the sheer variety and conviction of participants in a variety of causes would make anyone stop and think for a second: why my cause, now? Why not something else? How can we collaborate? In what ways are we fighting the same fight?

I kept thinking over and over about some talk that I thought was glaringly missing from the discourse: what about all of those upper to middle class Americans who are not overtly complicit in oppression or destruction or exploitation and yet do nothing to fight against it in their societies? There is a common parlance among these activists about 'waking up', realizing the contradictions within ones society and becoming increasingly willing to do something about them. But where was all the discussion about how to get everyone else to wake up, about what to do with the overwhelming sense of helplessness, pointlessness and eventual apathy that can result from a full investigation to how truly wretched so many aspects of our world actually are?

Being interested in psychology, and someone who in many ways has just recently 'woken up', and in many ways is not fully awake yet, I thought about this a lot. I think I'll write about this more as time goes on, but like so many things, the questions have lead me back to myself. I must do what I am meant to do. I must fight, and fight hard, against the constant bombardment of messages, images, expectations, second-guessing and fear that I have within myself that prevents me from being myself. Until I have made progress in this fight, all my external battles will be for naught. As was a quote by Archbishop Oscar Romero in one of the official USSF t-shirts sold by Liberation Ink,

"We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well"

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Women are Crazy vs. Men are Assholes

I'm sorry I've been so lacking in posts. There are a million excuses I can think of but being in lalalala new boyfriend land is probably the main one. But on the upside, I've been thinking tons!! about love and men and women and relationships and I'm looking forward to writing about them.

First, on the subject of "women are crazy" vs. "men are assholes". During my single life, I had many conversations with my girlfriends about how guys are assholes. They just don't get things, don't respond to situations appropriately, lack emotional response.

As I started to hang out with my boyfriend and his friends, though, I started to hear more and more that girls are 'crazy'. I think this is the equivalent feeling among a lot of guys, similar to the consensus among women that men are assholes. This equivalence got me thinking.

To be a true feminist, and thus to expect fully equal treatment between men and women, one must do the hard work of examining your own biases towards the opposite sex. So if I disagree that women are crazy, then I have to figure out what is causing me to believe that men are assholes, generally, and how that relates to the feeling that women are crazy.

Here's what I came up with. Women and men have a differing tendency of reaction and action, the former being a purely internal process and the latter being a purely external process. (Of course all of these are sweeping generalities and say nothing of the specific). So, given a situation, women are more likely to react to it, where men are more likely to act on it. Thus, women spend more time considering, pondering, investigating the details and the emotional consequences of certain actions or observations they have made. Men on the other hand are less likely to consider how they are reacting to the situation and more likely to just do something about it, or ignore it (which is actually, in many cases, a quite forceful action). As such, women are perceived by men as 'crazy', since they are likely to make perceptions or observations about a situation that a man doesn't. And men are seen as 'assholes' because they act on the situation without taking into account these perceptions and observations that feel obvious to the women.

I think it's nice to frame these generalizations this way because I think thought of in this way both sides have work to do. And perhaps this is one of the great benefits of being in a relationship. For women could learn from men how to act on their feelings and men could learn from women how to put their feelings into action.

Of course the words men and women here are somewhat useless, as I think in any relationship, be it heterosexual, homosexual, etc, it's not necessarily the gender that determines who's more or less assertive, more or less emotional. This is just a way to frame the conversation of one kind of division you might find in a relationship, and how learning to respect the other's skill is the first step in learning how to incorporate that skill into yourself.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gift Flow

Some friends of mine from Yale have started an amazing new site: The idea is a 'gift economy': instead of money, people trade or give away goods and services. No money is needed.

Have you ever heard that money is the root of all evil? I had, but hadn't really thought about it. But like so many cliches that I assumed were not true because so many people said them so often: (the truth must be some sacred unreachable unknowable thing, right?...) it turns out that it is absolutely true. We have abstracted all value from goods and services by placing 'monetary' value on things. Most of us already have the inclination that money is a corrupting force: after all, that's why we pay teachers and social workers and non-profit workers absolute shit, because we have the feeling that if you are 'working for the money' then your motivations are in the wrong place.

And what about all the people that dedicate their lives to making as much money as possible? Could it be that it is not actually a fulfilling occupation? Money eradicates the need of people to try and discover what they, as an individual, could offer of value into the economy and instead plugs them into to 'money-making' careers that have nothing to do with their individuality. Not to mention the whole marketing, advertising and promotional section of our economy, which basically just uses psychological tricks on people so that low-quality goods are shown to be 'worth' more money for superficial reasons.

Money ruins all kinds of things, and it's a force to be fought against, not just a reality we have to accept. I'm not arguing that without a monetary system we could have gotten to where we are in terms of technological advancement, etc. But we are certainly at a point now where we can afford to back away from our addiction to money, and see where it takes us. So is a good place to start.

If you are interested in the site and want to show your support, please click here.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Heidi Montag and The Hills

I just watched an episode of the Hills that was so disturbing. In case you have been living under a rug/have a healthy relationship to the dribble that passes as reality television these days (as in you avoid it at all costs), Heidi Montag, a character/'real person' on MTV's signature semi-reality shows had 10 plastic surgeries done, effectively turning her into a Barbie.

It's not that plastic surgery on a reality show surprises me--but rather what happened afterwards, when Heidi visited her mom. The reality show went with Heidi on her trip, and captured perhaps the most real moment that has ever been on the show. Here's my interpretation, in quotes:

Mom: Why do you think you have to look like everyone else?
Heidi: I was never going to be happy with the way I looked until I fit exactly into the Hollywood-definition of beautiful
Mom: But you were so beautiful and confident before you went to LA and all this "STUFF" happened.
Heidi: Are you saying that I don't look good? (crying)
Mom: (crying) I don't want to say that you don't look good, since what's done is done, but I just feel so sad that you went through "THIS"
Heidi: (crying) You have no idea what I have been through. You don't know how hard "IT" is for me.

So what is 'this' 'stuff' or 'it'? Obvious to anyone with half a brain, being on the show the Hills. I don't think Heidi is innocent, she has certainly done whatever she could to get her piece of the spotlight and that isn't MTV's fault. And yet, I really do think there is something wrong with a television show basically recording as a girl gets manipulated by an insane man (Spencer) and gets an insane amount of plastic surgery, all while pretending the show itself has nothing to do with the decisions she is making. Why is it okay for 'reality' television to basically ruin individuals lives and then keep recording as if the shit show had nothing to do with them?

I guess what I'm wondering is where do we draw the line. Can we let people consent to anything? What would people say if they created an AIDS reality show, where they could infect individuals with the virus and then record what happened to them? That seems wrong--since it's a physical harm. But what the fuck. If as you are recording someone they develop a mental illness and ruin their life because of the attention you are putting on them, it's just okay to keep going? Jon and Kate plus 8 are another great example of this. I shudder to think how those kids are going to turn out now. And the show was on THE LEARNING CHANNEL.

We have a bias against mental suffering, probably because we are still somewhat conditioned to believe that mental illness is self-caused and can be self-cured. Which is true in a sense, but there is no denying that being brought into the media spotlight causes mental and emotional problems, which are then exploited further and promoted by the show, which continues the cycle until it escalates to situations like Heidi and Spencers. This is wrong, and television producers should be held accountable.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Palm Reading for the Senior Nearing Graduation

You have very deep and varied lines. This indicates a passionate nature, you tend to absorb yourself completely in whatever activity is currently on your mind, and you can’t let it go until you fully explored every part you were interested in. You have a way of pushing a situation until it goes deeper than most people are comfortable with. But you get along with most people, who appreciate the intensity you can bring to a situation.

Your life line is the curved line that goes around your thumb. Yours is very deeply entrenched with your head line, indicating that you are deeply connected with your family/your home, may still be providing a lot of support to you or you may be involved in supporting them still. This connection has brought you some uncertainty at the start of your life but as you mature you are starting to see yourself as your own person, separate from your origins. Eventually this conflict will come to the large fork at the end of your life, and after a period of deep misgivings you will successfully forge a balance between connection to home and independence.

Your head line is the short line that goes across the middle of your palm. Yours is crossed right in the middle by your fate line and is somewhat short, indicating that there is a moment in your life in which you completely adopt a certain way of looking at things, and this new perspective will completely shape the rest of your career and mental life.

Your heart line is incredibly deep and wide, almost like a crack. This indicates that you tend to become completely absorbed by your emotions, almost to the point that you are not able to respond reasonably to them. You should be proud of yourself for your ability to feel things very viscerally, but learn not to wallow, which just leads to self-centered behavior.

Want me to read your palm? I will read your palm for $5.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Death Bear Video!

Woo! Death Bear made a video of us giving away our stuff! Featuring me Spencer Adam Mark and Anya!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Net Neutrality

Here's a good video I found explaining what Net Neutrality is, and why it's so important. Now, we are so accustomed to the freedom that we experience on the internet, but it's not difficult to imagine how quickly companies that have money idealogical interests, i.e. Rupert Murdoch could infiltrate internet consumption and prevent the free flow of information. I don't think the internet has been harnessed to its full potential for good...yet. But I do think that if the neutrality is not protected, it will almost certainly begin to be used as a tool for those that do not have individuals best interests at heart. Speak up for Net Neutrality!

Here's the video:

Visit to speak against this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New Orleans Has A Caveat

In many ways, this past weekend was a New Orleans classic for me. I rushed home from work, ran to the shower and was on Frenchmen within 20 minutes. After mixing my flask of whiskey with some diet I bought from the market, I met up with a friend from out of town and ran into a two groups of friends on the street. We all went into the bar together and drank pitchers of Andygator until we decided to walk two blocks to the other great bar. We drank more, my friend from out of town went to Bourbon with a girl I just introduced her to, and I end up in my bed realizing my wallet was still at the bar. Damn.

Spent the afternoon on Saturday having one of the best philosophical conversations of my life, then drove to Mid-City and went to a friend of a friend's birthday crawfish boil. Ate so much crawfish I felt a little ill and started to feel like these people I'd just met were going to end up being the best friends of my life. Exhausted, found out Rebirth was playing for free at the French Quarter Fest and we all pile into an SUV. I sit in the way-back and get to watch the city move backwards.

Eventually we park, go to the port-o-potties by the aquarium. A drunk tourist screams that "You just can't fucking trust these people in New Orleans" and the girl behind me tells me and the guy behind me, all of us strangers, "I really like the people in New Orleans.". We all smile and nod in agreement.

We dissolve into the crowd. Rebirth is in the last 20 minutes of their set. The sun is setting behind the stage that is right on the Mississippi river. A fucking steam boat passes as they play for god sakes. They're really grooving now, the songs are well over 8 minutes, the transitions between tunes difficult to parse out. I can't help but bounce my butt up and down and simultaneously feel like they're singing the most profound lyrics I've ever heard. Is there ever a moment when Do Watcha Wanna doesn't feel deeply, penetratingly true, completely undeniable? I feel exalted, heavenly, of a special breed. How is it that I have been lucky enough to be from, to truly be a part of, the best city in the entire world? Is there anywhere else where pure joy like this is allowed its rightful position as ultimate, singular goal? It seems that the rest of the world is constantly trying to carve out a time for these activities, to neatly differentiate from 'festive' time, where this ecstasy is permitted, and 'regular' time, where things are not suppose to be this fun, where we must do things that we all know are unpleasant, where this is the definition of work. Where we are suppose to pretend that we are all just individuals who happen to be residing in a similar area, not a community. Live our lives as if we are just trying to tolerate each other's intrusions on our privacy, instead of realizing it is precisely those intrusions that make us who we are. We are not suppose to stand together, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, hispanic and asian, and dance to the music that resides in all of our bellies. We are not to bask in the glorious connectedness that makes all of us feel whole again, knowing that everyone in this community is united in similar pleasures, supported by familiar pains.

I end the night on Frenchmen street. I order the drinks friends miles away might order, and reminisce to another friend about drinks we all had together, some other night. It's like everyone whose ever lived New Orleans with me is with me when I'm back with her. I spend a while talking to an older black man who runs a theater company on the Westbank. We talk about the racism that is implicit in our conversation, even when we don't feel any judgment from each other, as some of my white friends come to ask me if I'm okay. And still, we connect. Eventually, I get a ride home with some people from the Crawfish boil. Our walk across the city leaves us all desperate for the bathroom. The driver negotiates with the valet at the hotel. We end up parking for free.

When I get home, I log on to Nola.COM, buzzed from the high of such a classic New Orleans weekend. And then the Headline reads: 7 SHOT AT CHARTRES AND CANAL ST., LEAVING THE FRENCH QUARTER FESTIVAL. New Orleans has a caveat.

This is a real crisis.

New Orleans must fundamentally remake its police department and larger criminal justice system so that it can effectively uphold the law and pursue justice and safety for its residents. It is not about the pursuit of a flowery ideal – criminal-justice reform is a matter of life and death for the residents of New Orleans more than it is about avoiding more international embarrassment and shame.

There is also the matter of race. There is simply no denying that the consequences of our broken criminal justice system disproportionately harm the African American community. It isn’t just that there is a racist subtext (and obvious context) to be condemned while examining the attitudes of NOPD officers toward suffering African American New Orleans residents stranded in September 2005. It is the patently disproportionate harm experienced by African American residents throughout the criminal justice system. While the NOPD crisis is such that everyone can share in their disgust, there is simply no denying the historical precedent within the African American community." --

4/12/10, @The Lens by Eli Ackerman

New Orleans, no matter how glorious, how heavenly, how purposeful it seems, has an equally horrific caveat, a taste of the devil and his destruction paired with every manna like bite. Until this wound heals, descriptions of New Orleans will always--SHOULD always have a but. We can not toast to its recovery when our citizens are dying in its streets. I'm as guilty of this as anybody. When outsiders ask about the crime rates, I tell them, "Oh you don't have to worry about it, nothing will happen to you, because you're rich and white. Crime does not effect people like us." All the time denying, that the crime IS us. That we basically ignore these things that go on in our streets defines who we are as individuals. As we let it continue and carry on with our lives, we turn a blind eye to horrible suffering that we could potentially do something about.

I often struggle with, well what could I do? There are too many factors, too many causes, too many unsolvable situations. Luckily, the Silence is Violence organization has provided a great start. And just imagine the kind of power they could have if we all dedicated a day, or two, to volunteer with this organization? The point is not that we could definitely solve the problem. Rather, the gesture would recognize our role in perpetuating violence: simply that we do not speak out against it loud enough, and do our part to make the city whole again. If you love New Orleans, your words can not be against the people who are bearing the brunt of this violence. This is not us vs. them, an argument, a time to point fingers, a time to fight . This should be a call for peace. A recognition of our mutual, eternal, essential human agreement, that we allow each other to live.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I don't think we should have causes anymore. This is not to say that we should ignore the worlds problems. But rather that causes create a dogmatic 'us vs. them' mentality. They perpetuate the idea that there are certain causes one can choose to fight for or not, and the strength of your engagement in that fight is equivalent to the moral fortitude of your character. I think this keeps a lot of people out of doing what is good and right for the world, which is exactly what causes are created to promote.

Don't get me wrong: adopting a cause takes a lot of guts, and really representing it takes a lot of hard work. Fair or not, if you declare that eradicating sweatshops is extremely important to the world, you're gonna get a lot of flack from people who just don't care about sweatshops, or resent you for making them feel guilty about their Nikes or their tees. Plus, if you dedicate yourself to the cause, and you want to have some success in your life, the fight is EXTREMELY difficult and long. Even if you work your butt off, you may never see any significant change for what you were fighting for. And I know there are countless numbers of individuals who engage in this struggle on a daily basis without judgment, suspicion or cynicism of others who are not a part of the fight.

But I have also met those that strongly represent causes, be they political, health-related, civil rights, environmental, etc, that were often too quick to write you off as one of 'them'. If you didn't sign their petition or knock on doors or whatever else was really urgent to them right then, you were part of the problem instead of the solution. Not unlike religious dogma, their conviction that their cause is the right one is only confirmed by societal rejection. Drawing lines between those that 'see' or 'know' what's really going on and those that don't, the world becomes a constant battle, and those who represent 'causes' can always find ways to feel like the enemy is everywhere. That conspiracy theories abound in some of the most entrenched literature of these causes is not surprising. It seems to me that there is no quicker way to feel isolated, judgmental and cynical about the state of the outside world.

I think my uneasiness with causes comes down to a basic challenge that I've struggled quite a bit. Ok, I want to be a good person, and do something that is good for the world. But which cause? Believe it or not, I don't think that this is a rare goal of individuals. (I really do believe that most people want to be good, and want to do things that are at least non-harmful to others or society in general. I know some will disagree with this, but I don't think it is a matter of knowable fact, and thus I feel that my faith in it is both justified and beneficial.) So what should I do?

The sheer number of causes, of issues and problems that one could approach is daunting. Beyond that--I feel strongly that my choice would be arbitrary. Sure, I could dedicate my life to infectious diseases in 3rd world countries. But why not try to save the rainforests in Brazil? That you have to 'pick one', and 'do something' is a fine enough answer, but hardly a good reason to convince others they should join the fight. And how can you ever expect to really make progress if you can't even justify to yourself why one cause should be fought for over another?

And thus, I think the current structure of activism is backwards. To be good, I do not think we fight for causes that represent problems we want to solve. Instead, we should observe ourselves more closely, and solve the problems for which we are the cause.

I'm not suggesting that this is easier than adopting a cause--I don't think it is. There are a lot of problems that we contribute to without realizing it, and discovering these transgressions is difficult and at times uncomfortable and unpleasant work. And yet, it is in some ways easier to know where to start. As a taxpayer in New Orleans, my money causes the disfunction that I observe in my city. Because I don't voice my opinion to my elected representation, I fail to do my part to solve the problem. As someone who drives a car, I am a cause of global warming and of the harmful relationship our country has with oil. Because I don't pay close attention or attempt to ration my use of gas, I fail to do my part to solve the problem. And so on and so on.

More importantly, approaching doing good this way will eventually free individuals from having to represent ideals instead of themselves. I think living as a solution, or as someone committed to solving only the problems they directly contribute to, will make the responsibility more balanced and allow people to be more in tune with themselves instead of the external issues that surround them.

I certainly, as usual, don't claim to have succeeded in doing what I suggest here. And I don't know if I'm saying anything much more complicated than 'do your part' or 'be a part of the solution'. But sometimes, just writing them down brings them that much closer to happening, and sometimes, the simplest things are worth saying again.

***P.S> I want to in general give more credit to all my amazing friends/family who, w/o the conversations I have with them I would never get half the ideas that I do, so thanks for all the other ones I should have and for this one esp. David and Jordan B.!***

Thursday, April 1, 2010

DIY U out in stores!!


My sister's book, DIY U has hit the shelves/palms. I'm so excited about it. It's really shocking for me to realize that almost half of the people that start college never finish. Further, only about 1/3 of people in America have a degree at all. And yet, a vast majority of people in this country believe that without a college degree you'll never have a decent career, and if you can't finish school you're either lazy, stupid or some combination thereof. It's very limiting for young people trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Our world is changing rapidly and we need an educational system that will change with it. Anya impressively outlines how the system we have currently was put in place, and why it is failing so many today. Most importantly, it provides empowerment to the reader that is interested in fixing the problem for themselves.

When I was a senior in high school my sister gave me "The Teenage Liberation Handbook". After being in school for 12 years, the idea of going to college was totally daunting to me. It was an amazing breath of fresh air to be exposed to the idea that systemized education is not for everyone. After I read it though, we talked about how ideas like the one in that book were so fringe people didn't take them seriously. I feel like Anya is really packaging this message in way that can reach a much broader audience and I am so proud of her for that! I hope you'll read the book out and see her on tour. Don't forget to check out the site:

IN NEW HAVEN: Labryinth Bookstore, Saturday April 10th, 3pm
IN NEW YORK: Vox Pop Bookstore, 1022 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, Sunday April 11th 4pm
Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen Street, Wed, April 21, 7pm
IN NEW ORLEANS: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia, Tuesday, May 4th at 6pm

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Are You Slightly Privileged, Slightly Uneasy?

"And young people like yourselves, despite the allure of careers and comfort, have defected. Our only hope for real change lies in the possibility that all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards of the prison uprising in Attica: expendable. That the establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, if necessary to maintain its control will kill us. But if the guards stop obeying, if you stop obeying, the system falls."

--Howard Zinn in "The American Ruling Class"

This is the quote that keeps running through my head since I first watched "The American Ruling Class". Not shocking: Zinn is talking directly to me. I'm slightly (well more than slightly) privileged and slightly (well now, a little more than slightly) uneasy. While I can see that things are very bad for so many people in this world, things are just good enough for me that I can convince myself that things are alright for those who are struggling. Or, maybe I recognize that I want to do something, so I become involved in the within-system organizations that are available for upper class liberals like me. I join the Democrats, and fight for their cause, to increase equality in our country. That's the right thing to do, right?

But it seems to me that Zinn is suggesting being a democrat is no better than being a republican, it's only a better lie you can tell yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable about the bad situations that you see around you. By representing the elite liberal viewpoint, I'm actually just playing my role in the system that oppresses those that I want to help. I'm the prison guard, without me, the prisoners would not be kept where they need to be--after all, I am who is suppose to be representing them in the negotiations.

This question is very challenging. I have been struggling with it a lot, and I don't know the answer. Is it possible to change a broken system from within? Or by working in the system are you just perpetuating it? The current political situation is an interesting one to examine. Now, we have Obama, whose election, in many ways, was suppose to represent the causes of the previously disenfranchised, the anti-Bush. But the incredible struggle for health care simultaneously invigorated the far right while watering itself down to the point of distaste for many 'very' liberal democrats. Meanwhile, the economic 'recovery' could be summed up as rich people being uncomfortable for a short period and then thankfully becoming rich (and in some cases *goldman sachs* richer), while 1 out of 6 americans are currently unemployed with the poverty rate higher than it has been in decades. So, it does appear to me that cheering the current democratic 'victory' is something of a sham. It entails swallowing a whole lot of things that I think are wrong, and accepting that the things I want "aren't possible", when that really means "not possible within the current system".

On the other hand, am I really going to claim that progress has not been made within the system as it is? Aren't we, as individuals, as nations, as a world better off than we were 20, 100, 200 years ago? It's a very debatable question, but hard to unequivocally say that things are getting worse. Not to mention I can only barely conceive of what working 'outside of the system' or 'stop obeying' could mean practically. What else can I do besides join the fight that has been making some progress some of the time using the channels that are available to it?

Zinn's quote paints a dim picture of me, the liberal elite. It's not that I have the wrong ideology, but rather because I have the right kind that complacency is so alluring. If I have a vague notion that things aren't right, I can vote for a democrat and chalk up their failures to politics as usual, while I go along my business living a comfortable, free life. And there is a big part of me that thinks there is something really wrong with a system where this is a natural, common choice. But if I'm honest, I think all it can definitely imply is that there's something really wrong with me for choosing it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Jon Stewart Flipping the Fuck Out

Two nights ago, Jon Stewart dedicated his entire show to mocking Glenn Beck. If you haven't watched Glenn Beck, I think you should. Millions of people watch and listen to Glenn Beck everyday. They do so to gain information. He has had five books be #1 on the bestseller list. This makes me feel completely crazy. And really freaks me out. It has also made Jon Stewart completely crazy. Please watch him freaking the fuck out here:

It's nothing short of amazing. It did make me wonder if Stewart might be getting pushed over the edge a little bit though. In fact, this whole week he seems to have taken a fever pitch. He perfectly pointed out the criminality of our banking institutions by comparing them to a individual actor, in another episode he equated all politics to WWE conflicts--asking, So you're saying it's all fake?, later one of his correspondents tried to hack into the meeting of the insurance head honchos. Jon Stewart is the only popular news commentators willing to point out how mind-blowingly ridiculous basically everything on the news and most of the policies that come out of congress actually are. I'm really starting to wonder if Stewart is going to turn one of these days, Al Franken style. Stop telling everyone at the end of the day, I'm just joking, and ask people instead to take him very seriously. But I guess that would probably ruin it all. Jon Stewart's makin jokes, that's why we're all listening, in the end.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Please Watch The American Ruling Class

The American Ruling Class - Watch the Documentary Film for Free | Watch Free Documentaries Online | SnagFilms

I have recommended a few movies on this blog, but have never felt more strongly that everyone I know needs to watch a movie immediately than I feel right now. The movie is "The American Ruling Class". One of my immediate reactions to the film, besides horror, sadness, and the intense desire to abandon everything I was doing to start fighting for the causes the movie outlines, was why hadn't I seen this movie already?

Of course, the answer was right in the first scene, which was set at Yale's graduation. I am a member of the American Ruling Class. People who are members of this class will be made very uncomfortable by watching this movie. In fact, watching this movie was a very uncomfortable experience. Everyone is implicit in the class structure that it outlines, there's no safe spaces for the apathetic or unconcerned. And so, in a way I'm not recommending this movie, because I think most people I know would find it very disturbing to their worldview and the choices they have made so far in their life.

But of course, I am still VERY STRONGLY recommending this movie, because I have yet to be able to form a reasonable argument against this movie. Thus, I have the selfish motive of asking you, my extremely intelligent readers, to watch this movie and maybe find the flaw in it's reasoning that will convince me that what it satirizes isn't completely true. Either that, or you become as inflamed as I am and we can start the revolution together.

Just joking.

Sort of,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Death Bear and Creating New Realities

In Brian Greene's book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, he states that "we live in a reality that remains ambiguous until perceived,". He says this because the experiments and equations of quantum mechanics have (as perfectly as any scientific theory ever has) demonstrate this again and again. Thus, it is not that there is an external reality that our brain gives us access to, but rather that our brains, through perception, create an external reality Since reading this, and doing my best to understand the implications of quantum mechanics, it has been a source of ever-growing bafflement why this has not completely altered the way we interpret our universe.

Of course, I do know why, in a way, these conclusions of quantum mechanics have not been internalized. After all, we do not have control over our external reality. We cannot move mountains, or make people love us, or get the jobs that we want, or manifest our desires out of thin air. And so, we are left with the current interpretation of quantum mechanics: yes, it is true that on the most fundamental level of matter the act of perceiving determines what is perceived, but on the massively larger scale of our day-to-day lives, that fact becomes no longer true. If that doesn't sound weird to you, then fine. But it sounds fucking weird to me.

Enter Death Bear. So, I fully admit that I am no where near being able to control my external reality. But artists like Nate Hill, who performs Death Bear, demonstrate how easily manipulated our concepts of what's 'real' and what's 'fake' are, and I think that's the start of unlocking these mysteries.

Let me explain. As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the reasons I decided to give my coat away was because it was something valuable (even though it only cost $10, it was unique), and I thought by giving away something valuable I would be making the experience with Death Bear 'more real'. In fact, from the moment I called Death Bear, I wanted to try as hard as I could to just accept as reality there is this thing called Death Bear that takes things into their cave never to return again. I think, more than anything, I wanted to make an impression on Death Bear, to penetrate the reality he was constructing.

As Death Bear's arrival loomed closer, though, this idea got scarier. After all, it takes a lot of balls, and complete rejection of 'the way things are' to create and then live out your own world. All of the speeches and performance I had gone over and over in my head the night before seemed to be jumbling in my mind as we waited for his arrival. I suggested to my friends and sister who were there that they should give something to Death Bear too. My stomach tightened.

As soon as Death Bear walked in the door, though, he set the tone. He staged himself on the couch and demanded that we all sit next to him, one by one, and 'pretend that there was no one else in the room'. When I presented him with my coat, all I could do was blabber mostly incoherently for a minute or two about New Orleans, Katrina, and not needing a coat before I handed it over in tears. It was very emotional for me, but after Death Bear left, I felt lighter, happier and more complete. The act of giving my coat away, and knowing that the aspect of my life that it represented was 'gone forever' created the reality of me having closure and gaining the strength to move on.

I don't know if Death Bear has this effect on everyone. But I do think that since I was so committed to taking it as seriously as I could, it was real for me. In this way, the act of thinking Death Bear is real makes him entirely real. After all, what would it mean to have an 'real' Death Bear? What would be the difference between a 'real' Death Bear and a 'fake' one? It could only be how seriously both the artist and the audience were willing to take it. And if both are willing to risk it, you will walk away from the experience with entirely real closure and very real relief from your pain attached to a specific object. In this way, Death Bear manipulates your specific, personal, reality in a way that is completely catered to you. I think this is completely revolutionary, since so much art is meant to lure you into its realities but little art is so personally modified for each individual. Death Bear shows you how a person can create a new reality for you. But how do we go about making new realities for ourselves?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I Gave My Coat to Death Bear

So, there is more downtime on my job then I thought there'd be. Good. As a lot of you know, I invited Death Bear over to my sister's house a couple of weeks ago as a way to part with the Northeast before I made my move to the south.

As we were searching for parties to go to that night, we came across Death Bear's number. In one sense, Death Bear is a performance artist. His concept is to dress up in a ridiculous outfit, come to your house and take things away for you to put into his 'cave', where you will never see them again. Once he takes these things, he says, they will be gone forever. My friend Olivia suggested that I give him my winter coat, since I was going to New Orleans and wouldn't need it anymore. My instant reaction was complete resistance, how utterly ridiculous it would be to give away my coat, so I realized that I had to give my coat away.

A note on this coat. For one thing, I really loved it. I had gotten it 2 months earlier at a thrift store in North Philly, and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have it immediately.
It was that rare winter coat that was both stylish and incredibly warm, who's previous owner, Diane Sague, had written her name inside the pocket. To me, the coat was a symbol of my integration with north: after a 4 year struggle with winter, I had found a coat that was both functional and stylish, and all winter long, when I had it on, I was comfortable in my environment.

So why give it away? Well, for one, since I valued it highly, I thought giving it away would give my experience with Death Bear more weight. Plus, without a winter coat that I liked so much, my incentive to return to the Northeast would be a lot lower, my exit more final. The truth is, my arrival in the northeast was fueled mostly by my own geographic insecurity: growing up in New Orleans, no matter how much I loved it, I felt that if I wanted to do something important or interesting in the world I had to get out of the South and go to the Northeast. This myth was a very difficult one for me to shake, as both Northeners and Southeners perpetuate it.

When I was a kid, my teachers pushed me to leave the south to get an 'real' education, and while adults lamented that 'all the good students go away', they seemed to accept its inevitability. Once my sister left for college and spent time in New York, she would return laughing at the Times-Picayune's living section, as articles on 'trendy' Yoga seemed hilariously outdated. Clearly, New Orleans was not where it was going on. I needed to get out if I wanted to get anywhere.

Once I arrived in Connecticut, this continued. My classmates assumed I was racist before I even finished a sentence that had the words 'black people' in it, and they lectured me on the absolute stupidity of anyone on the right, especially those in the South, who at the time were running our country. People would constantly ask, "Oh, why don't you have an accent?", meaning, usually, "Oh, you're southern? Why couldn't I immediately tell you were an idiot?".

With all the attention New Orleans got from Katrina, New Orleans became a unique or interesting place to be in the eyes of the nation, but it was my renewed snobbiness after 4 years in the north that kept me from returning immediately after I graduated---yea, New Orleans was a good place to stop by for a bit but it still wasn't a place where 'real' things were going on. So, at the time when I gave my coat to DeathBear, I thought these were the reasons. I was shedding this insecurity that I had, and feeling confident that New Orleans is a place where I can do interesting things.

But I've come to realize that giving up the coat was more complicated than that. I think being in the Northeast, at an ivy league college, had given me a confidence I needed to shed. It gave me a false sense of self-importance that could only be sustained by staying in that general area, where the Ivy league is most revered. It's always difficult to let go of the one that rejects you, and the Northeast, New York and Yale in particular, is filled with opportunities to feel less-than. People are almost completely segregated by money, education, ambition, sub-culture affiliation, and ideology, and these gates are very difficult to pierce. Luckily, being from an Ivy League college and having friends and relatives who were successful in New York made it easy for me to feel cool when I visited. And there's nothing quite like feeling cool in 'the City'. And there was nothing that I owned, right then, that made me feel cooler than my coat.

And so I decided to give it to Death Bear, and all that came with it. I think I'm going to save what happened when Death Bear came for another post. But I think it's funny to point out here that even calling Death Bear was something that I did, in some ways, to seem cool. So it was paradoxical in that sense, but the experience was so realistic that it transcended my baser motives for it. And now, I see that shedding the coat really represented shedding the external structures I had constructed to ensure me that I was cool, accepted, alright.

Of course my impressions of the Northeast that I expressed above were in some ways just manifestations of my own insecurities. But I do think the North's cultural emphasis on ambition, status, and class and the inherent competition based on the increased population make it a uniquely difficult place for an insecure person. Now, being back in New Orleans, I still feel hampered at times by the biases and snobberies that have blocked me from seeing past the arbitrary social measures of college attended, future plans, etc., to determine value. But I'm getting better at judging for myself, and it feels quite good.