Sunday, July 27, 2014

Yes, Virginia, Evil Exists

"She is beyond the grace of God.  She is damned."

--Brahm Stoker's Dracula

As Americans, we like to believe people can change and become good.  It is practically programmed in our genes to forgive.  Whether it be Michael Vick, LeBron James, or Tiger Woods, the formula is the same--if you do a bad deed, you are expected to be punished.  After some time, if you apologize, we will forgive you.  America gives people second chances.  We believe in the ability of people to remake themselves and redeem themselves.

Many Americans are Christians.  The Bible is filled with examples who were bad actors who later turned good.  St. Paul used to help Christians get killed before his conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  After this, he became one of the greatest missionaries in Christianity.  The notion that God's grace cannot touch certain people's hearts and reform them is antithetical to our deepest held notions of what is right and true.

But what if there are some who cannot be saved?  What if there are those that thanks to biology and brain damage, are unable to do good and actually mean it?  Recent advances in fMRI technology and psychological testing has shown that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing empathy.  As an experiment, these people were hooked up to machines which recorded the activation of certain areas of the brain related to emotion.  When hearing words that are neutral, like "table" and "ball", normal people show no activation in the emotional areas of the brain.  But when hearing words that are emotionally charged, like "cancer" or "death of loved one", the areas related to emotion show activation.  In psychopaths, the words "cancer" and "death of loved one" registered the same as the neutral words.  In the more sick psychopaths, the words of suffering toward others caused their pleasure centers of the brain to be activated.  They were "turned on" by the suffering of others.  Likewise, the areas of the brain responsible for empathy were unaffected by images of the suffering of others, unlike the controls.

There are things in the brain called mirror neurons.  These are activated when we see another person perform an action like cry or smile.  When a baby hears another baby cry, it will cry too.  These mirror neurons allow the baby to perceive the pain of others.  This then encourages their empathic centers of the brain to be activated.  In psychopaths, they have the same number of mirror neurons.  They can perceive the pain of others.  The problem is they simply don't care.  Their empathic areas of the brain don't get activated.  Like a reptile, they remain cold blooded.  That is why when psychopathic criminals are later interviewed about their crimes, they speak about killing people in a matter-of-fact sort of way.  When non psychopathic killers are interviewed, they are more likely to talk about the spiritual and moral meanings of their crimes.  Psychopaths never talk this way.

Experiments were done with identical twins to see what portion of the psychopathic personality is based on genetics and which part is the environment.  We do know that to get a violent psychopath like Joel Rifkin or Jeffrey Dahmer, the child must be beaten and abused.  But what if a psychopath is not physically abused?  Twins studies indicate that there is a 80% genetic inheritance for psychopathy.  To the extent that non violent psychopaths don't harm people, it is because their parents did a good job.  These psychopaths spend their time committing white collar crimes and living like parasites off the good will of people.  Some of them may even do good, the difference being that cognitively they know what society expects of them and do it.  But they still don't care about the suffering of others or remain law abiding because they have internalized these norms.  It is only in this sense that they are "saved" by God's grace--the love of their parents.  But it doesn't make them normal, empathic people capable of love.

Autistic people lack the ability to actually see the suffering or pain in others.  It doesn't properly register with them.  If you tell someone with an autistic spectrum disorder like Asperger's that they hurt your feelings, they would care and feel bad.  They don't have an inability to feel empathy.  They are caring people.  It is like they are colorblind to facial expressions.  The psychopath knows full well that you are suffering and can recognize your pain--they just don't give a shit.

James Fallon is a scientist who studies the brain.  He also is a psychopath.  He states in his book "The Psychopath Inside" that after the age of 5, the brain structures responsible for empathy are formed.  If they are underdeveloped or don't exist, it's too late.  After this critical window, they cannot be "gotten back."  The child will remain a psychopath forever.  The best we can do is show children with psychopathic tendencies as much love and kindness as possible to minimize the later harm they will do.  We may prevent them from becoming violent.  But they will still never be empathic and truly care for others.

Psychopathy tends to run in families.  It's not one gene, it appears to be a constellation of genes.  There very well may be epigenetic factors that help these genes be turned on or off.  How to avoid the expression of these genes and prevent psychopathy in those with the inherited condition remains a mystery.  It is estimated that 1% of the population are psychopaths.

One of the worst things we can do is hope that a psychopath will change.  We project on to them normal emotions like love and compassion.  A psychopath is an expert at imitating emotions, at feigning concern when it serves his or her purposes.  But these are crocodile tears.  When psychopaths are interviewed about their crimes, many of them will pretend to be sorry for their crimes.  But later in that same interview, they will talk about how the victim "Had it coming to them because they were stupid."

Even some children as young as the age of 18 months can demonstrate psychopathic traits.  One psychopathic child at the age of 10 hanged his mother's cat and left it there for the mother to discover.  When she was horrified, the child smiled, enjoying her reaction.  Psychopathic children enjoy hurting animals and playing with fire.  They are fearless and avid risk takers.  They usually have discipline problems after the age of 13, like delinquency, selling drugs, and other problems.

Strangely, words you say to a psychopath don't affect them.  As long as they get what they want, they don't care what you say about them.  Their confidence is rock solid.  They believe in themselves.  They feel they are superior to others.  They feel no sense of conscience as in people owing a duty of moral obligation to others.  They know that people are bound by these rules, but they don't value it and don't care.  That is how they can abandon their families and move away without a second thought.  Once they drain their hosts of their reputations, money, and resources, they move on.  They are living vampires, living in their own hells removed from all love, compassion, and goodness.

Many of them feel a sense of nothingness inside.  They feel devastating boredom.  Their emotions are shallow.  They hate the world and feel persecuted although they shit on people every chance they get.  They will kick you in the balls and make you apologize they did you the favor.  Anything you say or do, they will twist and turn to make you feel insane.  Because they have no social compass, they will trash talk about you behind your back and turn everyone against you.  They seek to crush you on every level if you don't give them what they want.  They are the darkness.  Listening to a psychopath attack you is fascinating because they will accuse you of the things they themselves have done to you.  If they are abusive, they will accuse you of abusing them, even though the facts are totally contrary to this. 

If you have a psychopath in your life, you need to cut them out like a tumor.  It doesn't matter if they are a spouse, parents, sibling, or whatever.  They will destroy you.  They will never change.  They will not be saved or born again.  Get away before it is too late.

You don't get a blue ribbon for being a victim.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

When "Work" No Longer Works

There are many things we accept without thinking.  One of them is that to get money, you must work.  This model is based on scarcity.  In a world where labor must be mixed with capital to create goods and services, working makes sense--you provide a value and you receive value for that labor in return.  The concept is that if you create value, you receive compensation.  This rewards hard work and punishes the lazy and moochers.  The problem, however, is that technology eliminates some forms of scarcity.  This upturns the traditional model of labor.  In a world where machines can do the work humans used to do, human labor is worth much less.  Sometimes human labor is rendered obsolete.  An example would be the video store.  It used to be that you had to physically travel to Blockbuster to rent a movie, which needed to be checked in, organized, and returned to the shelf.  The advent of the Internet and Netflix made this business model obsolete.  Video store workers were left unemployed. 

The existence of the Internet has killed the job market because it has eliminated the scarcity of labor.  If you were formerly making big money as a software programmer in the U.S., companies can now hire Indians across the globe to do the work for a small fraction of the price.  The same goes for customer service.  Lawyers are finding that their jobs are also being outsourced.  3-D printers will be available in a few years such that many consumer products will be printable on demand.  Robots will be fulfilling the duties of caregivers and assistants.  Even truck drivers are under threat by driverless cars and vehicle systems.  Watson, the IBM computer that won on Jeopardy, can diagnose medical problems and treat patients much more effectively than humans.  Watson could be available on anyone's smartphone.  And many medical tests are able to be administered via smartphone apps and attachments as well.

The bottom line is that labor isn't what it used to be.  If you now own the means of production, you are making a killing.  The wealth becomes concentrated at the top while the bottom 99% suffer.  The myopia of the super rich is apparent.  The masses will only take poverty and suffering for so long before they react.  This could be positive if it means grassroots organizing, political reforms, and means used to change the system.  It could be negative if people outright revolt.  The haves must recognize that shitting on people will only work for so long before you get a backlash.  We are seeing this in Gaza right now.  The Palestinians have had enough of being terrorized and are striking back.  The Israeli response is typical--using violence and terrorism to beat the people back into submission.

The present system of working for money is coming to an end.  In the future, when labor is essentially obsolete, goods and services will need to be distributed to people in a more efficient manner.  It could mean taxing the richest corporations and guaranteeing a basic standard of living for everyone.  People will still do work, but it won't be for money.  I reject the notion that people are essentially lazy and will only work if threatened with starvation.  People work on the things they are passionate about.  Scientists will work for 80 hours per week to learn new things.  Musicians will starve for years to pursue their craft.  It is the shit work that people hate.  But if you hate this type of work, you are labeled "lazy."  Technology is making these sorts of tasks obsolete. 

The truth is that there is enough wealth and technology right now to enable all people to work part time and have enough.  The problem is that our present system is based on 19th century notions.  We have so much food grocery stores throw food away while people go hungry.  We have millions of homeless people and millions of unused, foreclosed homes.  We have people dying from polio when vaccines exist to prevent the disease.  We have sick people dying from preventable diseases because our system only pays for treatments when people are about to die instead of investing in preventative care. 

Part of this is rooted in human psychology.  Studies have shown that primates have a built-in sense of "fairness" that encourages people to punish moochers, even if this means hurting themselves in the long run.  This might have made sense 10,000 years ago, but now, our desire to punish others is destroying our society.  Similarly, our sense of tribalism and worrying about excluding the "other", whether it be immigrants, those who have different tastes or preferences, or whatever, will ultimately lead to our own doom.  In a world of nuclear weapons, tribalism can be fatal to everyone. 

We have all sorts of natural inclinations.  But we have evolved to live in a different age.  Sometimes common sense lacks sense.  We aren't designed to live in a world that is connected by the Internet, where we have contact with thousands of people, where we know what is going on halfway across the planet.  Sometimes we have to think outside of the box. 

Fear, suspicion, and xenophobia can and will destroy us if we let it. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Guardian Angels

Sometimes in life, when things seem at their worst, and we feel like the world is a terrible, vicious place, we find tender moments of grace.  These are the moments when God lifts us up when we least expect it.  It is when He works through people to touch our lives, surprise us, and let us know that love is bigger than the sorrows we face and the adversity which challenges us.

I came home tonight, exhausted from a long week, with stress having taken its toll.  My pregnant wife had an ultrasound for our two babies earlier in the day.  I love them very much.  They are my world.  So of course my anxiety levels were sky-high until the appointment ended.  Thankfully everything went well, but it doesn't mean a father doesn't worry every time.  Nothing else in my life is as important to me as my wife and our two babies. 

Coming home, I found my neighbors had the goodness in their hearts to work on mowing my yard.  It was an act of kindness and service that I will never forget.  "We figured you were tired from dealing with doctor's visits and everything that we wanted to help you out."  They brought over some garden vegetables so my wife would have them.  It meant so much.

In a society that has become increasingly atomized and isolated, it is so wonderful to have neighbors that care for one another.  It is truly like the kingdom of heaven.  It is made of the good deeds and acts of service people share with one another. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I'm A Victim, Are You A Victim Too?

There is power in victimhood.  Whether it be blaming one's parents, society-at-large, immigrants, other races, conservatives, liberals, the religious, atheists, Christians, non-Catholics, or whoever, victimhood is a hot commodity on today's market.  Turn on Fox News and you never hear the end about how non-white liberals like Obama are out to destroy the country for God fearing good white Christians.  Or turn on MSNBC to learn about how Tea Party members are hell bent on turning America back into the segregated South of 1952.  Whether or not your are a member of the majority in this country, you can feel good about your victim status.

People like to be victims.  It gives them a sense of power in a world that makes the individual feel powerless.  When the financial system and economy is rigged to outsource jobs, destroy financial security and eradicate the middle class, it feels good to have someone to blame.  If you can point your finger at Obama, the liberal elite, Tea Party members, atheists, Catholics, immigrants, or whoever, at least you know your enemy.

The problem is that our nation's declining economy is much more complex and nuanced.  If it were simply a matter of securing the border or more prayer in schools, fixing our problems would be easy.  I wish it were that simple.  To really fix our economy, however, we need to make fundamental changes in the way the system works.  This means the kind of change that would make your average person very uncomfortable.  It would mean reforming our election laws and the Constitution to have publicly funded elections so special interests won't dominate political ads.  It might even mean changing the government itself to a parliamentary system.  The reason for this is because our current system was designed by Madison to limit the public's ability to make real change.  The purpose of the Senate is to slow down powerful and system changing legislation coming from the House.  Needing a supermajority to pass anything, the Senate is the wet blanket for the kinds of real change that might benefit the public.

Focusing on being a victim and blaming others works well for those in control.  It allows them to scapegoat others while avoiding real responsibility.  While the Wall Street bankers who designed the housing bubble walk away with their profits, people spend all their time pointing fingers at immigrant children.  Solving our problems is systemic.  It is not just a matter of getting nicer people to be CEOs and investment bankers.  The way the system is designed, if you are a CEO and you do something that is ethical but doesn't bring in short term profits, then you are removed by the board of directors.  These people are elected by shareholders who want profits at all costs.  If this means a company like GM not telling people about defective car parts and people die, oh well.  If it means polluting a river to avoid expensive clean up costs, oh well.  You don't have to pay for the medical bills of children who get cancer.  These costs aren't part of the corporate bottom line so they don't count.

Blaming the poor is a popular one.  The American myth is that if you work hard, you can achieve anything.  If only this were true.  What if the only thing you are good at is something not valued by our society?  If LeBron James lived in Africa 100 years ago, he wouldn't have been rich.  If Jonas Salk were a Navajo Indian, he wouldn't have developed the polio vaccine.  And there are some people who simply aren't good at anything, no matter how hard they try.  Does this mean they should starve?

What is fascinating to me are the people who feel comfortable beating their chests like gorillas about how hard they work and how everyone else are a bunch of moochers hell-bent on living off others.  It's an interesting psychological projection because they seem obsessed with how much work others do.  They must really hate working to project this onto others.  If not, they wouldn't be so bitter about it.  The truth is that they want to do less work and live the way they believe these folks do.  And why not?  The way our system is designed, many jobs do suck.  Why would anyone want to go to work for an organization where the boss has near total control over your life.  He gets to say what you wear, how you conduct your time, what you say, even what kind of health care coverage you get.  This is hardly democratic.  If the company makes profits, you don't get any.  You are renting your time to some else's little tyranny.  People are naturally freedom loving.  No one loves to work under such conditions.  Hating it is natural, except in the U.S., where you are made to feel guilty if you don't think this type of repressive system is awesome.  After all, you might theoretically own Wal Mart one day, right?  Such organization isn't a law of nature.  We could have worker cooperatives, profit sharing, and co-ownership of businesses.  If everyone had a bigger stake in the game, then things might be very different.

The most detestable to me are the folks who use victimhood to abuse others.  This is despicable because it takes the good natured empathy of others and uses it against them.  It is psychotic, cruel, and a fundamental destroyer of society.  It leads to increased callousness and bitterness.  Israel is this way.  Whenever you criticize those in charge, you are labeled an anti-Semite.  When Israel commits acts of terror, it is "defending itself."  Because of the Holocaust, Israel can do no wrong.  Because labels are more important than actual deeds in American society, this means Israel gets a free pass.  Confronting our real problems would mean systemic change, which isn't going to happen.  Instead we focus on whether someone is politically incorrect or not.  Sorry but using the word "nigger" isn't the ultimate crime.  Putting millions of black boys in prison each year for petty drug crimes and stealing their futures is.  Cutting food stamps so poor black children go hungry to punish their mothers is a crime, yet we applaud these things each day.  We are a nation of hypocrites.

I make no illusions about being a victim.  By normal standards I have done fairly well in life.  I graduated from law school, am married, and live a fairly middle class life.  I acknowledge I am no Ayn Rand superhero.  I worked very hard studying, working, and trying to make it through school while my mother was dying from cancer, I went through a divorce, fought through debilitating pain with autoimmune arthritis, and helping to care for my disabled father.  I acknowledge that while I have had difficulties, I have also been blessed with advantages.  I came from a home that valued learning.  My mother taught me to think critically.  My family supported me in my academic ventures.  I didn't come home to a father that was a drunk.  I lived in a safe neighborhood.  I didn't face discrimination based on the color of my skin.  In many ways, although I did work hard, I also had many advantages that others have not.  That is why I don't believe that simple hard work will bring everyone up to the same level.  We all start at different points.  Pointing to one or two ghetto children who later become doctors or lawyers through hard work does not mean that our system is designed to be just for most people.  Hard work can get you very far, indeed, but it isn't everything.

I believe in efficiency.  America has the talent, resources, and ability to solve most if its most serious problems.  It is not a matter of ability, it is a matter of organization.  We have millions of people who are homeless and millions of homes that are empty.  We have millions of people with talent who cannot find work while our cities are decaying.  A system that cannot connect the two is one that has failed.  It is interesting that a small country like Cuba has an economy that is a fraction of the size of the U.S.  Yet it finds the money to educate its citizens and provide health care to all.  And this is not a matter of opinion.  Cuban health outcomes are better than those in the U.S. given the amount of money spent.  This is also true for many other countries.  Yet we act like it is a law of nature such as gravity that health care costs have to bankrupt an entire nation.

We get wrapped up in smokescreens.  Instead of rolling out renewable energy, we invest trillions of dollars in wars with Iraq to secure oil supplies.  We focus on the short term instead of the long term.  What ISIS does shouldn't matter to us.  If it weren't for oil, we wouldn't care.  We aren't going to war to fight Boko Haram in Africa, even though they are worse.  Why not?  Because oil isn't at stake.  If we put our energy into getting away from oil, we wouldn't need to waste money on wars in the Middle East.  As an American, I shouldn't have to worry about what goes on in the Middle East.  That is not my business.  It is only my business now because the oil companies which have bought the politicians and Supreme Court Justices want it to be my business.

Keeping people divided and feeling like victims works great for those in power.  It keeps people from organizing and focusing on the real issues.  Justice Roberts has effected a brilliant coup against democracy through his last several decisions.  The formula is obvious:

1.  Take a hot button issue like gay marriage, abortion, contraception, or whatever.
2.  Focus on that issue so as to avoid the larger discussion about what changes to the law might mean.
3.  Make a decision that further limits the freedoms of the public but initially seems to be a victory
     for "freedom."
4.  Use these new laws to continue eroding bigger, more fundamental freedoms.

The Affordable Care Act is a perfect example.  Roberts used this to destroy the commerce clause.  This means that the federal government has less power to regulate business, giving the states more freedom to be bullied by large corporations.  Liberals wanted the ACA passed.  Conservatives wanted the law struck down.  The law itself became a smoke screen.  At the end of the day, the federal government is weaker.

Or the issue of gay marriage.  Liberals wanted it.  Conservatives did not.  The cynical Supreme Court justices on the right don't care.  They used it as a way to again erode federal power and give more power to the states, which means more power for corporations to control state governments.  Only the federal government has the power to stand up to corporations like Exxon.  People were so focused on whether gays are getting married that they missed the larger point--that the federal government, the only roadblock between us and utter domination by corporations, was eroded.  In the future, this means less control over civil rights legislation at the federal level, etc.  This means increased disempowering of the people.

The Hobby Lobby contraceptive decision is another one.  By letting people frame this as a religious freedom issue, the government gave corporations the right to use religious whim to avoid laws which are designed to protect all people in the secular marketplace.  Because contraception is a hot button emotional issue, our brains are turned off to the larger issue.  The strategy was genius.

As college education has become unaffordable, this has made the situation much worse.  Instead of having a population that is used to questioning and fighting back, college has become a necessity to please employers.  By keeping college debt high, workers remain tightly controlled by their corporate employers.  You can't make trouble when you are an indentured servant.  You aren't going to be hopping from job to job when you have massive student loans.

America is a funny place.  We like to believe that we are in control, but at the same time we relish at being victims.  It allows us to throw our arms up in the air, feel powerless, and resign ourselves to not fighting back.  My attitude is fuck victimhood.  Take responsibility for what you can and resist domination as best you can.  Force yourself to look at reality.  Challenge injustice where you see it.  Be like the honey badger--small but fierce, fearless, and tireless.

Friday, July 4, 2014

As it is July 4, it is time to reflect on some of the special freedoms we have as Americans. As far as free speech, America is the freest country in the world. In Europe, you can actually be jailed for saying things which are politically incorrect. France and Germany are excellent examples of this. In America you don't have to worry about the secret police coming to get you if you say the wrong thing. Now, you may be audited or spied on by the NSA (LOL), but you aren't going to be sent to the gulag.

This country has many flaws. It is a young country still looking to define itself and find its true identity. But within this adolescence is a spirit of hope, that perhaps the future may be brighter. Even though there are many ugly things about America, there is much beauty here as well. I love this country. I live here because I want to help make it better for me and my upcoming children. America is a family. You hang in there, love it, and try to contribute what you can when you can.

One of the great American literary narratives is that of the road trip. Wide open spaces, an infinite horizon ahead, multidimensional characters, and a sense of unbounded possibility help to contain the protean character of the American experience. This is the America I have come to know and love.