I would like to state, for the record, that I am no Luddite. If anything I am a technophile. I love my computer. I love gadgets. I love learning new things about new technologies that are coming along. When the day comes, if my finances allow, I will be first in line for a neural input jack. So I have no disdain for technology. What I do have a dislike for is our seeming need to divorce technology from ethics, or from its broader social consequences. Continue reading
I have, for the last few months, been living off the generosity of my brother and father. More than the financial help and the physical security of having a place to stay, which are much appreciated, I have enjoyed being part of a family in a tangible way again. Among the many responsibilities/benefits of this has been occasionally helping my nephew with his homework. While doing so last night I came across something that bothered me somewhat.
He asked me to look over a paragraph he was expected to write for social studies. It was to be from the point of view of an Ancient Greek citizen walking through the marketplace in Athens. His alter ego speaks of buying all manner of items but one in particular stood out and was the cause of my concern: a book. I politely corrected him and told him there were no books in Ancient Greece so a citizen would not be buying them. He corrected me and showed me in his text where it describes people buying books in the marketplace.
It has been a long time since I have had to study the ancient world, still that seemed wrong to me. To my knowledge books as we know them did not appear for another thousand years after the period he is learning about, at least not in that part of the world. I wanted to know if I could be wrong about my assumption so I did a little quick research.
Books as we would recognize them, multiple leaves of paper bound with glue in some variety of cover, would indeed not appear until the 7th century CE (that’s AD to all you Baby Boomer or older folks out there.) That is at the beginning of, but definitely inside the Dark Ages. Ancient Rome had a variation, wood panels bound with wrings but even that would not come along until the fist century CE.
Still that alone is not the worst of it. One could suppose that they were using “book” as a catch all for any permanent record of literature, including the scrolls that were used in Ancient Greece. Indeed some scholarly articles do this, so it is not a particularly important point of contention, even if it bothers me. What is more troubling is the idea that these students are being taught that books were available for mass consumption and trade. At the time books were not sold in the market, but rather in the library, and even then most citizens did not have a strong interest in ever acquiring them. To put things in a context we can understand in modern terms, buying a scroll would be like buying a server to put your businesses web site and other computing needs on. They were available, but not something most people had a need or desire to do.
I know this may seem trivial on the face of it. I admit I have been known to nitpick over details and wax academic at the drop of a hat. This is not, however, insignificant, not when you consider this is being taught as fact to children. What happens years later when these facts are turned on their head? Do they merely accept the new facts, or do they question any fact they are taught? Either answer is no good. They will either blindly believe what they are told, or be so overwhelmed by skepticism that they will treat all facts as matters of opinion.
Years ago Michael Kinsley wrote an excellent column about the latter phenomena: The Intellectual Free Lunch (I recommend paying for the subscription to The New Yorker to read the whole article, even if it is the only thing you read from them.) We see in our society, still almost twenty years later, a tendency to treat empirical matters as if they were fluid. They are not. The amount of words, in English, in this blog post is static. The amount of money in our government spent last year on welfare is fixed and not subject itself to debate. Whether that amount is too high, too low, or just right, is. However one cannot come to an informed opinion of about whether or not it is too high without knowing what that number is. We are training people to ignore that fact.
I would like to think this is accidental, but I sometimes wonder. I wonder if it is convenient for those in power to have the electorate unable to form an actual informed opinion. I don’t like thinking like that, but I also don’t like ignoring the possibility. I see factual errors in a sixth grade history book and I have to worry. I hear people say “well that’s my opinion” about the number of casualties in a conflict. I see rigorous scientific research challenged in the areas of evolution and anthropogenic climate change as being “just a theory” while the speaker remains unaware of the meaning of the word “theory.” I look at all this and wonder if this has been deliberately done to us. I see this and I wonder if that would be worse than the idea of our being inherently so willfully ignorant.
We live in a cruel world. For most of the folks reading this, and the person writing it, this is more of an abstract idea. We know the horrible things that go on around the world, but they often do not touch us in any real way. Most of us will never know what it is like to go hungry. We will not know what it is like to fear we will never have a roof over our head. Recent events with the Occupy protests not withstanding, if you are white in this country you likely do not know what it is like to have the police arbitrarily hassle you and even brutalize you. Today in America you do not have to worry about the state gathering up groups of people to starve, beat, enslave and/or murder them.
For many of the folks who will never have the chance to read this, though, the world’s viciousness is very tangible. Petty men, with petty ideas inflict their rule on them, depriving them of all manner of security. So when comfortable Americans take notice, for whatever reason, I feel a pang of hope for humanity and its potential. Sometimes this feeling is justified, sometimes it is not, and sometimes the circumstances bring to light so many complications in our interactions with the less safe world and each other. Such is the case of Joseph Kony.
To those not in the know, he is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Over the years he has used some clearly monstrous tactics in his efforts most notably the recruiting of child soldiers. He is now on the run and many would like to see him brought to justice. A not for profit organization, Invisible Children, has started a social media campaign, complete with a documentary, to facilitate that end. I want to like this. I do like that so many people are being made aware of the situation in Africa in general and Uganda in particular.
There is a problem, though, with oversimplifying the issue. The terrible conditions in these countries are not the fault of one man, or even one group of men, and they are not independent of our lifestyle and wants here in this country. Leaving aside Invisible Children’s own dubious motives, how can we justify getting in bed with a government like Uganda’s, one with human rights problems of its own? Meanwhile we have to look at our own country’s foreign and energy policies, both relics of a bygone era and the result of our military-industrial complex, and how they influence all the players on the African political stage.
With that in mind, I also feel the need to call out those that are overly worked up about such “slacktivism” (though I admit I love that term.) As I said, the issues in Africa, and around the world are complex, far more complex than most Westerners realize and more complex than many can wrap their heads around. I studied political science, in particular the sort of comparative development issues that are relevant to the situation, and I find myself scratching my head at some of this. People live busy day to day lives and often do not have the background to fully appreciate the circumstances or the time to keep up with it. Which is not to say you shouldn’t educate them about the complexities involved and the inherent dangers of latching onto a particular, narrow cause or savior. One can do that, though, without name calling and anger, without putting those you want to enlighten on the defensive and without raising your own blood pressure.
I think you folks would find you are on the same side. If those who understand the nuances of the situation are patient, and those whose hearts are in the right place keep an open mind you can all do amazing work together. I feel fairly confident in saying you would rather be allies than enemies. How about you all take the time and energy to prove me right?
It is sometimes amazing to me how quickly good intentions by my fellow liberals will undergo a metamorphosis into the behavior of a juvenile delinquent. Standing up for the little guy turns into a mindless action that marginalizes those we champion, or in some cases we champion the cause of selfish anarchy.
I think it’s important to point out the modifier in that last term. Though I may find anarchy an ultimately futile approach to society, the arguments for and against some forms of anarchy are more complex than can be handled in a single blog article. Simple minded, individual, hedonistic anarchy, however, is another matter. Taking what you want, when you want is childish, anti social and rightfully criminal. So championing a website that does that, as Anonymous has done, puts so much egg on our face.
Let me make this clear, because it apparently isn’t to some, MegaUpload is not YouTube. This is a site that gleefully flaunted the fact that you could get any movie you wanted and encouraged illegal uploading of material to their site. Their own criminal culpability is still in question, and should be until they are tried and either convicted or acquitted, but they at least behaved in an ill advised fashion that cast suspicion over their activities, suspicion that warranted a two year investigation. YouTube will quickly take down material that clearly infringes copyright, helping them to avoid such scrutiny.
The fact that our government was able to go after an alleged pirate site without resorting to new, possibly first amendment infringing tools, should be celebrated as a win for those of us that oppose SOPA and PIPA. It shows how these flawed bills are utterly unnecessary. Instead Anonymous attacks the DoJ. Some may say it was a bit of harmless mischief. The only thing that happened was the DoJ’s website went down for a little bit. Here is the kind of work the Department of Justice does.
Has it been a tool of corporations? Certainly, but it has also fought for the little guy and is nowhere near as monolithic an organization the often naive left would like to believe. The same, of course can be said of Anonymous. I am disappointed in this particular action but they have targeted child pornographers, exposed police brutality, and otherwise aided the Occupy Movement. I say this, not only because I want to take the target off of my head, but because I legitimately believe they do good work. Not all of it is legal, but that alone does not make it bad. Exposing which politicians received how much, from which donors, while technically illegal, is a public good of the highest order. All I ask, oh wonderful hackers at Anonymous (seriously, I’m an unemployed blogger, you can make my life worse, but please don’t) is you take a little more time considering your actions.
In other news we have the protests of President Obama in Harlem and BrooklynBadBoy’s take on it. I cannot agree that there should not have been a protest. If nothing else it reminds the President that he needs to improve his record when it comes to dealing with those that caused our economy to crash and burn four and a half years ago. That said I wonder if this apparently all white crowd tried to do any community outreach to bring any PoC into their ranks. How tone deaf do you have to be, to take an all white group into Harlem and protest a black President? All while just a few miles away, the bankers that you want this President to call to task are hobnobbing with his presumed rival come this November? A rival, I might add, that is as white as white can be. What sort of message do you think you are sending?
I hate the feeling I get in my gut when I am forced to write about this. By and large we are smart people, with ideas that are intelligent, compassionate and truly in the best interest of our country. Yes, I understand part of the problem is the mainstream media focusing on a few mistakes, or a few bad elements, but when members of the alt media are noticing, then you have crossed the line into self parody. You provide those that vehemently oppose our ideas with ammo to use against us, and yes that ammo is full of straw men and ad hominems, but do you really think that is going to matter to the overstimulated, overworked masses we are trying to reach out to? You want to make the world better? Great, so do I, but start by making yourself a little better by slowing down and reflecting on your actions.