Thursday, November 27, 2008

The more things change

“I would never date a Republican. They’re all religious fanatics that think they can tell me what to do with my own body. They’re racist homophobes and think that is how God wants them to be. All they care about is tax cuts for the rich and want to abolish social programming because they think poor people are welfare crack-whores who deserve what they get. How can I let someone like that touch me? I mean, what if I got pregnant and they made me keep the baby? It’s about time that we had someone in office who will bring change and not use people’s fears and prejudices to drive his own agenda.”

All right, I made that conversation up. Kind of. I have been told all of those things by various supporters of the Democratic Party, just not in succession. There seems to be a strong belief among liberal, educated youth that they are tolerant, generous, and righteous while Republicans are not. The argument goes that Democrats support social programming; Republicans don’t. Democrats believe in individual rights; Republicans don’t. Democrats are all educated and intelligent; Republicans are rich and greedy or stupid, backwater bible-thumpers.

This is pure, old-fashioned stereotyping and prejudice often coming from the very people who decry racism and prejudice of all (or most) forms and proclaim Obama’s victory as the victory of enlightenment over prejudice. The mistake they make is in assuming that racism is only about skin color. Today, the bigger issue is one of class and geography. Democratic youth believe that they are in the educated elite and look down upon those who come from Southern states who are stereotyped as uneducated and ignorant. This is, incidentally, untrue. Republicans are actually more likely to have a 4-year degree and equally likely to have a graduate degree.

Offensive stereotypes don’t need to be proven wrong, of course, but I will bring just one more example of how ridiculous some of this stereotyping is. The belief that Republicans do not care about the poor is mind-bogglingly (is that a word?) absurd. In fact, there is evidence that Republicans give more of their income to charity, on average, than Democrats . There is clearly a belief that Government should be less involved in social programming, but the rationale is that the private sector is better equipped to provide these services. You may disagree with this philosophy, but you can’t say with any sort of intellectual honesty that it means Republicans do not care about the poor. Unless, of course, you are letting your prejudices speak for you.

This was a historic election and Americans should be proud of the choice they have made, but in no way does this signify the end of racism and prejudice. It just reminds us that prejudice goes much further than skin deep.

Monday, November 24, 2008

SBO Roundup 1: Bond vs. Barack, and more


(above: obama bond, from worth1000.com cotributor sudiptatatha)

This is a new feature I'm trying out. I see a lot of things in my daily life that I want to talk about on this blog but that don't amount to enough content for a full post. Some things just don't get at the heart of the unwavering inertia of our complacent society confronted with the equally unswerving momentum of technology and culture moving inexorably forward.

So, this feature, the "SBO Roundup," will be a chance to briefly hit on the things that wouldn't otherwise get covered on Stars Blink Out. This time, I'm going to be talking about the new James Bond movie (particularly what makes it both a product and victim of some current and dated movie trends), Barack Obama's new approach to the "fireside chat," Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," and a quick comment on Kanye West's new record.
  • This weekend, I had a chance to see the newest James Bond movie. It's called "The Quantum of Solace" (arguably the worst Bond title yet). I'm not a huge Bond fan by any means, but to some extent, the Bond formula has permeated our spy movie viewing experience: campy, a little sex, and good old smooth James Bond. But a new paradigm has sort of eclipsed that one. It's the paradigm of the "Bourne" movies: grittier, darker, and with a more conflicted protagonist. Arguably, the first Bond reboot, "Casino Royale," delivers on the Bond premise with touches of grit and realism; "Quantum" seems to have strayed pretty far into "Bourne" territory by its still edifying, but certainly not scoring-a-Bond-girl-edifying, conclusion. It's a strong, interesting action movie, but I recommend caution for Classic Bond fans.
  • Barack Obama, as President Elect in a transition period, has, as previously mentioned, started the conversation with the American people already. A week or so back, that conversation took a new step. Obama posted a video on YouTube that was essentially a fireside radio chat, but instead of a fire there are some law books, and instead of radio it's the Internet. It's an intriguing new approach to getting the executive's core aims and values in front of a national audience. Watch it, and see what you think.
  • The premise of Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is that, after WW2, a not-so-well-known, entirely non-fictional plan to make a portion of Alaska into a Jewish state, instead of being thrown out as ludicrous like it was in reality, has been enacted. The world's Jews all converge on a little portion of Alaskan wilderness and continue their already-tenuous interactions with the world. The novel uses the plan (and the eventual rise and fall of a sort of messiah figure) to discuss what homeland, isolation, guilt, sin, and salvation mean in today's world. I highly recommend this book for any Jew who can feel, somewhere inside of them, buried deep, a disconnect between their identity as a Jew, their expectations of salvation, and their duties and hardships as a human. I also recommend it to anyone who recognizes that conundrum within themselves.
  • Kanye West. What a crazy dude. His last album, "Graduation," was dripping with synthesizers and samples, surprising the listener with unexpected sounds around every corner. His new record, called "808's and Heartbreak" does some sonic surprising, but the premise sort of curtails the possibility for any real shock: every single track features nearly zero sample, but instead vintage 808 drums and synths; every track features not a single rap from Kanye, but melodies sung through an auto-tune device. It's strange to hear a sample-heavy rapper turn into a synth-heavy pop vocalist, but the result is at least new and intriguing. Any unevenness present on "Graduation" is smoothed out on "808's." More importantly, master of mashup and surprise Kanye West has managed to mash together disparate instruments and styles instead of disparate samples. The result is a more subtle, more progressive approach to mashup. The record also serves as a sort of comment on the fact that as Kanye moves farther from hip-hop and closer to straight-forward pop, his fame (or infamy) grows. This might also underscore how rough, angry hip-hop will always be outsold by straight-up pop. Listen to my favorite track, Robocop (until the RIAA finds this YouTube clip).
So that's what's crossed my mind recently. Stay tuned for more full-fledged, traditional Stars Blink Out posts in the near future, featuring our new expanded line-up.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Intellectual Psychosis

The hallmark of psychosis is the inability to decipher what is real - or, to believe something is real even when some (or all) evidence proves otherwise. Real things are consistent, and the reality that the psychotic perceives is very inconsistent. Without going into too much detail about my own mental illness, in my psychotic state, I perceived things that never came to fruition. And I'm not the only one: Pete Early, author of Crazy, chronicles the lives of many individuals suffering from mental illness. Most, if not all, had at least some sort of psychotic thought; one even believed he was a prophet, needing to tell the world of the Messiah's return in 2007. The movie A Beautiful Mind, for example, tells of a scientist that finally recognizes his artificial reality when one of his psychotic beliefs proves anachronistic.

If Dr. John Nash, entrenched in his pseudo-reality, could make such a discovery, then why can't most people, who do not suffer from such illnesses, do the same? We can laud Hollywood's portrayal of this schizophrenic man, but rarely do we - the audience - scrutinize our beliefs the same way.

For instance, a recent conversation with my Rabbi proved futile: of course the dinosaurs existed, he proclaimed, they just died in the flood! This is in stark contrast to Kent Hovind or Ken Ham's view, where the dinosaurs were saved in the Ark and actually lived with people. Never mind that the fossil strata and geological column prove both claims erroneous.

But if you've presupposed your conclusion (regardless of its correctness), any valid syllogism will do: the premises may not be falsifiable - or, if you want, you could even try to prove your premises true by backing into them using your conclusion inductively (e.g. that dinosaurs are now extinct is because god's obviously perfect word predicted an irrefutable flood). Though such arguments may on their face appear valid, they aren't. Strictly speaking, they are best described as dogma.

Inevitably, the dogmatic person will see evidence contrary to their beliefs. Faced with rejecting what might be a lifetime of teaching (and even perhaps a culture based around such teachings), the person will fall back on their intuition: "I've got to go with my gut." I've therefore coined a neologism for such faulty thinking: intellectual psychosis.

It's not psychotic, though, to have grounded faith, or to even use your gut. As an auditor for the government, people trust me, but no amount of testing could prove that I am, and will always be, an honest person. When we begin a relationship, we may have no personal experience with which to predict the relationship's success. But we, nonetheless, try, and hope for our partner's requited love and fidelity. We need our gut instincts. Many relationships don't work out, but we still have faith that, one day, one might. Grounded faith, intuition, conviction - these things are important.

Equally important, at least when figuring out why our gut tells us to do something, is critical thinking. We're afraid of being wrong. But it takes more guts to admit that you're wrong than to brainlessly assume you're right. Intellectual psychosis is a treatable malady. Try some critical thinking, it's good for both the head and the stomach.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Meet Our Newest Staff Members!

I don't want to say too much, but you might have noticed that the "contributors" section has two new names in it. It's true: I've invited two new individuals to join me in writing for "Stars Blink Out." The names listed there are not, as is no surprise, their real names, as I'm going to leave it to each of them to regulate how they are known on this blog. And no promises that both have things lined up to post in the nearly near future (one does, I think). But they are here to bring us some variety, a break from me, etcetera.

One is a guy that I've known for maybe a year and a half (feels like longer), and the other is a guy that I've known for my whole life (feels like longer), my brother. Each has their own outlook on the world and their own perceptions of what constitutes "relevance" in this rapidly changing world.

But enough with the boring stuff. Let me just say that I look forward to having them on board and to giving you the reader, and also me, more to read and more to think about.

-Stephen

Change.gov: It's Starting To Look Like Yeah, We Maybe Can


(a background wallpaper from http://obama4thewin.com/)

A lot of people out there are starting to wonder. How many times can we say "Yes We Can" before we have to start actually doing something? How often can we call for "Change" before the absence of that change starts to show?

President-elect Barack Obama is listening to those people. He is faced with an in-between period, during which he has been elected but not inaugurated, he has support but no way to leverage it just yet. He has responded by doing something unprecedented. He has set up Change.gov.

A website for a president-elect certainly doesn't sound too impressive. But that's before you dive in and see what the site actually does. Not only does it document the obvious media attention, it calls for submissions on what the average American thinks our vision should be. It asks for average American stories. It outlines policies, plans, and specific methods for effectuating the change for which we have all been calling. It even has a blog. An American president-elect running a blog!

I know, it's not a fixed economy or a solved health care crisis. But it certainly is a giant step in an entirely changed direction. I like where this is going so far.

NOTE: I also have a straight up Obama entry working, so be on the lookout for that.