Friday, April 21, 2017

Random Acts of Kindness

There are many disadvantages to being visibly different from other people. One possibility is that you will be bullied. But another, equally unpleasant one is that someone will decide to target you for a random act of kindness.

Yes, there is a movement like that. It's been going on for a long time, since before I was born. And the idea behind it is that if we all practice unexpected small acts of  kindness toward strangers, we will be living in a much better world. Practitioners of random acts of kindness are well meaning, but incredibly thoughtless.  Because of that, if we overreact to their kindness, they are likely to go ballistic. So if it ever happens to you, the best thing you can do is set them straight very softly, so as not to set them off. There is nothing like a would-be good Samaritan to become enraged if you reject his random act of kindness, no matter how bad it makes you feel.

The first time I was subjected to a random act of kindness, I was seven years old and in a public swimming pool. I had just learned how to swim, and my movements were still very jerky. My father was in the pool with me, supervising from a distance, but not interfering with my progress. Suddenly a strange man that I had never seen before swooped in, carried me aloft and deposited me on the other side of the pool. That was really scary. And then when he explained that he thought I was drowning, it just got very embarrassing. My father thanked him for his help, and eventually we laughed about it. But it was still an unpleasant thing to have happened. I will never forget it.

Random acts of kindness are based on the idea that without knowing someone, his situation, his abilities and disabilities and the subtle context of his life, you can decide what would be best for him and just swoop in and do whatever you like to him, without his permission. It's really no different from kidnapping, except that you mean well. In the case where they refuse to take your money for a service or give you money that you have no way to refuse, that is a kind of assault that we don't even have a name for.

Take the example of a professor who returns to the US from abroad and finds himself at Yale on a snowy day dressed in sandals, because he has just come back from a place with a different climate. Let's say his clothes are wrinkled from the long flight, and his hair is disheveled. He walks into a Payless Shoe Source to get snow shoes, but the clerk there becomes convinced that this is his moment to shine in a random act of kindness. The clerk is a young African American man, very well groomed and dressed for success. He is also a church-goer, and he sees the professor who walks into his store as a needy person. "Why are you wearing sandals? Have you just had an operation?" he starts to ask. "No," the professor answers distractedly. Because nothing that the professor says or does makes sense to the clerk, he becomes convinced that this strangely dressed man is a homeless person -- possibly retarded. When he offers to give him the shoes for free, and the professor refuses, he starts to take offense, because he thinks maybe this white homeless man is prejudiced against blacks, and that's why he's refusing his generous random act of kindness. "I go to church," he starts to say. "I'm a good person!" It does not help that the professor tells him he earns a great more than he does and does not need his charity. The good Samaritan is now insulted!

Or how about the case of the elderly woman with white hair and very plain clothes who does not  accept that the person behind her wants to pay for her groceries in an orchestrated act of kindness by a Church group during the Christmas holidays. She's not going to tell the stranger that she is well-off and set for life. She was brought up to be modest in her dress and to not brag about her wealth so as not to arouse envy. But how to deal with people who think they know who is in need based only on their outer appearance?

These are all true stories.  In each case, the random act of kindness is like a slap in the face to someone who had no idea he looked so helpless and in need to other people. And what makes it worse is that we are not allowed to get angry, for fear of offending our would-be benefactor, because the benefactor belongs to a majority religion or a particular ethnic group.

I have been trying to warn my well-meaning friends who practice random acts of kindness that they may be hurting others in the process, but so far I don't think anyone understands what I am saying. They are so into charity and good works that they think this is all about "selfishness". But who exactly is the selfish one here? Is it the person refusing unwanted help or the benefactor who hopes to store up points to go to heaven by forcing himself on others?

The person you pity based on their appearance, clothes or behavior may indeed be missing your physical coordination, social skills or fashion sense, but they might have advantages that you don't even know about. They might be a mathematical genius or wealthy beyond your imagining. But since you won't bother to get to know them before bestowing your kindness on them, there is no way for you to find that out. You figure if they look weird, they need help. The random act of kindness is ultimately motivated by the same instincts as those of the bully: to level differences and to enforce uniformity. The only way to avoid other people's pity is to act and look exactly the way society says we should. Otherwise, you never know when someone might mistake you for his inferior and swoop down to help you unbidden.

All people need respect and friendship and love. But you can't help strangers by just throwing money at them or fishing them out of the water, because they have not mastered the breast stroke yet. Random kindness is not too different from random violence. It's rude and thoughtless and causes pain to others, because it just stresses the difference between and among people. Don't do it. Resist the urge. The kindest thing you can do for a stranger is to leave them alone, unless they ask for help.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bullying by the Government

Many of us have been bullied in the past. Bullying can take the form of name calling, and in such cases, it isn't legally actionable. It can involve social unpleasantness without physical outcomes. Bullying often escalates to become more physical, though, and it can  involve throwing things and hurting others, even to the point of outright murder. Most bullying is designed to punish people for being different from others, and its origins are tribal. While bullying may result in ostracism or even death to those bullied, the overall effect is to enforce uniformity in those who remain. Viewed scientifically, bullying has a social function. For those of us who want to put a stop to it, we have to address that function, and not just the symptoms.

In order to get to the bottom of bullying, we need to understand our own role in it, even if we are a victim or someone standing on the sidelines, neither participating nor reaching out to help the individuals being bullied.

The time to help is when it begins, not at the bloody end. The thing you have to be willing to do is to stand up and say that you support the other person's right to be different and are willing to put yourself at risk, even if you don't share their difference. It is not enough to just say afterwards that it's too bad that they died. Or that you had no idea it would go that far. Or that you were sure the other person would surrender before the mob put him to death. Because that's what every "sensible" person would do -- surrender!

If that is your attitude, then you are supporting the overall function of the bullying: to enforce uniformity.

When bullying is done by individuals and private groups, it is ugly. But when it is the government that takes on the role of the ultimate bully, that's when we should all stand together against it.

One of the reasons the Branch Davidians had so few people speaking up for them before they were slaughtered in plain sight of the entire nation is that they were smeared in ways that made people on the right and on the left have no sympathy for them. On the right, all you had to do was allege sex with minors, and no decent church going American was willing to lift a finger. On the left, all you had to do is call them religious nuts with Messianic leanings, and the same happened. Nobody cared because they were "too weird".

I tend to be tone deaf to exactly those "PR blunders" that are now tearing the Libertarian Party apart. It makes no impression on me if you attribute to Satan a libertarian sentiment. I'll agree with the sentiment and not worry too much about Satan. It does not worry me if freedom of religion involves having some people worship a man as a god, as long as I don't have to. And I want the Federal government to stay entirely out of the sex racket. The states have jurisdiction over those issues, and if Child Protective Services in the local jurisdiction have cleared someone, I do not want the Feds charging in there with their guns drawn.

Where were you when Mt. Carmel was under siege? I tried to organize a peaceful protest, but somehow all my Libertarian, Quaker, Wiccan and Unitarian friends were too busy to show up that day. The Feds, on the other hand, were very prompt.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Memory Aids: Prose Poetry and Song

I am very excited about what Kelly Clear is adding to the experience of reading Vacuum County.  I am not a big fan of Audible books myself, because I like to look at the words in a book as I read it. You might say I am more of a visual learner. But there are some things that need to be heard to be understood and remembered. Poems are meant to be said out loud. Songs should be sung.

I was sharing this video of the song "Down by the Crick" from Chapter 3 in Vacuum County with a friend who had read the book many years ago. "That's nice," she said. "But I don't remember that there was a song in the book." Well there were the words to the song. And David was described singing it. But it depends on how you read books whether you are likely to remember that.

If you're reading visually, it's easy to miss that something is a song. I mean, it's obviously not prose. And it says in the story that David plays the guitar and sings it. But if you only kind of sped past that part in your reading and only tend to remember "what happened" in the chapter, then you are unlikely to remember the song at all.

Most people use episodic memory  for specific vivid events and rely on semantic memory to sort out the overall narratives of their lives, but they don't remember anything that they read in a novel word for word. By the same token, few people have episodic memory for dialogue in real life.  Much of the information that we acquire through experience is stored as semantic memory, without the moment by moment experiences that gave us the information. In the same way, if we read a book, and it made any kind of impression, we might later be able to describe what happened in the book as a general synopsis of the action, or we might be able to say what we may have learned from the book, but nobody expects us to remember all the words in the book in the right order. If we could do that, there would be no point in copyright laws. Everybody would have a copy of each book he has read stored in his head and would be able to read it off for other people at a moment's notice.

But when you hear a song played or a poem recited, this creates an episodic memory of it word for word, and not just a summary of what the song was about. Read it out loud several times or hear it played and re-played, and you'll remember it forever. That is the genius of poetry and song. 

When new readers experience Vacuum County through the medium of the Audible book produced by Kelly  Clear, they are  going to remember certain passages as if they had lived through the experiences themselves. The songs sung by David will come to life!

File:Frans Hals - Luitspelende nar.jpg

Image: By Frans Hals (1582/1583–1666) - André Hatala [e.a.] (1997) De eeuw van Rembrandt, Bruxelles: Crédit communal de Belgique, ISBN 2-908388-32-4., Public Domain,

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Where Religion Ends and Ethics Begins

Most civilized people agree that it is none of our business what other people believe. We support separation of Church and State. And as good neighbors, we do not mock the faith of others, even though it is not our own faith. We don't argue about whether so and so arose from the dead or whether that sea was parted so those people could cross, or whether there really is a purple multi-armed goddess who provides for people. Civilized people know to leave others to do their own thing, engage in their own ceremonies, cherish their own beliefs about historical events and just avoid confrontation when another person's mythology clashes with our own. You believe in unicorns and I'll believe in  leprechauns, and we can agree to disagree. That's separation of Church and State.

But there is a point at which religion ends, and ethics begins. No matter what somebody's religion says, we're not going to allow them to kidnap our child and sacrifice him to their god. We are not going to allow them to burn down our house, just because their holy book says that is the right thing to do. And we are not going to allow them to discharge our debtor in bankruptcy when it's to us that the money is owed and not to them. When they start to argue that we should forgive our debtors so that our creditors will forgive us, that's where we draw the line. You forgive your debtors, we say, but only after you have paid your creditors in full. Forgiving a debtor when you still owe money to someone else is a gift in fraud of creditors and is not allowed.

Freedom of religion, really, is something that we tolerate only to the extent that what our neighbor believes is not materially important to us. The moment it starts to affect our rights, then we can't allow it. This means, among other things, that to the extent that religion preaches stealing, fraud or hurting others, then we can't tolerate it. Our tolerance is only for meaningless chatter and ceremonies and symbolism. We tolerate religion in the same way we tolerate literature -- if it's only just words, it's okay.

Sadly, religion can affect the morals of people who grew up steeped in it, even when they leave the church. Many believe that it's okay to steal from creditors, long after they have given up on  the idea that that fellow rose from the dead.

It does not matter what cosmology our neighbors believe in, It totally does not hurt me if they believe in the Easter bunny or in miracles. But when their religion tells them it's okay to steal from me, that's where their rights end and mine begin.

A horseshoe I found yesterday

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Beware the School of Life

Lately, every time I watch a video on YouTube, in my peripheral vision, on the sidelines, or in the center when my video ends, YouTube offers me a selection from The School of Life. I don't know how much YouTube has been bribed to show me those videos and to tempt me to watch them, but I'll wager that some not so small amount of money has passed hands.

The style of some of those videos is similar to this one I made to promote the unrequited love aspect of Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way.

The School of Life videos are better drawn, more professionally edited and feature a sensible sounding male voice with a British accent. "Sensible" is the word that comes to mind when listening to the advice they offer. It's quite a bit like talking to my distant relations in Great Britain. Urbane, well read and very, very sensible.

Here's the sort of advice you might get from one of the  School of Life videos:

  • Everyone has feet of clay, goes to the bathroom, puts on their pants one leg at a time, so don't let being painfully aware of your own failings blind you to the fact that you are just as much a mess as everybody else. Chin up and do your best.
  • We instinctively choose people who remind us of our parents to mate with, even when they remind us of our parents' worst qualities. So when choosing a mate, whatever you do, do not listen to your feelings. Be sensible, and choose somebody nice.
  • People don't come with an owner's manual, so this makes anticipating another person's needs difficult. But in order to keep your relationships going, do your best to help your partner unravel what makes you tick.
  • Machievelli has a bad reputation for telling princes how to do evil things, but in fact he is just trying to help nice people find a way to get by in life by manipulating others for their own good.
  • We are told to respect other people, but in fact when someone is throwing a tantrum, you should treat that person like a very small child.
  • Work is boring, but there is a good reason for that, so carry on. At least we know it is equally boring for the CEO of your company as it is for the lowliest janitor -- so it's fair! 
I don't even know where to begin. In case you think I am exaggerating, go watch some of their videos. I do not think they need any more promotion from me than they are already getting from YouTube, so I am going to limit myself to just one of their videos, the one about how boring work is and why it's all good.

Take this statement "The modern job market gives us no option but to specialize." It makes it seem so one-sided. Us against the job market. But if everybody didn't agree to specialize, what would happen to the job market? Is there something that inherently makes the job market trump all our individual wishes? I mean, I could understand it if just one person wanted to give expression to the multitude of possibilities within himself, but nobody else wanted that. But if all of us want the same thing, couldn't we do something about it? What is forcing us into jobs we don't actually want?

According to our sensible middle class British narrator, this was first explained by Adam Smith, who said that "the division of labor massively increases collective productivity." Remember this word: collective. I'll come back to it.

And then we move on to a discussion of Karl Marx. Make no mistake, our middle class British narrator actually knows something about Marx's writings, which the average American, whether a conservative, a liberal or even a libertarian does not. Most Americans I have met -- those who like Marxism and those who detest it -- assume that Marx was for redistribution and collectivization of the ownership of  the "means of production." They assume that he was preoccupied with inequality of wealth and that it was out of an egalitarian concern for meeting the material needs of the poor that he wanted socialism or communism -- or progressivism or whatever we are calling that -ism today, because the last -ism we used has fallen into disrepute. Wrong! Marx actually cared about the mind of the common laborer and was afraid he would die of boredom. He wanted to put an end to the forced drudgery of the constant repetitive actions in the factory. He cared about ordinary people's minds and souls, something no modern day socialist cares a fig for.

Now, here is where our sensible guide to Marx comes in with the most sensible twist of all. Marx was wrong! he tells us. But he wasn't wrong because redistribution of wealth violates the rights of the individual. He wasn't wrong because theft is bad. He was wrong because collectively we can produce more stuff  by all of us doing work that bores us out of our gourd. So it's all good!

"In suffering this way we are participating in a common human lot," the Sensible Narrator tells us. But the thing is, it is not a common human lot. In a free market, you can choose what you do. You can change your mind and choose again. And yes, you can even work at one job by day, and follow another career by night.

In my own life, I have been a lawyer, and a linguist, a novelist and an ape language researcher, a mother and an academician, a poet and a lyricist and a playwright. And that's not counting my hobbies of painting, taking pictures of butterflies and editing YouTube videos. My life is not boring at all. I do not do the exact same thing every day, and while some of the changes from one profession to another have been serial, many other things were done and continue to be done in tandem. There are such multitudes lurking in many of us, and they find external expression every day. I was almost tempted to say that there are such multitudes in everybody, but that would have been falling into the universalist trap that the Sensible Narrator has set.

The fact of the matter is that contrary to what we have always been told, not everybody wants the same thing. Not everybody is the same on the inside. You cannot just imagine yourself in another person's shoes and know instinctively how they must feel.  Not everybody wants to be free! Some people just want to be safe and loved and taken care of, while other people want to go on grand adventures. We are always going to be in trouble if we imagine that we can solve all the world's problems just by catering to our own desires on a global scale.

Karl Marx felt sorry for the average factory worker from the 19th century, because he tried to put himself into that person's shoes and realized that he would be bored silly! He had a kind heart, and he wanted to rescue the multitudes from boredom. But guess what? Not everybody is Karl Marx. Not everybody is bored by repetitive work. Some people are bored instead by reading multi-volume works on economics or how to build a utopia. Some people feel safe and comfortable doing the same job, day in, day out and repeating the same actions, provided they are paid well and given plenty of security.

Work does not have to be boring, nor is it boring for a great many people. Some people like to learn things by rote and keep repeating, and others like to think for themselves. There is room for both sorts on the planet, and for many other sub-types that I have not named.

There is a problem, though, if government interference forces all people to work day in, day out at secure jobs to pay for everybody's collective prosperity and security. And this is why some of my libertarian friends are running into a wall while talking to others, when they use the assumption that we are all the same at heart and all want the same things. The materialist argument in favor of capitalism only works on materialists. The romantic argument in favor of freedom of self-expression only works on romantics. And don't even get me started on how silly it is to mistake our sensible pro-status-quo friends for people who care about liberty and justice, just because they are anti-communist.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Representation without Taxation

"No taxation without representation!" was a slogan of the American Revolutionary war. Yes, they had slogans back then, too. And this slogan -- while catchy --  was not much more than a slogan. Like many other slogans, it did not directly translate into policy. In order to solve the disparity of representation of the Colonists as British subjects, they could have been given seats in the British Parliament. Then their representatives in the House of Commons might have voted on the Stamp Act along with the representatives of all their English speaking compatriots, and they could  have gotten great solace from the fact that even though the tax had not been repealed, they had had a "voice" in the matter.

James Macpherson argued that the Colonists should have asked for seats in the House of Commons

In  The Rights of Great Britain Asserted, published in 1776, James Macpherson, Colonial Secretary of British West Florida, called the rebellious Colonists' bluff:

Had the Americans, instead of flying to arms, submitted the same supposed grievance, in a peaceable and dutiful manner, to the Legislature, I can perceive no reason why their request should be refused. Had they, like the County and City of Chester, represented, that "for lack of Knights and Burgesses to represent them in the High Court of Parliament, they had been oftentimes TOUCHED and GRIEVED with Acts and Statutes made within the said Court, derogatory to their most ancient jurisdictions, liberties and privileges, and prejudicial to their quietness, rest and peace;" this Country would, I am persuaded, have no objection to their being represented in her Parliament... If they are not madly bent on independence, let them propose the conditions on which they wish to continue as subjects...

Let's face it: it was never about equal representation. The Colonists didn't want equality with their distant cousins. They had no desire to vote and get outvoted by their brethren abroad. They did not want to continue as subjects under any conditions. They wanted to be self-governing, They didn't want the British outside the American colonies to have any say in the matter.  The Colonists didn't want more representation. They wanted less taxation.  They wanted to be free.

Today, when we look back to that slogan of no taxation without representation, people often criticize the representational scheme that the American states first put into effect once they were free from the British. We are told that women and blacks could not vote -- and that there were poll taxes and even poor white men were kept from voting in some places, if they did not own property. And we are expected to consider our current uniform voting rights to be so much more enlightened than those propounded by the Founding Fathers and the legislatures of the several states, as each worked out its own suffrage laws. All the while we ignore the fact that the yoke of taxation that all of us suffer under is much heavier than ever the British Crown would dare to impose in 1776.

Why is that? Why are our taxes so much higher under "freedom" than they were as British subjects?

Just maybe it has something to do with who is allowed to vote about what today. When people who don't get taxed have equal representation with those who pay the tax in question, this rather skews the outcome of the vote in favor of higher taxation. That's why removing all the voters in Britain from the right to vote in America was a much more effective cure than giving Americans seats in the House of Commons.

This is also why a state such as New Jersey right after the revolution, in its own enlightened self interest, allowed everyone, blacks, women, or poor whites to vote, as long as they were free, not in debt, had a net worth of fifty pounds and had lived in the county for a year.

Today, people who have nothing are voting on representatives who have the power to tax people who have something. This happens at the Federal level with regard to income taxation, but it is not the only place where it happens. Even in a governmental unit as lowly as a county or a school district, people who own no property get to vote on the property taxes that are imposed on people with property. This ultimately hurts everybody, but the poor are encouraged to do this, because they are told it will hurt only "the rich". We have been taught to worry about the rights of the poor, but nobody seems to have spoken to us of how helpless any property owner is in a county where most people own nothing.

In Vacuum County, I touch obliquely on this issue.

He wasn't laughing any more. "At least it saved me
some money."
"Every hearing is at taxpayer expense. And I pay
eighty percent of the taxes in this county."
I thought about that. "And yet you only get one vote."
He smiled. "It hardly seems fair, does it?" (paqe 334, Vacuum County.)

In school districts where a large percentage of voters are living in subsidized housing, property taxes tend to go up. Sometimes homeowners are baffled by it, not understanding whether their neighbors are so rich that they can afford the extra taxes that they themselves cannot or whether all the other voters are just plain stupid enough to vote for every proposed tax hike. The answer is much simpler. The voters who support the tax hikes are neither rich nor stupid: they simply have nothing at stake. They are not property owners, and we are no longer allowed to keep people who don't own property from voting on property taxes.

The slogan the colonists used was not exactly what they were fighting for. It was not "no taxation without representation" as James Macpherson so ably noted. But maybe what they meant to say is "no representation without something at stake." If you are not going to be subject to a tax, you should not get to vote on it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Possibilities at Audible for Vacuum County

I was thinking of F.L. Light and how much better his Audible books were faring than his print books, when help came from an unexpected quarter. Kelly Clear, a vocalist who has been singing some of the Debt Collector songs, sent me a very nice reading from Vacuum County. It just happened over this weekend, and voila! here is a short demo.

Vacuum County is my most critically acclaimed novel. However, it is not my best seller. Over the years I have made a few videos about it. There is, of course, this trailer that emphasizes the Phoenician connection.

There is also this short discussion about the Biblical inspiration for the book.

And here is the video in which I discuss how realizing that Cabeza de Vaca had to be Nabal's ancestor led me back to my book report on  Hannibal of Carthage by Mary Dolan. .

And there is also the video in which I discuss the connection to the Branch Davidians in Mt. Carmel, Texas.

There is also one video filmed outdoors in the outer pen in which I am proofing Vacuum County and reading it out loud. but we are interrupted when Leo, who was just a puppy at the time, was whining for attention, and I had to get Bow to agree that I would go help Leo. We also still had chickens at the time. You can hear the rooster crow. But it does not make much of a reading.

I by far prefer Kelly Clear's readings to my own, and I look forward to working with him on a long term project on Audible to produce a full audio version of  Vacuum County. 

Order Vacuum County

If you want to order Vacuum County, I have provided the link above. Because if you just Google it, here is what you are likely to find: