Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Exceptionally French Riots

Here we go with the riots again. French exceptionalism is going to allow the country to live its own Watts riots, which, considering the social climate here, are unavoidable.

Reading articles in the press both in France and in the U.S., there’s little mention of the ubiquity of racism here, except for Sarkozy’s response to the riots in 2005 of which this is now a re-enactment. Yet a major factor in the man’s election is that his response typified that of the average French man (person, really, but men speak their minds on the subject more readily than women, who tend to veil their views). Though I realise that racism is still rampant in the U.S., albeit cloaked under a blanched P.C. sheet, there are fewer qualms about expressing disdain here. Say what you will about how civilized the French are, they are filled with at least as much racism as resveratrol, and their resulting bile is probably as instrumental in their longevity as the much touted molecule found in red wine.

The result of this prejudice – beside having made for many a distasteful dinner topic – is that their are no jobs available to minorities (read Arabs and blacks) here. In an experiment designed to bring attention to the problem, C.V.s were sent out with or without names attached. With the ethnic sounding names, there was not a single call-back for an interview. (Interestingly enough the experiment was also done with visuals where results were similar for extremely unattractive and/or overweight people – not to mention the handicapped). Is it any wonder that social unrest is at an explosive level now?

What’s (not so) funny about the situation is that the guilty deny being racist. There’s no room for discussion because according to them, the problem just doesn’t exist. Never mind all the racial stereo-typifying, the slurs and the discrimination, for a majority of the French, it’s the unavoidable result of the nature of the people against whom discrimination is directed. I was too young during the events in the U.S., but I don’t see how change can be brought about here. The anti- discrimination laws already exist. It’s motivation that’s lacking, something that would bring about a change of mentality. I’ve heard my mother-in-law tell of her early years as an Italian immigrant here and how she suffered from prejudice. The hostility against the lowly Italian race has been purged for the most part now, but wouldn’t you know it, she and others like her are the most vociferous racists now. What new ethnic group could be invited here to displace the ones chosen to take the brunt now?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

To be powerless in a world full of riches

Isn’t the powerlessness we all feel to a certain degree the same as what the « martyrs » for Islam feel, only in their minds – as well as in reality – the odds are stacked higher against them than they are for us? As I see it, there are 3 possible ways to go: Fight, Flight or “Learned Helplessness” (see Seligman et al.) (the latter leading to and/or being a major cause for depression, or even the definition thereof, and really, isn’t depression the condition of staying put and fighting with yourself to the point of exhaustion?)

The article in the NYT magazine (Where Boys Grow Up to Be Jihadis, Nov 25/07) mentions that the men discussed in the article all had reasons to feel despondent prior to their engagement with Jihad. Then they joined movements – groups of like-minded peers – for whom they became willing to give up their lives. In other words, they externalized their conflict, and opted to join a group (strength in numbers is due, at least in part, to the sense of invincibility belonging to a group confers) thanks to which they finally felt empowered; they stopped being victims and became actors in their lives.

people prone to terrorism share a sequence of experiences, […]They feel a sense of moral outrage that is interpreted in a specific way (the war in Iraq, for example, is interpreted as a war on Islam); that outrage resonates with the person’s own experiences (Muslims in Germany or Britain who feel marginalized might identify with the suffering of Iraqis); and finally, that outrage is channelled into action.
This process, Sageman told me, is rarely a solitary one. He and a growing number of law-enforcement officials and analysts argue that group dynamics play a key role in radicalization. While ideology may inspire terrorists, they say, it takes intimate social forces to push people to action. Friends embolden one another to act in ways they might not on their own. This might be called the peer-pressure theory of terrorism. Experts in the field refer to it as the BOG, for bunch of guys (or GOG, for group of guys). “Terrorism is really a collective decision, not an individual one,” said Sageman, who coined the theory. “It’s about kinship and friendship.

The point I’m trying to make is that there would probably be a lot less of this if the Western world owned up to using the developing world (or just about any market that can be exploited) as a well of riches with which to fill their coffers. We use their resources to produce our wealth at a fraction of what it would cost if we produced everything at home - mostly by paying horrendously low wages - and we develop markets there for our products in order to accumulate more wealth. We use whatever they have for our benefit, and we use all available means to convince them to buy products they don’t need when our own markets become saturated.

How would we feel if we had to watch someone else get rich at our expense, while that same someone made it impossible for us to attempt to ameliorate our own circumstance by denying us access to the means to do so?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

My Good, your Bad?

Why do we feel the need to invoke exterior help to accomplish something we can (only) do ourselves? Why does faith necessarily come into it?

We are predicting creatures.

We don't just get an urge, and then lunge to satisfy it (unless we're standing right next to the refrigerator).We consider the various possibilities, evaluate them for possible benefits and costs, and once we've narrowed them down, we scheme to attain our goals. The problem we're immediately confronted with is that we can never plan for all eventualities. Not only are we not prescient, even if we were, we couldn't store all the ramifications on the hard-drives of our brains.

That's the scary part. Not knowing.

And we've got a multitude of ways of dealing with the unknown, the imponderables. The all-time most popular way is of course the invention of the all powerful, omniscient Being who oversees everything and guarantees that things will go according to whatever we consider to be the "good" rules governing the universe (which bear an uncanny resemblance to what we feel is good for ourselves.)

(I am not remotely qualified to expound on any of this. But who's to stop me? At the end are a couple of leads to explore if you feel so inclined.)

In a nutshell, we evolve, as human "systems" through interaction with our surroundings (environment, other people) and we "construct" our selves along with our external "reality" as we go along (which in turn affects reality, which affects us etc..). We do it with reference to what is necessary for the perpetuation of the system that we embody. Not necessarily or exclusively for our physical survival, but according to ever changing and shifting criteria from which we generate and update our sets of rules: I'll call that Me/Good as in what I feel is good for me, and Other/Bad as in "this isn't conducive to the purpose of perpetuating my self" (I have a theory that the more "evolved" we become, the more flexible we can be about the distinction between the two.)

Obviously we wish for all that is Me/Good to prevail, and try to maintain Other/Bad to a minimum and/or at an acceptable distance. But the world is mostly "other", beyond our control, outside our scope. That is what leads us to the next logical step: to posit a Being that is on our side, a just and benevolent father who will do for us what we can't. (and the Good that Being guarantees is - coincidentally - the same as Me/Good).

The problem is that there are as many different versions of Good as there are of Me, and I don't see - short of massive cloning of Me (me, really, because I like me the best) - how it can ever be otherwise? The most we can do is to find common ground, and that has its limits. Any effort to globally "unify" our conceptions of what is Good (from any perspective, scientific, religious or philosophical) is bound to fail. We are products of our cultures as much of our genes. There will always be diverging points of view, not to mention continuous change.

Better to develop more secure foundations upon which to anchor a greater sense of self-reliance instead of deferring to a Being to insure our Goods, the definition of which we can never agree upon and about which there will always be conflict. After all, isn't insecurity – the fear about what tomorrow will or will not bring - the real fuel behind all extremism? Isn't fundamentalism/literalism – the strict adherence to a set of rules and the rituals we perform to uphold them – akin to magical thinking as a way to ward off all that we fear might happen?

For more information re: the Me/Good - Bad/Other theory of auto-poïesis, and in terms of evolution/social interaction:
Auto-poïesis, see: Varela & Maturana, G.A. Kelly, G. Bateson, N. Luhmann
On constructivism, radical or otherwise, see E. von Glasserfeld, P. Watzlawick

Saturday, November 24, 2007


There's this interesting video on where Philosopher Joshua Cohen and economist Glenn Loury discuss the essence of Christianity. The philosopher tackles the question from an ethical pov, and the economist, from the personal necessity aspect of religion. In one segment Loury refers to "A Raisin in the Sun" to highlight the fact that it is through belief in God that one finds the courage to confront adverse conditions. Of course.

Among the responses to the vlog, one person declared being against the idea of calling into question anyone's belief system, and I agree that there is absolutely no value in trying to invalidate anyone's faith. The problem as I see it is that to not believe in God is a belief system in itself. It takes determination to maintain such a stance in our day and age. And I think I am not alone in feeling that our freedom not to believe is increasingly threatened.

When you see all the democratic candidates falling over each other to prove how more devout than the others he or she is, it's hard not to fear for the future. Whatever happened, I wonder, to the separation between Church and State? Where I live now - in France - religion has long been a very private matter, because like taste, there is no accounting for it.

P.S. Off subject: if anyone is reading this and has the answer to why posting the links, by using the button that's meant to do it automatically, doesn't work? (I've tried with both Explorer and Mozilla to no avail)

Friday, November 23, 2007

The 13th step

Re-reading the preceding posts, it occurs to me that the WIP I mentioned was in fact completed. Or the first draft anyway. Right now I'm fighting with myself to stick to the NaNo project I took up this year. Only one more week and I'll be done with it, for now. I don't know if it's the usual Inner Editor conflict, but I've become convinced these past couple of days that it's really not very good. To compensate, I've been touting the Factory of Being project to myself again, and I'm eager to start on the first edit now.

This in turn relates to this project because of another article I read in the N.Y.T. about the "Happiness Project", wherein one keeps a gratefulness journal, on the principle that if you keep one long enough for it to work - I think it was at least 3 months - you start to feel better. Does this mean that the brain rewires, or is it just that, like a Learned Optimism process, just taking a different POV about your life transforms the reality into something positive, or both?

Anyway. Let's begin. I don't really know where to start, because there is little to complain about in my life. My only dissatisfaction is with myself.

Reasons to be Grateful:
- Perfect overall health
- Very good marriage (all things considered)
- A wonderful daughter (and if this were ordered according to importance, this would have come first)
- No financial woes (they only exist in my husband's head. Objectively our situation is better than adequate)

All of these factors should mean I'd be happy, right? Not really, because of my outlook on life, thus the new project.

So today I'm adding a specific point. I've regained some faith in the F.o.B. as a worthwhile project. Considering it's been the focal point of my creative life for an incredibly long time, I'd say that's a major plus.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The consciousness of rocks

I've been having a hard time coming back here. It all seems so pretentious of me to continue, but I still haven't resolved the vexing God question, and from reading the following article

it appears I am not alone. I mean some people actually dedicate their whole lives to the endeavour of trying to disprove the existence of a higher form of being, in this case, within the entity of lifeless rock matter.

Now, what could be sillier than a scientist even exploring such a possibility - unless said scientist was spending an inordinate amount of time repressing within him/herself the urge to believe - in something, just about anything.

Essentially this is what I experience with surprising frequency. There's a (small and whiny) voice that makes itself heard when things in my life overwhelm me. But I quash the damn nuisance, because it makes no more sense to believe in a higher power than in the tooth fairy.

Oh, how I wish I could simply give in and believe like 90% of humanity. I really do, but it goes completely against everything else I believe in, namely personal responsibility as the only chance there is of making the world a better place to live in.

Which brings me to yet another article in the N.Y.T. about denial. Read it here:

Now I already knew that. But the knowledge doesn't prevent me from wishing I could just reach out for the nearest flimsy explanation to lift my spirits