Friday, May 24, 2002

I OFTEN WONDER: Why do so many seemingly-intelligent people play the lottery every day? Have they forgotten that they didn't win anything the day before, or the day before that? After they have failed to win 50 times out of 50, or 100 times out of 100 -- after they utterly fail to break even after 500 games, or 1000 -- how do they manage to convince themselves that the odds will be in their favor tomorrow?

Something monstrously, horribly inevitable is taking shape, just beyond the horizon. Humanity is beginning to look like a historical aberration, hard-wired to produce its own extinction.

Consider how so many people believe in a "junk science" like astrology. No intelligent person can make a credible case for the "science" behind the influence of stars and planets over one's personality or fate, when the gravitational force exerted on me by the pencil two feet away from me is vastly greater than the combined pull of every celestial body in the zodiac.

Yet people persist in believing in astrology, because -- absent critical thinking -- it's pleasantly reassuring to hold something larger than one's self responsible for the lack of control they have over their lives.

As an amusement, astrology is harmless enough. I begrudge no one the thrill of reading a horoscope that seems eerily prescient, while conveniently disregarding all the ones that fizzle.

But when a large percentage of a whole culture clings to debunked mysticisms for guidance and solace, it's a symptom of emotional immaturity, of intellectual rot,. It's an indication that we, as a nation, as a culture, have abdicated our joint responsibility to engage in skeptical inquiry and critical thinking. And that's a very scary portent of things to come.

When a whole culture is willing to buy into any idea that merely sounds credible without thinking it through to its logical conclusion -- well, for starters, that's how we end up electing presidents whose campaign promises are mathematically inconsistent with one another. It shows that we simply don't care about the meanings of words.-- as if words don't actually translate into agendas, policy decisions and laws.

From there, it's a short step down the slippery slope of forfeiting personal liberties without so much as questioning the motives of those who would ask us to do so. But we'll do it anyway, because even a false sense of security feels better than none at all.

Bad enough that such things happen in America despite all of our Constitutional safeguards. But in other countries, in other cultures, where there is no free press and no open debate and no intellectual inquiry -- where most people live in poverty and squalor, and have nothing to look forward to but more poverty and squalor -- it's no surprise that the intellectually lazy go looking for someone else to blame for their problems.

And that's when the lies of Holocaust deniers find an audience.

I do not play the Hitler card frivolously. Nor, obviously, do I mean to suggest moral equivalence of astrology and the Holocaust. But it is the same frivolous abdication of critical thinking that allows both "harmless" astrology believers and genuinely dangerous Holocaust deniers to flourish.

It is the failure of critical thinking that makes frauds like John ("I see dead people") Edward into minor media superstars. It is the failure of critical thinking that gives quarter to suicidal lunatics like Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite. It is the failure of critical thinking that foments popular movements like those which brought Pol Pot and Arafat and, yes, Hitler to power.

Institutionalized worldwide antisemitism. The growing threat of Islamofascism. Add to that, the simmering conflagration between India and Pakistan, which seem to be on the verge of going nuclear at any moment. Civilization is literally on the brink.

A commonly cited definition of insanity is repeating the same activity over and over, expecting to see a different outcome the next time. I look at the people waiting in line to buy their lottery tickets every day, and I can't help but think that we're either a species of idiots with very short memories, or else we're simply insane.

Either way, we don't seem to be capable of collectively learning anything.

Most Americans, I fear, have either failed to learn or already forgotten the true dimensions and consequences of the terrorist attacks. Here in New York City, it's probably a little different, because we have to confront that hole in the skyline every day. But to the extent that people outside of the New York area think about the World Trade Center at all anymore, I'd imagine that most just mutter to themselves, "What a shame ... All those innocent people ... Those amazing buildings .. All that economic chaos ... But darn it all, we've got to get back to normal now, or else the terrorists will have won!"

Well then, if that's going to be our mantra, human civilization may as well pack it in right now.

We "get back to normal" at our extreme peril. Because, historically, "normal" amounts to simply hoping for the best. Normal is buying another lottery ticket tomorrow, as if something different will happen next time. Normal is an undiminished belief in the power of junk science, superstition and prayer. Normal is burying our heads in the sand and trusting that some entity larger than ourselves will handle the hard work, so that we can just get back to living our normal little lives again.

Normal is insane.

Thursday, May 23, 2002

ILL-CHOSEN METAPHOR AWARD - FIRST PRIZE: PARIS (May 23, 2002 6:38 a.m. EDT) - An intense fire destroyed the stately Israeli embassy in Paris early Thursday. Officials doubted it was arson or related to a recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France. ... "It was like a pottery oven in there," Fire Capt. Laurent Vibert said afterward.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

MORAL EQUIVALENCY WATCH: From the same MSNBC news alert:
May 22 — A bomb exploded Wednesday evening in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion, police said. Israel TV reported two people were killed, apparently including the bomber, and other media reports spoke of dozens of casualties. A spokesman for the Israeli Magen David Adom ambulance service said many were injured.

Later in that same article:
Two dozen Palestinian taxis waited Wednesday morning at the main army checkpoint along the north-south road, which was blocked. One passenger, Fatma Abu Maghaseb, 55, said she was trying to visit her daughter, who had given birth the day before. “Can anyone in the world imagine that my daughter and I live in the same town, and only one kilometer separates us, and I cannot get there?” said Abu Maghaseb, dressed in a traditional black robe.

Of course, our hearts and prayers go out to the thousands of inconvenienced Palestinians.

CATS AND CATS, LIVING TOGETHER: That's it. We're officially back to normal. It's all shark attacks and Chandra Levy again. Fabulous.

Monday, May 20, 2002

JIM TREACHER writes: "Since you were nice enough to link to me...Here's a brief note on why my blog is gone."

I've repeatedly tried to post Jim's temporary URL as an embedded link, but at this hour Blogger can't seem to post the link properly either, so I'm reduced to spelling it out. Copy-and paste to your address line:

The gist of it -- which Jim reported in more detail on another site, and I'm afraid I've forgotten where -- is that he'd recently paid good money for an upgrade to Blogger Pro, and instead his Blogger address became inactive. The entirety of his archives may have disappeared along with his account. And, after several days, he's received no help whatsoever from "Ev," the beleagured proprietor of the whole enterprise.

*sigh* While I haven't experienced any catastrophic service failures on that scale, my own activities on this page have been too often stymied by sluggish, unreliable connections to the Blogspot server. Lately, I've ended up deleting a number of pending posts when they'd simply become too dated to upload after a day or two had passed.

Blogger was a great idea in its early days, but it's grown to the point of collapse, underfinanced and understaffed for too long. I continue to cling to Blogger solely for its ease of use -- but If Ev doesn't get his act straightened out soon, Mind Over What Matters will be looking for a new non-Blogspot solution pretty soon, too.

UPDATE: After several days, Jim's Blogspot site seems to be back in business. But for how long ... HOW LONG...???