Monthly Archives: May 2007

Appreciation For Art: A Lifelong Hobby

 While I was in Europe this past fall, I went to a number of famous art galleries. Being a little older this time around, I had a new appreciation for art. I used to think that people read too much into art. Now I see what they are talking about; because the artist begins with a blank canvas, whatever ends up being produced is therefore a product of careful decisions, and tremendous care. Thus, the pieces aren’t as random as they might seem; they are carefully deliberated messages. I can’t claim to know much about art. I think one can only truly have an affinity for classical art after a lifetime of reflection. Art is a lifelong hobby. Walking through galleries in London made me feel like I was just beginning that journey.

Above all, I developed a fascination with portraits. I find them to be the most interesting, because unlike still-lives and landscapes, they can communicate human sentiment directly through facial expression. The arrangement of facial features is often so subtle that we take for granted that it once was a blank canvas. Some portraits have the ability to transfix you; arrest you with a peculiar sensation of wonder. That is good art.

I just came across this video: a morph of the last 500 years of women in art. I wonder what the masters themselves would have thought of this video. Something tells me they would have loved it.

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Why I’m Atheist (But Hey, That’s Just Me)

A friend of mine posed the question the other day “Andrew, why aren’t you religious?” I found myself thinking long and hard, but it was not easy to come up with an answer on the spot. Instead, I decided to reflect for a while and compose my thoughts. This entry outlines my reasons for choosing not to belong to any of the organized faiths. For those of you who DO belong to a religion or a church, remember that I’m not writing this to aggravate you, nor to change your mind; this is only a summary of my own personal exploration of religion, and so you can expect it to be somewhat heated.

In the interest of clarity, I’ll organize my reasons for being atheist into a list. I openly welcome discussion on any topic that I touch on.

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1) The Necessity of Denying Science

Science is an interesting concept. When people think of science, they tend to think of laboratories and labcoats, test-tubes and tesla coils. I have come to learn that, while these things are iconic of modern science, science itself is actually as ancient as civilization itself.

At the very core, the “scientific method” is just a way of reasoning; a logical process. Consider a hypothetical scenario: a small ancient village gets all their water from two different wells. One day a bunch of people in that village get sick. Somebody in the village decides to ask all the townspeople which well they drank from that day. All the people who were sick drank from the same well, whereas the people who drank from the other well remained healthy. Given this information, the villagers determine that one of the wells causes illness.

That is science. It really is that simple.

So why is it that people sometimes don’t accept science? Well, the reason is also simple. After the villagers found out that one of the wells caused illness, they naturally wanted to explain why it caused illness. Since our hypothetical village is set thousands of years ago, they had not yet developed the technology to answer that question. Science helped them to get closer to the answer, but the answer still ultimately managed to elude them. So they came up with their own answer:

The well had been cursed by another power – a force that controlled all of nature – a force that they called God.

Do you see how my example is relevant? Religion and science have always had to coexist. Faith has always been there to give answers to the questions that science cannot answer. Sure, people had the common sense to figure out which well it was… but why? This question goes ever unanswered, and no matter how far reaching our science becomes, it always will be unanswered.

The wonderful thing about science is that it never claims to explain why. It claims only to explain how. Centuries passed, and our villagers developed new and better tools. For example, using the same very same scientific method of trial and error, somebody eventually discovered that certain kinds of metal and sands, when subjected to the proper heat, could be made into glass. Later on, somebody used the same method to figure out that curved glass could help us see things that are really small, and they called it a microscope. From there, it was only a matter of time before someone saw little tiny bugs, and figured out that they were actually in the well, and making people sick. They called it biology. Science is really not that complicated.

But even after being told about the tiny bugs, and even after seeing the bugs through a microscope, some people in the village still choose to believe that the well was cursed by God. This is because science has yet to show why the bugs were there, and because people get very attached to their beliefs.

There will always be a stalemate between religion and science. I accept that, and I actually think it’s a good thing. In fact, I don’t think science and spirituality were ever meant to conflict. Why should they? Clearly, science does not provide humanity with all the answers, nor does it try. In fact, I’ve often felt that it tends to produce more questions than answers. For example, we may be able to see tiny bugs in the well, but where did they come from? How do they work? Science has today only begun to explore those questions, and there are certainly lots more to come.

I realize how hard it must be for strictly religious people to accept certain areas of science (most notably evolutionary biology, paleontology and astrophysics) because they make the scripture’s version of the creation look false. I wish people wouldn’t think of it that way. Instead, I think the ancient scripture was people’s best understanding of creation for the time it was written.

Everybody, even devoutly religious people, have been forced to accept that much of the scripture is, in a strictly scientific way, just plain wrong. For example, I don’t know a single Christian who actually still believes that the Earth is the center of the Solar System. Thus, religion has a capacity to adapt, and rethink even it’s oldest and most fundamental beliefs regarding life and the Earth. This process is apparently slow, considering that there are still some people in the church who choose to deny evolution, or the age of the Earth, even despite the Pope’s own admission that it is fact.

And so it comes to this, my first reason for choosing atheism: to selectively deny certain areas of science seems, to me, totally unreasonable. It seems pretty clear that these sciences are only picked on because they erode the plausibility of a few religious doctrines and thus threaten the power of the church. Furthermore, I just don’t want to live in a world where we treat fascinating fossils, awe-inspiring galaxies and ancient ruins as being nothing more than “tricks from God” or “tests of faith” simply because they don’t fit in with ONE BOOK’s account of history and creation. What a sad boring world that would be. But again, that’s just me.

2) Organized Religion Is Dangerous  

So if you are a believer, which one are you? (Circle your answer)

Catholic? Hindu? Protestant? Jehova’s Witness? Christian? Scientologist? Jew? Buddhist? Mennonite? Sunni? Shi’ite? Mormon? Jainist? Shinto? Sikh? Pagan? Rastifarian? Unitarian? … … …

That’s the funny thing about belonging to a religious organizationg. No matter which religion you belong to, most people in the world still consider you and atheist. As Richard Dawkings once said, “Atheists just go one God further.”

Nobody can deny that religion is geographical. What that basically means is that religion spreads, fractures and reconstitutes in much the same way that nation-states have over the last few centuries. Here is the current international map of all the known religions in the world today. You can actually see that Christianity spread through Europe, and was brought over to the Americas, Australia and the African colonies. Also, Islam began through the Middle East, and spread throughout Africa and South East Asia. In other words, religion is not divined from the heavens to all places on Earth; rather, it is contingent upon human societies, and thus must be economic, political and cultural by nature:

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Some places have churches, some have mosques, and some have temples. Different religions are, thus, inventions of different cultures. Clearly, religions have been evolving and spreading throughout the globe for much (if not all) of human history. And yet, through all of this, each religion preaches consistently and unwaveringly to be determined by their own “one true God.”

To me, this is highly suspicious. Why do I need to choose a side? If there are so many different ideas and attitudes about God, why should I pick one and claim it to be absolute truth before all others? Furthermore, why do churches have so much freaking gold? Why does the Pope live in a lavish palace constructed by slaves? I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that, perhaps gradually through history, religion became a way of controlling populations, solidifying laws, justifying military service and exerting imperialistic power. Actually, I don’t think there is an historian alive who could deny that.

Of course, I don’t believe that’s what religion is for, but I do believe that is how it has been abused. If you think I’m wrong, I implore you to explain to me the Crusades, the Holocaust, Jihad, and Zionism. Nearly every war on Earth has been somehow related to faith, and that is an ugly fact that people of all religions tend to ignore (or perhaps, don’t get taught).

But it’s a fact of history. In fact, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen churches and mosques of such breathtaking scale and grandeur that one can only imagine what incredible power the religious institutions must have had throughout the centuries. And they weren’t built by the hand of God. Saint Peter’s Basilica didn’t drop from the sky. It was built brick by brick, and that translates to gold. Slaves. Power.

And so it comes to my second reason for choosing atheism: I believe that religion should not be organized, because that inevitably divides people into groups with different (often conflicting) interests. I believe that churches are simply not necessary for a belief in a higher power. Why would God demand military service, unremitting allegiance to a wealthy king, and material offerings? Why should I attend seminars and meetings that tell me the way the world is, and the way I should think? Why is the church so interested in colonizing Africa, South Asia and South America with missionaries? I know the answer: it’s because religion needs new members and resources to survive, and that makes it an empire just like any other. I believe that churches, be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish or other are no different than any ordinary cult. Give us your allegiance, and we’ll give you life after death. It’s an easy promise to keep; I’d rather stay neutral on this one.

3) Moral Unaccountability

When people ask the question “Do you believe in God?” it is taboo to say “no” because it makes you seem soulless and empty. That bugs me. 

Many people make the mistake of presuming that people who belong to a religion are necessarily “better people.” It’s a subtle double standard, but it’s detectable nonetheless. I strongly resent the notion that people of faith have higher moral standards. Thus, many Christians (certainly not all) tend to be very judgemental of non-Christians.

Maybe they don’t drink, or they don’t smoke pot. Well, I think that’s easy. It’s much more difficult to treat your friends with respect, to tell the truth, to be selfless and to love your enemy. I don’t know many people who even try to do that.

At the end of the day, I think I’m a good person. I do what I think is right, I try my best to be kind to the people around me, and I don’t expect anything in return. If I do something wrong, I believe it’s more important to apologize to the person I’ve wronged, rather than apologize to God. But still, many people of faith would consider me a bad person simply for not subscribing to their belief.

I don’t want to go into a long philosophical rant about moral relativism, because I shouldn’t have to. People in this world are just going to have to accept that other people have different ideas about what is right and what is wrong. There isn’t going to be any consensus anytime soon: gays are going to be gay, teenagers are going to have sex, people are going to have abortions and divorce is a fact of life.

I’m not saying that Christians should have pre-marital sex or feel good about divorce. I’m just saying that organized religion needs to keep it’s values internalized, and be careful not to impose judgement on any non-religious people who might, for example, see nothing wrong with pre-marital sex.

Muslims, for example, do not have the right to tell all women in Canada to wear burqas. They can choose to wear burqas all they like, but it becomes a problem when they start telling Canadian women that they are bad people for showing skin. Do you see the analogy? I think it’s fair, and simple.

And if you think that there is no double standard, imagine yourself in my shoes: I drive by several churches every day with big signs that tell me that “Jesus is my lord.” How would a Christian feel if they had to drive to work every day and read a sign that said “Jesus was a normal guy?” They would probably have a problem with it. And that’s my third reason for not picking sides: I don’t think it’s my place to be imposing my judgement or my beliefs on the society around me; I don’t want to belong to an organization that uses big signs on the highway to attack other people’s beliefs.

4) I’m Spiritual Anyway

The other night, I looked up at the stars and I saw the Big Dipper. I thought back to a poster I’d seen of all the different constellations. There are literally hundreds. I thought to myself “Science has proven that these dots of light are, in fact, stars that are billions of light years from each other. In fact, even if two stars look like they’re close to each other, they might not be, because it’s just an illusion based on our perspective: we don’t have depth perception when we look at the stars, it just looks like a bunch of dots. Yes, science has proven that constellations aren’t really there.”

But I don’t believe that. I think they are there. Because we believe they’re there. That is precisely what makes them real, and I think God is the same.

I may accept science, but it’s not my religion. I think there is a force that is beyond comprehension in this universe. I believe we have developed a word for it, and that word is “God.” If that means that I believe in God, then by golly let it be known that I believe in God. The symbols, the wars, the rules, the books, the stories: they have nothing to do anything. I just think that, considering the vastness of the universe, they’re all so incredibly irrelevant. So why bother with them?

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There you have it. Again, I know I have a few Christian readers, and I hope they could maintain an open mind while reading this. It’s hard to hear other people’s beliefs sometimes. Some of you might see my view of the world is upside down, backwards and inside out. Even though I’m critical of religion, I hope that you don’t consider this entry an attack on your beliefs. I know there is a lot of good in religion too, but remember this is supposed to be an entry about the things I don’t like about religion, so it’s supposed to be negative. I know I made a few generalizations in there, so please don’t take anything personally. I’m talking religion in a very BROAD sense here. Like I said, sometimes I just like putting my thoughts out there for people to see. We can all learn something from each other.  

The Deep Sea: Lights In The Dark

Life. What do you think of when you think of life on this Earth?

We think, first of all, of us. Humans. Also, there are these things called “animals.” They are like humans, but less developed. They’re not as smart as us. They still live in “the wild.” They can’t even talk!

Like us, most of them have eyes and ears and heads and tongues, and they like to eat and run and hang out in the sunshine when they are bored. Some of them live underwater, some of them live on the land. Some of them can fly; some of them are so small you can’t even see them; some of them live underground. But they’re all animals just the same. Not human. They are too… primitive, or something.

They are their own unique category of life, and no matter how hard they try, they will never experience the glorious existence that humans do. In fact… we’re not even sure if they have feelings or thoughts like us. I mean… how can they? That’s what makes us human, and humans are obviously nothing like animals!

This… what I have just described, is man’s general attitude towards life on Earth. How boring. We treat the animal kingdom as one thing by itself, as if a Mantis Shrimp and a Lion shared some kind of “animal” connection, or anything in common; as if they were somehow part of the same family; as if they were closer to each other than they were to humans.

It becomes clear to anyone who takes the time to learn about life on Earth that humans have a disgusting level of arrogance when it comes to their percieved place on Earth. For crying out loud, we actually believe we were destined to rule over all creatures! Some people actually believe that the Earth was made specifically for us! I don’t know about you, but to me that is a level of arrogance beyond compare.

So, for those of you who think that mankind is anything more than a tiny spot on the history of the Earth, I suggest you watch the following two videos. What you will see are real images taken from a mere 900 meters below the ocean’s surface. Here, in a gloom that has lasted since the dawn of life, the most complex, fascinating and beautiful creatures on Earth make their home. Watch the video, and I dare you to tell me that humans are the pinnacle of creation, or that man is more than beast. There are hundreds of thousands of worlds on Earth, of which ours is only one, and I think this documentary aptly demonstrates how unknown our Earth truly is!

*Watch the whole thing… it gets better as it goes. Sorry I can’t find the whole documentary: only parts 1 and 2 seem to be available. I’ve watched them both numerous times already, and each time I have renewed fascination.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just imagine… just try and wrap your head around how man millions of unknown creatures live in our enormous oceans, each with it’s own unique biology and ecosystem. Just imagine how vast and deep the ocean actually is, and how unexplored it must be! I think it’s one of the most fascinating frontiers of science and human knowledge, and I’m glad that scientists are developing the technology to bring us these images.

It just goes to show how narrow minded it is to think of man as the heir to this planet. These creatures, to us, are “weird.” But in reality, they are far more common than us!  I think it’s important to remember that man is a tiny blip in the great history of life on Earth.

Facefuls of Freedom Fries

If you were to assume that there was a spectrum of political attitudes that went from left to right, where would you place yourself? I used to think that I could easily place myself somewhere on the left. Now, if someone were to ask me my political views, I don’t think I could respond with a short and simple answer.

I was creeping on people’s Facebook profiles the other day, and I noticed that A LOT of people, in response to the “Political Views” field, entered “liberal” or “very liberal.” In many ways, this is not surprising. As I’ve argued before, I believe there is a general culture out there (particularly among youth) that tends to demonize authority. I don’t think it’s anything new; I imagine that anti-authoritarianism has probably always existed in some form in human societies.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about some of the problems with being liberal. One’s first inclination upon hearing anything “anti-liberal” is to consider the obvious philosophical implications of being, in a way, “against freedom.” After all, the word “liberal” is, in conceptual terms, exactly the same as the word ‘freedom.’ Of course, our society regards freedom in very high esteem, and so it seems counter-intuitive to be critical of liberty.

We all remember the high-school debates: capital punishment, abortion, etc. These issues are difficult for us because they reveal how truly problematic the concept of “freedom” is. Should a mother be free to choose? Or should a child be free to live? Should society be free to protect itself? Or should a man be free to live? Ultimately, freedom is subjective, and I therefore believe that “liberalism” is subjective too.

For example, liberals tend to support the notion that individuals should be, more or less, free to live as they choose. This seems like a totally fair statement, but there is an obvious point of contention: should people be free to abuse drugs? Should people be free to litter? Should people be free to distribute child pornography? On any of these questions, I believe that most people would answer “Of course not, freedom must have it’s limitations.” I agree with this, and I’m sure liberals do too. And so even people who consider themselves to be very liberal would probably concede that individual freedoms must be, in some respects, restricted. Perhaps we are not as “liberal” as we think.

Consider corporations. Most people who consider themselves liberal tend to generally admonish capitalism and corporate power. The left tends to argue that corporations lack moral conscience and social responsibility, or that they are inherently exploitative and greedy. My point is basically this: doesn’t this seem like the kind of scenario in which freedom ought to be restricted? Maybe a more tightly controlled society is precisely the answer to many of the problems our society faces.

For example, the city-state of Singapore does not allow its citizens to chew gum. Their government saw that chewing gum was being spat on their sidewalks, and so they decided to restrict it in order to keep their city clean. A liberal might see this situation as “oppressive,” but I would argue that it is, in fact, “social responsibility.” Our society is allowed to chew gum, and we don’t seem to have any moral dilemma with spitting it on our sidewalks. If our western government tried to outlaw chewing gum, liberals would be marching in the streets because it would be a “violation of our rights.” To me, this is a clear metaphor for Western Liberalism: give us our freedom so we can spit on what we’ve built.

Everybody seems to recognize that our society is wasteful and apathetic. It is clear that people do not exercise self-control, that they do not like to limit themselves, and our society faces a general lack of will, solidarity and direction with regards to many serious problems. Democracy and capitalism, both intrinsically liberal systems, seem fundamentally incapable of implimenting broad, effective and responsible social policies.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that autocracy is the solution. I’m just saying that our society is lacking in leadership, and I personally would like to see chewing gum outlawed if it meant we could have cleaner streets. It seems to me like we’re extremely priveleged to get to live in a relatively safe, comfortable and wealthy society. Why do we insist on complaining every time we have to make sacrifices? Isn’t that what all the previous generations did?

Anyways, I’m fully aware of the deep philosophical ramifications of this position, and I’m not saying that I’m fully behind it. Let’s just say it’s something that is interesting to explore. Any thoughts? Comments are extremely encouraged on this one.

Snowflake & The Great Fence

This is one of those entries that I suggest be accompanied by a hot cup of cocoa, or perhaps a nice warm apple cider. It’s a fictional tale about a certain cat who is sitting next to me as I type it!

It’s the story of a cat named Snowflake:

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He was always an unusual cat. He wasn’t like the other animals in the animal kingdom. No, he was different, and he knew it. Something about the way he lived, something about the things he had done … Snowflake knew that he was a special animal.

His life, as far as he could tell, was a fairly good one. He always had food given to him, there was always a fresh supply of water, and there was an assigned receptacle into which he could take craps. Yes, life was … satisfactory.

There was ample space to explore. In fact, Snowflake considered himself a bit of an explorer. He had charted the Three Bedrooms, scaled the tallest Kitchen Countertop and even conquered the Outdoorsland.  Yes, there was certainly no shortage of space to be conquered.

And yet … something didn’t quite add up. Snowflake, for some reason or another, always felt that something was missing in the Universe. He felt as though there somehow must be more to life than The House. He thought, “What lies beyond The House? Could there ever be anything behind the Great Fence?”

Every so often, Snowflake would just sit on the backyard patio at night and look at the Great Fence. He looked at the symmetry in each panel, and how the wood all lined up so neatly. It amazed him how it all seemed to work so perfectly, as if someone or something had actually designed the Great Fence.

For years and years, Snowflake just explored the Outdoorsland, but his eyes occasionally wandered back to the Great Fence. The questions persisted in his mind: “What was beyond the Great Fence?”

Then one night, as the full moon cast it’s bright shadow on a dewy lawn, Snowflake discovered… the Open Gate.

Carefully weighing his fears and his curiosity, the cat gave careful thought to the possibility of peering into the Beyond. However, as everybody knows, cat’s have insatiable curiosity, and so it was only natural that Snowflake should poke his head through… the Open Gate.

What he saw would change him forever. Snowflake came face to face with an immensely large circular area of space so incredibly large, that you could fit 8, maybe even 9 Houses into it! The very notion of more than one House was immediately terrifying to Snowflake. He lurched back through the Open Gate and struggled to regain his breath and his thoughts.

How could such an enormity of space exist? How much more space could there be out there? If there is so much space in The Beyond, does that mean that I am not the Master Of All Things?

For several days, Snowflake would not eat; so preoccupied was he with the frightening discovery that he had made. Now that he had seen how big The Universe was, he suddenly went from being the Master Of All Things to being a single piece of cat litter in some cosmic box.

Sometimes Snowflake felt that if he explored The Beyond, he might understand it a little better. But Snowflake, being a particularly clever cat, also realized that no matter how much he looked into The Beyond, he would never understand what made the panels of wood in The Great Fence so straight and symmetrical. Perhaps some questions were better left unknown, he thought.

So while Snowflake recognizes that there is more to life than The House, he is also content to wonder, for no answer that he could ever hear could take his basket away, and no explanation of The Beyond would ever make it any less comfortable.

~The End~

~Andrew Muir

 

“Muir’s People” (Part III): Snot-Nosed Intellectuals

There are many different types of knowledge in this world. For example, a man who has lived on the street for his whole life probably has a lot of insight into hardship and the human condition. A bartender probably knows a lot about people and relationships, and the patterns that emerge in human courtship. A plumber or an electrician probably has a lot of knowledge about urban utilities and civil infrastructures. A small-town Catholic minister probably has a deep knowledge of how spirituality effects communities, be it negative or positive.

This is because different people make different choices. Some people choose to be plumbers, some people choose to be bartenders. And yes, some people choose to be students.

I have noticed, however, that many post-secondary students have the unfortunate tendency to regard their knowledge in higher esteem than other bodies of knowledge; that their education makes them somehow more “knowledgeable” than the people around them. This is reflected in the misnomer “higher education.”

I think that university has a tendency to corrupt some people, especially people who feel as though they are picked on. From the very beginning of their university careers, they have a chip on their shoulder; a deeply entrenched resentment towards society, and towards their peers. Thus, once they are finally ‘accepted’ into university, they begin to use their new-found “knowledge” as a tool for feeling superior. Not only do they consider themselves to be more knowledgeable than the people around them, they also consider themselves charged with the duty of enlightening people with that knowledge, and righting the wrongs of society. In short, I believe that some people who develop inferiority complexes in high-school tend to develop superiority complexes in university.

These people are very easy to spot. First of all, they throw fancy words at you. These typically end with “ism” or “ology.” In fact, these “intellectuals” particularly revel the opportunity to use these words around people who might never have heard of them. And why do they do that? Because it makes intellectuals feel smart, and it makes other people feel stupid, and as we know, these “intellectuals” are on a quest to feel better about themselves. What better way to do this than by putting other people down?

Second, they tend to blame society for a lot of things. This usually only happens when people feel like they are somehow not a part of society. It’s common sense, in a way, that people who consider themselves social outcasts should feel the need to blame society for something. Thus, they have the illusion that they are ‘outside’ of society looking in, and that they have the prerogative to be critical of the people in it. I believe this is wrong. Everybody is part of society, even if they feel downtrodden. Blaming society doesn’t accomplish anything, all you have to do is improve upon society in the only way you can: just try to be a good person.

But that rarely happens.

University is befitting these types of people because there is a prevasive pretense that university bestows “higher knowledge” upon people. This is simply not true. If abused, university education just equips people with an arsenal of “isms” and “ologies” they can use to act snide and condascending to people with different kinds of knowledge, such as plumbers and stay-at-home mothers.

I believe that communication is based on a very simple principle: one person tries, to the best of their ability, to relay a message clearly and effectively to another. When a person consciously chooses to communicate using words, concepts, historical facts, or references that the other is apparently unfamiliar with, then that means they intend on communicating intellectual superiority, and little else. I’ve always considered it a blatantly obvious act of condascension, and I think that most other people do too.

It’s pretty cheap for someone who claims to be from an institution of “higher learning,” don’t you think?

So here’s MY message to any poseur intellectuals or snotty bookworms who feel like it’s their duty to enlighten the world with what they should read or how they should think: I see right through all your pretentious rhetoric, and I see that there is nothing there that deserves to be called “intellectual.” Just because you coasted through an arts degree and learned how to spew academic jargon, it doesn’t mean you’re justified in ‘correcting’ people.

After all, you can’t even fix your own toilet.

South Park: Underappreciated For Too Long

Does anybody remember seeing the first episode of South Park in 1997? When the show first came out, I’ll admit, I thought the toilet humour was funny, but I didn’t think it would last. The animation was so poor, and the jokes were too immature. In fact, from 1997 to 2006, I don’t think I ever watched the show more than a few times.

Then, sometime last year, I happened to catch an episode late at night. I noticed that the show had evolved a lot; the humour had really grown up. Since then, I’ve become a really big fan of the show, and I’ve become more and more impressed with Stone & Parker’s ability to write really interesting episodes.

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In fact, now I believe that South Park is one of the most intelligent shows ever produced. I recently watched a couple episodes from the current season, and I was shocked at how many layers of satire the show is able to pull off. Furthermore, the range of social/political commentary is simply baffling! I really like how the show takes neither a liberal nor a conservative stance (as opposed to Family Guy or the Simpsons, which tend to take a liberal stance). South Park’s conservative tinge gives it a unique edge, and it’s really refreshing.

By mocking the far left AND the far right, Stone & Parker make some really good points, and their messages usually make me rethink my opinions and positions, even on issues that I thought I’d considered even-handedly. I’m not saying I refer to the show for guidance – that would be crazy – I just think that the South Park has an interesting ability to put things in perspective, even on difficult matters such as religion.

Above all, South Park is about free speech. Only by mocking everybody EQUALLY, and sparing NO ONE, does free speech actually work. That is why South Park has openly mocked everyone and everything from gays, rednecks, terrorists, liberals, conservatives, christians, atheists, and environmentalists.

Because it doesn’t take long to animate, the show is also very topical. For example: in a recent episode, the prophet Mohamed was featured, but it was censored by Comedy Central. The very same episode had a scene with Jesus taking a crap on the American flag … and that was allowed. Stone & Parker knew this would happen, and they did it anyway to make a simple point: it’s wrong to censor one religion and not the other. I think that South Park’s message is an important one.

One of Kyle’s lines in that episode stuck out in my mind as being particularly brilliant: “Terrorism works by creating fear within a nation, but if you give into that fear, then you’re allowing terrorism to work.”

This is coming from the same kid who get’s farted on by Cartman and yells “You bastard!” every time Kenny dies. And yet, I think it is one of the most profound statements about the troubled post-9/11 American psyche.  If you’re one of those people who still thinks South Park is all about fart jokes and crappy animation, I suggest that you give the show another chance.

Because of these recent episodes, I wholeheartedly believe that this show has become the most sophisticated satire ever produced for television.

The Age Of Celebrities: The Legend Of Britney

Looking back on the history of western culture, it seems that we have often felt the need to look up to a higher class of people. I don’t mean the ruling class, or the aristocracy. I mean a class of people that is truly superior: more beautiful, more powerful. I’ve always believed that a classic example of such a class are the Greek Gods.

There is often a misconception about Greek mythology. Before I actually took the time to learn about it, I thought the story of Greek Gods was an orderly series of parables designed to be moral lessons (much like Christian mythology). Instead, one finds that Greek mythology is actually a sordid web of scandalous affairs and petty squabbles! The goddess Aphrodite, for example, was jealous of another beautiful goddess named Psyche. Not to be outdone by her beauty, Aphrodite asked Eros to shoot Psyche with golden arrows, causing her to fall helplessly in love with the ugliest man on Earth. Now that’s a good story!

One is reminded of the petty gossip and snide back-stabbery typical of grade 9 girls, not of the supposed grace and majesty commonly associated with divine beings and sacred deities.

One wonders: is this unique brand of mythology still with us today? Do we still look up to a class of super humans who are characterized by the peak of physical beauty, apparent power, and intrigue? Are we really so different than the Greeks? I’m often surprised at the (sometimes not so subtle) similarities.

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I’ve read a number of books that talk about the concept of “myth,” and each of them says that it is like a “living story.” It’s not real life – rather, it’s a contrived narrative that is designed to be more interesting than real life. I believe that gossip tabloids and, indeed, celebrity gossip in general, ultimately serve this function.

Consider that, for all intents and purposes, celebrities are not real people. After all, it is unlikely that you will ever meet Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, and it is just as unlikely that the events in their lives have any direct effect on your life. Thus, from our perspective, they are just as distant and mythical as Zeus and Hera would have been to the quotidian Greek.

Allow me to propose a simple example:

You don’t know Britney Spears. You have never met her, and you never will. You have seen her image, you have heard stories about her, and you have a limited degree of familiarity with the events in her life. More precisely though, you have a vague sense of her story; the events and circumstances that have followed her since she graced the MTV stage in her suggestive school-girl outfit back in 1998.

I would argue that Britney Spears is a classic example of how mythical narratives exist, even within the scope of our superficial and apparently transient popular culture. I would suggest that from the moment Britney Spears was framed as an innocent young girl in our media, the rest of her story had already been written. From the moment our culture was presented with a sexy young heroine poised on the brink of womanhood, boys and girls everywhere have been waiting anxiously for the moment she would fall from grace, so that they could kick her, spit on her, and feel better about themselves. This is what she is there for.

Girls want to see her lose her ‘pretty-ness,’ parents want to see her face the consequences of her sinful ways, and boys want to see her naked crotch. Lo and behold! Let it be known that Birtney Spears did not fail us in delivering us to satisfaction! No matter what your walk of life, we can all feel united by our sense of contempt for the fallen princess of pop.

Interestingly, this story does tend to be among of the most common formulas for female pop-stardom: girls first break onto the scene as morally grounded innocent angels, then gradually descend into sin until they are nothing more than lifeless props, irrevocably contracted into our culture’s perpetual enactment of sexually explicit male fantasies. And once they are finished there, what good are they? The only thing left for them is to be cast aside like so much garbage … left to deal with the consequences of their sinful ways, to destroy themselves from the inside as we watch with a kind of sick voyeurism.

Thus, I’ve always felt that the life of Britney Spears is a myth equally as contrived as the life of Aphrodite. One has to realize that Britney Spears is very much a creation of the cultural industries: everything about her is essentially fake, including her music, her videos, her movies, and her message. I think that everyone recognizes this. How, then, is she much different than a Greek goddess? We have idolized her for so long, and it is only natural, then, that we should build an effigy to burn.

It is all too easy to think of “myth” as something passed. Being that our culture is so immersive, it is not always easy to identify even it’s most obvious myths. I have never met Britney Spears, nor will I ever, and yet the “story of Britney” (in a very general way) has had a lasting impact on my overall attitudes, much in the same way people growing up in ancient Greece used tales of Aphrodite as a frame of reference for understanding their own culture.

If you don’t believe me, I suggest you look at the young girls living in your community. Has it ever struck you that they tend to emulate the lives of pop-starlets? Does it ever seem like they are trying to lead the life of “Britney” in a way that goes way beyond “trying to dress like her?” 

I believe that our culture is full of myths so deeply entrenched that they are regarded as common sense: it is simply common sense that there should be a superior class of people, and that we should try with all our might to be as they are, and to live as they do.

I want my opinion heard loud and clear on this one: Hollywood is as real to me as Mt. Olympus. It’s just a goddam story, and I don’t think it’s productive for any human being to strive for it. If you’re one of those people who thinks that the lustre of Hollywood is something worth working towards, then I think you have sorely misread the ultimate point of the Hollywood story. It’s not real. Snap out of it.