What Are You Looking At? – An Essay on the Importance of Perspective

“No, Donny, these men are nihilists — there’s nothing to be afraid of.” (The Big Lebowsky, 1998)

Imagine you’re standing in the center of a large warehouse in pitch blackness. While it is so dark that you cannot see, you have an understanding that the room is not in any way ordinary — it has been imbued with a magic that allows representations of everything in existence to be stored within it in vast rows of organized shelves. It contains toys and weapons, delicacies and poison, fascinating mysteries and the drudgingly commonplace, loved friends and sworn enemies, Windows 7 and Windows ME, Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters (2016), and so on for a near eternity. However, you wouldn’t be able to see any of this in the darkened room at all, save for one trusty tool you find in your hand — a flashlight.

It’s quite a powerful flashlight, but the warehouse is so large that you can only see two or three sections of the warehouse at a time. When you examine the toy section, you find yourself feeling joyful as you pick up the playthings of your childhood and adolescence. As you shine your light on the section labeled “Conflict” and walk through its many shelves, you feel your gut fall into a dark void of hate, despair, and loss. Stumbling along, you find the “Love” section, and the dark void in your stomach is replaced by the warm glow of connection. You feel at peace.

In this allegory, the warehouse is your universe, and the flashlight your perspective from which to view it. The subject at hand is the way in which we view the world, and my purposes are to impress upon you its importance while also providing a method of crafting an optimal perspective.

Although it might seem long-winded to explain what may appear to be a simple word, I would like to first define the word “perspective” itself. It is critical to define its meaning for this essay, because our perspective is quite literally our reality: It is the seat from which we captain our ship. It is the sum total of the values, beliefs, and understanding a person holds in their mind at a given moment. It is also a closely linked to one’s own hierarchy of values, and thus any change to our values will shift our perspective (and vice versa).

While it happens that value hierarchies and the perspectives they generate are commonly found as part of classically identified ideologies (pre-packaged value/belief systems), they can also be encountered everywhere else from internet memes to literature. Unfortunately for us, because our perspectives are the product of a vast number of conscious and subconscious processes, it is very easy to let something influence us. To illustrate, let’s say we are having a bad day and we come across a faux-Folgers advertisement that says “The best part of waking up… Is when you don’t wake up”. Oof. Yeah, we chuckle, and we think we move on to the next thing — but by our implicit agreement with that sentiment, we allow a bit of that fatalistic negativity to subconsciously influence our perspective, tinging it just one shade darker. The reason so many of us struggle with unhealthy perspectives in the digital age may be the same reason many of us still eat fast food on occasion — when we’re in a rush and feel we need something now, our subconscious finds adopting a pre-packaged perspective irresistibly simple.

Some common pre-packaged perspectives today might include cynicism (disbelief in the altruism of others), pessimism (an imbalanced focus on negatives over positives), nihilism (rejection of higher meaning and shared values), or any one of dozens of black and white sociopolitical dichotomies. Don’t get me wrong; it’s entirely understandable that many people are cynical, pessimistic, or nihilistic these days, and there are undeniable benefits to these perspectives: a cynic is rarely disappointed in others. A pessimist is rarely surprised by bad news. A nihilist is freed from the burdens of moral consequence and responsibility. So what is the problem with adopting one of these broad, negative perspectives?

A perspective that’s simple and easy to understand has downsides. Just as a sizzling burger and piping-hot fries might satisfy at the time but leave us deeply regretful later, the long-term effects of a “fast-food” perspective, one that makes overly broad generalizations or logically inconsistent judgements about groups or entities, is far from optimal. For a nihilist, the benefit is also the drawback: if nothing matters, then everything is meaningless — so why continue living? For a pessimist, the continued focus on the negative side of everything is strongly linked to increased stress, anxiety, and negative health outcomes. For someone who uses a black/white dichotomy such as victim/oppressor, what may seem initially like a quick and easy way to know who and what is “good” and “bad” will quickly devolve into logical incoherence and schism once a complex issue is examined in detail.

Thus, the criteria for constructing a perspective shouldn’t just be whether or not it is accurate, but also whether it is beneficial. That is to say, a logically coherent perspective is objectively more useful than one that is logically incoherent because it will provide more accurate predictions, but a coherent perspective that also provides more benefits than another is clearly the optimal choice. It only makes sense that we should curate the perspective that will result in the best outcome for us — but what is “best”, anyway?

The concepts of “good”, “better”, or “best” imply comparison between two or more entities, where one thing is subordinate in desirability to another (see: value hierarchy). These judgements are based on the current situation one is experiencing. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates, when one is suffocating, air is better than water; when one is dying of thirst, water is better than food. So, what is best is determined by what we attribute the most value to in our circumstances — and that means this is something we must decide for ourselves based on our objectives and values.

We must try different perspectives to construct an optimal one. We must ask ourselves what we value and what our objectives are in our current state. Part of being human is trying out different things and seeing if we like it. In our early childhoods, we may value the love and validation of our parents, then the acceptance of our peers. As we get older, we may change to value the acceptance of a romantic interest, saving a targeted amount of money, or achieving certain professional goals. As we get older still, we may value more and more concepts such as love, understanding, or connection (perhaps these are all one and the same?). 

Ask yourself: What do I value most highly in life? What are my objectives? The perspective you choose should be the one that bears the most fruit. So now, allow me to return you to the darkened warehouse of my opening allegory, flashlight in hand.

Where do you choose to look?

Douglas Black is a Writer, Business Analyst, Lecturer, DJ/Producer, and amateur psychologist. He can be reached on his LinkedIn.

On Resolving Conflicts with Ideologues

From the personal to the geopolitical, harmful ideologies continue to be a primary factor driving destruction and conflict in the world. Ideology could be best defined as the adherence to pre-supposed beliefs (also known as doctrines, or dogma) even in the presence of evidence that those beliefs are erroneous or fallacious. This is due to our evolved preference for certainty and aversion to the unknown.

In the mind of someone who is able to freely think and engage in critical thought, the following will occur when an overarching belief is challenged:

[Overarching belief of X] -> [encounter with evidence that contradicts belief] -> [closer scrutiny of X is triggered] -> [additional evidence confirms contradiction of belief] -> [individual reassesses/rejects/reforms belief X to incorporate new data] -> [new beliefs established]

In the mind of an ideologue, variations of the following will occur when a doctrine is challenged:

[Overarching belief of X] -> [encounter with evidence that contradicts belief] -> [evidence is denied or discounted] -> [additional evidence is not desired] -> [belief X is reinforced rather than weakened] -> [pathological idea remains intact]

But while propaganda and brainwashing are effective in keeping ideologues from absorbing new information, they are far more effective when the flow of potentially problematic information is reduced to a slow trickle. This is precisely why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other totalitarian ideologies place extremely high value on controlling the flow of information. The “Great Firewall” of China prevents the flow of information to the Chinese people, but the culture of siloing and censoring data that contradicts Party ideology is equally important to maintaining the grip of ideology over the thoughts and minds of the subjects of the CCP.

From an overarching perspective, however, the CCP itself is equally as great of a victim of ideology as its subjects. Not the least of which is the self-styled new Chairman himself, Xi Jinping. Unable to absorb new data and accurately assess the situation on the ground, Xi and the Party he leads are doomed to fallacious, pathological thinking and erroneous conclusions. Beijing’s mishandling of Hong Kong is a perfect example of the Party’s inability to incorporate new information and adapt to the changing reality: with the local liaison office misrepresenting the reality of the situation and public sentiment on the ground in Hong Kong, Beijing’s response could not have been appropriate to address the root causes of discontent. It’s a problem shared by many other insular groups that have cut themselves off from dissenting information, whether it be Russia’s Putin disposing of military officers who warned of issues with the Ukrainian invasion, or Americans seeking to disconnect from and muzzle those who challenge their political ideologies. In short, the the hallmark of an ideologue is that they are all too successful at insulating from from ideas and information that are vital to their course-correction, learning, and adaptation.

With this in mind, the solution is find a way to open their minds to the possibility of new data points and information: personal engagement. To be absolutely clear, this is not the same as political engagement, a term I associate with the failed foreign policy of the US since as long as Kissinger has been an influence. On the contrary, the financially-motivated neoliberal approach through which the West has engaged China until recently is tantamount to appeasement, ultimately enabling their harmful conduct in other countries, the ocean, and even space. What is needed to get through the barriers carefully erected by an ideologue is genuine engagement on a personal level by a skillful communicator who is able to make the interlocutor feel understood. Only once this relationship has been established will the ideologue allow him or herself to be tacitly exposed to new data. This failure of personal communication skills in conjunction with a fundamental lack of understanding of China and the CCP is where the US and the West have been falling tremendously short, resulting in an increasingly belligerent China.

I would be remiss not to point out that there is no guarantee that any ideologue will be eventually reached in this manner, but it is, ultimately, the only option to affect meaningful change. With minimal opportunity cost and as a process running in conjunction with economic and social pressure, it is a valuable, effective, and underutilized option to resolve conflict in today’s world. It only requires the communication skills to connect — and the will to do so.

It’s Not Left vs. Right, it’s Control vs. Free Will

“The two-party system really sucked, but this one-party system is completely f**cked.”

This post is spurred by the feeling that a lot of people who mostly know me through my social media think that I’m “drifting right”. I would say that my life experiences over the past decade (particularly the last 3 years going from the takeover of Hong Kong to the preposterous shenanigans of living with COVID in the USA) have very much pushed me to highly value individual liberties.

Obviously, pure libertarianism isn’t a great idea because we need some degree of civil servantry to help those who are unable to help themselves and provide a degree of medical care and welfare, but seeing the reality of what happens to people once they have been completely disempowered by their government, the very people who are supposed to serve them, has made me extremely wary of any structures of power that create a power imbalance.

The problem with a power structure that has no oversight is that even if it starts off functioning well because its filled with good people, eventually those good people will move out and bad, power-seeking people will move in. See: American politics, Hong Kong, and just about everywhere greedy, corrupt, power-seeking ghouls seek control over others that infringes human rights. When that happens, there are a few recourses:

1) People can vote (this was denied to Hongkongers);

2) People can protest (this was denied to Hongkongers);

3) People can speak out against oppression (this was denied to Hongkongers);

4) People can physically fight back against oppression (this was denied to Hongkongers. You couldn’t even buy a laser pointer there).

Watching that happen to my adopted home was and is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to endure. I feel dirty even writing that, because that’s absolutely nothing compared to those who were born there and had families and had nowhere else to go, or the so many who were raped, tortured, or murdered there because they protested for freedoms Americans and many others take for granted.

I realized that at the end of the day, we must not outsource our responsibilities to anyone else ⁠— be they government, personal, or otherwise. “The government will take care of it” is just a euphemism for “somebody else will take care of it”. No ⁠— we are responsible for ourselves, and if we outsource that responsibility, we simply move the burden to others.

As I grew up in an extremely progressive anti-gun home (in an extremely privileged and safe area during an equally privileged time, I should add), I somehow knew nothing else about them other than they enabled murders and would just “go off”, killing family members accidentally on a regular basis. Watching the complete disempowerment of people in China and Hong Kong first hand made me realize that having a population with the ability to defend itself is absolutely crucial to the preservation of a free society and to keep people safe from government overreach.

This isn’t meant to be a 2A post, however: I want to draw people’s attention to the major trends that have been occurring worldwide over the past 25 years of internet and technological development. I’m not talking about Mr. Potatohead, Starbucks logos changing, or confusing pronouns:

1) Massive expansion of unconstitutional, unethical, and dangerous surveillance power. A lot of this was granted via the Patriot Act, which was perhaps the biggest American blunder of the 21st century even considering Iraq and Afghanistan.

2) Increasing corruption in politics, leading to a resurgence of power-hungry, dishonest, career politicians who do not have your best interests at heart. How many millionaires are currently serving in congress?

3) Increasing domestic instability as a result of international factors (social media manipulation by China/Russia, COVID-19) as well as domestic ones, such as social media, disconnection, lockdown, divisive domestic politics, corporate overreach, lack of purpose/values, family cohesion, etc.)

4) Increasing international instability, including an expanding totalitarian China fighting to create a new global order, financing of cartels in Mexico, and using those cartels to destabilize Mexico and the US. At the same time, people and the mainstream media take a blind eye to our southern neighbour and our border. You do not want the cartels operating in America, but they already are.

5) A major increase in authoritarianism within the US. While Facebook, Twitter, and Google, et al. have long embraced censorship whenever it aligned with their own political/financial interests, 2021 has been marked by increased censorship pushed by the administration via threatening of tech giants with anti-trust action. The results of the administration’s pressure have already manifested in Google’s changes to their ad policies (the financial backbone of much of the internet), the White House directly flagging posts for Facebook to remove, and Apple adding a backdoor to its encryption. And they are far from done.

6) The global trend is a massive push from the ruling class and those who serve them to control the citizenry using technology, automation, and propaganda (media that favors advocacy over truth). Much of this has been pioneered by China, and autocrats and technocrats everywhere, including the USA, have been eyeing China’s iron-clad control over its subjects with envy.

The above is far from an exhaustive list; I didn’t even bring up climate change and the destruction of our environment, but my point is that people don’t trust authority for good reason: it’s shown itself time and time again to be untrustworthy. When people don’t trust authority, they are rightfully less willing to give up their responsibilities to authority. We know that the police don’t have the manpower, willpower, or funding to be there right when you need them. Nobody is coming to save you. You need to be your own rescuer.

What gives me hope is that it seems that more and more people are waking up to the overt manipulation by legacy media, which seems to serve mostly as a mouthpiece for the ruling class (political and business elite). Even Americans who still subscribe to the partisan narrative that the real enemy is the other half of America rather than the corrupt and power-hungry elite are starting to realize that authoritarianism is a double-edged sword, and when they seek to cancel others, those same powers are quickly turned back on them.

To paraphrase an anonymous and sagely YouTube comment, “the two party system really sucked, but this one party system is completely fucked.” I hope people are starting to realize that they have ⁠— and have always had ⁠— the tools within them to learn and make their own choices that are best for them. We can’t keep outsourcing these decisions and rights to those who have done nothing but drive the world into the ground and hope that maybe this time, this time, things are somehow going to be different and our problems will be solved.

The reality is that most problems are almost entirely only capable of being solved by ourselves as individuals and communities. And most of those problems aren’t even external; they are our own insecurities, weaknesses, and biases. We should all start by endeavoring to solve our own problems, and once we do that, we can start to take responsibility for things beyond our own body and work to improve our local communities and beyond.

Critical Race Theory is Bullshit, But So Are Laws Banning Discussion of it

Author’s note: I originally wrote and published a fairly garbage hot-take on this topic where I reached the wrong conclusion because I missed a single word in the proposed law. This updated version of the article corrects my initial reasoning.

A friend sent me an article the other morning, the headline of which I could hardly believe:

A $5 Million Fine for Classroom Discussions on Race? In Tennessee, This Is the New Reality”

I immediately assumed this headline was misleading as a result of biased journalism and letting feeling override logical thought. I figured it would be an article meant to reinforce the coastal elite stereotype of the South as a place where such racist, restrictive laws come from. And as I’ve learned in the past five years, just because it’s written doesn’t mean it’s true. To find out whether it really is what it is alleged to be, we have to carefully analyze the actual text of the proposed law.

Before we go through the law, though, this kind of fear over what people’s children may be exposed to is far from new in American discourse: we’ve argued over violence in media, sex education versus abstinence, and even de-segregation. It wasn’t too long ago that the Intelligent Design theory camp was pushing for science classes to “teach the controversy“, either. What is it that people are so concerned about? Rational and moral people should all agree that schools should enable healthy discussion and understanding of race, discrimination, and prejudice in social studies and history. But people seem not just worried, but frightened that their children are going to be subject to intellectual brainwashing that may do untold harm to their development as human beings (now, I am not saying that this is the absolute reality; I am saying that this is what many people are afraid of). Whether or not these kinds of incidents are widespread seems to be up for debate, but we should acknowledge that such examples are worrying for the prospect of a free-thinking society that seeks truth.

What people are concerned about being taught and are taking extreme steps in an attempt to mitigate generally are Critical Race Theory (CRT) and aspects of the 1619 Project curriculum. Of course, there’s a bit of debate about what CRT is and what gets to be called that, but I’m going to avoid the nonsense detour for what it is and go for the most authoritative definition I can find: reference books. All the encyclopedic definitions have the same gist, but I submit that her Majesty’s Britannica says it best: “race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour”. So, if this is what CRT is, then it’s clearly a non-starter and is in the same hallowed company as classic double-bind, “white fragility“.

The concern about CRT-related content being taught in schools is often referenced as an extension of the 1619 Project. The 1619 Project was/is a journalism-project-turned-curriculum of civil-right journalist and author Nikole Hannah-Jones meant to refocus on (1) the consequences of slavery and (2) the contributions of black Americans. As something students might study in a secondary school language arts class and contextualized by a capable teacher, the essays and poems written for it have at least some role in an educational exploration of the roots of America and its culture.  The 1619 Project’s inaugural essay by Hannah-Jones, America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One is well-written and exemplary in its commitment to self-expression, and as long as it is presented as someone’s subjective opinion rather than an ideal worldview, I can’t see what’s wrong with high schoolers reading through it. Other essays as part of the 1619 Project, such as “Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?” and “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam“, I will leave to a later time to explore.

So, overall, yes, CRT is bullshit, and the 1619 Project’s material is of varying quality. But neither of these are actually mentioned in the proposed legislation. When I wrote my first draft of this article, I skimmed the preamble and went straight to the section which enumerated what the law seeks to avoid. My initial understanding of the law was that it sought to ban the promotion of the following concepts. My comments are encapsulated in parentheses and italicized:

1) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex (Seems rational to me. I wouldn’t want my son or daughter being taught they are better or worse because of their race or sex, nor do I want anyone else to be taught a sexist/racist paradigm of understanding the world or themselves.);

2) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously (This also seems fairly straightforward. Individuals should be judged by the content of their character and their actions.);

3) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex (seems pretty clear that we shouldn’t do this based on section VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964);

4) An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex (I would hope this elicits no controversy);

5) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex (it becomes clear after thinking about the implications just 1-2 steps ahead that we cannot and must not hold individuals accountable for actions committed in the past by people only associated by race or sex);

6) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex (Given the current focus on inclusivity and LGBTQ rights, I think that this should not be controversial, though it should be a given for race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or any other immutable characteristic);

7) A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex (Meritocracy is a concept for the advancement of individuals based on their achievements. The only claim of oppression one could make is that it oppresses those who cannot achieve. Those who are less able to achieve still need a place in society as well as purpose. However, for society, including governments and businesses to run effectively, the best person for that job should indeed be the person hired for that job. We have plenty of experience with politicians who have sidestepped meritocracy via nepotism to suggest that a meritocracy is the best option);

8) This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist (The USA certainly has a history of racism and sexism amongst its population. So does every other place in history. I do not excuse any of it, but it must be highlighted that societies can change and grow as they learn. The key word here is irredeemable. If one believes something is irredeemable, it means they do not believe that people have the ability to change or learn, to not be what they once were. If one believes that, why even bother?);

9) Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government (Don’t see a problem with this as it’s quite standard, e.g., to immigrate to the US lawfully one must attest to this.);

10) Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people (this seems like basic non-discrimination/sensitivity training to me); or

11) Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privilege, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex. (I think we’ve already gone over ascribing character traits to races or sexes who do not actually naturally possess them.

The amendment goes on to to clarify that the above in section a) does not prohibit an LEA or public charter school from including:

“1) The history of an ethnic group, as described in textbooks and instructional materials adopted in accordance with part 22 of this chapter;

2) The impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history;

3) The impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region; or

4) Historical documents relevant to b) 1-3 that are permitted under legal sections 49-6-1011”

“What’s the problem,” I thought. I published my take on the EdWeek and sent it to a few friends. I originally concluded that the legislation seemed to just attempt to avoid affecting children negatively by promoting racist and sexist concepts. Reception was mixed. My more conservative friends agreed and thought it was a good article, but my more liberal friends took issue with it. To paraphrase, I believe the feedback I got was that my article “sucks” and I “totally missed the point” of the law. How would this be, though? I spent hours analysing the language and writing up my thoughts! Well, because, like a dumbass, I missed a very important word in the preamble:

“a) An LEA or Public charter school shall not include or promote the following concepts as part of a course of instruction or in a curriculum or instructional program, or allow teachers or other employees of the LEA or public charter school to use supplemental instructional materials that include or promote the following concepts:”

Not just promote. Include. This means that the law would effectively ban discussion of any of those concepts.

There’s no way around the fact that this law is censorship. I am no friend of censorship, and I believe we should be able to discuss anything we like however we like in public and private, including internet commons, and let the truth be found that way. When we ban discussion of ideas, we do so at our own peril because it means that people will reach their own understanding of those ideas that misrepresents the concept. Read the Manifesto of the Communist Party, read Mein Kampf, read Anders Breivik or whatever you want, just make sure it’s properly contextualized so it’s not being read as fact. Bad ideas need to be discussed and criticized. CRT should be discussed and criticized, as should any idea that students are interested in learning more about.

As a teacher, I am not comfortable with the idea that any teacher be worried about accidentally breaching into an area of discussion that is somehow “illegal” in an academic context. It’s incumbent on the teacher to approach any topic carefully, with full understanding of the subject and their audience. No good teacher should ever willfully make any of their students feel guilty, superior or inferior for any immutable characteristic they possess. Thus, if concerned parents want to improve the quality of instruction in schools, then then need to allow specifically for the critical discussion of any ideology.

I understand that those who support this law have valid concerns about the quality of teaching and classroom context for CRT, the 1619 Project, White Fragility, or any other ideologies that are byproducts of the well-meaning Zeitgeist. As someone who taught for over a decade, I grant that what is taught in classrooms has little chance of being parsed critically even in universities, and almost no chance of being critically examined by high-schoolers (I only started being able to think critically and synthesize my own knowledge to an effective degree around the age of 32!). Point being, adolescents and even adults are generally taught to “learn” (memorize) what they are being told. Is it morally or socially responsible to torpedo students’ understanding of themselves or the country they call home? We are already living through the consequences of an unsure and insecure generation not sure of what their values are except money, and the outcome isn’t good. But censorship is rarely the lesser of two evils, and it is always a sword that cuts both ways.

So, as a teacher, news editor, and someone who has lived under some degree of censorship and oppression, I find that I have to object to the proposed amendment. No, I do not think adolescents should be taught racist or sexist concepts that make them feel of unequal worth, which the first section of the bill seems to attempt to prevent. Because it would make even discussion (not just promotion) of ideas illegal is a dangerous move, it takes the already censorship-crazy culture of America into an even more dangerous position.

Happy Independence Day!

Happy 4th of July/Independence Day!

Independence Day serves as a reminder of how good big escapist Hollywood movies used to be.

It’s also a reminder of what the principles of America were meant to be, and that we should hold these ideals in high regard and attempt to live up to them, just like we looked up to Will Smith when he punched that alien in its stupid face.

These are what I think one needs to believe to be “American”:
1) All people have equal inherent worth as human beings, and no person is worth any more or less than any other, regardless of income, race, or any other surface-level characteristic.

2) Freedom is an inherent fundamental human right.

3) If you want something, work hard at it and don’t give up

4) Do what is morally right, even at great personal sacrifice

Is this always the reality of America? Of course not, especially now. There are hundreds of millions of people living in America. But we create reality through the sum of our collective beliefs and actions, and as Michael Jackson once probably said, “if you believe something, you’ll make it real! Sha-mon!”.

Believing in what America sometimes is and could be is what makes someone American in my book. You don’t need to be born in the US or even an American citizen to be “American”. In fact, the most American people I know come from places like the Congo, Mali, Afghanistan, Iran, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and others. Conversely, some of the most un-American people I know were born in America.

So, to all “Americans” out there, have a happy independence day, and never give up on your ideals.
…Now lets go grab the most powerful explosives we can legally obtain and go blow some shit up. 😎

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I was recently attempting to explain to a reddit-addicted friend why she should be more judicious with her content consumption. I reasoned that we are all literally and figuratively what we consume: our physical body can only be made of what we feed it, and psychologically and intellectually, we are the media we consume. Thus, I told her, there is no way around the unfortunate fact that, well… “garbage in, garbage out”.

Most of us are aware that when we eat a 500g bag of corn snacks fried in partially-hydrogenated palm oil, it’s bad for us. It’s notable because we physically feel bad, and we can connect the behaviour of eating that item with the subsequent effects of lethargy, indigestion, and poor physical performance. Long term, we know that it will raise our chances of pathology and disease. There’s even a kind of shame and self-deprecation associated with eating such unhealthy foods.

Yet, there’s very little comparable awareness of the consumption of intellectual garbage. Most of the internet content mills that are most financially successful have become so by serving up heaping portions of nonsense as a result of the new “anything-for-clicks” business paradigm, and so, for many of us, we’ve become accustomed to a mental diet of rubbish. Whether its a certain sub-reddit post, HuffingtonPost editorial, or Breitbart article, many of us have been consuming content just for the memes (90-day fiancé, anyone?) or to pass time and stave off boredom. But it’s not harmless.

There is a real danger that consuming media mindlessly, uncritically, and without context is causing. The causal chain of events partially responsible for our world becoming an intellectual desert goes something like this:

1. We read something that appears to be true, but is actually not 100% factually correct. It may be an editorial masquerading as expository journalism, or perhaps of subjective emotional interpretations as objective fact. It is likely from a source we have decided to trust information from (a logical fallacy, the argument from authority).

2. When it fits our biases, we share it.

3. Other people see it, and they believe it is true because they have seen that it came from an “authority”.

4. What would have once been identified and rejected as a non-truth becomes our reality, simply because we believe it to be true.

5. We manifest this garbage into reality through our assumptions, expressed in our thoughts and actions.

So, that’s the ‘how’, but it doesn’t excuse the why: I don’t have time to read every article in the world nor eat everything on the menu, but if I’m going to eat something, I’m at least going take the time to look at it and smell it to make sure it’s not a treat from my rabbits — and then properly taste and chew it should it pass the test. The bottom line is that if you’re on social media sharing things, then you do have time to actually read what you’re sharing and critically examine it to make sure it’s not just a bunch of shit. If you’re reading reddit to try and figure out how to improve your love life, you need to contextualize that information and parse it yourself before you mentally flag everything you read as a “fact”. Start by familiarizing yourself with established logical fallacies. Think about what the author has to benefit. If you have time to be on social media, you have time to use your brain and critically examine information.

Don’t believe anything because you trust the person who said it. Don’t believe anything I just wrote in this post is true because I wrote it. I’m nobody, and even if I wasn’t, who I am has no bearing on my arguments, anyway. Arguments must stand on their own merits and withstand questioning. All people make mistakes and miscalculations.

When you read something and it because you carefully thought about the arguments and evidence laid out, and then if your brain “clicks” and it makes sense, then believe it. The greatest and most dangerous logical fallacy of all is to believe anything without checking it yourself.

We are, literally and figuratively, what we consume. Our bodies are comprised of the elements and nutrients we intake. Psychologically and intellectually, we are the experiences we have, the media we consume. And the world itself is comprised of all of our realities.

What kind of world are we reinforcing with our intakes? Is it the one you want to live in, or is it the one that outrages you? Memes in, memes out. Hate in, hate out. Ideology in, ideology out.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Deus Ex Hong Kong

April 28, 2021

I have a lot of dreams about Hong Kong. Mostly nightmares. Variations on a theme.

The other night, I dreamed that I found myself back in my adopted home of Hong Kong again, walking on the familiar streets of central Hong Kong Island with friends.

I was immediately anxious. It wasn’t the nostalgic Hong Kong of my happiest memories I was in. It was still 2021, and Beijing’s National Security Law had already been implemented. Hong Kong was firmly a de-facto police state swarming with plainclothes and Mandarin-speaking riot police. I didn’t know how long I had been there, but I knew I needed to leave as soon as possible.

Before I could react, the next thing I knew we had been stopped by three jittery-eyed young policemen kitted-out in full riot gear and carrying submachineguns, their aura burning with blind intensity. They corralled us into an alley and demanded to see our Hong Kong IDs. My blood ran cold; I knew I would be arrested, and I had two or three guesses of what would happen after that. I had violated the new National Security Law by criticizing the Chinese state dozens of times after it was passed, meaning they would at least have an ostensibly legal justification to disappear me and do as they wished. Law or no law, I had been under some level of surveillance in the real world at least as early as June of 2019 after writing some articles about Huawei. I waited, defeated, under the hazy neon lights of the street signs above me as the young officer scrutinized his tablet. I was sure that my name and face would come up in their system, and that would be it.

They had any number of justifications under the newly established Chinese legal framework, and that’s all they’d need to arrest and disappear me into the grey jails within Hong Kong such as Pik Uk, where Amnesty International found conclusive evidence of torture — or worse, the opaque gulags of the Mainland under the guise of “following the course of justice in China“. I might have once been afforded special treatment as a foreigner in Hong Kong in 2018, but as I had been advised, those days were over. Would I mysteriously fall off a building like HKUST student Alex Chow Tsz Lok? Probably not. Held in a small windowless room in Beijing as a bartering piece? As the magic eight-ball would say, ‘all signs point to yes’. The officer with the tablet looked up and whispered something to his colleague.

The officer handed our IDs back, which I grabbed with a flood of relief. He told us to avoid meeting in groups and to stay home. I next found myself at the airport boarding a flight out of HK.

My own personal nightmare, at least, ended.

A flash pro-democracy protest in my local mall in Tai Po, a frequent occurrence in mid-late 2019. (Video credit: own)

But I recently had another dream about Hong Kong. In it, I was surrounded by friends and students, old and new. The mood was festive and lighthearted as we talked and joked in Cantonese, ate noodles and other food in a market late into the night. We were in Hong Kong — but it was not the Hong Kong where I spent much of my adult life since 2011. I knew somehow it was another Hong Kong. It wasn’t just the buildings with neon signs, but the atmosphere: all the bustling streets and vivaciousness of Hong Kong, but without the oppression, “suicides”, and fear. A Hong Kong where Hongkongers could keep their culture alive and be optimistic for the future.

An early, optimistic student protest at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) where I worked. A few months later, HKUST student Alex Chow Tsz-lok, would mysteriously fall from the fifth story of the parking garage of his home residence in the presence of riot police. According to witnesses at the scene, the police beat and blocked paramedics who attempted to treat Chow. He died in a hospital days later. (Video credit: own)

While Hong Kong’s neon lights and incredibly varied topography — city, mountains, towns, villages, forest, and ocean packed into just over 1100 square kilometers — are indeed some of the features that made Hong Kong so special, the dream made me realize that Hong Kong is much more than its physicality.

Hong Kong is hot and fresh wonton soup made from scratch, served by a smiling auntie who remembers your usual order. It’s hot milk tea and macaroni ham soup for breakfast. It’s cold beer and fresh seafood on the street with friends on a hot August night. It’s Cantonese slang and inside jokes; the way diu said just the right way says everything that needs to be said. It’s accidentally dropping a few hundred dollars (or even your whole wallet) in the middle of the most hectic rush hour and having multiple people chase after you to give it back. It’s long, quiet walks home at 4am after dancing the night away without a thought about safety.

Hong Kong is having the exhausted person next to you on the bus “go fishing” and fall asleep onto your shoulder, and you try not to wake them, because you understand their struggle. It’s how the tiny bar you frequent is a home away from home, and the owner looks after you like your own mother. It’s the way nearly two million people can protest with seemingly superhuman politeness. It’s the character of a people who have experienced so much change and hardship, who work 60 or more hours a week to make ends meet in one of the most competitive environments on Earth, yet still find the time to be warm and welcoming to you. To put one foot in front of the other and be decent, no matter what.

Freshly made wonton noodle soup from my local cha-caan teng, or “tea restaurant”. (Photo credit: own)

Hong Kong may be breathing its last breaths under the Chinese Communist Party, but the ethos of what it means to be a Hongkonger can’t be killed by physical oppression or by making ideas illegal. Police and military can occupy its streets, turn its school curriculum to propaganda, but Hongkongers are more hardy than that.

Protest graffiti under a bridge in Tai Po, 2019. (Photo credit: own)

With new immigration pathways to Canada, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, more and more Hongkongers are leaving what was once their home and creating a new one. With any luck, the diaspora may reestablish vibrant communities, continue practicing their language and culture, and keep the character of Hongkongers alive.

Hong Kong isn’t a place; it’s a people.
Hong Kong is dead; long live Hong Kong.

Douglas Black is Writer for Pole Star Defense, Senior Editor, Lecturer, DJ, and music producer. He lived in China, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia-Pacific from 2007-2019.

A Modest Proposal to Fix America

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes outside my gated high-rise condominium to see that something’s gone slightly awry with the United States of America. It’s particularly noticeable to me after spending the last 12-13 years overseas — but don’t worry, I’ve got some solutions. They’re quite modest, really, and I think you’ll like them.

First, let’s identify the problem: The symptom is that there is far too much stupid shit being written on the internet by people who have no appreciation for the things they have. It might appear to the casual observer to be a problem with free speech, but what I’m willing to bet all of California on is that it’s really a bunch of folk who have never experienced anything but comfort and convenience. Tl;dr: America is just too darn great. Not for everyone, of course. We do have one or two people living under the poverty line. And, I mean sure, we have some *ahem* minor issues here, there, and in the closet and under the rug… but, really, if it weren’t the case that it’s just too easy to survive in America, then what’s with the 36 million Americans active daily on Twitter? How can this random page I found that supports my point say that Americans spend two hours a day watching YouTube, and Americans aged 16-29 spend three hours a day on social media on average? And what is that time on social media doing to these disgusting, craven, and sinful individuals? Making them hateful towards each other. So now that I’ve identified that the problem is a lack of perspective to appreciate our privileges, let’s get into the solutions.

I used to think that we could solve American’s problems with perspective by forcing everyone to leave the country for two years, but then I realized that they’d probably just go to Canada or Amsterdam and become even lazier socialists than they already are: What we need are targeted solutions to specific problems.

Naturally of course, Americans will first need to be implanted with a modest iPhone-sized data-collection system that lets the government record precisely how much time is spend engaging with each media platform. You might be thinking that it would be difficult to get people to have a deck-of-card-sized chip implanted in them for this purpose, but I actually already have a foolproof way to quickly get majority coverage of the American populace.

Give Elon Musk another huge low-interest loan in exchange for him tweeting about how cool the chip is, then go on the Joe Rogan experience to talk it up. Amazon would sell them for dirt cheap, Lew could do a live-implanting on Unbox Therapy. I estimate we can get a quick 50% of the US right there.

Naturally, we can’t expect everyone to jump on board so haphazardly, so we’re also going to need to associate this horribly invasive tumescent chip with social causes it has nothing to do with: An LGBTQ+ rainbow-flag version, a BLM edition, an Amazon-exclusive “stop violence against Asian-Americans” one, a “science is real” one for the Academic hold-outs, and, of course, “Freedom Chip” editions in red, white, and blue. Again, pay no mind to the fact that this chip has nothing to do with (or is even anathema to) the causes we affiliate each edition with — nothing could be less important!

Hell, I already want five of these babies in me! Let’s make a special offer where anyone with all the editions of the chip installed gets free Amazon Prime for life… when they get back, of course.

“Wait, where will they going?” I hear you ask. Modern problems require modern solutions, and we’ll have to split things up according to whichever social media the subject engages most with.

Twitter users seem to enjoy conflict, and so will get sent to Yemen, where they will be tasked with one of two different objectives: Regular Twitter users will be tasked with providing humanitarian aid to the besieged and beleaguered country. “Blue check” users will be tasked with front-line combat and airstrike-targeting for our allies.

Facebook users mostly seem to want to see and experience the same things over and over again in service to a horrible corporate entity ruining the world, and so they can perform their overseas service by working in rare earth mines.

TikTok users like stupid dances and attention, and so they will be sent to parent country of their favourite application, the People’s Republic of China, where they will spend two years traveling as a touring troupe of foreign entertainers to be paraded around the country for the satisfaction of the Party elite.

LinkedIn users are primarily interested in ladder-climbing, making vacuous statements like “Nice post, Greg!” or “Congrats on the promotion, Sally!”, and sharing meaningless corporate platitudes. Actually, on second thought, let’s just shoot these people into space. If they make it back, then they’re probably ingenious enough to actually contribute something beyond a co-working start-up.

With a standard overseas tour length of two years, I have a feeling that whoever makes it back is going to find that running out of almond milk will no longer redline their cortisol. Perhaps someone cutting them off in traffic won’t literally actually totally ruin their whole day. Maybe they won’t think it’s so enjoyable to only be able to do as you’re told. Maybe they’ll get a bit less upset by Mr. Potatohead, someone using words that hurt their feelings, be a little more judicious about calling random people racist/sexist/fascist/Nazis, and find new value for the human rights they didn’t have for just a short little while. It would go a long way towards helping us find a healthier perspective.

Oh, and I almost forgot about the worst offenders: Hypocrites writing inflammatory clickbait nonsense. These people are just *the worst*, and, like LinkedIn users, are probably irredeemable. We’ll have to take more ruthless measures against them in order to stop their propagation of nonsen—

—hold on, there’s someone banging on my door. At this hour? Midnight?! Hold on, let me get that. I’ll be right back to finish this piece of quality writing.

On Having Vision

Photo by Douglas Black

Author’s note: This essay was written in early 2019, when I was still living in my adopted home of Hong Kong.

“Wisdom is acting on knowledge.” God Help me, that’s a quote from Russel Brand, I think.

We live in an age of unprecedented access to information, and we’re only just beginning to understand the potential for it. Despite a few (hopefully soon to fade) black marks of internet censorship, we are all more informed than ever before on a global scale. We know about the current inferno consuming the Amazon rainforest, poverty (not financial, but lack of resources), climate change, tribalism, human-rights violations, etc. — but what can we actually do about it?

A lot, I propose.

What we’ve lacked historically is a lack of a vision for where we are going. Elected leaders are more focused on managing domestic issues, and few (if any, other than perhaps Barack Obama) were elected based on a positive global vision. But it looks like we need one now more than ever.

That’s what it looks like for me here in Hong Kong, but I’m sure that’s what it looks like for many elsewhere, as well. So again: what can we realistically do? Strive to make a difference with your personal conduct. I’m not going to quote Ghandi because I’m too affected to be trite, but it’s time we collectively look within, find our values, and adhere to them.

I’m not telling anyone to stop eating meat or to throw out your smartphone. I’m just saying that everything we do has an impact and we are all somehow connected by only a few degrees. I’ve been trying to stop eating fish and other seafood after I started seeing less and less fish in the ocean on my SCUBA dives; I’m now trying to not eat the meat of any animal I would not kill myself; I’m trying to help people be informed, find themselves, and connect with my writing and music. Maybe it helps (I think it does), or maybe it doesn’t. But it feels good to just try.

Nobody’s perfect, and I don’t advocate trying to be. But we need to stop trying to disconnect ourselves from our actions and instead try doing the opposite.

Find your ethics; listen to them; and then figure out what direction you want to head in. Hopefully, we’ll all meet somewhere in the middle.

Why Hypocrites Are Dangerous

“Red Guards” performing their morning ritual reading of Mao’s “Little Red Book”. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I have always disliked about double-standards (despite still having a few of my own). It’s related to something I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to figure out: the common denominator between all people who have done historically horrible things the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian genocide, the Uyghur genocide, and so on. It’s got little to do with left/right politics, but instead it’s what has often been called “the zeitgeist”, or “the spirit of the age”. In other words, when people do what other people are doing because it’s what everyone else is doing. When they aren’t thinking, but conforming.

What really bothers me about hypocrisy is that it’s irrefutable proof that people don’t actually believe in the things they purport to. If you say you believe in freedom of speech, but you don’t believe people who say things that you don’t like should have freedom of speech, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech. You don’t value it — you value the appearance of saying you value it while acting the opposite. If you have beliefs you can’t comfortably defend, then you likely don’t actually believe in those things. You believe in them by chance, because you adopted those positions from those around you. As a frequently used example, if say that all life is sacred and are anti-abortion on those grounds while being adamantly hawkish about killing people accross the world before exhausting diplomatic options, then you don’t really believe life is sacred.

So what disturbs me about people who don’t believe in the things they claim to believe, who adopted their beliefs because they sounded good or because they were popular or “safe” to have, is that they have those “beliefs” completely by coincidence.

Psychologically, there is just one difference between someone who thinks all democrats hate America and want to see it destroyed and someone who thinks all republicans hate poor people and minorities is that they happened to be in an environment where those views are condoned. Many on the left and on the right are precisely the same kind of useful idiot. The same kind of useful idiot who turned in their Jewish neighbors to the SS, or reported their parents to the Red Guard for being anti-revolutionaries because its in the spirit of the times. A dangerous liability, because they can be easily manipulated into doing horrible things.

So that’s indeed quite depressing, but there is one upside. For as long as there have been useful idiots caught up in the zeitgeist, there have been people who had ideals and values that they wouldn’t compromise. People listened to their morals and refused to comply even when it could (and often did) cost them their mortal lives. As far as I can tell, for as long as there have been people who have done horrible things to others, there have been people who refused to, often at great sacrifice. That gives me hope.