Monday, February 3, 2014

Why some People are Attracted to Conspiracy Theories

     This article is the first part of a two-part series.  The working title of the second part is tentatively titled “Why some People are Attracted to Official Narratives.” 
     No doubt you've already read articles with titles like “Why some People are Attracted to Conspiracy Theories.” All such articles have taken the approach that official narratives are the default view, and that any rejection of an official narrative is an aberration that needs to be explained in socio-psychological terms. 
     Logic, fairness, and respect for Truth, however, demand that both phenomena—attraction to, and automatic revulsion to, conspiracy theories—must be evaluated by the same standards.  Let’s begin with the most common arguments offered by conspiratophobes.   In the next article, we’ll deal with the conspiracy theorists. 
     If you’re in need of a socio-psychological term for conspiracy theorists, just call them conspiratophiles. If you require a term to explain what kind of theorist a conspiratophobes is, you may call them excretory theorists; that is, people who believe that “stuff” just happens.
     In trying to explain some people’s attraction to conspiracy theories, conspiratophobes typically offer three explanations:
1.      Conspiracy theorists tend to be distrustful of authority figures.  This leads them to look for alternative explanations.
2.      Official narratives sometimes leave some questions unanswered.  Conspiratophiles tend to “fill in the blanks” with explanations that seem to fit their worldview.
3.      Academic studies have shown that, typically, conspiracy theorists don’t actually propose theories; they simply point to “anomalies” in the default explanation.
     Regarding point #1, it’s entirely true that conspiracy theorists tend to be distrustful of authority figures.  The most notorious conspiracy theorist in American history—Thomas Jefferson, by name—is a case in point.  Below are some of his conspiratorial opinions:

 (Ahem!  Just remember what private banking institutions did to us in 2008 and on a few earlier occasions.)
     “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery.”  (Ahem! George W. Bush’s acts of tyranny and war making progressed unabated throughout the reign of Barack Obama.  Except for the dates of these events, it’s virtually impossible to tell which “President” committed which offense.)
     “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security….The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”  (Thus, our nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, was built on conspiracy theory.  The thirteen colonies declared their independence, not only for what the British regime had done to them but for what Jefferson and others claimed that the British regime was planning to do to them.)
     "Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism.  Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence….The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first….In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." (Notes from various drafts of Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution of 1798)
     If Mr. Jefferson were alive today, we should not be surprised to hear of his name being added to the DHS terrorist watch list.
     Let’s turn to explanation #2: That some people are attracted to conspiracy theory as a means of “filling in the blanks” in unanswered questions.  Actually, I have never heard of anyone doing that.  Almost invariably, the blanks are filled in, but conspiracy theorists think that the blanks have been filled in incorrectly.  Let’s look at a few examples:
  1. World Trade Center Building #7 imploded at near free-fall speed into its own footprints because of _(a)_________________ and (b)______________.  (Conspiracy theorists refuse to accept the answers (a) two small fires that firemen said they could put out with two lines and (b) twelve feet of parapet that was broken away from the roof of Building #7.
  2. The Pentagon was damaged when a (a)(who) _______________________  (b) (did what)      _____________________________.  (Conspiracy theorists refuse to accept the answers (a) novice pilot who was unqualified to fly a Cessna 172 (b) expertly flew a Boeing 757, effecting a 370-degree turn during a steep dive at 530 miles per hour, upon which he leveled off and hit the Pentagon at close to ground level without disturbing so much as a blade of grass.)
  3. (Multiple Choice)  Who is Victoria Muñoz?
    1. A close acquaintance of Nancy Lanza, the mother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza (December 2012).
    2. An eyewitness to the Boston Marathon bombing (April 15, 2013).
    3. An eyewitness to the Watertown, Massachusetts, shootout (sic) (April 19, 2013)
    4. An eyewitness to the Albuquerque, New Mexico, stabbing (April 28, 2013). .
    5. All of the above.   (Conspiracy theorists refuse to believe that E is the correct answer.  Of course it was just a coincidence that all four women had the same face and hair, same voice, and same mannerisms.)
   
     Finally, let’s look at explanation #3: That’s the assertion that conspiracy theorists usually don’t offer conspiracy theories; they simply point to “anomalies” and use those anomalies to question the official version of events.
     That’s an incredible assertion.  Anomalies, by definition are facts (facts that "deviate from what is standard, normal, or expected.")  As I've often said, a fact can’t be a theory.  How can someone be called conspiracy theorist if he offers facts rather than theories?
     Further, it’s an understatement to use the word anomaly to describe impossibility.  While many dubious events present suspicious anomalies, conspiracy theorists rarely rest their cases on unanswered questions or anomalies.  Almost without fail, the tipping point is the discovery that the official explanation of events is impossible.
     For example, it’s impossible for a man to use a rifle to kill someone if that rifle is locked in the trunk of a car.  It’s also impossible for ordinary office fires, which burn no hotter than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, to liquefy steel, which liquefies at no less than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. 
     It may seem curious that an academic can come up with so ludicrous an assertion that conspiracy theorists usually don’t have conspiracy theories.  A casual glance at the dictionary should clear up any puzzlement over this (ahem!) anomaly.
      One of the definitions of the word academic is, “having no useful or practical purpose.”  I’m a university instructor, so I should know.  Here’s how it works:
     People at a university decide to host an academic conference; that is, a conference that has no useful or practical purpose.  They issue a call for academic papers—papers that (unlike toilet paper) have no useful or practical purpose.   The quality of the papers are reviewed according to academic standards; that is, if the reviewer suspects that something in the paper has a useful or practical purpose, either that part of the paper must be changed or the paper is rejected altogether.  The people who go in for that sort of stuff are called academics; so that should tell you all you need to know about those people.

     In part two of this series, I will attempt to examine the perceived inner needs that drive some people to blindly accept even the most risible narratives that talking heads and other authority figures hand them.  (Hint: If they questioned authority figures even once, they’d have to leave the womb, think for themselves, and take responsibility for their lives.  They may even—heaven forbid!—have to turn off their television sets.)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fifteen Questions that will Improve Your Thinking Skills

     A major part of thinking more reasonably—of judging our own best interests and the best interests of others—is knowing which questions to ask.  You've  heard some of these questions before.  Others, such as the first, are so basic that you may have never considered them.

  1. What are we really discussing?  (That is, what is the core issue?  Suppose, out of concern for the safety of a deaf child, neighbors wanted the local government to put up a sign reading, “Slow.  Deaf child playing,” but there’s no such sign that can legally be placed there.  That the child is deaf may tug at our heartstrings, but it has nothing to do with the issue that even hearing children can thoughtlessly run in front of cars.  A sign reading, “Caution: Children Playing” would serve the same purpose without labeling the deaf child as “different” from her peers.)
  2. Is this an objective reality or a social reality?  This is similar to #1, though it’s more specific.  It’s absolutely true that “the government wouldn’t lie to you” because government is a social reality; it exists only as an agreed-upon concept.  When most people use the word government, they’re really referring to politicians and bureaucrats; those people will lie like bed wetters.  Many social realities are based on false assumptions.  As an example, corporate logos are just marks; yet millions of dollars in advertising can convince gullible people that corporate logos are talismans that magically transform the wearer into worthy people.
  3. What difference does it make?  (Sometimes it doesn’t make any difference.  When it does, it’s vital to know just why it makes a difference—otherwise, you can be distracted by things that are interesting but not vital.)
  4. Is it true?  (Rule of thumb: If “everyone knows” that such-and-such is true, but no one seems to know how he “knows,” you’re probably being manipulated and the assertion is probably false.  Here's a familiar example of an is-it-true question: "How hot would office fires have to get before they can liquefy steel, and do office fires actually get that hot?"  Here's one I've never heard anyone ask before: "How is it possible for accidental fires to heat steel in perfect symmetry so as to cause every core column and supporting column to liquefy at precisely the same instant?")
  5. What are the underlying assumptions, and are they true?  (For example, the popular model of environmental responsibility is that we should do the same things in the same way, only do less of it.  This assumption leads to the belief that environmental responsibility must come at the cost of lowering our standards of living.  I have learned that, by shifting our focus from “what brand we should buy” to “what benefits do we want,” we can raise our standards of living, spend less money, make healthier choices, and become more environmentally responsible all at the same time.)  For further information, click here.  
  6. If it’s true (or false), what can we reasonably expect to see?  Do we in fact see it?  If not, what do we really see, and what’s the most reasonable explanation for it?
  7. Are there other explanations or options?
  8. How do people elsewhere—especially in other countries or cultures—handle similar situations, and how well does their method work?  (It’s amazing how this question automatically broadens our options.  I did a study of 31 “default” selections for our culture as compared to “alternative” selections.  To my surprise, even when I wasn’t consciously looking for better alternatives, Depending on what I was measuring and comparing, I found better alternatives 28.57% to 96.88% of the time—overall average, 75% of the time.  In every case, the alternative selection was as good as or better than the default selection.)
  9. Who benefits?
  10. Who had the motive, the means, and the opportunity?
  11. In deciding between A and B, what are the costs versus rewards of being right or wrong?  (Uncertainty in the abortion debate is an opportunity to use this model.  The issue hinges entirely on whether the human fetus is a person; and, though we may never know the answer for sure, the person facing this decision has consequences regardless of our beliefs.  If the fetus is not a person, and an abortion is performed, no harm is done; if the abortion is not performed, a pregnant woman may be inconvenienced without good cause.  If the human fetus is a person, and an abortion is committed, an innocent human being has been killed for the sake of convenience; if no abortion is committed, the life of an innocent human being is spared, perhaps at the cost of someone else’s convenience.)
  12. Does this rationale or explanation fit the facts?  If not, what does?  (For example, when a politician has ulterior motives—which they often do—he’ll offer a rationale that doesn’t stand up under scrutiny.  Most people will react to the discrepancy by thinking, “Oh, this issue is too complicated for me to understand,” which is exactly what the politician is hoping you’ll do.)
  13. What am I expected to do as a result of believing what I’m being asked to believe; and, if this belief were not an issue, would it be in my best interest to do it?  (For example, would you think it was in your best interest to allow someone to monitor your telephone calls if you weren’t convinced that the person monitoring your calls was protecting you from being murdered?  Chances are, the problem and the solution were concocted in the same laboratory and they’re both bogus.  As Edmund Burke said, “Men are seldom disposed to give up their liberties except under some pretext of necessity.”)
  14. In making this decision, what facts are essential?  (To avoid decision paralysis or confusion, leave out everything else.  Some years ago, a coronary care physician discovered that doctors could make right decisions in the emergency room twice as often if they reduced the number of factors considered from twenty to four.  His decision model is now standard procedure.  See question #3.)
  15. Does this version of events pass the reenactment test?  (That is, mentally reenact the received version of events in detail and see if it makes sense.  It’s amazing how easily a lie comes unraveled when the liar’s story is reenacted.)


     These questions have been quite valuable to me.  I hope you’ll also find them useful.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Diaoyutai/Senkuka Islands Conflict and a Way to Peace, Part 2 of 2

     In part 1 of this article, I said elliptically, “Peaceful solutions to the Diaoyutais/Senkukas controversy and other lingering controversies from Japan’s militarist past are impossible without the support of the great Japanese people.  Before any such peace movement can gain critical mass, however, the matter must be deemed important to the world at large.  That would require, as I said earlier, raising the diplomatic stakes to a new level.  It would require capturing the imagination of the world in a way that would gain the peace movement international support and demands for a peaceful settlement.”
     In part 2 of this article, I suggest a strategy for capturing the world’s imagination to the degree that the people in Japan, Taiwan, and throughout the world should demand an international settlement.  First, let me point out some of the shortcomings of earlier attempts to bring the issue to the world’s attention.
     Over the past decade or so, activists have openly challenged the Japanese government’s claim to the disputed archipelago. They have been content merely to land on the main island and plant a flag claiming the island in the name of their respective countries.  The Japanese government has always met force with force, and the activists have always been foiled. 
     Every attempt was a tempest in a teapot, little worthy of anyone’s attention.  As a consequence, not one of the activists’ attempts ever drew the attention of more than a few people within this immediate vicinity.  It was nothing more than local news that the locals soon forgot, or as Shakespeare wrote, “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
     What activists need is a narrative that transcends narrow self interest—one that resonates across national and cultural boundaries in a highly visible and positive way.  The event would have to fit a narrative that is familiar, popular, and pre-existing.
     Let me give some examples of what I mean by resonant narratives.
     Of all the stories told of World War I hero Alvin York, one of the most memorable concerns his marksmanship in a turkey shoot.  Two shots hit the bull’s-eye dead center, the second entering the hole made by the first.  The tellers of that story probably told and retold it because it resembled stories that were already well known and popular.  Davy Crockett and Robin Hood had performed similar feats.
     The David-and-Goliath narrative is popularly retold.  How many times have you heard of conflicts described as David-and-Goliath struggles?  The comparison is made and catches on because it resonates.
     Similarly, people are thrilled by narratives of brains over brute force.  Odysseus, the Swamp Fox, and the Gray Ghost come to mind.  People are also inspired by “feel good” stories in which idealism triumphs over (especially if it wins over) cynicism and opportunism.  People are also fascinated by quest stories.
     Here’s what I envision:
     Instead of resorting to a full frontal assault, about a half dozen people from different backgrounds and persuasions can secretly slip onto the island.  (What about the Japanese Coast Guard, you wonder?  Well, a guard can cover only the ground beneath his feet.)  Instead of trying to plant the flag of one of the national claimants on the main island, they can claim the islands in the name of the rightful owner of the archipelago: the Creator Himself.  Nothing is really ours; everything is on loan from our Creator. 
     Activists can do this in a strikingly visible, memorable, and environmentally friendly manner.  Nothing would be polluted or defaced, and nothing brought to the island would remain on the island.  It would also be done in a way that is startling to all who see it or know of it—and in a way that few could imagine or think is possible.  It would also be something that no one should be able to undo without incurring international scorn.
     Who would those intrepid souls be?  They should number at least five but no more than eight.  They should be as varied as the legendary Eight Immortals. 
     There are two reasons I believe they should be this varied.  First, their combined talents would be needed to make the project a success. 
     Then there’s the question of resonance.  A more disparate crew would increase the chances of each newspaper reader identifying with at least one of the volunteers.  They should include young, middle aged, and older; male and female; professionals and trade, prosperous and poor.  It should include someone of each Taiwanese ethnic group (Hoklo, Hakka, “mainlander,” and aborigine) and probably others.
     There should be no government policymakers involved.  Nor should the Alliance for the Defense of the Diaoyutais be involved; I’m fully convinced that the ADD is a government front group, though I won’t say for which government.
     Here are some areas of important skills:
1.      A naturalist, biologist, chemist, or all three
2.      Someone who is skillful at all aspects of sailing a small boat (No sailboat will be needed—only the skills are desired.)
3.      A sea woman (that is, a woman who lives along the coast and makes her living from the sea)
4.      A fisherman
5.      A cameraman or video journalist
6.      A farmer (no, not for planting—just for harvesting)
7.      A craftsman (for example, someone who can weave palm fronds, make braids, or transform fibrous plants into rope.)
8.      Three or more people with effective communication skills in one or more of these languages: English, Chinese, Japanese
9.      A medical person.
10. A person with skills as an outdoorsman.
11. A computer geek.
     That’s more than eight, but some people can claim skills in more than one of those areas.  Volunteers should be prepared to live off the land for a few days.  Behind the scenes, someone would have to have the money to finance the enterprise.  From what I’ve read in the papers, boat captains have been pretty mercenary, charging more for activists than for tourists. 
     I’ll be happy to advise those whom I trust.  I expect I must be content to be the penman of this peaceful revolution (or as some activists like to spell it, r3VOLution.)
     Taiwan is not my country, but it is my home.  The Japanese are my neighbors across the creek.  They’re good neighbors to Taiwan, and not simply because of good fences.  We’re having a difference of opinion; but if we hunker down and jaw it out, I’m sure we can see things eye to eye.  Apart from government, the people of all three countries, in their private capacities, are perfectly capable of answering to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” 
     The politicians are another matter altogether.  If the politicians won’t see the light, citizens of all three countries may have to hold their feet to the fire and help them to feel the heat.

     The key to peace, then, is in the hands of the good people of Taiwan, Japan, and—to whatever degree they can speak for themselves—China.  The people of those three nations can be reasonable enough and open hearted enough to make an end run around narrow-minded politicians and do what is best for all of us and most pleasing to heaven.  In the end, each of us must stand before a just God and answer for our stewardship over His creation and to whatever degree we have loved our neighbors.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Diaoyutai/Senkuka Islands (East China Sea) Dispute and a Way to Peace, Part 1 of 2

     The Diaoyutai Islands—known in Japan as the Senkukas—is as unfamiliar to most people today as Archduke Ferdinand was to his contemporaries in 1914.  Just as it was in 1914, an accidental (or deliberate) spark in the vicinity of that tinderbox can start a major war than no one other than international bankers could want.
     Three nations—Taiwan, Japan, and China—claim the Diaoyutais/Senkukas as their sovereign territory.  All three nations make historical claims to the one island and the seven rocky islets in that archipelago.  Taiwan and Japan both point to treaties and other official documents to bolster their claims.  I briefly alluded to them in the October 15, 2010, American Action Report article “The Diaoyutais:  Whose are They?”  In fact, the issue is extremely complicated, and there’s no telling what lawyers will decide when they get their heads together.
      Here’s the rub: The issue has not yet reached the level at which the public demands international arbitration, but it has reached the level at which a single miscalculation could result in a war between China and Japan.  Worse, the security treaty between the United States and Japan would guarantee that the United States would be drawn into this war, should it occur.
     Beijing’s String of Pearls strategy for maritime supremacy over the Indo-Pacific regions postulates maritime supremacy by the year 2050, and a war with the United States by 2035.  The Diaoyutais/Senkukas conflict could start a war a couple of decades earlier than anyone could desire.
     A key component of Beijing’s String of Pearls strategy is to keep Japan in a “post-war” status for as long as possible; and harping on Japan’s history books and wartime atrocities are part of this strategy.  Nothing the Japanese can do to atone for war crimes will be enough to cause Beijing to admit that enough is enough.  To make matters worse, in Taiwan there are a few quislings who fawn over Beijing as slavishly as Renfeld fawned over Dracula and are just as eager to do Beijing’s bidding.
     Japan’s best defense against Beijing’s propaganda offensive is to take and occupy the moral high ground.  There is a significant peace movement among the Japanese people, and it’s a considerable source of untapped strength.  Unfortunately, Japanese militarists and the politicians who are beholden to them are unwittingly doing Beijing’s work for them.
     Here’s a possible solution: Raise the diplomatic stakes to a new level by capturing the imagination of the world while encouraging a significant portion of the Japanese population to demand a peaceful settlement to this issue and related issues.  A peaceful settlement would likely result in one of, or a blend of, the following outcomes:
  1. A determination that the Diaoyutais/Senkukas belong to one of the three claimants,
  2. A determination that two or all three claimants share sovereignty over the Diaoyutais/Senkukas.  (Some have brought forth the example of Antarctica.  We may also point to Andorra, which is jointly administered by France and Spain.)
  3.  A determination that the Diaoyutais/Senkukas belong to the commons; or, if you will, that the Diaoyutais/Senkukas belong to their Creator; and that the claimants are caretakers for the common good.  Those who take this position disagree on whether “the common good” may be defined as mutual development or—to use the awkward phrase some have used—“mutual non-development.”  This use of the word development is misleading and possibly blasphemous, since the Creator has already developed the Diaoyutais/Senkukas.
     I have a great deal of faith in the fairness and good sense of the Japanese people.  The greatness of Japan has come about because of the people—often in spite of the government.  Let me give a few examples.
     1. It was the Japanese people who built one of the greatest civilizations in history.  The government deserves little or no credit.
     2. After World War II, the Japanese government used taxes taken from the Japanese people to promote economic enterprises that the government said would boost Japanese prosperity.  A certain electronics business (well known today) applied for a government subsidy and was refused.  The Japanese government said that Japan had no future in electronics.  Thus, Japan’s signature industry and core competency was built in spite of the government—in spite of having to bear the added expense of paying taxes to support less productive enterprises.
     3. During the 1990’s, it was a Japanese historian (not the Japanese government, which concealed the truth) who uncovered the fact that, during World War II, the Japanese government defrauded and even kidnapped as many as 300,000 Asian young women and girls as young as 14 and dragged them off to far-flung military bases to be raped from 30 to 50 times a day for years.  When this scandal was exposed, the Japanese government denied it.  When proof was given, the Japanese government claimed that the women were willing prostitutes.  When this lie, in turn, was disproven, the Japanese government hid behind an agreement that exempted the Japanese government from responsibility for any as-yet-undisclosed war crimes.
     4. It was the Japanese people who took it upon themselves to take up a collection for the surviving “comfort women” as they were euphemistically called.   It was the Japanese people, not their government, who apologized to the women. To this day, the militarists in the Japanese government have done nothing to propitiate for their crimes against these women, preferring instead to live in infamy.

     Peaceful solutions to the Diaoyutais/Senkukas controversy and other lingering controversies from Japan’s militarist past are impossible without the support of the great Japanese people.  Before any such peace movement can gain critical mass, however, the matter must be deemed important to the world at large.  That would require, as I said earlier, raising the diplomatic stakes to a new level.  It would require capturing the imagination of the world in a way that would gain the peace movement international support and demands for a peaceful settlement.
 (To be continued in part 2 of this 2-part series.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Benefits—not Brands: Are You Getting Your Money’s Worth?

     You've probably heard the saying, "You can't get more than you pay for."  If you're like most people, you're not even getting your money's worth.
     Here's why:
     Nobody buys a product because he really wants that product.  He buys it because he wants a benefit that he expects to get from it.  Really.  Nobody buys a Coke because he wants a Coke.  After all, as soon as the drinks it, he no longer has it.  He buys a Coke for refreshment and flavor, and maybe quick energy.
     This principle applies to everything you buy.
     Advertisers know this.  One of the first rules of advertising is, "Sell the benefit."  What I didn't realize until a couple of years ago was that advertisers pull a sleight of hand.  Once you're hooked on wanting a certain benefit, they try to convince you that you won't get the benefit you want unless you buy their brand of that product.
     You've seen so many advertisements for competing brands that you're not gulled into thinking that you need that particular brand.  Nonetheless, most people are gulled into believing that they have to buy either that brand or another brand of a similar product.
     When was the last time an advertiser tried to convince you that you didn't really have to buy a manufactured productor anything at allto get the benefit you wanted?  Growers of fresh foods rarely if ever advertise; it's the producers of junk foods that have to advertise.  
     Advertisers even try to convince people to buy inferior versions of things that people already have.  For example, why would manufacturers of baby formula have to advertise to, and give free samples to, new mothers if the manufacturers were convinced that their produce was superior to what the mother already had?
     Why should you care what you wear when you go to bed?  Wouldn't old clothes do as well as new clothes that were manufactured especially as sleepwear?
     So many supermarket items come in plastic bags, including zip lock bags, that there should be few reasons to buy sandwich bags or zip lock bags.  If you already have them, why throw them away, only to buy them soon thereafter?
     I have been putting together a series of videos pertaining to 30 items that people commonly buy or want to buy.  For each, I've asked and answered two questions: "What benefit does the buyer hope to receive?" and "What's the best way of getting that benefit?"  By taking this approach, I'm convinced that much of the time we can raise our standards of living, spend less money, make healthier choices, and become more environmentally responsible—all at the same time.
     I have completed four videos discussing the first 6 of 30 items.  I've tried to make them entertaining as well as informative and insightful.  Some, by nature of the subject matter, some of them must be treated dispassionately.
     Below are the first four (or six, depending on whether you're counting items or videos):

     Benefits—not Brands (Parts 1-3)
     Processed vs Fresh Foods: Benefits—not Brands (Pt. 4 of 30)

     Infant Formula vs Breastfeeding: Benefits—not Brands (Pt. 5 of 30) 

      Air Conditioners vs Comfort: Benefitsnot Brands (Part 6 of 30)


     (Note: For some odd reason, I was unable to import the videos from YouTube.  Just click the links.)
    

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Paradigmaclastic View of Parisian Painters and other Popular Images

     Paris is the most romantic city in the world, right?  As you read those words, you probably tilted your head in some expression of agreement.  After all, Paris has even more of a reputation for romance as it does for insulting Americans on the street.  Not only that but—like it or not—you have become conditioned to be agreeable.
     Now enter your imagination.  In your mind’s eye, try to envision a painter in Paris.  You probably imagine this person as an artist.  He may be standing before an easel, holding a thin brush.
     Oh, no, I don’t mean Paris, France.  I mean Paris, Texas.  All of a sudden, the image you have of that painter changes.  His brush has suddenly gotten considerably wider.  Instead of looking like the painter on the left (below), he looks more like the painter on the right.  Ha!  You fooled yourself, didn't you?


     Ha!  You fooled yourself again.  The painter on the left (above) is Cathie Tyler, an artist and art teacher at Paris Junior College in Paris, Texas.  The one on the right is an anonymous house painter in Paris, France.

    Believe it or not, there really are black people living in Paris, France.  Many are of Algerian descent, as Algeria used to be part of France.  Many others are of Haitian descent.  (I’ll be you didn't know that the nineteenth century writer Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers and other popular novels, was a black man from Haiti.)  Yes, that's right.  As many times as you have seen pictures of Alexandre Dumas, you're just now noticing that he was black.  All previous times, you reinterpreted what your own eyes told you in order to fit your preconceived notions.
     Let’s look at some things you already knew but chose to ignore, so as to adjust widely known facts to suit widely practiced habits of thought.
     You already knew that many people in Paris have houses even if it hadn't occurred to you that the houses sometimes need to be painted.  The reality, however, doesn't fit the habitually practiced image of Parisian painters. 
     Elsewhere on this page you will see other photos of Paris painters.

    Don’t be too embarrassed over this failure to consider that even French houses sometimes require a coat of paint.  A Google search of “house painter” and “Paris, France” always yields images and articles about artists painting pictures of houses.  It wasn't until I keyed in, “peintre en bâtiment,” “Paris,” that I found anything on house painters in Paris, France.
     You also knew that there were black people living in Paris, but you ignored that fact because it didn't fit your customary image of Parisian artists being white.  What would you bet that Paris doesn't have any black artists?  You tricked yourself again, didn't you?
     More than 90% of the things we say and do arise from habit and habitual assumptions, and we rarely question those assumptions.  It’s not always because we’re lazy.  It’s just that we deal with so much information each day, that we come to rely on reference points and trigger words (such as Parisian painter) to help us to make decisions quickly.
     The trouble starts when our assumptions are mistaken.  The trouble worsens when authority figures acting the part of opinion molders use our assumptions against us.
     A perfect example of a trigger word being used against us is then-president George W. Bush’s remark, “Americans don’t torture.”   For Americans, American is a trigger word that causes us to have positive feelings.  It’s hard to think negatively about something that causes us to have positive feelings.
     Conspiracy theory is a well-known trigger.  Literally, it means only a belief that two or more people devised a secret plan to do something that was illegal.  As a trigger, it signals the listener that the topic lies outside acceptable discourse. 
     Consider that fact in the light of Josef Stalin’s remark about propaganda.  Though this isn't an exact quote, Stalin said something like, “The purpose of propaganda is not to convince people that it is true, but to define the parameters of acceptable discourse.” 
     Let’s add to that a quote from George Orwell, “Words are sometimes deliberately misused to defend the indefensible.”
     I’m not suggesting that we should try to do away with habitual thought patterns in our daily lives.  We need them to avoid information gridlock.  We should, however, make ourselves aware of how opinion molders use trigger words and popular images to circumvent—or even short circuit—our logical processes. 
     In short, we should spend more of our time questioning authority and thinking for ourselves. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What was behind the Philippines’ Pre-election Murder of a Taiwanese Fisherman?


     Only four days before a hotly contested mid-term election in the Philippines, crewmen from a Philippine Coast Guard vessel fired 45 machine-gun bullets into an unarmed Taiwanese fishing boat, killing Hung Shih-cheng, a 65-year-old fisherman.  Philippine President Benigno Aquino III immediately claimed that the shooting was an accident, that his government had no reason to apologize, and vowed to protect Philippine “sovereignty”—without mentioning that the Philippines has no clear sovereignty over the area in question.   According to the voyage data recorder, the murder was committed in an area where the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of both nations overlap, and in which area the Philippines has refused to negotiate a fishing agreement.
     Rather than negotiate with Taiwan directly, Aquino said he would negotiate with China, not even acknowledging the existence of Taiwan’s national government.
     Aquino, a third-generation political princeling, has accused Taiwanese of muddying the waters by calling it murder.  Under international law, it was murder.  Any time a death occurs as a result of a felony being committed, the law sees it as first-degree murder.  Under international law, the Philippine Coast Guardsmen committed a felony by peppering the unarmed vessel with machine-gun bullets.  They committed yet another felony by leaving the scene of the crime rather than render assistance to the stricken survivors.
     Let’s look at the background of events.
     The Bashi Channel is a narrow waterway where the exclusive economic zones (EEZ’s) of both Taiwan and the Philippines overlap.  The Philippines will not formally negotiate fishing rights in the area, supposedly due to the Philippines adherence to a “One China Policy” in which Taiwan is presumed to be part of the Peoples Republic of China (Red China).  Actually, that’s a lie; they won’t negotiate fishing rights with Beijing or other nations either. 
      A Philippine spokesman said that, in the matter of the recent killing, they would negotiate only with the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), an agency of Chinese Beijing. 
     Under international law, a coast guard or naval vessel under challenging a boat or ship in contested waters is permitted to fire a warning shot over the bow of the challenged vessel.  Instead, the Philippine Coast Guard vessel opened up on the fishing boat with a withering barrage of .30 caliber machine-gun fire.  It’s uncertain how long the attack continued, but Taiwanese news reports say that the boat had 59 bullet holes in it, some 45 of which were entry holes.  At least 24 bullets were fired into the cabin, where four crew members had taken refuge.
     Bullet trajectories as determined by Taiwanese authorities are depicted below.  Click for higher resolution.


     The Philippine government gave contradictory excuses for the shooting.  On the day after the killing, they said the fiberglass fishing boat’s operators were trying to ram the Coast Guard vessel and that the Coast Guard gunners were deliberately firing at the boat to disable its engine.   The Ilocos-class Coast Guard vessel, at 35 meters (114 feet), was six times the size of the fishing boat.  The fishing boat's engine, of course, would not have been in the crew’s quarters in the forward cabin.   Furthermore, Taiwanese forensic investigators found no sign that the fishing boat had rammed anything.  

   One Philippine spokesman claimed that they were trying to disable the engine while the fishing vessel was trying to escape.  Apart from the logistics of firing into the forward end of a fleeing vessel, international law forbids firing at a fleeing vessel unless it’s a warship in time of war.
     Next, Philippine officials came up with an equally risible excuse: They said that the Coast Guard vessel’s gunners had accidentally shot the fishing boat—45 times.
     Although Philippine government spokesmen claimed they would investigate the event, they indicated that Taiwanese investigators would be unwelcome.  A few years ago, Taiwan and the Philippines signed an agreement providing for joint investigations of incidents such as this.  To date, the Aquino regime has refused Taiwan’s requests for a joint investigation, and they haven’t shared information with Taiwanese investigators.  Taiwan, in contrast, has shared their findings with Philippine counterparts.
     What has become of the Filipino investigation? I have vainly searched Internet news for information on their supposed investigation.  To date, I have seen no news of witnesses have been interviewed or statements made by investigators (if they exist at all); and the whole matter of an investigation seems to have been dropped down a memory hole.
     Not one to let a good crisis go to waste, Aquino (in the third generation of a politically elitist dynasty) and his political allies spent the remainder of the mid-term election campaigns thumping their chests over the shooting incident.
     Aquino’s political allies made clear gains in Monday’s mid-term elections.  At stake were 12 of 24 seats in the senate, all 229 seats in the house, some 18,000 local elections, and the question of whether Aquino would be a lame duck for his three remaining years in office. 
     As it is, Aquino’s party increased their number of senate seats from 4 to 13, made clear gains in the house (at this writing, the exact number is unknown), and in local elections. There’s nothing quite like an international crisis to pull an endangered politician’s chestnuts out of the fire. 
     If the international crisis was contrived for political gain, why did Aquino’s party select Taiwan as their foil?  After all, they also have sovereignty spats with Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and Brunei; and China has been the most provocative threat to their claims.
     China is too big and powerful for the Philippines to threaten.  Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are too small and weak to be made foils for a show of nationalistic machismo.  Taiwan, recognized by only 24 countries worldwide is isolated from the pack; and Taiwan is rich enough and powerful enough—but not too powerful—to make a suitable foil in a machismo contest. 
     Furthermore, Taiwan has a reputation for labor abuses against Southeast Asian—including Filipino—laborers and caregivers.  Salt was further rubbed into old wounds after Taiwanese envoy Jackie Liu was arrested on charges of defrauding her two Filipina housekeepers.  She had signed a contract promising to pay them US$1,240, but she paid them only US$450 a month.  She could have been charged with human trafficking, embezzlement, and abuse; but after three months in the Fort Leavenworth penitentiary (she could have gotten five years) she was deported to Taiwan, where charges against her were dropped due to “lack of evidence.” 
     Liu was accused of fraud in foreign labor contracting because her Philippine -housekeeper, who was hired to work 40 hours per week and receive a monthly salary of US$1,240, in fact had to work six days per week, 16 to 18 hours per day and received a much lower salary.  (LINK) 
     At the time of her arrest, Liu said she didn't understand what the fuss was all about.  “It happens all the time in Taiwan,” she was quoted as saying.  Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested Liu’s arrest, claiming that Liu had diplomatic immunity because she was carrying out her “authorized functions.”  She was stripped of her titles because she had “damaged our nation’s image,” rather than because she had done something evil. 
     Other details of this scandal and surrounding issues may be found here, here, here, and here.
     In short, Taiwan makes a handy whipping boy for political demagogues and has even contributed to the problem.
     To my surprise, political demagoguery in this matter is as scarce in Taiwan as they are plentiful in the Philippines.  As much as I hate to say anything good about Ma (“The Bumbler”) Ying-jeou, I must admit that he has done everything right in this crisis.  Even those who, only a month ago, were campaigning for his recall have suspended their campaign for the time being.
     In all this justifiable anger against the Philippine government, there is blessedly little anger against Filipinos themselves. 
     Several decades ago, I lived in the Philippines for four months, and all my neighbors were Filipinos.  I came to know the best of them, the worst of them, and those in between.  Here in Taiwan, I have come to know and admire many more of them.  The people of the Philippines are the salt of the earth.  
     Their leaders, however, like the political leaders of most countries, are little more than glorified gangsters.  Throughout the history of the world, most countries have been ruled by criminal gangs; and most gangster governments have been ruled by criminal psychopaths.
     I served in the United States Navy for over three years, and I came to know sailors from other countries as well.  By nature, people accustomed to obeying orders are unwilling to risk a firing squad by committing cold-blooded murder. Even the American atrocities at Abu Ghraib came as a result of pressure from very high in the American government.  Likewise, in the murder of Hung Shih-cheng, orders to violate international law had to have come from someone very high on the chain of command.
     As of this writing, Aquino has offered no real apology (just a lame excuse that it was all an accident), no offer of compensation to the family of the murdered fisherman, and no sign that he would welcome a joint investigation of the crime.
     Only international pressure can force the Aquino regime to conform to civilized norms.  Taiwan can display moral suasion by protecting the rights of Filipino caregivers and migrant workers on Taiwanese soil.  The laws to do so are already in place.  All they lack is the will.