Friday, October 28, 2011

Mussolini, Tea Party, and the violence on Scott Olsen

On October 29th, 1922 Benito Mussolini and his Blackshirts/National Fascist Party marched on Rome and assumed power in the Kingdom of Italy as the Prime Minister.

As we all remember the interwar years were tough on most countries. The rolling opulent capitalism of the twenties had broken the banks and world economies were in shambles. Those feeling the worst of it were, as always, the poor. The world had not really invented a middle class yet, so there was rich and poor. In the twenties while the US and Northern European Economies were still rolling in fake money, Italy was not doing so good.

In 1919 Mussolini formed the Italian Combat league which eventually became the National Fascist Party which put Mussolini into the Parliament in 1921.

The Fascists were both revolutionary and traditionalist. They were calling Italy to look back and reclaim their great and proud heritage. They attacked those who called for a class struggle or rights for the disenfranchised. They confused the issue with patriotism and anger.

During the same period as the Fascists were growing in power another group was gaining strength. The trade unionists of Italy were gaining strength and developing an anarcho-syndicalist brand of socialist ideology (A branch of Anarchism in the Labor movement promoting trade unions and cooperative economic systems).

The trade unionists were able to enact a general strike which began in an Alfa Romeo factory in Milan. A general strike is when nobody goes to work. EVERYBODY stays home. It is a tremendous sign of strength from the working class to the ruling power.

Mussolini's Blackshirts broke the strike using incredibly violent means. Attacking crowds of non-violent protesters and beating people. This is the creation of the concept of Fascism.

So, Scott Olson...... An Iraqi war veteran and member of Iraq War Veteran's for Peace, was peacefully protesting at Occupy Oakland in his Marine uniform. He was seriously injured when the police threw a flash bang grenade at his head. A flash bang is like a little grenade which produces more light and sound. It is a less lethal, disorienting weapon. Unless you are within six feet of it. Then it is just a fucking grenade. Imagine it was thrown at your head. He is in critical condition and will have brain surgery.

What does Scott Olsen and the Occupy movement have to do with Mussolini? We are at a cross roads. The Tea Party on one side calling for a traditionalist revolution and on the other we have the Occupy movement looking to have a more egalitarian distribution of opportunity.

I am not suggesting that the Tea Party is a bunch of Fascists (I really don't think so) or that the Occupy people are anarcho-syndicalists. I have been watching the news and noticed the date. I was reminded how history repeats its self and I am concerned about the state of the Union.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unicorns on the planet Eris.

In 1930, a 23 year old uneducated farmer from Kansas was somehow given the task of searching for an object in the outer solar system that could adequately explain the perturbations in the orbital path of Uranus. After staring at pictures of dots for nearly a year, this young man discovered the object that was eventually named Pluto. The man's name was Clyde Tombaugh, and he was quite happy to discover something significant enough to garner a scholarship to college.

In the years that followed, the world seemed to develop a weird fascination with what we thought was our littlest brother. Everybody loves to root for the underdog. Everybody loves a Rudy. Further scientific inquiry revealed Pluto's three moons, one of which being so massive relative to Pluto that the pair rotated one another like binary stars. We discovered that Pluto's orbit was more elliptical, and more off-axis from the solar plane than any other planet. Everything was going well for Pluto. A bit of a freak, yes, but clearly the little kid who could. Our small, frail, frozen, cold and desolate lonely outpost of a planet.

It wasn't until 1992 that things got really complicated for Pluto. It was then that we discovered the Kuiper Belt, which is a field of rocks and space debris that stretches from Neptune to far beyond Pluto, and farther away from the sun than we could have even possibly imagined for something still spinning around it. Pluto's ground was shaky, existing in this swarm of rocks,  but we still felt comfortable calling it a planet.

Unfortunately for Pluto, it wasn't long before people started training telescopes on these new found rocks to see what there was to see. What we found were thousands and thousands of rocks of a size similar to Pluto. The bell rung for Pluto in 2005, with the discovery of the object Eris, a spherical hunk of rock about 1.2 times the size of Pluto. Maybe you'll recall slight murmurs about 'Planet X,' well this was it.

And yet Pluto was still standing as a planet. It turns out that no one had really established what the word 'planet' meant. The International Astronomer's Union sat down to figure out a workable definition that would answer the simple question: What is a planet?

And, they came up with several ideas. Hundreds, in fact. The problem with all of these ideas hoping to grow up as definitions was that no matter which way you went with it, you could never get to the number 9. How many planets are there? Well, all of the definitions only had one of two answers: eight, or a couple of thousand. There is no metric that connects Pluto in characteristics to the others planets that a thousand other objects in the Kuiper Belt did not have.The most damaging to Pluto's status was that it didn't clear its own orbit of debris. All of the other things that we call planets have a gravitational field sufficient to pull all the rocks, dust, and space junk down to the planet's surface. Pluto, on the other hand, was the only one of the planets to live in a messy neighborhood indeed.

And so It was decided. The scientific community went with the definition of eight, and Pluto was relegated to 'minor planet' status.

And people went fucking nuts.

New Mexico actually passed legislation saying that within the borders of the state, Pluto was still officially a planet. So did the town of Streater, Illinois...the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh. People feel that Pluto has been taken away from them, and it is unjust, unright, and untrue. We shouting from the rooftops (or, maybe more accurately, mumbling in bars,) Pluto will always be a planet to me.

The thing is though, we couldn't make it work. We tried to keep Pluto as a planet, we really did. But to do so would be going against our understanding of celestial bodies. 'Pluto the Planet' is wishful thinking of the sort that ignores science, reason, and logic in order to make what you want to be true...true.

And, boy, we don't like to slaughter our sacred cows. When we are told we are wrong about things that we know in our heart to be true, the outcome is never pretty. We plug our ears and shut our eyes to the science, and stand with the idea 'Pluto is a Planet' on faith.

We went with 'Pluto is not a Planet' because the only other option was 'there are so many planets of so many different characteristic that the word planet is meaningless. To state this another way: It's "Russell's Teapot," and quite literally. Russell's Teapot, cited frequently by Richard Dawkins, posits that if one were to state that a teapot was orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, you could not prove it wasn't. Well, not only is this true, but also, if Pluto is a planet, than so is the imaginary teapot..quite literally.

We define words, and refine definitions, in order to communicate meaning. If the word 'planet' encompasses every object that exists that is not the sun, then that word no longer holds any descriptive value. It's meaningless.


So, we defined 'planet,' and 'Pluto the Planet' fell out of existence. It makes me wonder what would happen with specific definitions of some other words.

Words like: Soul, God, Heaven, Hell, Faith, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omni-anything, Spirituality, Chi, Eternity, Transformative, Love, Holy, Engram, Evil, Luck, or...Sin.

-Paul Wittmeyer

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Atheist Gardening

In times of trouble, what do atheists do? How do we cope with stress and strife? There are times when we wish we could just cry to our mommy about how the world has done us wrong. As adults, we are not in a position to do that. Some of us could not, even if we wanted to.

I have always thought that God is a parent figure to adults. I do not mean that as an insult to those who can have that. I often wish I had a powerful parental figure that I could lean on. Even just for emotional support. I know that they are deluding themselves. I cannot imagine being comforted by silly stories and bronze age superstition. I wish I could.

Adults look to others for support. I sought a strong woman who could support me. I have tried to create a web, a network of people who can help me when I stumble. Real help. Not just a void that I can fling my misery into. Real, live, solid people that listen but that also can advise and even act.

I think that is the secret. We realists need real support. I find it funny that the support we atheists need is the one thing that the 'atheist community' is lacking. Religion provides support from the magic man in the sky but, more pragmatically, from the other people. That is where the real support comes from, the people.

I hate to word it this way, but, I am grateful for the people I have found. Grateful. To who? I really don't know. But I am. I am thankful and grateful and feel blessed. Yep, I said it. I feel that the world has screwed me in a lot of ways but I have been able to surround myself with those who can, and do, support me. Maybe blessed is the wrong word. There is really no better one. Lucky? It is really no different. I guess language is another symptom of the superstitionalism we are surrounded with.

This is a love letter to the people who support and help me. In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, he uses a Greek word, Eudaimonia. This has been historically translated as 'happiness' or 'welfare'. Some have offered a different translation: flourishing. That is the translation that I like. I do not speak ancient Greek, but I like this translation.

Flourishing.

Aristotle talks about self cultivation. He advises we treat our lives like a garden. We need things. We need support from those around us. As a pragmatist Aristotle says we need money, but just enough to be comfortable. Once that is taken care of, we need people. Good, supportive people.

I would like to think the last couple of years have been a time to 'till my soil and buy fertilizer. I spent this time, divorce, anarchy, chaos and strife, breaking down my old paradigm. Destroy that which dragged me down. I have been preparing for the coming spring and the cornucopia of crops that my garden shall produce. I do not know what tomorrow brings but I am confident that with the seeds I possess and the soil I have chosen that my crop will be great.

Thank you to all the real, solid people who have supported me. I am an atheist and I have no invisible means of support. I have people. I have reality. I have tomorrow.

-Josh