Monday, December 19, 2011

Why I Won’t Shut Up

Two thoughts. One recent and tragic. The other, something that’s been tumbling around in my mind for quite a while, and I only just realized I’ve never actually written a response to it on this page. Because it seems to tie in so well with the other thought, we’re going to handle them both at once.

Firstly, Christopher Hitchens, a personal hero of mine, whose talent for saying of religion exactly what I thought but in language by far surpassing anything I could come close to summoning on even my best of days, died a few days ago. I should have blogged then, but instead, I did what I suspect The Hitch would have wanted his readers to do--I drank, I smoked, I ranted. It’s what that great man was known for. And yet, even drunk, he was so much more--more eloquent, more educated, more well-read, more human--than any of the rest of us are sober. Many who knew him personally (which I did not), and most of his most devoted readers have suggested that the work by which he’d most like to be remembered is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, his epic verbal broadside against the greatest tyrant of them all: the imaginary tyrant promoted by most of the world’s religions as a “loving father.”

He’s remembered fondly by outspoken atheists such as myself who appreciate having had someone of such credentials and such rare mental agility on our side, calling things not only as he saw them, but as they were (and are). Most others either immediately take offense or simply retreat behind the vacuous fa├žade of “thou shalt not offend,” and read only his book’s title, without bothering to delve deeply enough into the contents to realize that it is not hyperbolically intended, but is in fact an accurate and meaningful description of what religion is: a poison--a toxin, a parasite, a cancer rapidly eating away at the insides of human civilization, a disease desperately in need of a cure.

For explanation of why we recognize religion to be a poison (I will NOT stoop to such noncommittal language as “why we believe religion is a poison,” as has been suggested to me in the past, by people who seem to value political correctness over accurately expressing the simple truth), I can only recommend three courses of action, as I won’t be going into great detail on that matter here. Firstly, by all means, each and every one of you should go and purchase a copy of The Hitch’s book, God is Not Great. It’s a wonderful read, reasonably inexpensive--in fact, during this holiday season, I’m sure it also makes for a wonderful gift (perhaps a stocking stuffer for that person in your life who keeps inviting you to their church even after you’ve said countless times that you have no interest…just saying)--and goes farther toward explaining the point behind its subtitle than I could ever hope to accomplish. (Parenthetically, I would suggest, in honor of Hitchens’ own thoughts on the matter, that if you go to Borders, you should steal a copy, but alas both Borders and Hichens are no more, so it seems hardly worth mentioning.) Secondly, read this article by Ray Garton, a friend of mine whose remarks upon Hitchens’ death echo my own thoughts in much better form than I could have hoped to accomplish. In the article, he explores Christians’ reactions to the death of the great man, and explains how the believers themselves prove Hitchens’ point better than anyone else could hope to. And finally, stick around this blog for a while, as I’m sure you’ll be seeing plenty of examples of exactly what we’re talking about.

Now, moving along from sad news to the infuriating. Go on the Internet for a while, and find any comments thread or message board in which people are arguing about religion, and you’re sure to hear something like this: “You militant atheists are just as bad as the evangelical Christians! Why can’t you just let people believe what they want to?” It’s phrased in various ways, but the argument, if one dares to call it that, remains the same. These people seem to think that by comparing the rhetorical volume of atheists to the evangelicals, or by analyzing how in some cases both varieties of commentary can have a certain sharpness of teeth, that they are creating an equivalence between what appear to be warring factions. And, the “logic” goes, if there’s an equivalence, isn’t this just a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

But they’re missing the point. As evidenced by the incredible volume (and I refer to volume both in the auditory sense and in the sense of measurement) of Christopher Hitchens’ work (and if you prefer, you could also look at Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, P.Z. Myers, or any number of other brilliant authors, orators, or commentators), the complaint we have against the evangelicals is not that they speak their mind, nor even that they do so loudly. The complaints we have against them are numerous and, I’m sure, somewhat varied from individual to individual, but it basically comes down to this: they’re WRONG! Not only are they mistaken, but they’re so willfully ignorant, corrupt, and downright stupid that one cannot take them seriously. And yet, as we so often, so loudly, and yes, sometimes even viciously complain, they are taken seriously. They rake in BILLIONS of dollars, on which they pay no taxes, and all they do in return is, as Hitchens so succinctly put it, “poison everything.”

I don’t care how loud you are. If you believe something, say so. Say it loudly and proudly. Shout it from the rooftops (literally, if you so desire, and even that won’t bother me). But if you’re wrong--if you’re stupid, if your statements are so misguided as to be laughable, if the implementation of your suggestions would cost humanity scientific progress, if you support an institution that systematically costs human lives, increases human suffering, or stands in the way of scientific progress--then I have no respect for you as an intellectual or as a human being. These people deserve ridicule, and for my part, that is what they shall receive, no matter how quietly they whisper their poison, nor how loudly I shout my response. Religion is dangerous humbug--THAT’S my complaint. And I’m going to keep making that complaint until this blight is removed from human civilization.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Try Occupying the Real World

This humbug has gone on quite long enough. While many of my close friends and acquaintances have heard me rant about this matter in private, I have held my silence in public in the interest of preserving peace between myself and my various acquaintances who run the entire span of the political spectrum and, perhaps more importantly, in the interest of preserving what little amount of free time I have left in my increasingly busy schedule. However, there does come a time at which one may no longer in good conscience hold his silence, because the endless barrage of idiocy and misinformation threatens to drive him even more mad than he was at the beginning of the affair in question.

The matter of which I speak, of course, is the so-called “Occupy movement” that’s been spreading through America’s cities and university campuses like herpes through a whorehouse. Frankly, it is astounding to me that any political activity that attracts a massive presence from the undeniably childish and laughable pseudo-organization “Anonymous” (as have the Occupy demonstrations) would do anything other than wither and die the quick and mostly painless death of complete irrelevance. However, something strange has happened here, and I can’t rightly lay claim to knowledge of precisely what has allowed this mass growth on the face of humanity to continue growing. Still, they have grown, and they’ve grown so much that I now feel I must break my silence and waste a considerable portion of an already-too-busy evening responding to reports of recent events.

To begin with, I am not making any political statement here. I no more love the radical liberals on the Occupy side than I do the moronic religious right on the Tea Party side. I find some individual points within each camp to agree with and others to disagree with, and I make up my own mind on the issues. It cannot be denied that various events have transpired that would require us to rethink certain economic policies. Nor would I argue against the painfully obvious argument that there are plenty of legitimate grievances against various entities, both public and private, who share fault in the economic recession. I have my thoughts and opinions regarding what might be done to strengthen American economic policy to help rebuild the economy and to help prevent future failures on such a large scale. This is not the forum in which I intend to discuss these issues. I am, in fact, not going to discuss the issues the Occupy movement is attempting to bring attention to except where it is absolutely necessary to make some point. The reason for this decision is that one can analyze the Occupy movement not only in terms of what they claim to be about, but also in terms of what they actually are, and I think the latter is, at the present time, by far more important.

You will also have to forgive me for thinking somewhat locally on this matter. Many of my points will apply to the Occupy movement as a whole, but I will be using the Occupy Denver group as my model. I realize that each city’s group may have a very different character, but since this is the one with which I’m familiar, you’ll just have to consider my argument for what it’s worth if you try to apply it to the other groups.

With that preface out of the way, let’s look at some things about the Occupy movement and see what we can discover.

To begin with, let’s consider this meme that’s really taken root in the last couple of months: the “99% vs. the 1%” meme. You know the one. People write these cute little messages about how horrible their lives are and then say “I am the 99%.” The idea seems to be that one percent of the country holds all the wealth and power, and the other 99% are getting the shaft. Let us be abundantly clear about one thing. Yes, plenty of people have gotten a rotten deal. Yes, plenty of people have legitimate grievances. Yes, significant portions of the political and economic systems in this country (and, indeed, the world) are broken and need reform. But can this movement really claim to speak for 99% of the population? Certainly not.

For instance, let’s have a look at some information from a large collection of photos of people holding those silly little signs found at http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. A sidebar on that webpage informs us: “We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.”

Okay, point by point. The foreclosure rate in the United States is very high right now, and that’s one of the points that needs to be addressed. Yes, true. But the foreclosure rate isn’t more than about ten percent, and even at that, it cannot be blamed entirely upon external influences. Plenty of people are just too fucking stupid or lazy to pay their bills. The result? Foreclosure. Simple as that. Now, of course, there are many other people who have been the victims of foreclosure that truly was out of their control, and I feel for them. I really do. But they aren’t 99% of the population.

Similarly, there are people who choose between groceries and rent because of unfortunate circumstances, but there are also a lot of people who really bring that status upon themselves, either by not working hard enough, by wasting their money instead of applying it to the necessities, or my failing to use birth control and ending up with too many mouths to feed. Yes, some people are victims of circumstance, and have legitimate grievances. But not all of the poor are victims. Some are a blight on society, and if it makes me unpopular to state the obvious then so be it. And once again, no where near 99% of the population struggles to decide which bills to pay. Too many do, sure. But the overwhelming majority of the population are able to find some way to live within their means.

Health care is a complicated issue. Certainly 99% are not denied quality health care. Most people do have health care. But the system is broken, it’s too expensive, and too many quacks fall through the cracks and are somehow allowed to practice voodoo and call it medicine. That definitely is a system that needs reform…but are they really going to try to claim that the “other 1%” is somehow at fault? The healthcare problems we have are the product of governmental and corporate interests not being able to effectively keep up with the pace of society, not some conspiracy of rich folks to keep everyone else down.

Just to illustrate how silly they are, they gave me a truly precious gift in the next line: environmental pollution. That’s another complicated issue. A lot of environmentalist claims are exaggerated at best, but there is also no longer any reasonable doubt that there are some very serious and legitimate environmental concerns. Chiefly, of course, global warming. But here’s the thing…whatever environmental concerns there are have an impact on everybody. There is no environmental catastrophe, real or imagined, that only hurts the poorest 99% of a society and leaves the wealthiest 1% unharmed. It is a monument to the attitude of these people that they feel every single problem our society has to face is a part of some conspiracy among the wealthy to hurt the unwealthy. It simply isn’t so, and it is extremely unproductive to go around spewing such nonsense.

What about working long hours for little pay and no rights? Absolute nonsense. Clearly the Occupy people aren’t working very long hours, because they’re managing to find the time to sleep in parks in protest, apparently, of how little time they have because they work so hard for little pay. Here’s another one: The average net worth for the 99% percentile in 2007 (most recent figure I could easily find) was just over $19 million. That’s a lot of money, sure. But the average net worth of the next 9 percent? Almost $2.5 million. What this means, realistically speaking, is that there are a fuckload of people who are NOT in the wealthiest 1% of the country, but who ARE still millionaires. You don’t get to claim that 99% of the country works long hours for little pay, when some of that very same 99% are fucking millionaires! Yes, there is wealth disparity in the United States. That’s actually a good thing. Is it higher than it should be? Probably, but nevertheless, there is a spectrum of wealth, which is essential for a healthy economy, and just because some people are poor doesn’t mean fucking everyone is! And what about no rights? I’d like to hear an example of a worker who doesn’t have rights. Know who else would? The government. See, there are laws to prevent employers from abusing employees. That doesn’t mean you can just show up, do fuck all and still get paid, though. Employment is the voluntary and retractable sale of a portion of one’s rights (namely in the form of one’s available time and labor) for money. And if you don’t like the boss, you’re allowed to quit. Yes, yes, the economy is bad, unemployment is high, and you don’t really want to quit. I get it. But you know what? That’s life. You balance things out. You don’t like your boss but you like your paycheck, so you decide which is more important.

But let’s now look at this issue from another perspective. They’re claiming to speak for 99% of the population. In essence, they’re labeling people to set up “we” vs. “they.” Well, I’m not buying it. Sure, labels are sometimes useful, and we ought to embrace some of our labels. But I don’t want to be considered a part of the same group as 99% of the population. Know why? I’m not. Sure, I’m not in the wealthiest 1%. But every significant measure of a human being cannot be so easily summed up. I’m certainly not equal to 99% of the population in terms of intelligence, or taste. I object to anyone claiming to speak to me simply because I fall on the same side as they do of an arbitrary line in the sand they’ve drawn for no reason other than political gain. I object to being considered equal to 99% of the population when, quite frankly, I consider myself superior to most of them. And at least as passionately, I also object to people attempting to limit political discourse to something as trivial as short messages hand written on pieces of paper and held in front of a webcam. These issues are more complex, and if you’re going to take a firm stance on them, perhaps you should read a book first.

Now let us turn our attention to something I saw the people here in Denver doing. I first encountered this on the Auraria campus, where the Occupy Auraria people have been every single day for the better part of a month, and I am told that they’ve been doing this at the larger Occupy Denver gatherings as well, though I haven’t witnessed that myself. What they do is this: They sit in a semi-circle with some individual, apparently of some higher status within the group, though I fail to understand their hierarchy, sitting in the center. This individual reads a statement expressing some political philosophy or position on some economic matter, and the rest of the group repeats after him, verbatim. Yes indeed. They’re fucking reciting fucking creeds! I’m not talking about the chants you hear at protests all the time (“Two-four-six-eight, we just want to masturbate!”), but actual fucking creeds. If they weren’t sitting under a big-ass sign that says “Occupy Auraria” and if I couldn’t hear the words spewing forth from their mouths, I would assume it was some kind of religious service. In a way it is. The Occupy movement is rapidly becoming more cult-like both in its attitudes and in its behaviors. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for the rest of us, this is not the way one conducts oneself if one’s goal is to make one’s political opinions known. Find your way to have some intelligent discourse and I’ll listen to you, I’ll discuss things with you, debate what we disagree on, agree on what we agree on, and probably find some common ground. Recite creeds, though, and I know two things about you without giving it any more thought. 1) You have already made up your mind so thoroughly that any attempt to have a real discussion with you would be a wasted effort. 2) I want to have nothing to do with you, either in this or in any other matter.

We turn our attention next to another topic related to how they present themselves as more of a cult than an intellectual organization. A few weeks back, the Association of Corporate Counsel had a conference here in Denver at the Convention Center, not far from where the Occupy people have been doing…whatever it is they’ve been doing. Mind you, the ACC are the movers and shakers in the corporate world. These are the attorneys who tell the corporations they work for how to conduct their legal affairs. Though the organization itself has no real authority, one cannot doubt its power simply because its members advise and defend the decision makers in the corporate world. And aside from being a rather influential organization, one can safely assume that the ACC members have done their homework on precisely the sort of issues the Occupy people are trying to talk about. Agree or disagree, these guys know a thing or two.

While they were in town at the same time as the Occupy movement, something very telling happened. The ACC people invited the Occupy people into their conference to listen to one of their seminars and to have a dialog. One cannot doubt that this would be a significant victory for anyone seriously trying to enact some kind of social or economic change. The very people they’re protesting invited them in to have a discussion. That’s how changes get made--through diplomacy. However, the Occupy people said…no. Not only did they fail to make their case, they failed to even show up and try. They refused to speak to the people in a position to actually start doing something about their suggestions. Instead, they continued marching in the streets and camping in the parks.

I would like to think that perhaps this was an isolated incident and that perhaps they simply felt unprepared to make a presentation in front of such a body on such short notice. While I would certainly have taken the opportunity and simply done my best given such an opportunity, I cannot say for certain that it wasn’t simply a matter of feeling that they wouldn’t be putting their best foot forward were they to speak to the ACC. However, this hypothesis (which I never truly believed, just for the record), was conclusively disproved by another recent event here in Denver.

Because the Occupy movement has achieved so much notoriety in the press, the Mayor of Denver decided it would not be prudent to ignore them. He figured, hey, let’s have a dialog with these people. His only request was that Occupy Denver needed to elect a leadership to speak for the movement in front of City and State officials. A reasonable request. Certainly these officials don’t have time to speak to each protester individually, so the appropriate thing to do is to elect a small group of delegates who will speak for the group. They don’t need to be “leaders” in the sense of managing the group’s affairs--things can still be decided democratically if that’s what the group wants--but it is essential that some person or some small group of people should be empowered to go to meetings with officials and speak for the group.

Instead of realizing this simple fact, however and electing a spokesperson, Occupy Denver did something rather strange. So strange, in fact, that you won’t believe me if I tell you what they did, so I’ll let their press release speak for itself:

“We of Occupy Denver hereby elect and recognize Shelby the border collie dog as our leader until such time that Occupy Denver, rescind or replace said role. As such, under auspices including, but not limited to, the facts that she can bleed, breed, and show emotion, there by proving she is more of a ‘person’ than a corporation, here by demand that Shelby not only be legally recognized by both State and Federal government as the leader of Occupy Denver, but also as a person.

“To similar call, should Shelby be granted such recognition, it is to our expectation that all pressing legal matters regarding the occupation that require a ‘leader’ or representative to speak on the behalf of the Occupation, that unless representation other than the Occupation’s leader be found adequate and/or accepted through the governing body of Occupy Denver, that U.S. law be followed as it concerns providing an adequate interpreter to accurately and provably convey the meaning and substance of Occupation related legal matters both to Shelby and from Shelby to her legal counsel and/or legal bodies handling such cases. It is to be understood that it is not the responsibility of Occupy Denver, nor Shelby, to find or provide interpreters for such task.

“Should such demands of the Occupation not be met, we of Occupy Denver demand that any and all rights and privileges granted to corporations under the rights afforded them through corporate ‘personhood’ be made illegal through State constitutional amendment. Further, should such an amendment be superseded by Federal law, that the governing bodies and persons of the State of Colorado, through political, economic, and all legal means available, pursue without haste, in earnest transparency, and to their fullest possibly capacity, entry into any and all legal contest necessary to both uphold and enforce the revocation of corporate ‘personhood.’”

Yes, you read it correctly. Within this sloppily worded document, the Occupy Denver people have actually elected a dog as their official representation to the City of Denver and the State of Colorado. Even if one puts aside the extreme humor of the people of this “movement” (as at this point I feel, along with Frank Miller, that they should not be considered a “movement” unless the word is immediately preceded by the word “bowel”) issuing demands--not requests, suggestions, or arguments, but demands--to the duly elected representatives of the City of Denver and the State of Colorado…they elected a fucking dog! I’ll say it again: They elected a fucking dog! A dog, for Christ’s sake! A fucking dog! Dog, dog, dog! I cannot stress highly enough how asinine, myopic, ignorant, immature, vacuous, thoughtless, halfwitted, dimwitted, boneheaded, blockheaded, featherbrained, and downright fucking stupid this movement and all its constituents are. I admit I had a certain hesitation to lump all of them under the same banner, as there are some people with legitimate grievances really and honestly trying to achieve social change among their ranks, and I at first didn’t want to call them stupid along with all the rest of the human garbage, but then I remembered, THEY ELECTED A FUCKING DOG! Whatever your intentions, whatever your qualifications, if you do not immediately tender your resignation from the membership of any organization that does something so childish, I’m sorry, but you’re a fucking moron, and there’s no other way a rational human being can view the matter.

So that’s how they try to achieve their goals: by denying invitations from the people in a position to do something, and by electing a dog instead of a delegate to speak to other people in a position to do something. I get it, you don’t like the power structure. But the operative word of that phrase is “power.” Like them or not (and believe you me, no one is justified in hating the power structure as much as the Occupy people do, even though there are legitimate problems that need to be addressed), they’ve got the power, and you don’t. So, in order to get to that point of change you want, you really have three options. 1) You can go to school, study hard for several years until you’re able to earn yourself a position of power within the power structures you’re trying to change and thus conduct your change from within. 2) You can run for public office, try to convince the electorate that your ideas are worthy, and once in office, conduct your change from within different halls of power. 3) You can attempt to persuade those already in power that you are correct, and try to conduct your change (albeit indirectly) from within. Bottom line, morons camping in the park are not powerful. They’re pitiful, and they should thank their lucky stars when someone bothers to offer them an opportunity to step into the halls of power and plead their case.

Regarding this concept of “corporate personhood,” the Occupy people, as usual, recite gross oversimplifications of what is actually a very interesting legal question. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protections to all “persons” under the jurisdiction of the United States, and that’s really the crux of the issue here. It’s not really a matter of whether we’re recognizing them as “people,” in the biological sense. It’s a question of whether, as a matter of law, one should recognize a corporation as a self-sufficient entity afforded protections under the constitution. And when we say “corporation,” we’re not necessarily talking about the giant corporations that it’s currently trendy to hate…in fact, in law, we’re not really talking about “corporate personhood” at all. We’re talking about the doctrine of “legal personhood” or “artificial personhood.” It’s the same thing, but it’s misleading to use the word “corporate,” because other types of organizations also benefit.

Basically, without this doctrine or something very likely, business would come to a grinding halt. Why? I’m so glad you asked. Basically, creating a “legal person” out of a corporation is a convenient legal fiction. In essence, it is an extension of the rights of all those natural persons who make up the corporation into the collective whole. What this means, in practical effect, is that a corporation can sue or be sued. It can enter contracts as a single entity rather than as, in the case of large corporations, thousands of individual entities. It simplifies taxation and regulation. It protects the rights of the shareholders.

So what would happen if we completely scrap this idea? A lot, actually. Let us imagine some hypothetical situations. Let us say that Corporation X, a large corporation doing great business in the manufacture of Widgets, has done harm to Person Y by stealing his idea for a new Widget. Who does Person Y sue? The CEO? He’ll argue that one of his subordinates actually stole it and he never knew anything about the theft. The subordinates will pass the blame to the engineers, who’ll pass the blame back to the CEO, and nothing will ever be accomplished. Or, Person Y can simply sue Corporation X. As an artificial person, Corporation X is capable of being sued, and so a jury can simply make Corporation X write a big check with lots of zeros to compensate Person Y for the injustice. If this were impossible, Person Y would either have to file suit against all of the thousands of people who make up Corporation X individually and clog the court system with needlessly complicated determinations of who actually deserves the blame, or simply give up the fight and cut his losses.

What if the situation were flipped? Let us imagine that Person Z has just stolen some trade secrets from the innocent Corporation X and is trying to sell them to the highest bidder. What can Corporation X do to stop this or to receive compensation for the wrong that they have suffered? Well, as an artificial person, Corporation X simply sues Person Z. But if they were not afforded these rights, what would happen? Presumably, every individual shareholder, each member of the Board of Directors, the CEO, and whichever employees may have been harmed, will all have to sue individually. This one incident could end up producing literally hundreds or thousands of lawsuits.

This matter also raises interesting First Amendment issues. While not explicitly stated in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court held in NAACP v. Alabama that freedom of association IS protected by the First Amendment as an essential component of freedom of speech. Their reasoning is that in some cases one can engage in effective speech only by joining with others. It has been argued that affording the same rights to the collective that one would afford to the individuals in that collective is an essential part of freedom of association. And so, we should consider corporations to have the same rights as the people who make up that corporation.

Ironically, the Occupy people wish their movement, as a collective, to be considered a unit with such rights as free speech and free assembly. If one is to assume that this collective has such rights, why are they hypocritically denying the same consideration to another form of collective? Just because they don’t like the word “corporation?” Sorry, but that’s just not going to fly. Maybe they ought to read a book or two before they speak any further.

But neither is this a one-sided debate. There are legitimate concerns with legal personhood. For instance, if we’re giving a corporation all the rights that a person has, we’re also giving them the right to contribute to political campaigns, which some have argued significantly skews the American political process by concentrating much of the political power that comes from fundraising (and only a buffoon fails to realize that fundraising is a significant factor in determining the results of elections) into the hands of a comparative few whose interests may not be in line with the people’s. Not an invalid point, but more easily addressed than scrapping the concept of legal personhood. Campaign finance reform is also a contentious issue, and it represents the debate between the preservation of the First Amendment on the one side against concerns about corruption and monopolization of the political process on the other. Campaign finance is outside the scope of this paper so I won’t touch it beyond simply saying that campaign finance reform is a way to mitigate the imbalance created when corporations might finance campaigns without “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak. I will, however, simply point out that even today, it’s not as simple as a corporation writing a check for millions of dollars. These are complex issues, and they need to be addressed through tedious study, long periods of open debate, and eventual compromise. I don’t know about you, but while I don’t doubt Shelby the dog’s character, I do severely question the judgment of anyone who suggests she is intellectually capable of solving these problems.

The other argument to do with legal personhood has to do with what happens when a corporation commits a criminal offense. Civil offenses are actually simplified by the doctrine of legal personhood, by significantly reducing the number of litigants. However, criminal cases may be complicated. Say a CEO orders an illegal act and the corporation’s employees carry out that act in the name of the corporation. If it’s something like murder, of course, we have no problem separating the corporation from the individuals within the corporation who are actually guilty, and we try them as individuals, leaving the corporation itself intact. But what if the corporation is thought guilty of a crime that cannot be pinned on a specific individual? How can one jail a corporation? Indeed, that is a difficult question, but I think an answer presents itself rather readily, and it comes in three parts.

1) The acts that are committed by individuals within the corporation, whether at the insistence of the corporation or not, are tried as individuals. If the act is sponsored by the corporation itself, the decision makers responsible for ordering that act can be tried as conspirators. The corporation itself cannot be guilty of acts committed by individuals within the corporation.

2) However, if the act is a corporate act. A crime related somehow to a hostile takeover, say, then the corporation itself should be tried in criminal courts, represented by its CEO or Board of Directors, just as it is when it conducts itself legally. Of course, one cannot jail a corporation, but it’s very easy to fine a corporation, which would probably be the appropriate response to such matters anyway.

3) Laws can be written in such a way that allow for legal personhood to continue, so that we may all continue to benefit from its conveniences and protections, but also in such a way that holds the decision makers responsible for corporate crimes. So if the CEO orders a crime to be committed by the corporation as a whole, in addition to fines levied against the corporation once it is found guilty, the CEO himself can be found guilty, perhaps as a conspirator.

I realize that was a bit of a long tangent, but I wanted to make the point not only that the Occupy people are probably wrong about legal personhood, but that they don’t bother to do their homework or to think things through very well. I’m certainly not an expert, but it’s not that hard to come up with some very basic research on these issues. It took me all of a couple minutes, for instance, to discover that the concept of a legal person is not unique to corporate America (which I knew), or even the western world (which I suspected), but is found in some variant or other, in almost every legal system in the world.

At this point, I want to take a moment to discuss the issue of police brutality, which has been raised in connection with the Occupy movement quite a lot recently, as they’ve been evicted from their tent cities in several locations in the past week or so. As with the rest of this paper, I’m using Occupy Denver, rightly or wrongly, as a partial representative of the whole, so bear in mind that situations may be different in other locations.

Shortly after electing a dog as their representative to the city and state officials, they received a notice from Denver police:

“It is illegal to place any encumbrance on the public right of way. An encumbrance is defined as ‘any article, vehical [sic] or thing whatsover’ which is on ‘any street, alley, sidewalk, parkway or other public way or place.’ D.R.M.C. 49-246 et. seq. The manager of Public works may order all encumbrances in the public right-of-way to be removed. The failure to remove items so ordered is a criminal offense; the maximum possible penalty for which is up to one year in the county jail and/or up to $999 fine.

“PLEASE REMOVE ALL PERSONAL ITEMS FROM THIS AREA.

“If personal items are not removed immediately, you may be subject to an order of removal at which time all items will be subject to removal by the Denver Police Department.”

Yeah, it came right after the dog thing…maybe the city was a little pissed off and wanted to get back at the people who had just issued a rather grievous insult. I wouldn’t be surprised. Fact is, though, the Occupy people were indeed breaking the law. They have a right to peaceably assemble, a right to free speech, but not a right to leave their shit all over the public parks and sidewalks. Despite Occupy supporters trying to make an equivalence between this and the First Amendment (a matter we’ll discuss in more detail later), it’s really not the same thing.

So anyway, back to point, the police issued the above warning, and the Occupy people--you guessed it--didn’t do a damn thing. They stayed in the park, didn’t lift a finger to move anything. And then, surprise, surprise, the police moved in on November 12 to forcibly remove the items in question. At this point, a few people left, but most of them just became confrontational with the police. While this was happening, someone from within the movement updated their website periodically. I’m going to provide some highlights from those updates, and then we’ll learn what actually happened.

“UPDATE 5:01pm It looks like this raid is imminent. This is the ‘largest police presence ever’ for one of the smallest gathering [sic] of protesters. It seems at minute [sic] they are going to bust in and take everything out.”

Oh, balls! Largest police presence ever? Come on! Since it’s in quotation marks, I’d like to know the source of that information. Got a link for me, Occupy people? The other thing they don’t say is that, though it’s true police were in riot gear as a precaution (one never knows what a mob of irrational protesters might do), the police were not conducting themselves in a traditional “raid” fashion. At about 4:30, they invited two of the protesters to speak with them at a command post. However, by 5:15, protesters had elected to block a major street, Broadway, instead of cooperating with police.

Furthermore, “bust in and take everything out” sounds excessively negative. In fact, they had been warned that police would remove property they did not voluntarily remove. However, police also tagged every item that looked like personal property rather than garbage so that it could be reclaimed at a later date.

“UPDATE 5:44pm Protesters are chanting at police. Police continue to move. Unsure if chemical weapons have been used yet.”

Overdramatic much? Whoever said anything about chemical weapons…if you’re “not sure” if they’ve been used, what that actually means is, there’s no evidence that they have, but that you just can’t help but to say something to make it sound like the police are being the villain here. Remember also that by this time, the protesters had already moved to block a major traffic artery, a fact they neglected to mention.

“UPDATE 6:27pm Police a [sic] chanting ‘MOOVE BACK’ [sic] while the protesters rebut with ‘PEACEFUL! PEACEFUL! PEACEFUL!’”

Perhaps true. However, the Denver Post, a more reliable source by any criteria, has a slightly different take. According to the Post, the protesters were chanting anti-police slogans including “You look stupid in your helmets and with your clubs….This is a peaceful assembly….”

“UPDATE 6:45pm Pepper bullets and tear gas launched into crowd.”

WRONG! LIES! No tear gas was used during the entire incident. I don’t know about other forms of nonlethal weapons, but Occupy is the only organization reporting anything even remotely like that, so considering the source, I suspect not. Several arrests were made--and justifiably so, as several crimes (including assaulting the police officers and blocking traffic) were committed that evening, and I’m not just talking about all the garbage in the park, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

From here, we can abandon Occupy’s version of events and just talk about some of the things they did, but before we do, I want to give one last quote, from the update at 9:42: “Considering their warning, they seem very interested in squashing Occupy once and for all.”

Well, actually, I wish they would. Then I wouldn’t have to walk past a group of annoying protesters who’ve forgotten the art of bathing every time I walk across campus or downtown, or see them on the news, or read about them on the Internet. But that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point is, they’d turned a public park into something one step away from being a landfill. Also from the Denver Post article: “’This isn’t safe and, it’s not sanitary,’ Jackson said as he pointed to a pile of blankets and boxes with a stream of stale food and sticky liquid running underneath it.” Remember that image, by the way, as we’ll be coming back to it in a moment.

I want to turn now to an account given by a good friend of mine who happened to be in Downtown Denver when this was all happening and witnessed a good deal of it with his own eyes. He posted these remarks in the comments field on the Occupy Denver website.

In response to claims by the Occupy people that this incident was a result of the fact that they’ve “scared” the government and an attempt to stop the movement, he writes:

“Last night, the only people I saw terrified were the innocent people trying to enjoy their Saturday nights while a group of screaming people walked down the street beating drums and pushing them aside.

“I saw people terrified to walk anywhere, because the protesters were leading a charge down 16th Street Mall [Note for non-Denver readers: the 16th Street Mall is a large pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown, full of retail, offices, as well as many popular night spots--the only non-pedestrian traffic allowed on the Mall are the city-provided free shuttles that run back and forth along the length of the Mall, and the carriages drawn by bicycle or horse, also to carry passengers along the Mall] yelling.

“I saw multiple cars almost hit innocent people because the protesters blocked so many roads that people were just trying to drive and couldn’t get around.”

In response to claims that it was police action, rather than protester action, that put the general public at risk, he writes:

“Again, no. The police were following the protesters, not the other way around. If the protesters chose to stay away from densely populated places such as the 16th St. Mall and the Buell [a very large theatre, part of the Denver Performing Arts Complex], then the police wouldn’t have to put up those measures and block civilian traffic and put innocent people in harms way. Simply put, from what I observed and what happened, it was the PROTESTERS who put the general public in harms way, for no reason.”

Already we can see that it was the protesters who were at fault rather than the police, but there’s another matter worthy of our attention related to their behavior on that evening. At the time this was all happening, the Mayor of Denver was at the Starz Film Festival enjoying his Saturday night. Not on official business--this was his personal time, and he was just trying to enjoy himself, but the protesters got the bright idea to try to find him, since the festival was not far from their location. In fact, by their own admission, they made their way into the parking garage at the Performing Arts Complex, and one can only assume that their intent with such an action was either to break in to the festival to get to the Mayor or to block the Mayor’s exit.

To that, I respond: you people had your chance. The mayor was willing to talk to you. He just asked you to choose a spokesman. Instead, you elected a dog. Why in the world would you think he’d want to talk to you now?

Of course, as soon as this all happened, the conspiracy theorists immediately came out of the woodwork to claim that this is part of some nationally coordinated effort to suppress these protests in every major city. I can almost sympathize. I once went through a brief conspiracy theorist phase…when I was a child. To a child, perhaps, everything looks like a conspiracy, and I suppose that’s fitting, as the Occupy movement and all its supporters have been acting like children. But it’s time to grow up. Of course there’s no movement to suppress these protests. At their best, they’re a pitiful annoyance to the people they’re protesting. Occupy is a mosquito. When you see it biting you, you swat it, but no one gives a thought to organizing a massive effort to hunt down and kill that single mosquito. This is just their attempt to artificially inflate their own sense of importance in the world, when in reality, they’re about as insignificant as a pimple on someone’s ass.

I’m going to be honest with you. I hate doing this. I hate coming to the defense of the police. I don’t like police. And usually when something like this happens, I’m right there with the rest of them, decrying the evils of abuses of police authority. Because usually, truth seems to come down on whatever side is opposed to the police in a given issue. There are countless abuses, countless cases of police brutality, not to mention the fact that the laws the police are sworn to uphold are convoluted, outdated, corrupted, and generally shitty in almost every way. But in this case, arguing that police are at fault just does not hold water.

Still, people defend them. One of their defenders, a YouTube user whose work I generally enjoy but who falls into the category of “fucking stupid” whenever it comes to something that has to do with Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots, had this to say:

“And how does the logic of the cops who cleared the protesters out of Zuccotti Park hold any water whatsoever? They said ‘We gotta kick you out because this environment is too trashed, you know you guys were too messy, and now we gotta kick you out and have some cleaning crews come in to clean up.’ How does that make sense? First of all, we’ve all seen footage of the protesters. I didn’t see any giant mountains of garbage, did you? And even if there were, let’s give ‘em that, let’s say there are, I just haven’t seen them and you just haven’t seen them, but they were there. So what? The protesters are not there to be housekeepers for fuckin’ Zuccotti Park. They’re there to protest. What’s the point of having First Amendment rights if you can always find some little bullshit reason to kick them out of wherever they’re protesting?”

And so on and so on, ad nauseam. I really don’t know how someone I regularly watch--and so you know it’s someone who usually has intelligent things to say, because I do not suffer fools--can be so fucking stupid.

First of all, if you haven’t seen the mountains of garbage, it’s probably just because your news about this matter is filtered by the supporters of the Occupy movement. You asked where were the piles of garbage. How about the one depicted in the photo accompanying this article from October 13? Or the one attached to this article , which also includes a quotation from a sanitation worker: “I pick up garbage [for a living], and these were some of the worst smells I’ve ever experienced.” Or if you don’t care for those, try this one, which contains several photos. And that’s just of New York. Going back to Denver, remember that comment about the “pile of blankets and boxes with a stream of stale food and sticky liquid running underneath it?” These protesters are not clean people. They’re nasty, disgusting people who’ve chosen to live in a park over economic ideals they’re too stupid to understand anyway.

And the second part of that defense, the “so what” part--are you kidding me? You so hate this world just because of a few economic problems that you’re actually okay with the public spaces becoming landfills? That’s not a “so what” moment, that’s a “why didn’t the police move in sooner” moment if there ever was one. In the debris left behind were stale food, liquids, broken bottles, used hypodermic needles, everything you can imagine the scum of the earth bringing to the surface when they’re allowed to linger uninterrupted for the better part of two months. The Occupy movement was no longer just a protest--it was a public health hazard. If you actually believe that nothing needed to be done to clean that up, you’re either delusional or evil.

What about the claim that they’re there to protest and not be housekeepers for the park? Of course! And the minute I hear of police telling them to clean up someone else’s trash, I’ll be right there with you. But they made that mess themselves. Littering is generally not considered much of a crime, illegal though it is…but on that scale, it could actually come to involuntary manslaughter if someone, say, accidentally steps on a used hypodermic needle while trying to walk through the park. Protesting is protected by the First Amendment. Trashing the public grounds, becoming a public menace, and allowing oneself to be a public health hazard in a very real sense is not. Anyone who can’t see the difference deserves no place at the grown-ups’ table. In fact, the stupidity of that comment is further revealed by the fact that they’re being allowed to continue their protests. Yeah, no one’s shutting them up…all they did was try to clean up a bit.

Now here’s the painful irony of the whole situation. One of the things the Occupy people are protesting is that the wealthy pay disproportionately low taxes, and so the costs of running the government have to be paid by the middle class and the poor. Okay, there’s actually some truth to that, and that’s something worth protesting, though we’ll talk about that a bit more later. They also claim to speak for “the 99%,” even though we’ve already debunked that stupid idea. Well, who do you think had to foot the bill to clean up all their shit? Taxpayers. Yeah, you and me. These assholes went out there, accomplished absolutely nothing with their protests because they don’t have two brain cells to rub together among the lot of them, completely trashed the public grounds wherever they went, and now they expect our sympathy and support even though we’ve been forced to pay to clean up after them. And people wonder why I’m pissed off!

These people have no real interest in doing anything positive. They’re hippies, anarchists, hobos, drug addicts, and assorted other lowlifes. If they really wanted to do something good, they could contribute to the economy instead of living in a park. They could participate in intellectual discourse instead of shouting gibberish while living in a park.

Oh, dear! I called them anarchists. Boo-fucking-hoo. And yet, that’s what so many latch on to whenever someone criticizes these morons. “They’re not anarchists, they want more regulation, that’s not anarchy.”

Well double balls and bollocks! While they may espouse a belief in more regulation on the rare occasion they actually talk about things instead of just being idiots crying “why me” all the fucking time, they certainly don’t live up to their own ideals (which we’ll discuss shortly). Destruction of public property is not in line with cries for more regulation. In fact, when the regulations we already have on the books were finally enforced, they all cried “police brutality,” so nevermind more regulations. Perhaps they actually do want more regulations--for everyone else, or for the people they don’t like. But they certainly behave like anarchists themselves. Regardless of what they may say, their actions indicate a belief that the rules are meant for everyone else, but they’re exempt, simply because they’re protesters (as if the word alone could give them special powers or credibility).

Want more evidence, rather than simply reasoning our way to that point of view? You got it. Check out Occupy Denver’s own post. Right up at the top, you’ll see a link, and if you read the label you might be a bit surprised: “via our comrades at Denver Anarchist Black Cross.” In this post, Occupy Denver, and the Denver Anarchist Black Cross. I think the word you’re looking for is “befuddlement,” because that’s certainly the appropriate emotion to feel when faced with the realization that this movement still enjoys truly massive popular support even in the face of their own candid admission of ties to an anarchist organization (which seems like an oxymoron, but I’ve almost become numb to all the stupidity and contradictions we find in these movements).

I did promise to talk a little bit about what they’re actually trying to do, so I’ll attempt to do so, but I find it extremely difficult, as they’ve completely divorced themselves from any sort of intellectual leadership, which might have actually been able to lay down some specific goals. Instead, they seem to be protesting a sort of fuzzy marriage of corporation and state that they can’t really explain, and they seem to offer no real solutions to anything except for some fuzzy idea of “more regulation for everyone except us.” There also seems to be some fuzzy idea that capitalism is a bad thing.

Since they refuse to actually make specific points, I don’t have any specific points to respond to. There is a very enlightening article here that can help us understand their perspective. Quoted in the article, one protester who goes by the name Ketchup (and some people still take them seriously) said, “If anyone is attempting to speak for OWS, that’s bullshit.” Right, because once someone speaking for the organization starts listing goals, it means some people might actually have to work to meet those goals, rather than live like hobos and beat drums all day.

They get even more candid later in the same article: “Demands cannot reflect inevitable success. Demands imply condition, and we will never stop. Demands cannot reflect the time scale that we are working with.” Translation: we’re pissed off about a few things, but we’re too stupid to actually solve any problems, so we’re going to engage in highly publicized mental masturbation and pretend we’re a legitimate political movement and see how long we can deceive the rest of the world--and perhaps ourselves--into thinking our shit is Shinola.

Also in the same article, we learn about a few more broad concepts many of them are talking about: “embracing open-source technology, ending all wars, eliminating ‘discrimination and prejudice,’ and reappropriating ‘our business structures and culture, putting people and our earth before profit.’”

So even though we don’t, in fact, have anything even remotely resembling a proposal, we do have at least some idea of the vague concepts they’re protesting about. Let’s discuss some of them, shall we? Bear in mind that I’m going to go very briefly through these issues. I’m not necessarily confident in my own ability to solve the problems, but at least I’m better than the Occupy people in that I’m trying to start a dialog about these issues so maybe some people more educated on the matter than I can help me expand my thinking.

Regarding the marriage between corporation and state, my thoughts are probably not too far from what the Occupy people think. Remember, I did say there are plenty of legitimate grievances, and I don’t necessarily disagree with them on the issues--I just disagree with them as human beings. I do think they probably overestimate the extent to which these two sectors influence one another or the impact it has on the rest of us, but maybe not by very much. There certainly is plenty of corruption both in business and in government, and that needs to end. Where I disagree with them is in where they’re directing their protest. They ought to be protesting in Washington, because it is the government that needs to address this issue, not the corporations. Hell, most corporations, even most big corporations, are relatively benign. It’s only a few that cause problems, and protesting them isn’t going to change their minds. It’s only when politicians fear for their reelection that something will happen, so the Occupy people may have the right idea, but they’re running with it in the wrong direction.

Some of them are probably capitalists, but there definitely seems to be an anti-capitalist bent amongst the group. Open-source technology, for instance, is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing--some of the time. But it is vital that capitalism be allowed to maintain itself, because if one cannot profit from one’s inventions, one simply stops inventing. If something is shared publicly, the creator gets stiffed. That’s true of software, music, books, movies, machines, you name it. Capitalism works! Sure, our form of capitalism has had plenty of bumps in the road, and there are elements of our capitalism right now that are corrupt. But that does not mean that capitalism is bad.

I recall a conversation with an Occupy buffoon who kept asking “if capitalism is so good, why is the third world so poor?” I had to repeatedly explain that it’s due to a number of factors. Climate, technology, politics, religion, but all in all, it comes down to an inability of the people to profit from their own labor, which is largely what actually does end up creating wealth. That’s capitalism, and to the extent that it’s lacking in the third world, that’s why they remain poor. But he just kept saying that “whenever the people try to improve their lot in life, the west pushes them back down.” Well, first of all, that’s a gross oversimplification, to the point that it’s basically a lie. Yes, that has happened; but, no, the United States isn’t deliberately trying to keep the impoverished from improving their lives--quite the opposite in fact. Second of all, even if that were completely true, it would not be an argument against capitalism. It would be an argument against the first world pushing the third world down.

What else…let’s see…ah, they want to end all wars. Finally, something we completely agree on. Let’s hear how they want to do it? Hmm? *crickets* Yeah, that’s what I thought. What I want to see are specific proposals to end specific wars, and proposals to begin improving international relations. And the best way to do that? It goes right back to capitalism. Countries are less likely to go to war against each other when they have a strong mutual trade between them. Will it end all wars? Fuck no! But it would at least be a start, and that’s a fuck of a lot more than the Occupy people ever came up with.

Similar arguments apply to the thought of getting rid of prejudice and discrimination. If you define exactly what you’re talking about, and come up with a proposal to address one small area at a time, or to gradually improve things, great. But otherwise, you’re just blowing a bunch of sunshine up our collective ass, and I don’t like it.

What’s this idea of putting people and earth before profit all about, really? Are we talking about not lying and cheating our way to the top? Then I agree. Are we talking about socialism? Then I don’t. Plus, people and profits are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in a healthy economy, either one benefits the other, and everyone’s life is improved through commerce. A profitable company can pay its employees more (and in a healthy economy is forced to by the competition), and employees who earn more can spend more, making the companies even more profitable, and so on. It’s a myth that no new wealth is created but that wealth is only transferred. New weath is created through labor and invention all the time, so in a healthy economy, it’s possible for everyone to profit. But for that to happen, people with sufficient drive must have the opportunity to do extraordinarily well at business. If there’s no motivation in the form of making more money than the neighbors, then why would anyone work harder than the neighbors and create new wealth through innovation?

And regarding the need for more regulation, that’s partial nonsense, too. What we need isn’t more regulation, what we need is smarter regulation. It’s something neither the liberals nor the conservatives have figured out yet. Basically, the liberals don’t get that the free market works. Left to its devices with only minimal regulations to prevent crimes such as fraud, the market actually does quite well without intervention, and in such times interventionism would only hurt the economy. What the conservatives don’t get is that sometimes, temporary intervention is necessary. The liberals correctly realize that every once in a while, you need to put the train back on the tracks, but they don’t know when to stop meddling. What we need are smarter regulations intended to prevent frauds, and to allow for very short term interventions when necessary, but that expire as soon as the market is once again healthy enough to manage itself.

The problem is that there has been no intellectual leadership to lay anything down for these people. They all just sort of showed up and started protesting without understanding what it was really all about.

Now, let’s turn to the actual structure of Occupy Denver. If nothing else, it’s worth a laugh or two.

At the top of the hierarchy of course is the dog, but Shelby doesn’t seem to do very much, so here’s now it works. They have absolutely no leadership. The people filling official roles at their General Assemblies are not elected or appointed--as far as I can tell they just sort of show up and fall into one role or another, none of which have any real power--they just conduct the meetings which are a sort of loose parody of parliamentary procedure constructed by someone who learned about parliamentary procedure from a bad television program. The actual voting body is…whoever feels like showing up.

Instead of communicating verbally, they use hand signals (isn’t that cute?). Here’s what their website has to say about the signals they use.

“Hand raised: if you have something to say

“Chopping hands: point of clarification/answer - not a new idea, short sentences only

“Triangle hands: point of order - stay on topic, issue from outside

“Rolling hands: you have made your point, respectfully move on

“Spirit fingers: I like this!

“Downward spirit fingers: I disagree or do not like this

“Peace fingers/vibes: respect each other, intense emotions casing [sic] problems”

I’ll admit, it’s been a little while since I’ve read Robert’s Rules of Order, but I don’t remember “spirit fingers” ever appearing anywhere in parliamentary procedure.

I would also remind the reader that while this movement has been mostly nonviolent for which I am grateful, occupation is a military concept. This group isn’t as peace-loving as they claim to be. Sure, they’re not using physical violence (at least not much, at least not yet), but they are modeled, even in name, upon military strategy, and by their own admission, they plan to be around for a very long time. That scares me, because these aren’t rational people. Instead of people having an intellectual discussion, I see a mass of unwashed hippies with dreadlocks. Even if one were to agree with them, and on occasion I do, they certainly don’t present a face that any sane person would consider respectable.

Finally, on November 16, they issued a press release. Near the end of their document, I found a passage that particularly spoke to me:

“We call upon you who have been silent: Speak and be heard.

“We call upon you who have not stood up for what you believe in: Stand and be seen.

“We call upon you who have yet to put your needs on paper. Write and be counted.”

Challenge accepted. Suck it, bitches!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Go on--give us a trick

I've been a magician for a while now. Amongst my friends, I'm the token magician (with the exception of those friends who are also in the business, of course, but I'm not speaking to them because they already know all about this stuff). Personally, I like it. I like being the guy who can do things other people can't do. It's not an ego thing, really, though I'm sure that's part of it. Mostly, I just like sharing things that people are unlikely to see anywhere else. I like the look of surprise when, say, the barista at my coffee shop sees her cell phone appear inside a rubber balloon. But I don't like to perform for close friends, and I especially don't like to perform for family.

To a poor magician (read: that uncle who does a card trick at the family reunion) magic is 90% methodology and 10% presentation. To a good magician, it's exactly the opposite. Sure, there are some real knucklebusters out there, and magicians in your audience are guaranteed to be astounded when you pull one off. But they won't be surprised. All you've accomplished is an amazing feat of juggling--not magic. To a lay audience, methodology doesn't matter. All they're supposed to see is the effect. So, that begs the question: what is the effect? On the surface, one might think the effect is, say, "my card showed up in his wallet." And sure, that is the effect. But on another level (I would argue, the important level), that is only the skeleton of the effect. The real effect is the show the magician puts on when presenting this miracle. The effect could be "he predicted what card I would choose and put a copy in his wallet." The effect could be "he made the card invisibly travel from the deck to his wallet." It could be "he hypnotized me and made me think I chose a certain card." Upon the framework of a simple Card to Wallet, there are countless different "effects" the magician could choose to present. And that, I would argue, is where magic lives.

Eugene Burger, one of my heroes in magic, and certainly one of magic's greatest thinkers and philosophers, describes magic as it is generally presented as a stunt. But that's not magic. Magic, when it's presented properly, is a true art. It points beyond itself to something else. It hardly matters what that something else is, but there is something to it. And so magic, at least the way I want to do magic, is all about presentation. It is about showmanship. And that's why I hate performing for friends and family.

Friends and family know me better than any other audience, and so in their ears, no matter what presentation I hang on a magical effect, it will certainly ring false. My mother knows damn well I can't do the impossible. And on some level, so does any audience--they aren't stupid. But when you're on a stage or in front of strangers, there is a willingness to suspend disbelief that is simply not present when performing for close acquaintances. You can't step into another character, you can't put on a show, because if you do, they'll know that you're just acting.

When I watch a movie, I know damn well that the actors are just actors. But because I don't know them personally, it is very easy for me to suspend disbelief. Mentally, for a period of about two hours, the actor really does become the character. But if I knew the actor personally, all I would be thinking about is how different the character is from the personality I know. I would see the performance, and not the art. Magic is no different.

There are other reasons I don't like performing to friends and family.

To me, magic is a business. It's what I do, at least in part, for a living. Sure, friends do work for each other from time to time, but I loathe the sense of entitlement that seems to come with knowing a magician. Try asking a friend who is an attorney for free services over lunch sometime. If you're in genuine need, a good friend will gladly help. Otherwise, he'll resent the feeling that you expect him to work for free. Likewise, if you're a friend or a friend of a friend and you've never seen me work, I'll be glad to show you something sometime. No problem. But beyond that, I'll dish out the freebies on my own schedule. And it's not that I don't like giving a performance for friends, either...but it's uncomfortable enough that I only like to do it when I'm really mentally prepared to do it.

And then there's the element of what happens if something goes wrong. While on some level it's nice to have people to try things out on and give new material a test run before I go public, on another level, it's exactly the opposite of what I need in many cases. If I perform to strangers and it goes wrong, it feels like shit, but then I'll never see any of those people again. If I perform to a close friend and it all goes to shit...it's bound to be a bit awkward in the future.

There's also an element of proper etiquette. When I'm performing to a stranger, they're generally expected to follow certain social norms. They're not, unless they've been drinking, very likely to be aggressive or pushy. When receiving a performance from a stranger, people don't heckle, unless they're given damned good reason to. When I perform for people I know, I can't always exploit these social norms. For instance, if I perform for a stranger, I know exactly what I need to do to make someone look away from the deck of cards at the moment of truth. There are numerous techniques I can use to accomplish this, and the methodology is not important here (nor will I reveal it anyway). Yet, just the other day, I was performing for my mother, and she was burning my hands like nothing I've ever seen. I think she feels like she's being helpful when she watches so closely and always points out if she sees a move. But that's hardly the point. I have people I work with (fellow magicians) to watch for moves. I also tape myself and watch for moves. If I'm giving a performance, I'm not looking for someone to try to catch me. I'm looking for the response I would get if I were performing for an average Joe Blow on the street. With friends and family, I will never get that same reaction.

So if you've never seen me work, by all means ask me to do something some time. I'd love for all my friends to see something of mine at some point. If you introduce me to someone and want me to perform, that's cool too. Just give me notice so I can know what I'm going to do. Beyond that, try to respect that when I'm out with friends or family, I might want to just relax. Card tricks may seem easy, but they're hard work, and they're infinitely harder when I know the audience personally. So lay off a little bit, and I guarantee I'll have something to show you some day. After all, I am a showman--I always like to show off. I just like to do it on my own terms.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An open letter to Kool 105 radio

I have been a long-time listener of Kool 105, and so it was with great disappointment that I logged onto Facebook this afternoon to find these two messages:

“Do you have a pet problem: Steve & Stephanie have a PET PSYCHIC on the show tomorrow, and if you’d like to talk with her---She needs a picture of your pet today! EMAIL A PICTURE OF YOUR PET-WITH THEIR NAME, YOUR NAME,PHONE NUMBER AND A SHORT DESCRIPTION OF THE PROBLEM TO steve@kool105.com today! We’ll contact you later today to line you up for tomorrow morning to talk with the PET PSYCHIC.”

Followed shortly by:

“We have a few more spaces open to talk to our PET PSYCHIC tomorrow morning…I need you to email me a picture of your pet with, your contact info. And we’ll line you up with Patty the Pet Psychic….send photo of Dog, cat, snake, bird, spider to Steve@kool105.com right away.”

As a rational person, I find this reliance upon superstitious mythologies such as psychics (not to mention the silliness of pet psychics) horrifying. We live in a society whose very survival depends upon science. And yet, we have structured out society in such a way that scientists are not only generally misunderstood by the public at large, but people put their faith in anti-scientific nonsense like pet psychics.

I’ve been involved in the skeptical movement for many years. I am, of course, intimately familiar with the sorts of objections I am likely to receive to writing such a letter. First, I’ll be accused of being closed-minded. But this is certainly not the case. We must all of us remain open minded, but there seems to be a danger that if we open our minds too far, our brains will drop out. What I mean by this is that we must always be open to new and unusual ideas, but that we must demand a scientific high standard of evidence before we believe in any such claim. In the case of pet psychics, that burden of proof hasn’t come even close to being met.

And then of course, it is claimed that these things are just a bit of harmless fun. I cannot disagree more strongly. There is a truly marvelous website at www.whatstheharm.net dedicated to cataloging precisely what kinds of harm this superstitious flim-flammery can cause to innocent people. It is a very dangerous thing. It costs people their money, their health, their emotional security, their rational minds, and in many cases, their lives. So far, What’s the Harm has identified: 368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured, and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages. And that’s just what their readers have reported to them. Surely there must be billions more people who suffer at the hands of charlatans.

Even in what would seem like a relatively benign incarnation of this belief system such as pet psychics, there is a very great and very real risk of emotional dependence upon charlatans, not to mention the thousands of dollars people can and will spend on such “services” after sadly becoming “addicted.” If nothing else, it is a risk being taken with no proven benefit. In fact, there’s not even a hint of a benefit. Nevermind benefit--there’s not even a hint of a way this could be possible without violating the known laws of physics.

These people are fakes, cheats, scoundrels, liars, and they need to be behind bars. Unfortunately, because the government seems all but completely unwilling to prosecute these cases of outright fraud, negligence, negligent homicide, practicing medicine without a license, and the list of potential charges goes on and on and on, we must rely upon the media to paint an accurate portrait of what’s really going on. And yes, that even includes entertainment shows such as yours. Instead of fulfilling your journalistic and decent human duty to protect people from fraud, you’ve invited a practitioner onto your program and solicited victims from the pool of your own listeners. This is a betrayal of your loyal fanbase, it is a betrayal of the scientific method, and it is a betrayal of common human morality.

Because, however, a radio show can be a great opportunity to provide a basic semi-scientific test of this psychic’s claims, I propose you do so. When the psychic is on your show, I suggest that she should be shown photographs of the pet (precisely the method she was going to take anyway), but instead of being told any information, she must first determine the pet’s name and what the problem its owner is having is. Surely the pet at least knows its name! It’s the single most common sound it hears! Why would she, a psychic for gods sakes, need to be told this simple piece of information? This is a great sort of informal test. It won’t make your psychic very happy, of course, because she’ll realize that you’ve discovered her to be a fraud. But it will help to protect your listeners.

Furthermore, and perhaps even easier for you to do on air, is the Million Dollar Psychic Challenge. James Randi and the James Randi Educational Foundation are currently offering no less than one MILLION dollars to any psychic who can demonstrate their abilities under scientific observing conditions which preclude the possibility of cheating. It’s a simple test, and the only protocols in place will not interfere in any legitimate phenomena--they will only prevent fraud. The claimants even help to design their own tests. If they succeed, they get a million bucks, and a public admission from Randi that he was wrong. Put this pet psychic on the spot: challenge her publicly, on your program, to take the test. Surely she could use a million dollars. If she says she doesn’t do it for the money, perhaps she could think of a charity. I’m sure sick children, or a veterinary clinic (perhaps more her cup of tea) would love such a donation. There is absolutely no excuse not to take Randi’s challenge. If she can really do what she says she can do, it’s easy money. The only reason she could refuse is if she knows she’s a fraud and doesn’t want to be caught.

Do the right thing. Defend science and reason on your show. Don’t promote dangerous superstition and fraud.

Sincerely,

Bob Lewis