As a professor of Critical Thinking at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, CA, my entire academic life I have been constantly receiving similar feedback on my observations and opinions, something along the line of, “I have not really thought of it that way before.” Jimmy’s intention is to develop critical thinking skills, look at things a different way and to question everything. I speak and write of all aspects of life, from Buddhism to twerking, from the spiritual to the profane, from meditation to pornography. It all makes for great conversation and analysis.

So sit back, read and/or listen, and question me as we learn in the tensions of life.

Facts And Other Fallacies

A former student of mine, who does read this blog and offers wonderful feedback at times, recently declared in my class that he is basically always right -as he bases all his ideas on the facts.

Ugh.

In my lifetime I have had countless arguments (a term I use with endearment and not with hostility, btw) with countless people when myself or the other will pull out the “fact” card, as in, “that’s a fact, man, look it up,” as if King Fact has just entered the room and has pronounced all further argumentative proceedings to be halted at once: The facts have arrived. I, admittedly, have been guilty of worshiping at the throne of King Fact…no more.facts-not-fiction

Truth be told, as I age, I most definitely am not a fact man. I believe the word is both misleading and dangerous while tending to derail arguments as if the final proclamation has been declared -deeming all further inquiry and conversation unnecessary.

Today I write about the idea of facts. What are they? Are they really true? And, perhaps most importantly, why are they potentially dangerous when used without nuance and discretion?

Regardless of how one may define a fact, it is nearly always inextricably tied with the notion of “true,” and therein rests the fundamental problematic root of the fact façade. The dictionary has over 25 different definitions for the word true that I will not bore you with…suffice it to say that nearly all these definitions are generally interwoven with the notion of “certainty” and, yet again, another fundamental problem with the idea of a “fact.”

If indeed facts existed as we commonly use the term, as in the truthfulness of a statement, why would, or better yet, how could, we ever have any disagreement or conflict in society? If life were as simple as adhering to a series of facts that no one could dispute, why do we have a divided nation? Factions? Ingroups and outgroups? Do we have two sets of people in society: Dumb people, or those who disagree with our facts and, smart people, those who agree with our facts?

Such thinking is not only intellectually dishonest, it is childish; if only the world were that easy.

I am fully cognizant that philosophers have grappled with the idea of facts and its accompanying sister subjects of truth and certainty for centuries while exhaustive works have been written on the subject, so today I discuss the idea of facts in terms of its use in contemporary communication practices, sans the deeper philosophical implications (Occam’s razor, ontological concerns, etc…), and how the term is used in erroneous ways that defeat effective communication practices.

What are the two biggest problems when we use the “Fact” card to discuss issues?

Facts change and can often not be trusted. When the idea of a fact is translated as true and certain, we have problems. How much in life is absolutely true and certain? Most definitely nothing in the social sciences yet what about the hard sciences? Is it certain the sun will rise tomorrow? Just because it always has does not mean with absolute certainty it will tomorrow. That E=MC2? A quick internet search will reveal many science geeks (of which I am not one) believe this to be false, or at least not altogether true. If something were absolutely true, would not there be universal acceptance of its truthfulness? Or is it just those dumb people again?

Consider how many “facts” are no longer true.  Was the existence of the planet Pluto once a fact? Yes, though no longer. Hell, it was a fact the world was once flat or that sun revolved around the earth.

“That’s not fair Jimmy, we now have progressed through scientific discoveries and those are basically beliefs from the Bronze age through the Middle ages.”

Agreed. And imagine in another century or so what science will be laughing at when discussing the ignorance of science in the year 2016? My hunch is we will have a whole new set of facts and we may very well be referred to as the Amusement Age, an era in which beliefs were guided first and foremost by influences that best met the prurient needs of the masses. But I digress…

I even learned this morning that the NCAA is taking away all the wins from the Notre Dame football team in the years 2012-13 due to an academic scandal.  Goodness, just yesterday it was a fact that this football team had recorded many victories in those seasons.

Facts change, therefore I would not hang too much of my intellectual hat on them. “Facts” may offer us probablity though most definitely not certainty.

Facts are often used to make a larger point that, in reality, it does not accurately substantiate. In other words, we use many “facts” to make a claim, or even an opinion, that something is true. For example, I can make the truth claim that people in the United States are becoming less violent and more law abiding. To back this up I may point to the “fact” that violent crime rates have been continually decreasing since the year 1990.  According to FBI statistics this could be verified and factually accurate. However, this does not address concerns such as, perhaps, a change in the definition by the FBI of what constitutes a violent crime, the accuracy of reporting violent crimes, a growing ineffective judicial system failing to convict violent criminals, and so on. The “fact” may or may not be influenced by some or all of these things, yet, due to their possibility, the “fact” must be used with great discretion and caution. Therefore your “fact” to support a truth claim may very well not be at all true, insofar as it goes in proving your opinion.

It is also a fact that drunk driving arrests among women have increased since around MADD’s (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) inception in 1980, from about 9% then to about 25% today. I guess then we could imply that more women are are drinking and driving today than in 1980 -not necessarily. The government, with such influences of groups such as MADD, have successfully redefined what “drunk” actually means…for many years it was undefined, then .15 blood alcohol content, lowered to .10 and now .08, and soon, perhaps to be .04 or lower. Yes, there may be more drunk driving arrests today yet the reason is we are constantly changing the definition of what it means to be drunk. This “fact” does not mean women have necessarily changed their drinking and driving habits, it means was have changed the definition, making the “fact” essentially meaning something entirely different, and in the sense it is comparing apples to oranges. Still want more “drunk” drivers? Move the legal BAC to .00 and voila! Drunk we shall be after the communion wine.

The idea of using the notion of “probability” is far more conducive to healthy dialogue over “fact.” The act of using facts in argument is an efficient heuristic that does not really deal with details of any given issue. Often times our facts are informed by a fundamental value system that directly filters our understanding of data.

When you think about it, this multitude of differing perceptions, understandings, and interpretations of facts, data and information in general, is what makes the world a much more interesting place. When one believes they are right because the “facts” are on their side, this is a red flag warning of dogmatic and closed-minded thinking that critical thinkers should not practice.

Whether it be political, social, or personal, most are driven by an internal need to massage their deeper emotional and intellectual needs then to arrive at an objective conclusion.

Perhaps taking an example from the micro in life may help put this “fact kerfuffle” into perspective. If we were to live our lives by the facts, none of us would be overweight, smoke, drink, or engage in any behaviors that may potentially act as a detriment to our health. The “probability” of such behaviors resulting in negative consequences is certainly substantial, yet most of us would confess to engaging in such behaviors at various times in our lives.

If we cannot allow these “facts” to inform and direct our personal lives, how could they possibly inform our public and social life? Would not the same pattern follow?

If I were to argue the fact that eating a jelly donut may be physically bad for you, you should never eat jelly donuts, right? The problem with this “fact” is that it does not take into account the complexity of the human psyche or context. Perhaps eating that donut will quell emotional angst (read: comfort food) and MAY play an overall health benefit for you in general, provided you do not eat the entire dozen…which is typically my problem. Or what about the person who is in starvation mode and their only choice of nutrition would be a jelly donut…or die.  A jelly donut would be the recommended dietary choice in such a situation.

Facts can get really fuzzy really fast.

If only life were as easy as adhering to a set of factual propositions that we can all uniformly adhere to and live happily ever after. We then could kneel at the throne of King Fact and bask in our delusions.

How boring.

 

Why This Privileged White Male Refuses To Write About The Election

While enjoying a wonderful birthday lunch for Rene’s brother Nick at a swank eatery in Silverlake, (Cliff’s Edge, check it out) it was agreed upon at the outset of our meal that there would be no discussion of the presidential election.  The thickness of the tension was, and is, still in the air and the mood was to be festive…and nothing like raining on the festive parade when addressing issues that deeply divide us.

Of course we then proceeded to have a discussion about NOT discussing the election…kind of a meta-discussion about the lack of discussion.2016-election-logo

I suppose you can throw this article in that same “meta” basket, as this is an article about not writing an article concerning my thoughts on the election.  I actually have several reasons why I do not believe now is good time to throw my political two cents into the social media world, among other places.

To begin this meta-article, in Communication Studies courses the first thing we teach our students is that the most important aspect of the communication process is knowing your audience. It is impossible to tailor a message knowing little to nothing of whom you are attempting to communicate.

Keeping this in mind, judging by the tenor of social media, personal discussions and general observations of life in general at this moment, my audience analysis tells me this: Shut up. Leave it alone. Don’t go there.

Probably the worst thing you could possibly tell an upset, venting woman would be something along the lines of, “Well, you are just on your period,” or, “I guess Aunt Flo is going to be visiting soon.” I believe the reason these statements are not a good idea is obvious…and right now many of us are most definitely on our post election, president-elect periods.

Many people are upset. Even for those pleased with the election result, they are upset about the upset reaction (protests) of the election.  As I write, many local Los Angeles high school students are marching the streets in protest because they are upset, scared, fearful, etc.

When people are upset they are overly emotional. When people are overly emotional, they tend to listen with their hearts and not their heads. When you think with your heart and not your head you cannot objectively and rationally listen. If you cannot objectively and rationally listen, I have no interest in attempting to send you a message.

Please understand this…I could offer my opinion and you could fiercely disagree with it and that would be fine. Wonderful. No problem.  I would love to engage in that thoughtful and rational dialogue. However if that opposition is fueled with a highly emotional rage, I have found that this is not time for a discussion rather it is time for an entirely different, and completely valid, type of communication: Pure expression.

Now is not the time to reason, it is a time to express.

Pure expression is a very good thing…a great thing in fact. Without means by which to blow off steam, vent our feelings and/or verbalize our frustrations, we would all be dangerous psychotic messes.  Although this is my first presidential election that I find myself steeped in social media, I cannot recall the need to vent ever this strong in my lifetime…and I’m 53 1/2.

Please do not interpret my unwillingness to engage in political dialogue as somehow dismissive nor disrespectful. Sometimes the need to vent “Trumps” (did I really just write that?) the need to sit and reason. There are many, many times in my life that I am simply not ready to address an important issue as my personal emotional context is not quite ready for that discussion, whatever the reason driving my emotional  condition may be.

I suppose the final reason I find it counterproductive to discuss the election at this time is something that has been thrown in my face quite a few times this past week and, apparently, I have committed the greatest evil I could possibly have committed: I was born a straight, white male. They tell me this somehow disqualifies me from uttering any word that remotely implies, “Please do not panic.”

“Easy for you to say,” they tell me. “You are a non-Islamic white male.”

If racism is defined as allowing or not allowing a person a basic human right, in this case, freedom of speech, based purely on racial characteristics, well then, this would be racism.

But I get it, periods can be funny that way.

Hey, I can be pretty self-centered at times though I am definitely not that selfish of an ass that I cannot empathize and feel for those unlike me.

I recently told a very scared and fearful former undocumented student of mine, who was brought to this country as a small child and considers this her only country, that I would engage in the most severe form of civil disobedience in the event immigrants are torn from their homes and deported to a country they know nothing about. Yes, this straight, white, privileged male would stand up for an innocent brown person being threatened with deportation against their will.

Regardless of one’s position on immigration, I would hope most citizens of any color, religion, ethnicity or class, would act as decent human beings and stand up against any perceived social injustice as well, even if that injustice is perpetrated against one of a different race.  And I believe the great majority would.

I have never, and will never, pretend to know what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes. I will never know what it is like to be a woman and experience objectification or admiration, or a black person in a white neighborhood, or, hell, even a Hispanic in the grocery store. I have no idea of the verbal or nonverbal treatment I would receive. The glares and stares or lack thereof. I have no clue what it is like to be you. And, guess what? That is correct, you have absolutely no idea what it is like to be me.

But, alas, who is really thinking with their head right about now anyway?  I am quite certain that even in this very vanilla blog, someone will take exception with something. Which is why this privileged person will just shut the hell up…for now. And when thine ears are ready to be taught, a teacher will appear, post period of course.

 

A Different Perspective On Life’s Baggage

First off, right off the bat let me say I am no psychologist…not even close and do not pretend to be one. What I am is a communication person, one who devotes his life to the study and application of communication principles. It is within the context of this undertaking that knowing the basics of human psychology is imperative.

So, after showing my Small Group Communication class the 1957 classic film, “12 Angry Men” (a movie you kinda have to show that class) I asked the class to examine each character and identify the “baggage” each brings to the decision-making process that may act as a hindrance to consensus.

This got me thinking…I think, therefore I blog.

Baggage. We all have it. It is unfortunate that we often understand the concept of baggage as something of a negative.  If we were take the term literally, I believe most of us would concede that we have some bags that are quite nice and filled with items of great value, as well as possessing crappy bags, filled with crappy stuff. Yet each are bags nonetheless.

Today I would like to shed some light on the notion of baggage, why we have it and need it, types of baggage and how we can use it to our advantage, particularly in the communication process.

One of the definitions of the term baggage—things that encumber one’s freedom, progress, development, or adaptability, ie impediments—is the one we are most generally familiar with when understanding the concept in terms of one’s personal psychology. Yet, how can one NOT have baggage? Even if one were born into an extremely functional environment, living a healthy life without anything extraordinarily wonderful nor horribly traumatic taking place, this would still constitute a form of baggage all on its own accord.

In other words, baggage is unavoidable and must always be discussed in terms of the matter of degree, not whether or not one possesses it.

It is imperative that we understand exactly what baggage we bring to the conveyor belt of life as to better understand our own personal prejudices, bias, and perceptions.

To begin, it is important to understand what baggage is not.  Baggage is not the sum total of our total life experience as a human being. Rather, baggage would be those events that have played a significant role in the shaping of our psyche. For example, what restaurants you may have frequented as a child would not constitute as baggage (unless, of course, some life-altering events occurred during a visit), yet a parental divorce, frequently being bullied as a child, or abuse of some sort, certainly could be.

One may have successfully overcome a particular tragic event, still, as they say, you cannot unring that bell. One may certainly be an abuse “survivor” for example, yet will always have that experience in their psyche.

So, with this backdrop, today day I bring to you the three basic types of baggage all human beings share.

Basic Baggage. This is the basic fundamental baggage in all of us who have not lived a perfect life (read: no one) that we share in common: The garden variety baggage, if you will. It refers to those experiences that we actually remember and that played a role in shaping who we are today. This baggage forms the behaviors and beliefs in our lives that we would consider “normal.” Basic Baggage is typically evidenced and better understood when one first becomes a parent and romanticizes the history of one’s own life to best figure out how to raise a child. Issues such as spanking, yelling, disciplining, religious or non-religious training are examples of issues that we generally extract from our personal “Basic Baggage stew” and somehow allow this baggage to identify what we consider “common sense” and “normal.”

Please make no mistake…it is still all Basic Baggage.

One of my pet peeves is when one opines that a certain action or inaction was practiced and it is justified because, “that is the way I was raised and I turned out just fine.” Or justified because “it is what we have always done.”

Really? Maybe if you were raised differently you could have been the next Einstein, Mozart or Elon Musk; and, well, maybe you and life practices were just done plain wrong.

Basic Baggage can be some of the most harmful as it is disguised as what constitutes normal behavior…and there is no such thing. Which takes us to…

Beastly Baggage. This is the shit baggage and the baggage we typically think of when hearing or using the term. Perhaps one of the worst aspects of Beastly Baggage is that a great deal of it cannot be remembered into adulthood—therefore making it very difficult to identify it and attempt to remedy it as an adult. Either through denial or a means in which to psychologically survive a traumatic ordeal, this baggage cuts deep into our beings. We should consider ourselves fortunate if we recall such traumatic events as then we can best understand the significant role it played in the formation of our persona, and take measures to best understand and deal with it.

I have no idea just how deep my personal Beastly Baggage penetrates my soul, yet I know it must be pretty deep as I have my fair share of shit in this strange mind of mine. One way to gauge this baggage is to attempt to objectively examine our personal emotional reactions to certain experiences. If we have a particularly strong reaction towards a behavior that evokes a powerful emotional response and we are not sure why, my bet is there exists some Beastly Baggage and that best be uncovered. Free the beast….and then head directly to a therapist’s office

Benevolent Baggage. I identify this third category as Benevolent as on its surface it is kind and loving baggage that contributes to our personal psychological health and functionality into adulthood. For example, I could point to the fact that my parents have been together for going on 60 years as Benevolent Baggage…to come from an intact family was and is beneficial to my experiences as an adult—it taught me the value of commitment…then why would I refer to such a thing as Baggage? Perhaps this experience will be the baggage I bring to a conversation with a friend who is considering divorce. My Benevolent Baggage has very little understanding or tolerance for those who opt to not stay committed to each other.  I must identify this Benevolent Baggage and realize that separation and divorce may very well be the best option for a couple…yet my baggage makes this very difficult to understand.

Once we recognize the baggage we possess in our own lives, be it basic, beastly or benevolent, it helps us to better understand our particular prejudices and assists in identifying what we can uniquely bring to the cultural conversation.

There you have it.  What a world it would be if we all could identify our various baggage and understand the prejudicial dynamic each one of us brings to our daily encounters. If so, perhaps “12 Angry Men” would be re-titled to, “12 Understanding and Compassionate Men.” But who would then watch that movie? Unchecked baggage does indeed make life interesting.

But what do I know? I’m no psychologist…I just try to play a communicative one in the classroom.

 

To Protect And To Serve…Themselves

What does the guy robbing my car and Colin Kaepernick have to do with each other? Read on…as one who was the victim of a robbery a few weeks back, I am forced to engage with law enforcement out of necessity- but more on that and Colin a bit later. First…

The Problems

One does not have to read too many of my blog entries to understand my general feeling toward contemporary law enforcement.  Suffice it to say, I am not a big fan of the popo in general. To summarize in a sentence, my belief is that contemporary law enforcement in the United States -in particular the uniformed officer on the street- is generally populated by undereducated, ignorant and aggressive human beings who otherwise would likely be unemployable in most other industries –outside of something construction related.lapd-door

But how do I really feel?

Hey I did not say all…believe it or not I have several law enforcement friends (Shane, you know who you are)…and they generally agree with me.

However, the problem runs much deeper than the character of the individuals with the guns. The entire system is inherently flawed as we hand over badges, guns and power to 21 year-old kids whose brains are still 4 years away from being fully developed. In other words, we begin a cynical and egotistical brainwashing process that will stick with them the rest of their careers.

Where I reside, they go a step further…they give said guns to kids and then mandate that they go work in a prison for the first several years of their tenure –only to hang out with hardened criminals for a time to ensure their already jaded and cynical view toward humankind is fundamentally wedged into their psyche.

Brilliant.

Had I not been afforded a college education and was subsequently given a gun at 21 with said power -and then hung out with the dregs of society for a few years- you can bet I would be the same unemployable negative human being.

The system sucks.

The second major problem with contemporary law enforcement rests in the idea of incentives. It is fairly well proven that human beings respond to incentives. I would argue everything we do in life is the result of an incentive. No reward? No reason.

I would also argue that the incentive for police brutality is the means by which these (usually) men can work out their personal, emotional anger issues against helpless victims. When I asked a white neighbor of mine many, many years ago why he was quitting his job and joining the LAPD, his response was, “So I can kill some niggers.”

Absolutely true story.

Ok. Incentive understood, racist asshole. But more on incentives in a moment…

A Possible Solution

I have a very simple solution that might solve some of the issues we face today yet gets “poo pooed” by the “popo” as being somehow unrealistic: Simply require that anyone serving in law enforcement must have a 4 year college degree. So simple.

Why do we require a college education for those who educate our children, yet for those with the power to kill our children, we do not?

Oh, and it is not just me who believe this…a recent study out of Michigan State University found compelling evidence that those officers with a college degree are far less likely to use violence in the course of their duties. You can check out this MSNBC report as well.

I am not suggesting this as a 100% certain cure-all for the excessive violence and issues we face today; I am saying the evidence suggests we would likely see a significant decrease. Why?

A college degree says far more about the character of the person and who they are over what they may know. I would argue that achieving a college degree fosters the following:

  • It demonstrates one must possess patience and tenacity.
  • It demonstrates drive and determination.
  • It demonstrates the ability to follow instruction.
  • It demonstrates the ability to cooperate with others.
  • It demonstrates the ability to submit to leadership you may not particularly like or agree with.
  • It demonstrates the ability to finish what you start.
  • It demonstrates the ability to submit to someone else.

And, at least theoretically, acquiring a degree should teach an individual critical thinking skills, reasoning and problem solving all the while opening up minds to a far wider scope of humanity in general -exposing one to differing ideologies, beliefs, and cultures. And unlike one of the most common current forms of preparation, military service, it helps to build mental health, not work towards declining it.

A college education would also make the rookie officers a few years older, which would be beneficial as well.

My Recent Experience

Now, back to the asshole who broke into my car and stole nearly $2000 worth of goods (which includes having to re-key all my cars and house). What is the incentive for law enforcement finding this guy? What is in it for them? If the answer is, well, nothing tangible…finding a two-bit thug will not result in any trophies, raises, bonuses or career advancements. The result?

Nothing. A finger has not been lifted.

I had to plead with law enforcement just to file a report, after 3 trips to the Sheriff’s station. I have called the officer who eventually filed the report several times…nothing returned. After a week of NOTHING I saw some Sheriff deputies eating lunch and approached them with what happened…even had pictures in hand of the guy in the process of robbing my car. Did you get that last part? Pictures of the crime in progress, you read it right. (Read: Protect and serve me….please!)

“Go to the station,” they told me without missing a bite of their pastrami.

I went to the station.

“Go home and call this number,” they told me. I did. I got an answering machine. No call back.

Shocking.

A few days later, I finally got an obligatory call back when they told me there was nothing they could do.

“I have pictures and video of the crime in progress and the precise timeline of where he went to use all my cards. This is a drive down the street for you. We can have this guy this afternoon,” I said.

He told me to bring everything I had into the station.

I did.

Weeks have passed.

Nothing. And I had already done all the detective work heavy lifting.

I wonder what he would do if this were his car or loved one’s car? I think the time and resources might magically become available.

Of course this fine officer of the law probably does not realize that by letting this guy go it may very well be his car next time -and that most big time criminals started out as two-bit thugs.

Did I mention I live in one of the safest cities in California? It is not as though these officers are too busy catching rapists and murderers. Please…

I did mention undereducated, ignorant and aggressive earlier to describe our people in blue….can I add “unmotivated to help the good guys” to that?

Suffice it to say, my latest experience only solidified my feelings toward law enforcement.

I will continue to pay my taxes (their salary) and obey the law. I can also guarantee that the next encounter I have with law enforcement will be about robbery…the extortion and robbery of the police enforcing silly and chickenshit traffic infractions in the name of public safety as they rob the taxpayers. Is it not interesting how remarkably efficient and motivated they can be when there is something in it for them? Just try parking in Pasadena for 46 minutes in a 45 minute only zone…you will experience how remarkably efficient law enforcement can be when it wants to be.

Move over, Colin Kaepernick, I am standing with you my brother. Yes, I realize you are standing up for a system you believe oppresses black people and people of color (and last time I checked “white” was a color)…good for you and agreed.

But this “privileged” white man, although not getting the shit kicked out of him by a rogue cop yet, though the day is young and they have not yet read this blog, agrees we have a corrupt and flawed system that needs serious change.  I seriously doubt sitting on the sideline will do much good, though maybe, just maybe, with such protests, blog writing and expressions of such sentiment through various channels, the winds of change will turn the tide of our flawed system as we change the cultural narrative.

I completely understand that law enforcement at any level is a very difficult job…though is this not all the reason we need to have our best and brightest doing it? Please, what am I missing here? If you are in law enforcement, can you please show me what I am missing? Where am I off base? I really want to know and understand….argue with me and/or enlighten me, PLEASE.

To borrow from the great Martin Luther King, I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and law enforcement will live out the true meaning of its creed: “To Protect and to Serve…The Public.”

 

 

 

 

Cultural Critics: Who Are They And Why Do We Need Them?

Those of you who know me realize I love to dissect issues and challenge existing norms. I suppose the motivation for such behavior rests in the fact I believe culture to be a socially constructed phenomena built on many faulty assumptions while richly embedded in various mythology.

As I think about it, this is somewhat the common thread throughout all my blogs at their core.

Therefore, be it politics, religion, education, materialism, capitalism, etc…we design symbols (think the American flag, star of David, cross, academic degrees, fashion labels, etc…) to inspire and lend meaning to an otherwise existential existence. We need cultural critics to come along and challenge these meanings, ask questions and be what Neal Postman refers to as, “culture watchers and worriers” -I love to surround myself with such folk.

It is for this reason that I love to read/listen from cultural critics whom I believe to be thoughtful and honest in their approach to examining underlying assumptions about life and culture. Today I offer you five cultural critics I believe to be intellectually honest, who question nearly everything and, again, who I believe, most importantly, to be genuine and without an agenda (insofar as human beings can be without an agenda)…meaning they will not necessarily tow a political line even if it means not conforming to the group who holds many of their own ethical/political beliefs. In other words, intellectual honesty drives their conclusions rather than political expedience.

Some on this list are liberal and some, two in particular, are quite conservative. Liberal or conservative does not concern me as I hold intellectual honesty up as the highest ethical standard to which a cultural critic must hold. I love to read and listen to those I fundamentally disagree with first and foremost. As the famous utilitarian John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his side of the argument, knows very little of that.” And besides, simply because one’s intellect drives them to one side or the other on any given issue, perhaps I can be persuaded toward that side as well.

So, as I present five culture critics that I appreciate, please know that though these five hold a huge diversity of beliefs and are all on both ends of the political spectrum, I still fully realize all these people are quite male, quite white and even quite around my age. If you are reading this blog and follow other culture critics that do not fall into this demographic, please share! I do follow others who do not fit this demo, namely Neal deGrasse Tyson and Glenn C. Loury, yet I find these men to be more science and economics, respectively.

Sam Harris. Love me some Sam Harris and his devout atheism. Yes, there are other atheists who I greatly admire, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, yet I believe Harris, a Phd in Brain Neuroscience, is more forthright in his approach -even if it means being very unpopular among many of his own ilk. Many years ago -when I did subscribe to a particular rigid form of faith- I read his book, “The End of Faith,” and I recall one of my fellow believers asking me why I would read such a book. tumblr_m8wxjvFNtq1rb8qy1o1_500I knew at that moment he did not get me nor my approach to life. Even as a person of faith I would much rather read a book from one who honestly challenges my belief system rather than a book cheerleading my existing belief structure from someone on the same team. Please note that to this day I am NOT an atheist yet concurrently still very much admire this guy’s brain and brilliant reasoning. Please check out his podcast, “Waking Up With Sam Harris.” Do not expect a lot of bells, whistles and sound effects. He is smart man with a mic who not only challenges prevailing norms, but your vocabulary as well.

Dennis Prager. Ok. Full disclosure. I do not want to include Dennis Prager, from an emotional perspective, as he rubs off on me as a very arrogant, pretentious and abrasive religious intellectual snob slash asshole. But, damn, this guy is extremely bright, very articulate and one of the best debaters I have ever heard…perhaps some people deserve to be arrogant? Do I agree with him on the majority of issues? No. Not even close. Yet, I need to give the man a lot of credit for well reasoned and brilliant arguments while taking callers who disagree with him as priority on his radio show. I may completely disagree with him on a conclusion -for example he is supporting Donald Trump (actually he would argue he is not supporting Donald Trump as much as not supporting Hillary Clinton) yet, he will offer a very reasoned and insightful argument as to why….which, again, I do not agree with  yet, when one gives thoughtful and reasonable explanation-in a democracy continuing to be plagued by unwarranted emotional idiocy over reason- I must say, well done. As brilliantly as Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have argued for atheism, Prager has argued equally as powerfully for the existence of God. You can get a feel for his views here.

Leonard Shlain. God rest his soul. Shlain, an amateur historical anthropologist and a world class brain surgeon, is, in my view, a one-of-a-kind cultural critic as he examines contemporary culture through the lens of history, the function of the human brain and technology. His book, “Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light,” creatively connects great advances in science as coinciding with great advances in art; relating the different regions of the brain working in a type of yin/yang harmony.  My favorite book of his, “The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image,” is a one-of-a-kind examination of the role human evolution plays with the role of emerging technologies and the resulting cultural unintended consequences. Sadly, Shlain is no longer with us, though I do look forward to reading his final book, “Leonardo’s Brain,” an examination of the brain of arguably one of the most intelligent human beings to ever live, Leonardo Da Vinci, soon. I also currently follow his daughter Tiffany, who I find to be a provocative feminist documentary filmmaker, among other talents.

Cal Thomas.One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s objective. Election and power are.” Thomas is an unabashed conservative who is not afraid to take some pretty serious potshots at his evangelical brethren. I was first drawn to Thomas with his 1999 book, “Blinded By Might: Why The Religious Right Can’t Save America,” where he criticizes the church for caring more about political power than personal pious living. I love the way comedian Jay Leno summarizes Thomas, “You know that old curmudgeonly uncle everyone ignores at holiday time and then someone asks him a question and you realize he knows what he’s talking about? That’s Cal Thomas.” It is difficult for me to endorse any cultural thinker who has Sean Hannity write his forward or be endorsed by Rush Limbaugh, yet I sense Thomas is very genuine and forthright in his ideas and is not afraid to go strongly against the flow of his own political affiliation at times. Anyone who can be critical of their own political ideology is a respectable cultural critic in my economy.

Eric Schlosser. Schlosser is certainly not as well decorated as any of the above cultural critics, yet this reasonable liberal voice has provided a couple of somewhat recent cultural cornerstone books with his well-known, “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side Of The American Meal,” and the book that really inspired me to put him on this list, “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, And Cheap Labor In The American Black Market.” In this work, Schlosser discusses three of the strongest black markets in the country that, if collapsed, would undermine the entire American economy: The sex industry, illegal immigration and cannabis. This 2003 book has had a tremendous effect on my feelings toward immigration as he literally goes out into the strawberry fields of central California (known to migrants as “la fruta del diablo) to see first hand the plight of the immigrant workers. Schlosser is not afraid to get his hands dirty and presents some compelling arguments concerning the dark side of America’s economics.

There are a few others that came close to this list of five. Those who know me well might wonder why Neal Postman is not on this list -this is due to my opinion that Postman, though legendary in his critique of mediums, namely television, is not always intellectually honest and does have an unabashed agenda in many of his works, most specifically, “The Disappearance of Childhood” and “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”  I really respect an “oldie but goodie” like Marshall Mcluhan and even more recent stuff from Malcom Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers), yet I find the former somewhat dated and the latter not a true critic of culture rather one who observes and opines on human psychology.

So everyone, let us never stop questioning cultural norms, conventions and assumptions -and this will never happen if we always surround ourselves with the like-minded. To my religious friends, go out and hang with an atheist for a while, and for my atheist friends, get your ass to a church, mosque or synagogue and see what it is all about. You might just be surprised…

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Immigration

I recently viewed the movie, “The Big Short” with Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale among many other major stars.  A line near the conclusion of the fantastic film struck me pretty hard.  After the worst housing economic collapse in US history, it was asked what people were going to do next. The Ryan Gosling character commented, I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poorthe-big-short-2015-mark-baum--i-have-a-feeling-in-a-314573-bg__0 people.”

Hey…easy targets are easy targets. Even innocent ones.

As our global village continues to shrink smaller and smaller, the issue of immigration has never played such a central role in our cultural and political landscape.  Elections will be won and lost through the pandering toward a specific group’s “immigrant” sensibilities and, some would say, fears.

This has never been more evident than in the recent British, “Brexit” vote in which the UK voted to leave the European Union…the primary concern? Immigration, of course.  I realize one’s feeling about immigration is closely tied to the perceived economical strain immigrants may place on a country’s economy (more on that fallacy in a bit), still, one’s attitude towards immigration is a direct reflection of how one might believe their country ought to best spend its resources. Hence, what at face value appears to be an economical issue is, at its core, an issue of immigration and our feelings towards “outsiders.”

As Simon Tilford put it, prior to the vote, “But if the UK leaves the EU, the reason will be of British politicians’ own making: popular hostility to immigration.” They did and it was.

As one might guess by reading through my blog posts, I possess a very liberal position on the subject of immigration. I do not see people as anything but people first and foremost.  Just because one might be born into a different language, culture and country, does not equate them to being any less deserving of everything that I enjoy as an US citizen. I could not help that I was born on American soil…I had no say in the matter. I believe a fellow human being that was born on impoverished soil, of which they had absolutely no control, should have every opportunity to the privileges and freedoms that I enjoy so dearly.

Why would I be so shallow and superficial as to base my opinions on what others should or should not have–based on a rather arbitrary, manufactured line in the sand…called borders?

Let me make this very clear: I am NOT proud to be an American. I am pleased to be one. I am, in many ways, fortunate to be one. Yet proud? No. I am proud for things I have ACHIEVED…like a couple post grad degrees and raising 4 awesome children. I am not proud than I was born white, Hungarian or with curly hair…but you can read more about real achievement here.

I completely understand why one would completely disagree with me. I have no desire to demean or demonize those who possess an “America First” understanding on immigration–you know, the “let’s build a wall” people  who call those who are undocumented “illegals” (I refuse to address anyone by their citizenship status as location does not define a person, btw). My own mother, who is one the kindest and most giving people I know, shares this point of view. Most “America First” people are neither intellectually inferior (though I am sure many might think I may be) nor necessarily products of xenophobia –the unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange- they simply share a different opinion and priority of resources than I do.

Of course it is a bit curious that we never discuss building a wall from our white neighbors to the north, only our brown neighbors to the south…hmmmm.

That said, overall I find these people to typically be conservative in their politics, far more patriotic ,  law-and-order types, and are commensurately skeptical of anything that is perceived to be coming from the left…usually practiced under the banner of fiscal responsibility.  Is it motivated by xenophobia as some might contend? Though some evidence suggests it may, only the individual alone could know that.

I want as open a border as possible, while still maintaining one for the purpose of organization. I want it to be very easy and inexpensive for hardworking achievers to migrate to America, or, at the very least, to vastly simplify the now expensive and complex process. Certainly, I am for a screening and vetting process in the age of terrorism –though recent terrorist attacks were performed by US citizens. The overwhelming majority of those who desire to migrate to the US are honest and hardworking people who only seek a better life -–and are willing to work their asses off to get it.

We NEED immigration. Our economy depends on immigration. We could not survive without immigration.

According to US News, undocumented “illegals” who supposedly drain our system, contribute nearly 12 billion dollars per year to the US economy, with California receiving nearly 3.2 billion of this pie. This does not include their labor contributions.

My grandmother, Elizabeth, migrated to the US from Hungary circa 1932.  I remember being a young child at her small apartment in Burbank when she came home from work in her nurse’s outfit. It was not until years later that I learned she was not a nurse at all…she was a janitor, who mopped, swept floors and cleaned toilets for Burbank Community Hospital; her son, my dad, worked for the studios for years as both a payroll employee and then a driver. His son (me) was the first to get a college education and now is a professor writing political blogs that very few actually read.

If this cycle of progress continues, hopefully one day my children will write blogs that people DO actually read.

This is a typical cycle. First generation immigrants do those more menial jobs very few want to do…it is a way, like my grandmother, to pay your dues. Yet, in time and with generational cultural acclimation, education and new skill sets, these migrants move from more physically demanding jobs to the more cerebral workforce. We absolutely need first generation immigrants to uphold the labor backbone of our economy.

The good news is that you do not have to stay there.

Currently, my own daughter is one of those unwanted immigrants in the UK as she is currently working towards dual citizenship.  The UK is extremely lucky to have Rosie, both in terms of what she brings to the country as a person and the economic benefit she provides as well. Since her move there some 7 years ago, that country has received tens of thousands of dollars –turned pounds–from this Yank and his family. I alone have likely kept Pret-A-Manger in business (look it up).  Simply put, most immigrants, and tourists such as myself, are very good for business.

Sure, I would love it if more people possessed my point of view on this matter–though I understand there will always be differences of opinion. At the very least we can learn to understand and respect where others are coming from and question whether our position is motivated out of patriotism run amok, fear, or, let’s hope, sound reasoned analysis.

Our country has problems. Immigrants are not one of them. In fact, they are a solution.

Yeah, But Still…Be Your Own Factual Boss.

I heard it said that statistics are just numbers waiting for an argument.

Then argue with me.

Despite a significant US population increase since 1991, the murder rate that year was 24,700 compared to 14,249 in 2014 with a decrease nearly every year in between. The odds of you getting murdered have been nearly cut in half the last 25 years.

Yeah…but still.

There were 687,730 robberies in 1991 compared to 325,802 in 2014.  The chances of you being robbed has been well over cut in half the last 25 years. In addition, aggravated assaults, thefts and burglary rates have all plummeted during this same period.

Yeah…but still.

In 1991, the population was 252,177,000 and there were 14,872,900 violent crimes committed. In 2014,  the population was 318,857,056 and 9,475,816 violent crimes were committed.318,318,857,056857,056

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Adjusting for population, violent crimes have been cut in half in the last 25 years. The United States has never been a safer place.

Yeah, but still.

Thus far in 2016, 57 Americans have been killed by terrorists, including the recent Dallas police officer murders. In a 30 year study, it is estimated that a minimum of 3,000 and as many as 49,000 Americans will die from the flu each year.

Yeah, but still.

According to the Washington Post, 1,502 people have been shot and killed by police since January 1, 2015.  732 were markedly white and 382 were markedly black -with the rest of unknown ethnicity.

Yeah…but still.

In my very first blog in 2012, I wrote, “The odds of a child getting shot and killed at school is 1 in 12.2 million, pending the year. A child is over 16 times more likely to get struck by lightning than to die in a school shooting. To provide another vantage point, the CDC reports that in 2008 alone, 1,700 children died from child abuse and neglect in the US.”

Yeah…but still.

By far the greatest danger to children’s lives, other than abuse and neglect, are not guns, shootings or terrorism, rather it is our country’s swimming pools -with nearly 400 deaths per year.

Yeah…but still.

Speaking of children, though we instill a healthy fear of “strangers” in our children, they are far more likely to be abused, kidnapped or killed by their parents than all the strangers on the street combined. Ernie Allen, the once head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said, “We have been trying to debunk the myth of stranger danger.”

Yeah…but still.

With 41,143 suicides in 2014 and only 16,105 homicides that same year, you are 2 ½ times more likely to kill yourself than to be killed at the hands of another.

Yeah…but still.

In regards to breast cancer, the chances are far greater that a US woman will die from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension or lung disease/cancer before breast cancer. In fact, breast cancer is the 6th leading cause of death for women up until this writing.

Yeah…but still.

According to US News, undocumented “illegals” who supposedly drain our system, contribute nearly 12 billion dollars per year to the US economy, with California receiving nearly 3.2 billion of this pie. This does not include their labor contributions.

Yeah…but still.

We fear the things we should not while not fearing those things we perhaps should. Thanks mass media. You are just awesome. We have been trained and conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to believe your bullshit.

Yeah…but still.

Argue with me.

Podcast With Son Stevie

My 21 year old son Stevie asked me to be a guest on his podcast…though after this short 17 minutes discussion he decided it was too personal. I then asked him if I could post it on my jimmysintension podcast and he agreed. So hear us discuss family, education, money. etc…

 

Empathy: Who, What, Why, When and Where?

I am strong believer that one possesses only a finite and limited amount of genuine empathy to practice in life. I have blogged about a similar idea previously- the notion of “Dunbar’s Number,” a theory that posits that people have a limited amount of human beings, namely family and close friends, for whom they can authentically feel and care.

I wholeheartedly believe this theory.  Therefore I jealously guard my empathic feelings and emotions for those whom I can have a direct and real impact on in their lives –my parents, my own family, and close friends.

Please do not get me wrong, if I were to see a stranger choking on a sandwich in public I would rush to practice the Heimlich maneuver as my empathy would be generated by close proximity and my ability to engage.bt-against-empathy

Yet the mass media, also known as the handful of corporations that control the news I receive and the impact/style in which I see it, wants to drain my empathy tank and create news narratives that tempt me to care.

Let’s think outside the mass media box for a few moments. Please bear with me…

What if I were to suggest that the shooting of a gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo means nothing to me, or, for that matter, an alligator killing a young child at Disney World does not effect me in the slightest? Oh, and what if I was to say that I would not lose any sleep over a horrific nightclub shooting with 50 lives lost?

I would be an asshole, right?

Maybe. Yet perhaps such an attitude is warranted at a certain level.

I certainly could be informed of important information regarding such reported occurrences…careful of gators, vigilance in public places, etc…though empathy?

Perhaps it is a wise decision to NOT allow news directors to guide our life narratives, concerns, and conscience. Perhaps it is not cruel hearted or sociopathic to be in control of our own personal story while refusing to allow someone else to dictate what we should find relevant and important.

“But wait Jimmy, these terrible things really happened. Is it not natural and humane to show concern for such events?”

Glad you asked.

So, if a lack of concern for these matters causes you to think negatively of such a person, myself in this case, I could counter that your complete lack of concern over the thousands in our country who have died since these media events through illness, traffic accidents, drownings, and less “sexy” means of death –most of which go unreported- might make you the callous asshole, a lemming callous asshole at that, because you are allowing greedy corporations to dry up your empathy tank.

My father is not doing very well these days. I absolutely care about that. I care deeply and feel for him. Yet the news media tries to suck my limited amount of available empathy for strangers 3000 miles from my home? I do not believe our brains are even wired to be able to practice genuine empathy in these cases. Although I cannot make a direct cause and effect argument, perhaps it is no coincidence that with the rise of reported global events comes the rise of anxiety and depression…perhaps big pharma, producers of Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc…have none other to thank than mass media.

If you do care and empathize with these reported events and show no concern for the un and under reported events, I would not believe you are a callous asshole, rather just a fellow human being who cannot possibly exercise true empathy for every tragedy the world offers up each and every day -we allow the news directors to do that work for us. Imagine having to be concerned for the 151,600 people who die EVERY DAY through all kinds of means? Kill me now.

I refuse to allow a news director tell me which of the 151,600 deaths I should care about and which ones I should not…by sensationalism in the former and through negation in the latter.

If the gorilla were my pet, the child my family or friend, or the nightclub patrons those within my social circle, I most definitely would care.

If I can go all neuroscience on your ass for a brief moment, according to Jason Mitchell, the head of Harvard’s Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, human begins are wired to want to know and empathize with what is going on in the minds of people around them. In fact, this “neuro” feature has been instrumental in our success as a species as we are able to accomplish group goals that individuals alone could not. Empathy and understanding are vital to our survival.

In the context of the above research it was determined that this human aspect of the brain will begin to make us practice empathy with technology and machines as well as human beings. Yet I do believe there is another application as well.

So what happens when our empathic feelings are directed toward events in which we have no stake, nor ability to act? I can only speculate at this point, though it would seem that our empathic infatuation with media inspired events would ultimately work to handicap our personal ability to practice empathy in the contexts that really matter.

A friend recently wrote me an email and here is an excerpt that may demonstrate my point:

What I haven’t posted about but only alluded to is how profoundly affected I have been by what happened in Orlando.  My strong sense of empathy has always drawn me toward watching unfolding news stories like mass shooting and reading the subsequent coverage.  I can recall sitting on the bed in the house in (his city) back in 1999 watching the Columbine massacre and subsequently being engrossed in the news coverage 9/11, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and the others.  Jim, I have not been able to watch television coverage or even read an article online without becoming so distraught, I have to turn it off.  I cannot say that some of that is because those killed were young gay men, but I felt as saddened by the deaths of the school children in Connecticut as I do to those in Orlando.  What I keep coming back to is that text that one of the victims sent right before he was killed that said, “Mommy, I am going to die.”  NO ONE should have to send a text like that and NO ONE should have to receive a text like that….NO ONE!  The point of all this (right now) is that I am a huge ball of emotions right now.

This is my point…we are not wired to empathize with the entire planet.

Of course I could be wrong, though I would just venture a guess that my good friend is probably not a lot of fun to be around at the moment and that his strongly empathic reaction to these events is hindering his ability to function effectively in his relationships that matter most to him -on an interpersonal level.

Our brains are now deluded with global sadness that will harm our ability to practice local, effective relationship management.

But, but, but,…..these things that happen are so awful!

Yep, they are. Yet no more awful than the injustices, tragedies, horrific unreported things that happen every day.

From this day forward I vow to be captain of my own empathy ship -a ship with a limited cargo of empathy.