Sunday, December 30, 2012

Enemies of the Faith: A review of "Among the Truthers" by Jonathan Kay

            You will recall not so long ago the post I wrote in response to a conversation I had with a friend of mine, who happens to be a self proclaimed‘Truther’, (“Puppet Master vs. Naked Ape). That is: an individual who believes that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were “an inside job”, orchestrated by the US government for the purpose of pushing through certain pieces of foreign policy legislation  (say that ten times fast) and implementing certain pieces of domestic policy (including but not limited to gun control legislation, improved airport security, the confiscation of personal property and the genocide of the human race).
         Or in other words, the government did it. Said individual believes this, and has dedicated himself to exposing the truth - pardon me, Truth - of this claim.
         What struck me most about the exchange were not the arguments he made, which were not very impressive, but the ardour with which he made them. It wasn’t just a theory for him, but a capital T Truth, which gave new meaning to his life.  Thus, no amount of counter-evidence would sway him, or even interest him, because it wasn’t the theory itself that really mattered. What mattered were the cozy answers the theory provided.

            So there were many moments I had to nod in recognition as I read Among the Truthers by National Post columnist Jonathan Kay. I recognized the sorts of people he interviews and profiles here, the paranoia, the disillusionment, the righteous anger and the evangelical zeal. Kay doesn’t spend much time in the way of debunking (readers looking for this would be better served by Aaranovitch’s Voodoo Histories or The Journal of Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories), but is more interested in the why the Truthers think the way they do, and how so many people came to think this way - namely, why do so many people in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave now think their own government wants to slaughter them??? It's a fascinating, absorbing and often witty book, which bafflingly decides to wander out into left field on the very last pages with conclusions which are. . .let's call them problematic for now. 

             (Dangerously misleading and disingenuous might work as well, but I want to emphasise the positives).

            For Kay, the popularity of 9/11 conspiracy theories is not an innocent eccentricity, but an alarming, even dangerous trend.“ The Truther phenomenon. . .is simply too important to ignore.”  he writes in his introduction. “ Truther theories may be nonsense, but the disturbing habits of mind underlying them. . .have become threats all across our intellectual landscape.”   Kay nicely summarizes these habits as follows:

            - a nihilistic distrust in government
            - total alienation from conventional politics,
            - a need to reduce the world’s complexity to good-vs-evil fables
            - the melding of secular politics with apocalyptic End-is-Nigh religiosity
            - a rejection of the basic tools of logic and rational discourse.

Jonathan Kay

            It’s as neat a summary of the conspiracy mindset as any I’ve read, and will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to engage a conspiracy theorist. Personally, I find the last one the most significant, the one which enables all the others. The refusal to think rationally allows one to think anything. I’m consistently amazed for example, how Truthers accept with perfect ease the layer-upon-layer-upon-layer of cover-up and deceit (to say nothing of the thousands of necessary participants) required by their conpsiracy, but cannot accept that a lone lunatic could hijack a plane. They’ll insist your is the incredible one. It is the most significant piece of Truther psychology, and unfortunately the one Kay appears to appreciate the least. 

            Kay divides Truthers into eight basic archetypes, and profiles one of each. The profiles themselves are fascinating, though the categories seem cosmetic, as their commonalities are much more striking than their differences. While Truthers may have come to the “Truth” for their own, personal reasons, they share the same basic tendencies of thought outlined above. Whether it’s from a Right perspective or a Left perspective, young or old, a response to trauma or plain insanity (less common than one might think), Truthers all see patterns where there are none, and have a need to assign meaning to the meaningless.  It’s the all too human tendency to assign agency to things.

No truther book would be complete without Dave Mustaine
            Ultimately, no conspiracy theory is actually about the theory. It’s about a world view; a world where someone, somewhere, is still in charge, if not a God, then definitely people with God-like powers. Kay refers to “the myth of hypercompetence”, coined by Popular Mechanics editor James Meigs. “ Even as the conspiracy theorist imagines a world –controlling cabal that is subhuman in its lack of pity, morality, honesty, and empathy, he is simultaneously awestruck by their superhuman intelligence, ambition, guile, discipline and singularity of purpose.” To the conspiracy-theorist, there is simply nothing beyond the powers of this cabal. They have a mind-boggling ability to cover their tracks and micro-manage events. Often they have super-science fiction technology at their disposal. They have near omniscient powers of oversight and foresight. There is practically nothing that happens anywhere in the world, or has happened in history, that is not their doing.    

            Once you accept this scenario, everything else falls into place. Conspiracies unfold as a matter of course, and doubts can be dismissed. The absurd level of deception and planning to pull off a 9/11 are no problem at all: simplicity itself for anyone who controls the world to that degree.  Lack of concrete evidence is if anything all the proof you need: after all, they control the information. So conventional arguments won’t get you anywhere because you’re not debating a theory: you’re debating a world view in which small groups control everything, and all the psychological adjustments which such a view entails. According to Kay:  “ Their entire identity is based on a nest of riddles that will unravel if they allow themselves to step outside their conspiracist mindset”.

            Most conspiracies are thus closely related to each other. Kay demonstrates for example how practically every Truther is also a JFK conspiracist, and how every conspiracy theory, even the supposedly innocuous UFO/Roswell types, attracts anti-Semites like flies. He traces the history of American conspiracism back to the days of anti-Masonic/Catholic/Templar//Jacobin suspicions, to the paranoia of Ignatius Donelly, through to the Protocols of the Eldars of Zion (the conspiracist’s Bible, even for those who aren’t anti-Semitic) to more modern phenomena like the Birther movement and End-of-Time evangelism. These provide the most interesting and informative moments of the book.      
I shouted out who killed the Kennedies: after all, it was you and me!

            I also was also struck some of the book’s more personal moments. Kay is actually quite sympathetic to many his subjects, taking pains early on to paint them as “outwardly normal, articulate people who kept up with the news and held down office jobs” and stressing the movement’s non-violent nature. At one point, he almost seems saddened by their obstenacy:

   “ I imagined it would possible for us to remain on friendly terms, even on the understanding that we disagreed on say, the origins of 9/11. . .This usually proved impossible: Every conversation with a conspiracy theorist tends to migrate in one way or another to their central obsession; and my refusal to accept their revealed truths always strained the relationship to the breaking point.”

Naturally, I thought of my own Truther friend, the one who prompted me to pick up this book in the first place, and wondered how much longer a mutual love of Godzilla movies can continue to bridge this rift. Each day he sends more “information” to my inbox, practically begging me to embrace the Truth. Not surprisingly, Kay writes of “Truther widows” in the same paragraph.
         How so many of these supposedly normal people came to embrace such a “Truth” is Kay’s main focus in the second half of the book.

            The internet naturally shares a large portion of the blame. While conspiracies themselves are nothing new, technology has enabled conspiracists to prop each other up and insulate themselves from contrary opinion to an extent never before possible (Kay uses the term “echo chamber”). The situation mirrors the decaying political discourse, in which no citizen is under any obligation to read anything that doesn’t confirm opinions they’ve already formed.

            That’s all very fine and good, but how to explain the quasi-religious quality of the movement?

            For this, Kay looks to the fickle nature of modern intellectual discourse, which he traces to the “Deconstructionists” like Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. They believed in the “limitation of textually authority”: basically, truth was not something we could prove with fact, but something we constructed to suit our needs . Kay paraphrases Foucault: “All knowledge – including historical knowledge is merely a pretext for justifying existing power relationships”. In other words, we make it all up.

Whada you know? A scarry looking Jacques Derrida.
            As someone with three university degrees, I can see how these ideas have seeped into academia. “Facts”, as they are generally understood, are very unfashionable things in the Humanities today. Instead, the emphasis is on finding “narratives”, or the aforementioned existing power relationships. “Studies” just aren’t good enough anymore: we have Women’s studies, Queer Studies, African studies and Native (or whatever term is currently permissible) studies. “Study” here meaning reconstruction of the past to suit present day sensibilities. There’s something creepily Stalinist about the whole thing, and Kay examines a bunch of examples, including a truly bizarre meeting with a group of self loathing anti-racists.

            All very interesting, but what’s it got to do with the 9/11 truth movement?

            Well, if truth is something we just make up, something malleable, what’s to stop belief in different “Truths”?  

            For Kay, the stifling political correctness that has emerged is fertile ground for Truthers:

“ It has left. . .a vague but powerful baseline belief among educated liberals that mainstream society is divided into victims and oppressors – and that the latter are largely white, male, straight middle aged men who look a lot like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. After a few years spent wandering this coastline, the belief that these people might fly planes into the World Trade Center doesn’t follow automatically, but it certainly becomes a lot easier to assimilate.”

            There is a logic to the idea – I myself spent enough time among student radicals to know some of them wouldn’t put anything past the Bush administration (though I never heard any of them express Truther ideas) – but it is problematic. Many truthers are simply not “educated liberals”. Does Kay really blame anti-racists for a movement so dominated by right wing libertarians? Do end-of-time evangelicals really owe that much to Foucault? From my own readings and conversations, the Truther movement seems more a continuation of the anti-New Deal isolationism of John T. Flynn than the ideas of Paul de Man. Granted, no one in the book mentions Flynn (not even Kay, oddly), but no one mentioned Derrida either.

John T. Flynn: Pearl Harbour Truther

            Could extreme disillusionment not also have its roots in recent history? The past half century has given us the Vietnam war and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Kent State and J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate, the Iran Contra scandal, and WMD.  Salvatore Allende, Bloody Sunday, Jean-Babtiste Aristide, and the Rainbow Warrior. Great promise has been followed by great disappointment, as an unprecedented rise in middle class living standards has been ruthlessly clawed back by Government and Industry. Across the pond, the Margaret Thatcher casually destroyed the livelihoods of entire segments of British society, and actually referred to them as “the enemy within”. In times of Austerity, the common man is told he must scale back his aspirations, his living standards, his working conditions and his quality of life, but is told in the other ear that aspirations of Big Industry must never be interfered with. Trillions of dollars in public money are spent bailing out the banks, but not a penny of private profit is proffered to the public when it's in trouble. It is Healthcare, Education and even Infrastructure that gets pinched for pennies, and even as profits skyrocket, wages are slashed to be more "competitive".  The proverbial Big guy is always seen to win. Always.
          In such an environment, is it so shocking that disillusionment festers? And is it really so inconceivable that some of the disillusioned might, just might, come to believe that their own government is dead set against them, and actually means them harm?
          Such speculation does not find its way into this book. Instead, Kay, a Konservative, chalks it all up to a decline in religious belief: “ When the appeal of traditional religion becomes weak, darker faiths assert themselves.” It’s a variation on Conrad’s assertion that a man who doesn’t believe in God will believe in anything. Kay asserts that a decline in faith has lead to a kind of “militant skepticism”, indeed, a “Church of Skepticism” (capitals his) which has lead Truthers to disbelieve everything, since “there is no fact, historical event, or scientific phenomenon which  whose truth cannot, in some way, be brought into question.” Kay singles out new-atheists Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for special blame here.
         Does Kay really blame the new-atheist movement for what amounts to a quasi-religious revival?


            Nevermind that not one of the conspirators in this book cites those three as an influence (they don’t cite Derrida either), I would challenge Kay to find anything in the work of Hitchens, Harris or Dawkins that would suggest they would endorse a deconstructivist view of reality. If anything, they all share a passionate belief in an objective truth which is accessible to us via evidence.  It is a last minute attempt to connect two largely unrelated phenomena with little more than personal distaste in support.

            Likewise, it is quite rich of Kay to condemn a “Church of Skepticism” while elsewhere crediting Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptic’s Society and editor of Skeptic magazine, as “likely the most effective debunker of junk science and conspiracy theories in America”. Or listing the “atheistic” James Randi Educational Foundation as a possible antidote to Trutherism (indeed, the Foundation maintains a forum for ex-Truthers) just a few pages before blaming atheism for the whole damn thing. Kay must surely be aware that Randi is also on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, as are – guess who? -  Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Surely the “Church of Skepticism” is part of the solution rather than the problem?

            Granted, Kay probably doesn’t mean healthy skepticism, but rampant disbelief for its own sake. It can be a problem when trying to establish baseline facts (and a very useful way of dismissing inconvenient ones). The thing is, this is not what Truthers do. What's clear from the interviews here (and my own experience) is that Truthers don’t just disbelieve facts: they disbelieve certain facts. Facts which are inconvenient to them.  They actively select which facts to believe, and which to discard, based on which support their pre-conceived notions. This is not skepticism; this is faith. Faith is belief without reason, trust which doesn’t have to be earned. Faith is immune to argument, faith doesn’t change just because the facts do. Belief in a “revealed truth” is faith, not skepticism.

            Kay bemoans the decline of traditional faith in society, but makes nothing of the fact that the biggest Truther of all, David Ray Griffin, was a theologian in his pre-truther days. He must also be aware that there are twice as many theologians as engineers among the membership ranks of Scholars for 9/11 Truth. He himself describes how Dave Mustaine of Megadeth embraced conspiracism after becoming a born-again Christian. He mentions the religious parallels again and again. Clearly, faith is not in short supply in the 9/11 Truth movement.   

            Might it have something to do with the need to believe without evidence?

            Conspiracism is not an innocent phenomenon. Thabo Mbeki’s belief that AIDS was spread by the CIA, and Jenny McCarthy’s promotion of vaccination-autism links (both dealt with in the book) has cost lives. Conspiracism, like pseudo science, new age thought or ideological fanaticism, comes from believing what one wants rather than what evidence suggests.   Truthers are no different: they embrace evidence which supports their claims and disregard that which doesn’t (what Shermer might call “cherry picking the data”). They beg questions, they dismiss co-incidence, they know little of history and less of politics, they will make grand leaps of logic, they are utterly credulous. Their faith, far from lacking, is unshakable. They could use a good dose of skepticism: an embrace of the tools of logic and rational discourse. To suggest the opposite, that things would sort themselves out if we just trusted in God (because apparently no one believed ridiculous things in more pious times) is frankly unhelpful.


Read Jonathan Kay's blog here:

The Skeptic Society:

The James Randi Educational Foundation:

The Journal of Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Keep your guns, and enjoy the funerals: on the shootings in Newton Connecticut

            Just once, I’d like to talk about something nice on this bleedin’ blog. . .

            How many?  Twenty? Twenty six? According to this morning’s Toronto Star, it was twenty seven. Most of them six years old.

            Twenty seven. Six year olds. Twenty seven little lights snuffed out. Twenty seven smiles, twenty seven laughs, twenty seven little voices. Twenty seven little bodies torn to shreds by bits of pointy lead, which are perfectly legal to own.

Victoria Soho
            Not all the twenty seven were quite so little; one of them was twenty seven years old. Victoria Soto her name was. She must have been new. She was the grade 1 teacher. Apparently she hid her kids in the closet and told the killer they were in the gym(1). Did she know it would be the last thing she would ever say? I’ll wager she did. She had thirty seconds to live, and chose to think of her students.  

            And someone out there is still probably bitching about how long teacher vacations are.

            The principal of the school, Dawn Hochsprung, and a school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, were shot down while trying to charge the gunman(1). They could have hid, but they chose to lunge at him, thinking maybe just maybe they could have stopped him, probably knowing they probably couldn’t.

            Teachers don’t live in the real world you see.

Dawn Hochsprung- principal

            So some of the victims were adults, but most were kids, not one more than seven years old. Eight boys, and twelve little girls with flowers in their hair.

            I taught Kindergartenders (called “Reception” in England) in the past. I taught munchkins like Emillie Parker, and Noah Pozner, and Ana Marquez-Greene, and Olivia Engel, and Caroline Previdi. I can picture them now: they’d come only up to your waist, and cling to your leg as you walked by. They’d call your name in high pitched squeals and laugh at everything you said. They’d sit nicely on the floor with their hands folded in their lap, and liked to sing songs about zoo animals or Santa Clause. They'd crowd around to show off their lunchboxes or new shoes. They loved you unconditionally just for showing up. They were so alive.

            Twenty little ones. Twenty mini-people. Shot at close range, up to eleven times each. Twenty little bodies, chewed up by legally purchased bullets.

Top row: (L-R) Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, Noah Pozner. Second row: (L-R) Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon, Chase Kowalski. Third row: (L-R) Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler. Fourth row: (L-R) Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Rachel Davino, Anne Marie Murphy. Fifth row: (L-R) Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Dawn Hochsprung, Nancy Lanza.

            Oh yes, they were legal. You see, the killer’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was a gun enthusiast. She apparently owned seven of them. She liked to take her kids to shooting ranges(2). Doubtless it was here that her son, Adam, learned the skills he would later put to good use at Sandy Hook Elementary school. It was from this collection that Adam drew his weapons of choice: a Glock pistol, a Sig Sauer pistol, and a .223 Bushmaster, all legally bought and legally owned (4). Presumably, they were his favourite.

The Adam Lanza special: own yours today!

            I wonder if Ms. Lanza was one of those types who balked at the notion that her collection, legally bought and legally owned, could be a danger to anyone. I wonder if she ever argued how laws to restrict her collection would have been an infringement of her second amendment rights. I wonder if she ever said “You’ll take my gun from my cold dead hands”. If she was the sort who’d rather die than give up her firearms.

            If so, she got her wish: Adam shot her first. (2)

            Americans cling to their guns like pacifiers, and would rather see schools shot up than limit their availability.  Even now, many will claim that “guns don’t kill people”, as if Adam could have killed just as many people with a ball-point pen.  They believe the ability to dispense instant death is the only thing safeguarding their democracy, (presumably from tyrannous school children), and see the blood of six year olds as the price of freedom. Just watch: the first response of many will be concern for the legal status of their weapons.

            Many will say the solution is to arm teachers. If Victoria Soto or Dawn Hochsprung were given pistols they could have prevented this. Every school an OK coral. As we speak, Michigan’s Senate Bill 59 is proposing to end gun free zones, allow concealed hand guns into schools and hospitals, and make it easier to own such weapons(5).
            More guns. More bullets. More blood. Fewer school children. The people have spoken. They must  understand that with rights come responsibilities, and with gun-rights come the responsibility to bury twenty- seven bullet ridden people.

            Seven big ones, and twenty little ones. 

1).Quinn Jennifer, "The Victims", Toronto Star p. A1, A8. Sunday, December 16, 2013
2).Flegenhemer, Matt and Ravi Somaiya. " A'High Strung', gun-loving mother. A shy and nervous boy"Toronto Star, p. A9. Sunday December 16, 2013.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Girl They Hated, revisited: Why Amanda Todd?

            Tuesday, November 27, would have been Amanda Todd’s 16th birthday. A milestone for teenagers, she wanted a large party, so last Sunday, her mother decided to throw her one. It was streamed online, you can watch it here:

           Hundreds of people came. People who never knew her came. Celebrities came. The press, both broadcast and print, came. The trolls never came, but that shouldn’t surprise us: that would have required showing their faces.

            They’re still at it though on her Facebook memorial page. It’s impossible to look at now; hatred of that kind is painful to behold, even fatal in some instances. Even if there are ten well-wishers for every hater, even one hater can poison the well, and there are a lot more than one. Nor can they just be ignored; you can’t ignore shit on a gravestone.

            Her page (one of them) has evolved into a repository of inspirational quotations, presumably intended to make people feel better. Personally, I find them cloying, but I realize I’m not their intended audience. Maybe someone out there finds them useful.

            On either her multiple pages or the media discussion, there’s rarely any mention of depression or mental illness.  This is disapointing. The sufferers of chronic melancholy need a champion no less than the bullied*. They will have to wait. Bullying is the theme of the day, and it is against bullying that people will direct their energies. Very well. Maybe it will help. Maybe it will lead to an outbreak of well-meaning but ultimately useless government sponsored public awareness videos, which overlooks the fundamental issue of human capacity for cruelty, but it would be better than nothing. Maybe it will help.

            Maybe there will be a backlash. This cynical age of ours can only tolerate so much sincerity in so short a space of time. Public displays of grief and media saturation always produce a backlash from contrarians and cynics. And there are of course the trolls, who actually love Amanda, albiet for reasons that are twisted and sick. There are the legions of the self righteous who sneer at the suicidal. Most of all, there are the militantly indifferent, who will never forgive a girl for forcing them to take notice.

            A letter to Macleans in its November 12 issue summed it up. While acknowledging Amanda’s case was “entirely heartbreaking”, the writer went on to ask:
“ Why do we all have to focus on the tragic loss of one girl? Someone explain to us, so then maybe all the other families can understand why the deaths of their children don’t seem to be important enough for the world to know about.” 
The writer is more civilized than most who ask the question, but a sense of cynicism still prevades.  From the obnoxious technique of disguising a blanket statement as a question, to the assumption that concern for one victim implies indifference to all others, the writer is not concered about other victims so much as resentful that this one didn’t fade to obscurity like all the others.

            There lies the rub: Amanda had the unmitigated audacity to tell the world what was going on. She made us all take notice, and don’t they all just hate her for it!

            However they phrase it, and whatever they actually want to know, the question is the same: why Amanda Todd? The question deserves an answer, lest the cynics think there isn’t one.  
            To begin with, the deaths of all those other children are most definitely important enough for the world to know about. Whoever said that they weren’t? By all means, make them all famous, stick one on the cover of every newspaper every day and errect a national monument to them in Ottawa with their names inscribed in bronze. Absolutely. How the cynics would nash their teeth over that! If one victim achieving prominence should bother them so, imagine if every victim were commemorated thus.

            They haven’t been, because the public didn’t want to hear it. Bullying? Part of growing up! Get over it! Cyber-bullying? Turn off your computer! An online paedo cyber stalker aided and abetted by his victim’s peer group? Somebody else’s problem! I don’t want to hear!

            Well nobody can ignore it now. Amanda forced us to pay attention.

            Sometimes it takes a human face to make a statistic real. All those stories in the newspaper were only so many numbers on the page without a personal connection. How can one empathize with a number?

            Amanda wasn’t going to be another number. She told us exactly what those numbers meant, dragging us along on her journey into despair, one cue-card at a time.

           "Hello, my name's Amanda. I've decided to tell you my neverending story"
           One by one she details her experiences, a chronicle of humiliation, degradation and betrayal, underneath a bittersweet Jimmy Eats World song. It’s brutal to watch. One wants to look away, cover one’s eyes, pretend it’s just a music video or a Judith Thomson play. It isn’t. The girl holding those cue cards was real. She endured all this. And for her there would be no happy endings. She would go to her grave thinking the world had nothing better in store for her, and there was nothing to be done about it.

           It is a horrible feeling to be unable to help.

            I defy anyone to watch and feel unmoved. That a great many were unmoved, indifferent or even amused, is not surprising: people are vicious animals. What is surprising is how many people did respond with compassion and mercy. This I think is something worth celebrating.  

            A digression: when a child comes to you for help, wouldn’t you do what you could for them? Is it not natural to want to do something? Surely it’s the barest minimum requirement of being a decent human being. Amanda was asking for help; why should we surprised that so many people who heard her call wanted to respond? Isn’t that what empathy is? If they couldn’t help, why shouldn’t they be agrieved, and why shouldn’t this make its way into the news?

            What about all the others??! the naysayers ask. They always ask this when one of the multitudes actually gets noticed.  To them I ask: “If any one of those others came to you, would you not do what you could for them? And if there was nothing you could do, how would you feel? If one of them achieved prominence, would you chop them down as well?” I rather suspect that they would.  When they ask why Amanda got so much attention they’re really asking why she couldn’t stay politely anonymous. In other words, why couldn’t she just shut up? Indeed, “glory-hound” and “attention-seeker” are two things the trolls often accuse her of, as if it was wrong for her to bring attention to her plight.    
            Amanda didn’t shut up. She spoke out, people noticed, and now bullying is on the agenda. At the very least, maybe teenagers will be less trusting of online creeps now. That would be a result: we would have Amanda to thank for it.

            But sorrow needs no justification. If the public wants to mourn a dead girl it’s because the public can still feel something when a girl dies, and that not everyone has been numbed to the point of callousness by the vicious cackling of the blood-soaked media. If the majority of people can watch that video and feel some measure of compassion, that is a relief. If the outpouring of grief brings some measure of comfort to the girl’s family, why stem it? If it raises awareness of an important issue, then why not? And if the girl gains some measure of posthumous fame, then so-fucking-what? I for one won’t begrudge her that epilogue.  Let the girl have her party.

             Why the focus on Amanda Todd? Because she made the issue real in a way no textbook, after school special or public awareness video could. We spent a little time in her shoes and came away shaken, complacency shattered. We couldn’t ignore the victims  any longer, couldn’t pretend not hear those cries. Amanda forced us to pay attention.
            Amanda made us listen.   

* Indeed, Diane Weber Bedeman,  writing in the Toronto Star on October 18, argued that depression and mental illness were more important factors in this case than bullying. Bullying may have been the trigger, but not every victim of bullying kills themselves. Letter writers shot her down, and the issue hasn’t been raised again. It should be: depression is a spectacularly misunderstood topic. Depression is not the same thing as sadness. It isn’t even perpetual sadness.  It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. It numbs the pleasure centres, and interferes with perception.  A depressed person does not see the same world as you or I; it is a different reality. Amanda would seem a textbook case: hundreds of people came to her memorial. She had two parents who loved her, friends who came to visit her, and a school that put measures in place to help her. But she still felt she had “no one”. That’s how it feels to be depressed. 
Her mother Carol has mentioned mental health many times, telling the
CBC that Amanda had tremendous social anxieties that kept her from leaving the house, that she “didn’t always understand the repercussions” of her actions, that “she just felt alone, and that’s part of the mental health issue”.  She told a Vancouver radio station of the disconnect between what Amanda knew logically and how she felt:

                We talked about how it would make her family and friends feel worse for a long,
                long time.  She understood that. But with mental health – something didn’t click.
                                                                                                      (Macleans, pg72,  Oct. 29, 2012)

By all means have the anti-bullying weeks and the pink shirt days, but pray don’t forget the dark place so many young people already find themselves in. No one who knows anything about depression would ever use “cowardice” or “laziness” in the same sentence. Society’s current stigma of suicide is just an extension of it’s stigma against mental illness, which amounts to a superstitious denial of science on par with creationism.

Amanda Todd: The Girl They Hated (part I)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Skepchicks, and the twelve year old slut meme. . .

Okey dokey. Having established beyond reasonable doubt my own position on censorship and freedom of speech, I will now use my own freedom of expression to inform certain people of what slimeballs they are.

            Two stories came to my attention recently. The first was an article by Soraya Chemaly in the Huffington Post concerning a delightful new Facebook page dedicated to a “12-Year Old Slut”.  The slut in question appears to be a young girl wearing an “I love cock” t-shirt. Visitors are invited to comment on this, and other similarly themed photos, submitted by members of the public. Visitors do not provide their own photos of course, but other people’s which they’ve stumbled across and found appropriately slutty. Needless to say, consent of the owners is not required (that would be so twentieth century).    

            Leaving aside for a moment the question of who would allow their daughter to wear such a shirt, one has to wonder what the appeal of such a page is. Who out there finds the sexualization of children funny? Well, the 200 000 people who “Like” the page apparently do. 

            Needless to say, there have been calls to take the page down, to which site-owners Dom & James provided the following eloquent response: 

“"You put something on Facebook, you no longer own it. Sometimes it pays to read the fine print. In short, shut your fucking mouth and accept you're the one that put up that slutty photo, regret and forget, you fucking moron."

            If you find yourself momentarily dazzled by the sophistication of this rebuttal, allow me to translate: it is the God-given right (so these master rhetoricians argue) of every drooling boor to take what he wants and do with it as he will. Dom and James feel themselves entitled to desecrate any photograph they please, and who are the owners to interfere?

            The other story was a piece in Slate by Rebecca Watson, a very smart and funny lady who runs the Skepchicks skeptical network.

            Apparently the mainly-male skeptics community is no freer of boors and lunkheads as anywhere else. Certain members of it have never forgiven Watson for rebuffing their advances: according to her article, her blog and Youtube page have been flooded with rape threats.

            Now really: is this civilized behaviour?

            Now, many claim that Watson is exaggerating, if not out and out lying (she cuts and pastes some of the threats – there’s no exaggeration there). If the comments on the article are anything to go by, there can be no doubt that she has become astoundingly unpopular for not wanting to be hit on at Skeptics gatherings.  

            There’s a story within this story that caught my eye as well: one of the commenters claimed that his children were threatened when he criticized an online conspiracy theory. I had to wonder: who out there thinks their theories are so important as to justify threatening children?

            The point to all this, is what people feel they can get away with on the web, and how they justify themselves. Here we’ve got a woman threatened with rape, and a man whose children are threatened, for no other reason than they annoyed someone by speaking their minds. Tell me: who’s freedom of speech is being threatened here? 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Belieb and Disbelieb. . .

I can't tell you all how thrilled I am to see Justin Bieber on the cover of this week's Maclean's.

So I won't even try.

Clearly a magazine that has its priorities in order. . .

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Conspiracies: The Puppet Master vs The Naked Ape

             For me, “Conspiracy” will always be the name of a King Diamond album. For others, it’s a world-view.

Not this one. . .

            I was uncomfortably reminded of this the other day at a friend’s house as he regaled me with tales of the inner machinations of the Rothchild clan, and their orchestration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unable to accept that such an earth shattering event could have been perpetrated by “six retards with box cutters”, my friend prefers a vast shadowy infrastructure of practically omnipotent puppet masters pulling strings behind the scenes.

            I had to sigh. I have to confess that this is not an issue I’ve invested a great deal of time or energy in, so I was not always able to explain why all the gold was removed from beneath the WTC, or why all the bigwigs were moved from one side of the pentagon to the other (were they?) or how they came up with the Patriot Act so damn quickly (possibly because it was stitched together from already existing laws? Possibly because lawmakers are very good at coming up with laws?). I am not an engineer, so I could not explain why the towers collapsed the way they did, and I’ve never belonged to an air force, so I could not explain why US fighter jets were unable to intercept the flights. I had no answers on hand, because up until then it hadn’t been my responsibility to provide them. But all the same, I was not, and have never been, convinced.

            The thing you’ve got to remember when faced with any claim, is that it’s not your responsibility to disprove it: it is the claimant’s responsibility to prove it. And the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence has to be. Conjecture, hypothetical scenarios and lists of strange coincidences, do not constitute evidence. If gold was removed, that in itself proves nothing. If W. Bush took advantage of the situation to push through pieces of legislation, that does not mean he (or his puppet masters) caused it to happen. At most, these are anomalies that could have any number of explanations. None of this constitutes evidence.

            What would such evidence look like? Solid documents, eluding to the event before it happened. Transcripts of meetings where it was discussed. Recordings, footage, memos, credible testimony that could be independently verified. A record, somewhere, anywhere, of someone saying “this is what we plan to do”.  Short of that, it’s all just speculation. (And that goes for any claim).
            But it’s not just the lack of evidence though that fails to convince me (though it should be enough). It’s the sheer scale of it. For something like this to work, it would require such a vast umbrella of participants – the government and its bureaucrats, the military and its underlings, the banks, the New York City Fire Department, the media, both print and television, of not just the US but every country in the world, - there’s hardly anyone not involved. It requires an almost Truman Show scenario in which one’s entire environment is a construct. That’s not a theory: that’s paranoia.

            And here’s the funny thing: twenty years ago, I just might have bought into it.

            I was all over conspiracy theories in my adolescence. They were fun, they were exciting. They implied that the world was not so mundane as the adults insisted it was. My imagination was fertile ground, fertilized by early childhood fears of losing one’s parents, later to solipsistic nightmares of one’s entire world proving imaginary and vanishing at any moment. I was thrilled by stories of subliminal messages hidden in advertising, devoured the paranoia of the X-Files and later, the Prisoner, and relished the thought of puppet masters behind every curtain. It was all quite thrilling to think I had discovered their secret, and could maybe cut their strings.

            I even wrote a screenplay with this in mind, in which all of history turns out to have been carefully micromanaged steps toward a grand (undisclosed) goal. I’m still rather proud of it: my English teacher called it “gripping”.

            It all ended when I went out into the real world, and actually saw how it worked. Things like getting a student loan (and paying the damn thing back!) and getting a job, and seeing friends get jobs in banks and insurance companies, getting a criminal records check, or getting a driver’s license in the UK. Seeing how the wheels of civilization actually turned, how the mechanisms of society worked. As a student journalist, going into City Hall, Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill and seeing legislation actually passed, not via the smooth machinations of shadowy puppet masters but loud, clumsy human beings yelling at each other. The Machine was not a well oiled mechanism but a clunky rust-bucket sputtering forth in fits and starts. Its pilots were not captains of fate or puppet masters, but idiots every bit as flawed as me.  

            I read history and realized how little control human beings have over events. Wars weren’t the products of grand design but a long series of fuckups. Science, just lots of accidental discoveries with unforeseen and unintended consequences.  The human race does not control history; we naked apes just muddle through as best we can.

            The conspiracy theorists find our ultimate powerlessness unbelievable and intolerable. They need reasons; they need purpose and meaning. They cannot accept that some things have neither purpose, nor meaning. Thus, even the most ridiculously convoluted conspiracy is more plausible than civilization failing in the face of six retards with box-cutters.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Bigot and the Troll: All Fist and No Nose

I once took a course with an older gentleman named Mike, who I once heard say:
“ The freedom of your fist ends where my nose begins.”

I don’t know whether he made it up or stole it from someone, but it has always stuck with me. As a man whose own nose begins rather sooner than most, I may be biased, but I always thought it as good a demarcation between rights and responsibilities (remember them?) as any. Freedom is not just the unfettered ability to do as one wants; it is accompanied by the responsibility to Do No Harm.

            At first it would seem a no-brainer; I have heard very few people openly take issue with it. Where it gets tricky is when the harm done is not of a physical or strictly quantifiable nature; when it’s psychological or emotional. Then, we run up against freedom of expression, and the uncomfortable realization that it is the inalienable right of some individuals to visit certain forms of harm on others.

            We all know of the despicable Terry Jones, the loathsome Westborough Baptist Church, and the scum sucking internet trolls continuously poking a sharp stick into the eyes of Amanda Todd’s parents via their truly vile postings on Youtube and Facebook.  These are not harmless actions. In each case, pain is the intended result. Each is a calculated exercise to maximize anguish in other people, for reasons known only to the perpetrators. They have the right to do this; they must have, if freedom of expression is to mean anything.
            But what wretched, rancid uses they’ve made of their freedom!

            There are people all over the world fighting for freedom to criticize their governments, to practice their religion or not to practice their lack thereof, to express ideas and express truths. They are being jailed, beaten, tortured, occasionally killed. Our own precious open society was not born in a vacuum but sprang from the blood of many veterans (and I don’t just mean soldiers).

            How sad then that for so many, this much sought and hard won right means nothing more than immunity from the rules of basic civility and common decency. These people do not follow the principle of doing no harm; they consider other people’s noses to be intolerable restraints on their fists.

            They have their rights, and we mustn’t tread on them. But what they fail to realize (and what we too often forget) is that it is also our right to call them on their bullshit.