The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How Many Do You Know?

Recent news about a material that bends light around objects, rendering them functionally invisible. I remember the invisible car in "Die Another Day" and how the fanboys were complaining about how ridiculous that was...Hah! Turns out it was closer to current reality than the laser in "Goldfinger."


So...apparently part of the confusion in the Clinton campaign was people like Mark Penn urging Hillary to go more "negative" on Obama, paint him as "Foreign" and "Un-American"...and if I read correctly between the lines, this was something that she was very, very reluctant to do. Kudos to her, even though it may have cost her the election. There is a sobering reality here, that race is boiling under the surface of this election, and every time someone can bring it up--sideways if possible--Obama will take a hit. Just yesterday an old friend was talking about how she was visiting Conservative relatives, and the consensus was that McCain would win because "white men won't vote for a black man." Meaning, of course, that THEY wouldn't vote for a black man--but they wouldn't say it like that. Few people are that honest. What an interesting election.

As I've said before, America is going to get the president it deserves. Make of that what you will.


Somehow, and I'm not entirely sure why, I found myself pulled into multiple conversations on that old debbil "What is the Meaning of Life?" There is indeed an answer, but it can't be put into words. All one can do is point in the direction of the reality and let those with the will and courage find it for themselves. It's kind of like someone asking: "what's the taste of Prime Rib?" Well...there's the restaurant. Go taste it for yourself. A few people wanted to engage me in the "it's all a machine. There is nothing. There is no meaning." How interesting, especially considering that there appears to have never really been a "nothing" that the universe came out of to begin with: intellectual concepts of time and space kinda break down. I find those who would argue for nothingness to be fascinating. Must be a pay-off somewhere, but aside from avoiding the negative aspects of organized religion, I'm not sure what it is.


Someone wondered if I prefer people to be dishonest, specifically on the issue of race relations. In other words, if they think that blacks are inferior, would I prefer they keep their opinions to themselves, or pretend to believe "all men are created equal." Hmmm. With me, in private conversation? I would prefer scathing honesty. I like to know who I'm dealing with. And I've had friends who believed in "The Bell Curve," and they were still my friends. If they were good and honorable people, who treated other human beings with kindness and courtesy, then their belief that, on average, whites are superior to blacks doesn't have much to do with their quality as men and women, and I can admire them while disagreeing.

All other things being equal, would I rather spend the majority of my time around people with my own beliefs and values? Who wouldn't? But not all of it. How else do we grow, and understand the world through the eyes of others?

On the other hand, would I want them passing their beliefs on to their children? No. But I wouldn't want them to be dishonest, either. Something like "this is the way I see the world. This is what I believe. Now, it's your turn to go out into the world and decide for yourself. I've been wrong in the past, I'll be wrong in the future. I may be wrong about this...I don't think I am, but I may be."

THAT would be honest. Few people have that level of clarity, however. Consider how very much I love Musashi's principles, and that the very first principle is: "Do not think dishonestly." Lying isn't a good idea. It is best to avoid situations where one must lie, because it fosters the tendency to self-deception, and subsequent distortion of the reality map.

But in my experience, the average member of any group thinks their group is better . I had a cousin express disbelief that I could respect someone who considered whites superior. I laughed at him, and pointed out numerous comments he'd made clearly implying he thought blacks were superior. There is, in my mind, no difference. Men do it to women, women to men. Straights to gays, gays to straights. Christians to atheists, and vice-versa. It's just the default setting of human consciousness. Those who don't have that tendency are unusually awake, and I hold them precious. I don't denigrate people for having the tendency. Those who are honest enough to admit it, despite the call of "political correctness," are actually laudable, even if their beliefs are, in my mind, mere self-serving hierarchical core social wiring. It's no big thing. So they're asleep...what else is new? How many awakened, adult people do you really know, anyway?



Steve Perry said...

Good luck on defining "average" member of any group, dude.

Might be easier the more narrow-minded the group is -- probably not a lot of black guys in the Ku Klux Klan, or a whole bunch of boys in the Girl Scouts, but the wider the borders around a group, the less likely you can pigon-hole 'em.

What is an average science fiction fan? An average athlete?

This is where the label is meaningless, like saying a "modern building" or a "warm day." How modern?
Are we talking about the temperature in Seattle today (74 F) or that of Las Vegas (106 F)?

I wouldn't say the average person in a group believes it is superior. I'd just go with "most," in my experience. Science fiction fans call non-fans "mundanes," Martial artists believe in their hearts that their arts are superior.

I'm not sure that this is necessarily group-think, either. I think it's more basic than that. Not so much we are better than they are, but I am better than he is ...

Daniel Keys Moran said...


I am better than he is ...

There you go. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, and that's a cheap one ...


Barnes, I think it's all a big machine and that life has only the purpose you bring to it. Nothing soul-deadening about that; pick good purposes.

I can't tell you the meaning of life, but I can tell you the meaning of my life, boiled down ...

1. Do no harm
2. Protect the innocent

You have to define "enjoy" very broadly here, but I'm capable of that: there are only two reasons to do anything: to enjoy yourself, and to help other people enjoy themselves.

I haven't found anything that doesn't cover. Avoid pain? Sometimes pain is good. Or enjoyable, and I"m not talking "spank me, sir" -- unless you like that, in which case God bless. But the exhaustion after two hours of running full court basketball? That's pain. And joy.

Pain can be a part of something enjoyable. Work should be a part of something enjoyable.

Enjoy yourself. Help others enjoy themselves. How hard is that?

Steve Perry said...

The us-versus-them thing is interesting. There is an Indonesian saying: My brother and I against my cousins; my cousins and I against the village; my villiage and I against the world.

I think that tends to approximate the primary associations in most places -- family, friends, city, state, country. If we get into space and travel to far worlds, probably "planet" will come to mean something along those lines then.

You are all the way across the country driving and you see a license plate from your home state, you probably feel some kind of kinship, even if the person in that car is somebody you'd never speak to at home ...

Spilling Ink said...

"I find those who would argue for nothingness to be fascinating. Must be a pay-off somewhere, but aside from avoiding the negative aspects of organized religion, I'm not sure what it is."

I can tell you what it is. It's this: Safer to accept nothing than to believe deeply in something and suffer the horrible devastation that comes with the loss of it when the belief is proven false. For some people, loss has been prevalent in their lives and so painful that they don't dare risk it again. I guess that is an example of freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose. Not saying it's right or wrong, but since you were wondering...

Anonymous said...

Tribal / racial mentality can be harmful if it prevents us from recognizing, and thus learning from, examples of excellence.

Look at the men's gymnastics team final. Gold and silver went to Asians (China and Japan respectively). They deserved it, too. The Chinese, in particular, had taken the sport to unprecedented heights. In competition they demonstrate not only skill and technique, but also incredible strength and power.

One interesting test is to go to Digg, and search for key word gymnastics. How many stories, out of the thousands there, have people submitted about these athletes? Precisely zero.

Of course. Whenever mental dissonance occurs, ignore it and pretend there is nothing that contradicts deeply held stereotypes. If that doesn't work, go to the secondary line of defense - ridicule and mockery. The Chinese athletes won, you see, because they are "machines." They are not really human.

Modern HD broadcast technology defeats this defense, since it is easy to see the athletes' very human emotions in every expression.

So, go to the third line of defense. These athletes, you see, come from an inhuman system that takes babies away from families. They don't do it for the love of the sport like, you know, us normal folks in the good old USA. USA! USA! USA!

Marty S said...

steve: I would ask if you consider pride in the accomplishments of your group, as the same as seeing your group as superior. It seems to me these are two separate but related concepts.

Steve Perry said...

When it comes to the gymnasts, I don't want to see any of them fall, and I was pleased to see the Chinese team win. They were the best, and in a just world, the best should win.

I liked hearing the commentary at the end of the high-bar routine, with the youngest Chinese kid. "Well, he could fall about three times and they'd still win," the commentator said. Funny.

You see that Chinese guy on the rings? He had a move that required strength that was flatly unbelievable. I watched him do that move and sat there agog.

We do tend to root for the home team, but if we are -- as Barnes wonders -- adults, then we don't let that be the end-all.

How many true grown-ups do I know? Tricky question.

How many fully-realized human beings do I know?


Some are closer than others. I'm further up the road than a lot of folks, not as far as others, but I'd have to consider myself a grown-up, all things considered.

Josh Jasper said...

Someone wondered if I prefer people to be dishonest, specifically on the issue of race relations. In other words, if they think that blacks are inferior, would I prefer they keep their opinions to themselves, or pretend to believe "all men are created equal." Hmmm. With me, in private conversation? I would prefer scathing honesty. I like to know who I'm dealing with. And I've had friends who believed in "The Bell Curve," and they were still my friends. If they were good and honorable people, who treated other human beings with kindness and courtesy, then their belief that, on average, whites are superior to blacks doesn't have much to do with their quality as men and women, and I can admire them while disagreeing.

I don't think I could manage to keep any respect for being nice to some people seperate from deep contempt for racism.

Do you think it might be because you were exposed to the effects of racism early on, and I really didn't notice or think about anti-GLBT bigotry until I was in my late teens?

I'd rather be self critical and critical of my own groups for their own flaws than try and get criticism from bigots.

Kami said...

"I find those who would argue for nothingness to be fascinating. Must be a pay-off somewhere, but aside from avoiding the negative aspects of organized religion, I'm not sure what it is."

It can be a control thing, too. If there's nothing beyond, then everything in the universe is quantifiable (given sufficient advances in science and technology.) A human being can be all that matters and need answer to no one, not even society if s/he so chooses.

Another aspect, maybe a sub-category of the quantifiable, are the many unexpected comforts that come when there's no afterlife, no gods, no spiritually higher realm.

If there's nothing but biology, then when you die, you don't have to do or achieve anything anymore. There's nothing to prepare for, no need for vigilance or spiritual awareness, etc. Depending on a person's fears, what they're hiding from may vary.

Maybe they fear there *is* a hell and by not believing, they can disregard their moral choices. They may still make very moral choices, but they don't have to look over their shoulder anymore or fear that some potentially arbitrary superbeing will judge them and find them unworthy.

Maybe the fear is that they'll be trapped in a forever birth/death cycle until they become enlightened, and enlightenment seems an unfair goal. Why would they have to become enlightened? What does it mean anyway? (As a woman I have to chuckle at this fear/annoyance. With the monthly cycle biology I sometimes grit my teeth and wonder who came up with this stupid reproductive system and when can I finally get off the pain train? But when the pain passes I recognize it's just who we are and there are some nice advantages to it over, say, heat cycles.)

Maybe they fear that after they die they'll be in some physical-ish afterlife where they'll have to start from scratch again and be helpless, unknowing, and without allies. There might even be predators and a necessity for self-defense. No afterlife, no struggle for a soul to survive in a potentially hostile environment.

Maybe they fear that, after learning the rules for one kind of existence they'll have to learn the rules for another and get lost. If there's a light, do you go to it or is it a cosmic angler fish? Can you get stuck on this world as a ghost, becoming increasingly confused as the world changes and your ability to perceive and grow falls behind?

Of course these and other fears may be entirely subconscious. If you think about it, spirituality is pretty scary and the stakes are high. If, however, all awareness and existence ends, the problem ceases to be.

Anonymous said...

I'm atheist simply because I don't see any real NEED for there to be a God or an afterlife. It's not necessarily about control, there's just no scientific evidence of anything supernatural. I don't believe in Bigfoot or ghosts for the exact same reasons. I'm not scared of Bigfoot, so why would I be scared of Hell?

We're learning more and more about the universe all the time, and its really starting to look like humanity (and everything else) came into existence through natural processes. This doesn't mean there's no God, but if there is He/She/It doesn't seem to do much. And what's the difference between a deity that doesn't do anything and for which there is NO empircal evidence, and none at all?

Spirituality isn't scary. The vast majority of people use it as comfort. It's scarier to think of all your accomplishments amounting to nothing as the universe slowly descends into heat death, but an atheist won't deny that this might be true just because he or she doesn't like the sound of it.

Kami said...

I'd be happy to agree that there's no empirical evidence, but I know how science is supposed to work versus how it really works. If science was employed the way it was outlined we'd be a lot closer to finding some interesting truths. Instead we're railroaded toward a set of expectations and restricted to what we're allowed to discover.

I love what science has brought the world. I wouldn't want to do without it, regardless of its form. But I've seen it elevated to a form of religion. Don't get an expected answer? Change the rules. Make it impossible to come up with anything except the rational expectation.

Also, science is based on reproducibility especially in a lab setting. Some things are not reproducible. Some things you have to wait before they happen. That's why it's so tough to learn about volcanic activity and earthquakes. Because everyone can see/feel these events, scientists are allowed to wait to study them. But if it's a rare event that few have experienced or something that can't be measured by scientific instruments ... it's probably not going to get studied. Throw into the mix charlatans, monster hunters, Photoshop, psychic hotlines ... and you've got a mess. I'm not a big believer in Bigfoot or whatever. But I allow that the jury is still out when it comes to things like souls, afterlife experiences, and so forth. Lack of evidence does not equal lack of existence. I think it's wise to be skeptical, but it's also wise to allow that science doesn't have all the answers.

For the record I don't find my faith and practice comforting at all. Not all spirituality exists for comfort. Far, far from it.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I'm not scared of Bigfoot, so why would I be scared of Hell?

Sure, you say that now, but when the 10-foot monkey shows up hammering on the door, you'll wish you'd bought bananas.

Anonymous said...

I don't feel a need
for intimidation by afterlife
to be and do
the best I can

whether there is a god/dess
or afterlife
or not
has no effect on my behavior

and if this life/consciousness
is all there is;
it's gloriously enough

I do not need to make
a mark that endures forever
nothing does
[endure forever]

excepting perhaps
the universe
(wwhere heat death looks
less probable than it did
when it was first proposed)

Josh Jasper said...

One of my favorite religious bloggers, Real Live Preacher has a great post on the concept of Hell that some Christians hold

I've always found the concept of eternal punishment for some fairly (IMO) minor infractions to be incredibly distasteful. Or even major ones.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I've been to Hell: I spent the 9th and 10th grades in a Jesuit-run all-boys Catholic high school.

I once got a week's detention for observing in religion class that an entity that handed out infinite punishment for finite wrongdoing lacked perspective.

I blamed Robert Heinlein and Bertrand Russell for corrupting me, but they gave me detention anyway.

George Carlin:

"When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

But He loves you."

Kami said...

Dan--Right on! LOL

I seriously doubt that if there's a Creator that S/He/Fwee would spend so much time fussing over what a bunch of DNA based lifeforms are doing to each other and themselves on our little world. Hence my disbelief in a Creator/Antagonist run Hell. If I'm wrong I'll be terribly disappointed. I also doubt the Creator wants worship. Mark Twain put it well:

This universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on all day long, and every day...
...Meantime every person is playing a harp--those millions and millions of voices screaming at once, millions and millions of harps gritting their teeth at the same time! I ask you: is it hideous, is it odious, is it horrible?
...Consider further: it is a praise service; a service of compliment, of flattery, of adulation! Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment; and who not only endures it, but likes it, enjoys it, requires it, commands it? Hold your breath!
It is God!

Near death and spiritual experiences often are accompanied by amazing music. I think this may be where the idea of a singing heaven comes from and naturally it has to be all day every day because everyone hears it near their own death, right? Or it may have been contrived to appeal to the masses. This music near death and during certain crisis points during the process of enlightenment can be explained by other things, including chemical stuff going on in the brain, but again--there's no way to directly find out one way or another if there's a singing heaven except to die and few (or none, depending on your world view) have reported back from that experience and what is reported varies and may lack accuracy. And individual enlightenment? No one can confirm that they hear the music in your mind too.

As far as reason or logic or need is concerned, though, sadly the components of the universe, ourselves included, are not here based on logic, reason or need. So the fact that the universe doesn't *need* spiritual existence doesn't mean it *isn't* here. Since I've felt things, seen them and heard them and had others hear and feel (though not see except on one occasion, oddly) the same things I'm biased toward their existence, but I recognize that my wiring may be faulty. My brain, relative to the skull, is skewed to the left. Heh. And I may be charismatic enough to get people to feel things with me simply because they want to. The auditory stuff, though--no charisma needed. Others hear the voices and phantom knocking and running steps and things like that when I hear them, so it's not just me.

Steven Barnes said...

Dan, you slay me. Funny as hell.
Pride in the accomplishments of your group is NOT the same as saying your group is superior. RANKING your group above others for their accomplishments MIGHT be the same--depending on what you think that means. If it is, in your mind, due to innate differences...I see a problem. Considering it the result of divine preference...I see a problem. Considering it a result of different environments...problems, but they aren't quite so pernicious. To me.

mkf said...

first, let me say i can't tell you how much i have come to value your blog; i get a perspective here that i find nowhere else.

tell you the truth--and based on nothing more than observation of the past and present world for the 51 years of my lily-white life--i often wonder if there's not truth to the notion that, as a whole, the yellow people are smarter than the white people who are smarter than the brown people who are smarter than the black people.

and then i wonder, does my willingness to even explore such an idea make me racist?

[because god knows i wonder sometimes--i often scream the "n" word in the enclosed safety of my vehicle whenever a black person cuts me off in traffic--but then again, i'm just as prone to scream, "get outta my way, you fat-ass bitch" when an overweight woman does the same thing--and since, as with black folk, i have no real problem with obese people and/or women in my everyday life, i'm thinking this might have more to do with my anger issues than with any inherent racism--i hope so, anyway.]

but getting back to my point: to me, the more important question--and the one that's never asked--is: even if the above should prove to be true, so what? why is it seemingly accepted as gospel that intelligence is the be-all and end-all criterion when it comes to awarding the gold, silver and bronze medals to the various races?

because what if there are other offsetting characteristics--such as intuition, imagination and creativity, for instance--that come into play here, which are not only discounted in the race for the gold, but are pretty much ignored entirely?

another way of putting my question: does not each race add something unique and indispensible to the overall mix, without any specific element of which humanity as a whole would be diminished--in other words, is the idea of ranking the races based on one arbitrary criterion not totally ridiculous?

and understand: this isn't just some academic exercise for me--this is personal.

see, i ask these questions because--even though i'm one of the most intelligent people i know ( iq. in the high 140s)--i run into less-intelligent people every day who have crafted far better lives for themselves, have a far-greater capacity for enjoyment of life, and contribute far more to the well-being of their fellow man and the planet than i probably ever will.

fuck it--this is nothing more than an acadamic exercise. of course this question of collective racial intelligence isn't explored publicly, and it probably shouldn't be--because if the thesis i posited in the second paragraph of this comment turned out to be objectively true, the evidence would be used (ironically, by the least intelligent of each race) as a weapon against the race(s) on the lower rungs of intelligence--and that's the last thing we goddam need.

but thanks for providing me a forum in which, for the first time in my life, i can feel free to ask it anyway.

Marty S said...

MFK: You don't even have to leave IQ to question the validity of comparing groups by IQ. Based upon IQ studies of men and women if you randomly pick two people one man and one woman the woman is more likely to have the higher IQ, but if you randomly pick one person with an IQ in the high 140's the person is more likely to be a man. This is because IQ varies more in men then women. So you are left arguing which group is better the one with more smart people or the one with more very smart people.

Anonymous said...


I would make a distinction between assuming your group is superior, and assuming groups differ (or may differ) in important ways. If racial groups (however you define them) differ in a bunch of different random ways as a result of different genetics (reflecting different mutations and different ancestral environments), then there surely won't be one race that's superior. Instead, there will be different distributions of all kinds of abilities and attributes, and almost certainly no clear way to label any group as "best."

When that fact runs into the natural tendency to root for your own group, you get the silly sort of reasoning that explains successes by your group as evidence of superiority, and successes by other groups as evidence of cheating, inhumanity, or even inferiority. That's a way to filter the evidence that lets you continue to believe in your group's superiority. When whites dominate the swimming events, that's because We're The Best. When blacks dominate the sprinting events, that's because they're less evolved and more inherently savage. When Asians dominate gymnastics, that's because they're inhumanly focused and driven. And so on. (And as you've said, each of those groups is likely to come up with a variant story, with whatever group they identify with in the starring role.)