Perlustrating Asseverations: The Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This packet of asseverations is normally delivered by Americans but has been a ubiquitous liberal catechism for more than 200 years. For the sake of brevity, we address each claim in sequence as succinctly as we can.
1. Self-evident. This bold opening sees the authors claim access to a priori truths about the world, without gathering evidence from the world. It’s a brazen opening which defies the work of most analytic philosophy from the last three centuries. One could certainly request a bit more epistemological parsimony from messrs Jefferson et al.

2. Men are created equal. This first, allegedly “self-evident”, “truth” is evidently false. Men (and women) are created un-equally. Being created equal should strictly involve being identical in every way, an exceedingly rare condition which applies to very few pairs and occasional trios of people. A looser definition of “equal’ is also incorrect, as some people are born with congenital defects, diseases, mutations and often they’re born dead — hardly a state one would consider equal to those born live.

3. Men have unalienable rights to life, liberty. A review of the literature quite quickly shows that men’s rights are alienable, if not morally then at the very least legally. Children, committed people, sub-functional cretins, people in comas and those who abnegate their rights every time they strap on a gimp mask and go hell for leather without a safety word are all examples of people relinquishing their allegedly inalienable rights. This fact should have been particularly evident in 1776. To wit, whereas some people were born as descendants of wealthy plantation operating slave owners, such as Thomas Jefferson, and therefore born with massive inheritances and the right to vote and not be molested, others were born as descendants of slaves who worked on said plantations and who could not vote and were molested.

5. Pursuit of happiness. A point of clarification here: this right is also clearly not unalienable, but even if it was the Declaration doesn’t further specify that we will be unimpeded in this pursuit. But is this a right worth mentioning? Have we not also the right to pursue a near infinite list of other states of being too? We find this claim to be, if true, trivial in its consequences.

6. There is a Creator. The entire passage assumes there is an agential, capitalised force which has endowed people with the above rights. Not only is there no evidence to demonstrate the existence of this god, there is also, as we have seen, evidence to demonstrate that even if he did exist, he was singularly inept at endowing people with unalienable rights. We find, therefore, that at best this Creator is a rhetorical flourish from the deistic authors, at worst an impotent demi-god who exists but can’t even uphold said rights, something which is relatively easy for Earthly judiciaries and legislatures, despite their general incompetence.

We propose a more sober rewrite might go something like:

We hold these postulations to be well supported by evidence, that very few men or women are created equally (identical twins excepted) and that they are endowed by natural evolutionary processes with highly developed prefrontal cortices providing them the capacity to appreciate abstract concepts such as justice and liberty and that being cognizant of these concepts might frequently lead to them wanting to assert some claim to unmolested furtherance of them via rights to life, liberty and the (in all likelihood, unsuccessful) pursuit of subjective states of well-being.

Q.E.D.

Perlustrating Asseverations: Extrapolation

“Proving statements wrong by extrapolating them to extremes is an ironic way to disprove silly beliefs.”

Ideas are often argued against by extrapolating them to serious, damaging conclusions. For instance: if you allow two men to be married, then eventually you’d have to allow polygamous marriage, then bestial marriage — these worrying endpoints, when contrasted with the originally innocuous proposition, make the original sound unreasonable. The argument is also referred to as a “slippery slope”.

The problem with a slippery slope argument is that it is only just an informal fallacy because it takes deduction too far. If A causes B, then B causes C, then by deduction A causes C — so runs the classic formulation. However, if A, B, and C are as different as the three possibilities of marriage described above, the deductive links are too tenuous for the argument to hold. The true conclusion is more likely to be some middle ground, which can be more accurately determined from some related situational precedents.

There are other problems with extrapolation; indeed, if everyone extrapolated in this way all the time, the simplest interaction would immediately become problematic. A simple coffee order in a cafe may result in a statement on the implications of the purchase and how it may benefit the local economy, but then would make the outrageous leap to consider the effects on the global economy — perhaps with notions of unfair trade and other topics uninteresting to the barista, or the purchaser’s friends, who must endure the dubious extrapolation politely. The extrapolator may even incorporate other nonsense concepts like socialism or — more idiotically — karma, in a barrage of wordy, extraneous philosophising.

Inevitably in such a situation, one of the hitherto patient friends would soon break and comment on how the purchaser should “lighten up” and then extrapolate and claim the purchaser’s views will lead to enviro-nazism and fanaticism. The ineluctable conclusion would be a bloody battle, using coffee cups smashed on the edges of tables as weapons. Invariably, a stray gouged-out eye here, or an arterial spurt of blood there, would cause a disruption to the neighbouring table, forcing them to take up arms, wielding teaspoons and hardened biscotti, as they too follow the slippery slope towards mass carnage, closing with inappropriate Latin acronyms as they scald the faces of their interlocutors with reasonably hot cappuccino.

The conflict would soon escalate to a war in which the enamel weapons have been traded in for real guns. News reporters, if they hadn’t already succumbed to stroke and aneurysm from the sensationalism in this world, would soon report on this horrific global, bloody battle, now disrupting the very world economy whose imperfections were first critiqued so innocently at an ANU coffee shop. What began as a simple extrapolation of an assertion, ends in an example of the same unverifiable, hypothetical consequences redolent of the speculative deductions made in everything from climate modelling, to economic forecasts and even Kantian ethics.

Ideally, people would not wantonly extrapolate all the time and instead approach reasonable compromises. Such reconciliations, unfortunately, are not always possible. Some sentiments, for instance yes/no statements, overextended claims to truth, or blind religious beliefs, have no middle ground; and some of these have no real world precedents to examine either. In such cases deduction, ridiculous or not, serves as a valid criticism of these ridiculous asseverations.

Q.E.D.

You Can’t Review That: The 21st Century So Far

To be fair, this is a mixed bag. First off the good stuff: telecommunications.The Internet threatened to be a receptacle for the sum of human knowledge, but sanity quickly prevailed and it became a delivery vehicle for a diverse, pluralistic pornography and a collection of forums which finally allowed strangers to call each other “faggot” as much as they had always wanted to.

This century has also been a zenith for cultural enrichment. The preeminent artistic modes — Hollywood and pop music — finally realised that creating new content was a foolish endeavour and have used the 21st century to replay all pop-culture from the last two decades of the 20th century, as some kind of clever homage to our immediate past. This has been fantastic.

But there has also been some unwanted repetition, like the rehashing of tired old motifs like the environmental movement and the suggestion that we should alleviate poverty in Africa. Fortunately, these have been overshadowed by more vital concerns over what ratio of toning to strengthening exercises one should do while at the gym.

And now the bad. Where is the generational challenge of our century? The forging of a meaning through a mass bloodletting? The Lost Generation had the glory of the War to End All Wars, which (excepting its titular claim) was largely successful; and the Greatest Generation had the ecstasy of the death camps. Hopefully swine flu or some kind of savage resource war will allow us the catharsis of a mass death toll from which we will emerge morally enriched.

Three stars.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

Letter From Planet Earth: Eugenics

Dear Gzorgax,

It’s time I came clean: I’ve been allowing my university’s newspaper to publish my side of our correspondence over the last few months. Surprisingly, despite the publication of these epistles and despite the fact I’ve now included, among other hot potatoes, a description of the Prophet Muhammad as a “child rapist”, I’ve not received a single complaint or been rewarded with a single fatwa. So understandably old friend I feel I have carte blanche to say what people on Earth really think, even if it’s impolitic. So I’ll move straight on to eugenics.

A study by some quack doctors this month is circulating and it has the unsettling finding that when you control for socioeconomic background, children of heterosexual parents do better than children of homosexual parents. We’ll overlook the questionable methodological rigour of the study and grant it its findings. This presents us with a very uncomfortable truth which, even if we don’t like it, we must face up to, though it conflicts with our ideas of freedom. Maintaining a clear minded, realist position we must admit the obvious policy implication: we shouldn’t let poor people have children.

You see, the differences between the gay and straight parents were pretty small, but when you compare parents and don’t control for socioeconomic background the findings are fucking stark. I mean, I’m not usually all about stopping certain people from having kids, but if we’re considering effectively neutering gay parents on the grounds of parental skill, then let’s call a spade a spayed and start by sterilising poor people, criminals, scientologists, weirdos and reality TV contestants.

We tiptoe around this issue of eugenics, kind of because Nazis and Communists took it into some dark territory in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Now it’s considered gauche, to say the least, to suggest eugenic policies, unless of course you’re trying to stop gay people living normal lives. Funnily enough, one could construe any effort at changing the reproductive habits of different kinds of people as a eugenic policy. The baby bonus, abortions, contraception, welfare payments for single parents, no-fault divorce — all these things have changed people’s reproductive choices. Are they not then part of an inadvertent eugenic, or more polemically still, dysgenic policy agenda?

When you get educated people talking, Gzorgax, really talking I mean, often late at night after much wine has passed, you can find that people who would blanch at talk of Hitler’s and Stalin’s attempts to remove unwanted elements from society, will have their own severe views about runts in the litter. Probe into any social ill, like our more dire public schools, the third generation unemployed, repeat offenders, the problems with public housing, or Summernats and you’ll find people are wont to conclude, only half jokingly, that we “shouldn’t let them breed” or, more boldly, “that we should just drown them at birth”. And indeed who can argue that slaughtering the babies of criminals won’t reduce crime? We’re a nation of eugenicists Gzorgax and we don’t even know it.

Yours earthily,

Jamie.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2012.

You Can’t Review That: Monogamy

Unlike the additional sex partners you fantasise about, this rare practice is actually more attractive than it appears. It boasts clearly superior protection from STIs and is also advantageous from budgetary and logistical viewpoints.

You can use monogamy as a way to organise your weekly schedule to include sex, without the need for any of the preparatory overtures of meeting, seduction and dating. You can also forget all that worrying about awkwardness when two of the people you’re procuring animal affirmation from (in a sexual relationship with) bump into you at the same time. You’ll also save on phone bills, coffee or meal expenses and won’t have to change your sheets as often.

There are of course downsides. Monogamy can result in a frustration of psychosexual urges, as you find yourself unable to seize and deflower any young thing carrying the imprimatur of sexual conquest. Commentators in earlier decades suggested this could be avoided by making sure your significant other represents your own parent of the opposite gender. Cold comfort for same-sex couples, who have nonetheless recently realised the advantages of monogamy and are converting to it in droves.

More importantly, though, monogamy allows you to control your partner’s libidinous urges, meaning you avoid feelings of jealousy towards their lubricity which somewhat vitiates the stifling of your own nymphomania, or satyriasis, as the case may be.

The most popular alternative to monogamy remains marriage, which is a method of avoiding monogamy from within the comfort of a heterosexual economic union. Monogamy has it beat for entry costs and success rates, but it can’t really compete in terms of social status

Slightly less cynical than voluntary celibacy, three stars.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

You Can’t Review That: The Bible

If you enjoy incest, then you’ll love the early passages in this work. They describe a group of people who continually resort to the practice when they make the mistake of not having female children, or when the women they do have idiotically turn around to look at burning cities and get themselves transmogrified into pillars of salt.

Overlong and open to interpretation, this work is wildly popular, despite some stylistic quirks. We are told that the book is the word of “God”, the author, who employs multiple narrators to tell the story, but gets into a bizarre Charlie Kaufman-esque situation in which he writes himself in to his own narrative. The Bible seems to be one of those postmodern novels that was popular in the 1970s, but this meta-fictional approach gets particularly tiresome when a new character, Jesus, is introduced and is alternately referred to as the son of God, the Son of Man, a man and God himself.

The climax is a bizarre sequence wherein this schizoid but hitherto kindly character judges the rest of the characters (and indeed everyone) as some kind of proxy for the author. Jesus’s earlier, touching act of self-sacrifice and his message of love, seem somewhat incongruous with the appalling bloodbath that follows the judgement.

Contra the “love-thy-enemy” message he propagated earlier, Jesus unveils the fact that he actually wants to kill and torture everyone who has not sworn allegiance to him. The moral dodginess of doing this to people who have never even heard of him, let alone embraced him, is thankfully overshadowed by the enthralling symbolism and rich imagery of beasts, trumpets, fire, gold, horsemen, falling stars and brimstone which accompany the inauguration of the book’s final conceit: the New Jerusalem, whatever that is.

The sex scene, Song of Songs, was actually very good and the bit on prohibitions, Leviticus, was hilarious; in fact, overall it’s well written and profound, but thematically inconsistent. More concise than the Mahabharata, three stars.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

You Can’t Review That: Last Night’s Dream

No doubt open to multiple interpretations, the whole production was enthralling during the show itself but although the moral of this story seemed profound immediately after it finished, the effect wore off through the day and was already waning as I recounted it to my housemate over breakfast.

The dream opened with the fairly hackneyed setting of a classroom in my high school, the director taking the bold choice to have the protagonist naked in this scene. From there the scene transitions were fluid and the narrative shifted seamlessly from one location and set of cast members to another.

The set-designer and artistic director deserve credit for producing a fairly faithful reconstruction of the house I grew up in, although I don’t recall my home having one room off the kitchen that becomes the bedroom of my ex-girlfriend, only after I follow the boyhood version of my now adult next-door neighbour inside.

Was this surrealist imagery a comment on the baseless nature of our morality, following a century of war and misguided political ideology? or was it a consequence of the the reduced information flow between my hippocampus and neocortex, resulting in illogical linkages between disparate memories?

The horrifying vignette in which my teeth fell out, although a bit of a cliche, was genuinely disturbing and the penultimate scene was an hilarious farce wherein the car I tried to use wouldn’t start and I decided instead to run jelly-legged to the HSC exam I was missing.

The show ended with a superb, almost Brechtian device, incorporating a song from my clock-radio alarm into the narrative of the dream, allowing me some tantalising moments of lucidity before waking up.

Most of the characters, however, were inconsistent or just facile; they were either morphing avatars representing my own unresolved family issues or paper-thin, coquettish versions of women I know and am now more attracted to as a result.

Other dreams have been far more successful. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium dream produced the virtuosic poem, “Kubla Khan”; Salvadore Dali’s yielded a whole new art movement; Jung’s dreams contained a veritable tarot deck of archetypal figures of cosmic significance; and Daniel’s cycle of prophetic dreams included God as a main character and foretold the apocalypse. In comparison, my exiguous narrative of minutiae from my daily life and petty, unresolved sexual desires seems somewhat banal.

More successful than Martin Luther King Jr’s dream, three stars.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

You Can’t Review That: University

University is a follow-up to High School, which was an angst-ridden compilation album with a mix of nihilistic punk songs, naive love ballads and a lot of weird spoken word crap about finding one’s identity. University is a much better effort and the album opens with “O-Week”, a tune about making mistakes and the freaks you macked on with, which pops up again and again as a clever leitmotif throughout the album.

Track two continues the fun with “Sense of Possibilities”, which, although short, does provide a nice lead-in to “Readjusting Future Plans”; that song is all about dropping courses, changing degrees, disappointing your parents and realising that you won’t ever effect any meaningful change in the world.

“Youth Allowance” is a pretty effective blues number all about that level of student poverty that means you’re richer than most humans who have ever lived, but are still depressed because youl can’t afford a Mimco bag or to drink anything other than goon. The experimental track “Drug Use” is intense but overall you probably regret listening to it, while track seven (“Class”) and eight (“Study”) are in that dead part of the album you normally skip.

The single from the album is the feelgood pop hit, “Party”, which will have you dancing, but you’ll be right back down again when it transitions into the next track, “Hangover” and you’ll go even lower with “Loss of Self-Esteem Upon Remembering How You Debased Yourself Last Night” which is a 12 minute dirge you think is never going to end.

The worst song, however, is the nausea inducing noise track called “Student Politics”, which consisted mainly of whiny, irrelevant vocals but which the singers clearly thought were important: they’re not.

One of the most effective tracks is a trance effort called “Feelings of Superiority Over Uneducated People and an Ever Growing Sense of Elitism” which you only really appreciate once the album is over, but is perhaps the most satisfying part of this work.

The album closes with “Graduation” an over-sentimental power ballad you wish would wrap up earlier. There is a hidden track tacked on the end called “Qualifications” but it doesn’t really seem to be relevant to the rest of the album.

Better than going straight into Full-Time Employment (a turgid double-album), three stars.

This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.

The blog of Jamie Freestone and Mathew McGann