Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving thanks

So, here I sit, the night before thanksgiving. The cultural zeitgeist would inform me that I supposed to be out, drinking and dancing until four in the morning, celebrating Democritus, and Hedone, Bacchus and Freyja, Pan and Ceres. Celebration, beauty, joy, wine, the harvet, the hunt...the joy, majesty, beauty, and wonder.

Instead I sit, with The Postal Service in my ears, contemplating which shirt to iron for tomorrow's inevitable family fun time meet and greet, where supposed loved ones kept a year at arm's length are embraced full throat for the annual end of November to the end of December re-affirmation of family unity.

And the thought of this next month's dance is what keeps me glued to this chair, instead of out with my fellow humans, reveling in revelry, Celebrating the harvest with joy and dancing and rivers of wine. This next month is what glues me to this chair...but this past year is what compels me to write these words.

Atheists tend to be suspicious of most holidays. The Greek, Roman, and Norse Gods that I reference above are, for better or worse, the true etymology of the celebration of the harvest. Make no mistake, it did not start with those Puritanical Puritans making all nicey nice with the indians and serving a turkey stuffed with wet bread, no. Thanksgiving is nothing more than a celebration of the fact that we are prepared to survive one more unimaginably brutal winter, that we have reserves in store, that we are ready. We give thanks to our full plate...our full plate, and the people who have helped to fill it. If this past year has taught me anything, then it is the same lesson that I have been slowly, ever so slowly, learning my entire life.

And, that lesson is that I am thankful for every stupid thing I have in my life. I am thankful for everyone I've met, and everyone who has influenced me.

I am thankful that I have a partner in my recent endeavors who has carried me more than I have carried him. Who has burned candles with me until three in the morning trying to figure out what we are doing, and the best way to accomplish our goals. A partner and friend who has taught me more then I have ever learned elsewhere.

I am thankful that I have a friend who has proven time and time again that he will always, always, always, be there for me as I try to be there for him. The sort of friend who flies 400 miles on 24 hours notice, loads all of my possessions in a truck, and carries me home when I am too weak to do so myself.

I am thankful that I have a friend who loves me with all of her heart, and whose faith in me extends so far as for her to put her career on the line in order to offer me an opportunity to better my life. A friend whose optimistic outlook on life is so contagious that I have had no choice but to conform to her joy.

I am thankful to have a friend who is the bravest person I know...the bravest person I truly believe I will ever know. A person who has stood in uniform and served on the front lines of Iraq with machine gun in hand, and now serves on a different front line defending the rights of all human beings as a trans-gendered person. Someone whose outlook on the world has effected mine more than could be explained.

I am thankful to have a friend who is an educator who wears cowboy hats and bolo ties in faculty school pictures. A person who, whenever I forget that we all should be smiling, laughing, joking, and dancing, never fails to remind me. A friend who has many of the attributes of the person who I aspire to be.

I am thankful to have a friend with an ivy league education who has chosen to pick up a shovel, and spend her days working one on one with special needs children, doing the work of saints while being an atheist. A person charged with a Sisyphean task who charges out every morning helping to better the society's forgotten. A person whose heart swells and bursts with mine.

My family is a sad, fractured state of affairs. It has been so since as long as I can recall. Tomorrow we will all eat turkey and avoid discussing where my sister might be spending her Thanksgiving. We will smile, shake hands, and likely someone will ask me how school is going. (I've been out of school for four years.) We will pretend that what we are is family.

My true family are those I have spoke of, above. My true family are those who have helped shape me. Those who I have learned from, and those I have taught.

I propose that we take this day of giving thanks, and contemplate who you would call with a flat tire at 3 a.m., who you would call asking for bail, who you would call when you were backed into a corner, when the chips were down. Contemplate who you would call when it all went south.

I propose you contemplate who those people are, and spend a minute remembering them in this season of giving thanks. I love every person listed above with all of my heart, and this is my letter to them.

-Paul Wittmeyer

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cynics and other sons of bitches

Skepticism. It has been my experience that most people do not understand the idea of skepticism.

Skepticism is a way of thinking. It is a mode of behavior and a way to determine reality. Our determination of reality is what we use to make choices and determine action.

Skeptics question things. You say X, and I say why? You say Z and I ask how? Skepticism is something we practice any time we hear new information and any time we are exposed to opinions or hear news stories. A Skeptic simply actively practices this skill and hones it. Nothing more.

Critical Thinking is the snooty way to say skeptic. When given a fact we must look at it objectively. Well, as objectively as is possible. We all have biases. Big ones or little ones. We have all seen and heard things which we use to make thinking easier. We do, after all, have to make a crapload of determinations per day. Will the driver ahead of me swerve or go straight? What kind of person is walking up toward me? Are they threatening or docile? We make these split second determinations based upon heuristics. Heuristics are strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable information in the act of problem solving. This strategy has worked incredibly well for a few hundred thousand years. It has always been balanced off with what is called systematic thinking. This is a slower method of problem solving. It requires examination and deductive thinking. These two ways of thinking have allowed our species to reach the moon.

One acts like instinct and the other like logic. Those two systems have created a beautiful machine for reaching conclusions. These two systems have created human beings.

The world has changed in the last couple thousand years. I do not live my life in fear of mountain lions or bears. My ancestors lived in constant fear of theses kinds of horrors. These daily fears necessitate quality heuristic thinking. My ancestors needed keys, tools or mental markers that allowed them to make split second determinations in order to continue their genetic line. Evolution favored heuristic thinkers. Since we developed society we have been in a position to think and ruminate. Thinkers were as rewarded almost as much as reactors. Our history has been a battle between jocks and nerds (as John Hodgman of Daily Show fame has recently mentioned). We are all part Jock (Reactor) and part Nerd (Thinker). This is good. This worked well for most of human history.

Since about 1600, we have needed more contemplation and less gut reaction. We invented modern thinking. This is clear in the history of philosophy but became more and more necessary the better we got at science. Science is the ultimate in slow and deliberate thinking.

Skepticism is the regular every day expression of this kind of thinking. The skeptic examines facts as they are presented. Where did this come from? To where does this trend? Who benefits from this fact? Is there context? How is this fact supported? Lastly, is this believable? The last question is always about giving the fact (or argument) weight. Is this fact true? Probably not. But how untrue is it? Then you can give this weight.

A cynic is something different. A cynic may have begun looking for truth, like the skeptic. The cynic tried to see past the preconceptions which create poor instinctual deduction and see things objectively.

In their case they fell prey to the same small, Jock thinking. They found out that the world is full of lies and fraud. That is when the specter of heuristics comes back to haunt them. They see it all as lies and pointless crap. The cynic practiced skepticism for a while. Then, when it turned out to be hard they just stopped. They saw the world and all it's confusion and untruth and they decided that that was what the world was. They created a new system of heuristics. They created new markers and signs in their mind.

The cynic has seen so many movements fail that when a new movement arises they know, KNOW, that it will fail. Seeing people do stupid thing so many times, the cynic decided that people are just stupid and therefor there is no point teaching them.

They have developed new biases which are based upon the lies they had uncovered when they did skepticism.

I was thinking lately about peoples opinion of skeptics as cynics. This is not just a misunderstanding of what skepticism is, it is what some proclaimed skeptics are. Since my foray into the greater world of Skepticism I have met them, the Cynics. They infuriate me, "It will never work", "don't bother", "this is stupid." These are the things they say. They are nay sayers and haters. They try to put you down. They crush your dreams because they have the answers. They have become the autocratic authority that they started their journey to oppose.

Don't let them crush you or shit in your cheerios..............

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The status quo is only what you accept

I seem to be having conversation after conversation lately regarding 'Occupy Wall Street,' and most seem to have a common theme. Stop me if this sounds familiar to either your ears or your mouth:

I just don't see how this is going to accomplish anything.

They are all just kids who are going to give up and go home.

What do they want?

The most this will ever lead to is more empty campaign promises.

This isn't the way to do things.

These are rationed, reasonable concerns from those who have shared intelligent discourse with me. I am excluding the whacko nutjob internet comments of "Scott Olsen got what he deserved!"

I find the idea that there is nothing the OWS people can do to change the status quo to be absolutely absurd. Everything everyone does changes everything that there is every moment...and if you don't believe this, then you're not paying attention.


Barack Obama took office in January of 2009 with a clear mandate from the country, and he decided to spend that political capital on healthcare reform. It's a story we've all heard, and one we have all spent years living with in frustration for one reason or another. I'm not going to that Barack Obama's 'yes we can' campaign slogan is the reflection of OWS, and blah blah blah... Please, keep reading.

Early on in his presidency, Obama met with the lobbyists who would be directly influencing the political process involving healthcare reform. One of those present was Karen Ignangi, chief lobbyist for the insurance agencies. At that meeting, Ms. Ignangi committed to healthcare reform, and in doing so committed the entire political entity which she represented. She committed to helping with reform in a very public way.

What was less public were her demands. The Insurance companies demanded that the public option was eliminated, and that everyone would be required to buy healthcare from the conglomerate that she represented. In addition, she demanded subsidies, tax breaks, and other provisions which would benefit the insurance companies at the expense of the consumer and the taxpayer. She had come out in public to support Obama...if her private demands were not met, she would get to walk away from the table and blame the administration for not accepting her help.

Concessions were made to Karen Ignangi because Obama had a greater problem: The Senate Finance Committee. This committee is concerned with taxation and finance, yes, but has even greater power over healthcare, as they are the governing body for Medicare/Medicaid. At a time when the primary question was how to pay for it all, the answer would come from this select committee.

And, the Chairman of this committee? Max Baucus, D-Montana. Max Baucus is a man whose campaign for Senate was funded by the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies to the tune of 2.51 million dollars. In Montana.

In Montana!

I could get a goat elected in Montana for 2.51 million dollars! (No offense to Mr. Baucus.)

So, as is congress, and as is the way, hearing were held by the senate finance committee. At the hearing that took place on May 5, 2009, 41 insurance company and pharmaceutical company lobbyists were asked to testify. NO other lobbying groups were asked to testify. In fact, many asked, and were specifically excluded. One of the groups excluded was 'The Physicians for a National Health Program.'

And, sitting at the table was our insurance company lobbyist friend from before: Karen Ignangi.

Here's where it gets good:

Five people were arrested for disrupting the proceedings by standing up and asking why their voices were not allowed to be heard. Five people threw their bodies on to the gears to try and garner attention to their cause.

One of the five was Margaret Flowers, M.D., head of the above referenced 'Physicians for a National Health Program.'

And, of course..this protest and these arrests had no effect. The hearing was suspended until the chamber could be cleared, and then resumed without interruption. Nothing changed, nothing was altered.

Of course, you have to look deeper than that.

You have to look at the subtle ripples about Max Baucus, the unknown senator from Montana, which were beginning to spring up in the Washington media. Baucus' campaign contributions didn't enter the public consciousness until after a few reporters began to question why this stupid little protest occurred. After a time, Baucus was painted as being biased towards the insurance and pharmaceutical giants. He was criticized for excluding these groups in favor of those like Karen Ignagni.

And this criticism resulted in the loss of political capital.

You have to look at what happened next...and what happened next was a goddamn circus of Tea Partiers, Death Panels, and Joe Wilson. Representative Joe Wilson, if you recall, is the one whose outburst of "You lie!" during the 2009 Presidential Address garnered him much negative publicity from the media.

Well, angry Joe Wilson gave Obama the boost he needed. The public was beginning to realize the level at which republicans were willing to attack him.

With Obama strenghtened, he was able to take advantage of the damage done to Max Baucus by those who protested the exclusion. The Obama administration was able to take the bill, HR 3950, out of committee without the approval of Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Finance Comitee, and place it directly under the purview of Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader. Baucus could have stopped this from occurring with a simple objection, but in doing so, it would have played directly into the public persona that was created of him laying in the pockets of Big Pharma and Big Insurance.

And once it was in the Senate Majority Leader's hands, all of Karen Ignagni's demands were cut from the bill. Gone were the huge kick backs to the Insurance companies.

And so, the bill was eventually passed, much to the chagrin of Max Baucus and Karen Ignagni. The bill passed without a safety net insuring the insurance companies would be able to reap and rip profits upon profits off of the tax payers and policy holders.

And it happened this way because five people stood up and protested what they perceived as an injustice.

Could it have happened another way? Of course. Here's the thing, though...this is the way it DID happen. It happened in these slow, small, subtle steps that most people didn't pay attention to.

Will Occupy Wall Street have an effect on anything? I submit that they already have. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has said that the Occupy Wall Street protest may kinda sorta, in some ways, sorta kinda maybe...have a point.

And if you don't think that is going to change anything, well then, you haven't been paying attention.

Change never occurs the way we expect it. We take our message, cork it in a bottle, and toss it to the seas. We hope our words align with others who feel as we do. Sometimes we are alone, screaming into the abyss, and sometimes our voices are in unison and break like thunder.

And Occupy Wall Street? Occupy Buffalo, Oakland, Austin, Portland, Occupy Everywhere? Remember this: Five people put into motion events which led to the benefit of humans in deference to the benefit of corporations. A small victory, to be sure, but they were five...we are millions.

Everything we do, everything we have ever done, matters.

-Paul Wittmeyer