Sunday, November 7, 2004

Comments on Comments

I started writing something else yesterday, but got sidetracked and went away from it (a questionnaire-type meme, which took longer to answer than I'd thought it would, so I will have to post it later); but since then, my brain has sort of slipped into overdrive and I'm thinking very clearly and very quickly... something I haven't done in a while. And among the many things that I'm thinking about, I'm considering some of the things I've said in previous posts, but more about what other people have said about what I said, in my Commentary. And I would like to take some time to address those comments.

Bush Whacked

At brunch today, Grandmother and Daddy and I got into discussion about Bush and the war in Iraq. This is very rare, since we usually get so het up about our differing beliefs that we have difficulty sticking to the rules of debate, and have to abandon the topic before we get anywhere. But for some reason, today, we were able to stick to rational discussion without getting really angry (though I almost lost it the third time Grandmother indicated that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11... I can't quite get her to wrap her mind around the fact that the terrorists who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks were not Iraqis).

And during our discussion, two things became clear to me (and clarifying one's own thought processes is the purpose of debate, incidentally, not winning your point; the very nature of Socratic dialog is to understand, not to compete): first, that all of us at that table, and most of the people I know, choose our information sources based on our predisposed opinions; second, that the desire to believe a certain thing is incredibly dangerous.

Grandmother gets most of her information from cable television news, mostly Fox though she does watch the other news networks as well, and a little from one print newspaper, The Oakland Tribune; Daddy gets his information about half-and-half from television news and from Internet news sites like BBC and Reuters; almost all of my information comes from the Internet, which is filtered entirely through blogs, and the rest is whatever else filters through the entertainment shows and lifestyle magazines I enjoy.

Of the three of us, I think Daddy is the best informed, simply because he focuses on detached and factual rather than opinion-filtered sources. I am far and away the least informed, because I can't allow myself to know about these things in too great of a detail; it's hard enough facing reality on vague, filtered terms... the details would quite possibly send me into a bottomless pit of despair; Grandmother is, in my opinion, the most deeply misinformed... though she isn't stupid, I seriously believe that her opinions and views are colored by the speed and intensity of the news to which she exposes herself, hours and hours of it every day, much of which she sleeps through, and I don't think her unconscious can tell the difference between a fact and an opinion when it is presented in a news format... I think on some level she believes that Hannity & Colmes is a news program, not a current-events opinion program; I mean, I had to remind her three times in one conversation that there has never been any factual evidence to indicate that Saddam Hussein had anything directly to do with 9/11.

Now, during this conversation, I have to admit that Daddy and I ganged up on Grandmother a bit, because we think alike and she doesn't think like we do; but Daddy thinks her misinformation is based on her questionable sources, and I think her misinformation is based on the way her brain works: on faith rather than on reason. She believes in Bush because she wants to believe in Bush... she believes in the Government only because the alternative is too terrifying to consider. And I don't believe in Bush, maybe because I don't want to and maybe because I can't; and the alternative is terrifying, I can't help but consider it all the time.

As an unbeliever, you will have to give me solid documentary evidence that Bush does not have an alternate agenda for this war, solid documentary evidence that he will in no way personally profit from this war, solid documentary evidence that he is not evil and stupid, before I will believe it. As a believer, Grandmother (and those who want to believe in Bush) will take the vaguest of reassurances... he's not stupid, he's simply down-home, regular, unaffected; his oil-company-owning family is not profiting from a war with a major oil-producing nation, they haven't walked off with any barrels of oil tucked under their arms; he didn't know that Iraq was devoid of any weapons of mass destruction, or that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein was in any way connected to Al-Qaida, why would he have attacked them if he didn't know they were going to attack us?

Now, neither of these positions is ideal... one should never be so skeptical that you have to actually see the Face of God before you'll believe He exists; but neither should you take on faith anything of which there isn't at least a scientifically plausible indication of truth. There should be a rational detachment, an interest in fact and analysis that does not require an emotional response of faith or fear.

But, even though I am of course prejudiced in my own favor, I do think that my skepticism of the Government is healthier than Grandmother's blind faith. Because I would love to be proved wrong, and she would refuse to be proved wrong.

If somebody popped up on television right now and produced solid evidence that I am wrong, I would dance and sing and throw rose-petals at Bush's feet and give my favorite bracelets to Laura by way of apology for calling her a crazy-eyed Stepford freak. I would be thrilled out of my fucking mind to have proof that Saddam Hussein was on the very brink of attacking the US with stockpiled weapons of mass destruction just hours before US troops invaded Iraq. I would shit myself with glee to find out that Halliburton won the troop-support contract fair and square without any help from its former CEO. I would pee with happiness if Dubya could pass a lie-detector and an IQ test.

But would Grandmother embrace information proving that her idol is a bastard, that the US is engaged in an unjust war and killing innocent civilians and our own soldiers in the name of greed? Would she embrace information proving that her beloved and divine Democracy is being held captive by a vicious cabal of Good Ole Boys? No, I don't think she would.

She even believes things from the past that have been proved wrong. Let's leave for the moment her touching belief that God created the entire universe and everything in it in six calendar days, that He formed Adam from literal dust with His own five-fingered hands, that all human life is descended from the literal and actual persons of Adam and Eve who lived approximately five thousand years ago, and that two of every 8 billion species of animal on the planet was somehow herded to the Mediterranean and loaded onto Noah's ark...

...but she also believes that the USSR actually had the power to invade and conquer the United States in the 50s and 60s, despite the fact that they couldn't even build a fucking tractor to farm their own goddamned land and feed their own starving people... I mean, they couldn't conquer Afghanistan (though in all fairness even Alexander shrugged it off as pointless), how could they have conquered us? She also believes it was right to inter the Japanese-American citizens of the US during WWII, even though it turned out there was not one single solitary spy among them and all those people lost their property and years of their lives just because people were scared. She believes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justifiable... not merely necessary, not simply the only apparent solution in a time of extreme crisis, but actually right and deserved.

She believes these things because to not believe them would admit that she'd been a dupe of propaganda. The alternative is too terrifying to contemplate, so she simply ignores the alternative. Would that it were so easy for me.

Tell It With Slant

Despite any preference for one's own opinion, I think the best way to discuss this (and anything) is with an open mind... and, unpleasant as it might be, with people who disagree with you. If we only talked to people who agreed with our opinions, we'd never know if our opinions were valid.

The entire above was brought to mind by the comment DM wrote in my previous post-election post, referencing some comments left on her site; I read them at the time and thought they weren't very politely-worded, but also thought how rare it is in these days to have people one knows posting dissenting political opinions.

On the other hand, I also disagreed with some of the points they made, and those points started rattling around in my mind... so I went back to that post and left a really long comment, commenting on the comments which commented on the original post, which I guess is kind of circular. But I hope I made my points respectfully and in the spirit of open and rational dialog. You can make up your own mind if I succeeded.

But as I was writing it, I started questioning some of my assertions: where did I read this piece of information? Where did I find that factoid? Can my sources be trusted any more than their sources? I don't know... and I'd like to find out. But I don't want to find out badly enough to go and find out.

I simply haven't the stamina for that much research. Honestly, the whole overwhelming amount of information makes fact-based ideology impossible... and when we can't trust anyone to do that research for us, when we can't trust the media or the government to give us the correct information, or to properly sort out the important information from the emotionally-charged information, then (as I say several times in the comment) we have a problem.

So if we cannot deal solidly with facts, if the facts are so numerous and piecemeal that we cannot rely on them for our theories, then what do we have left? We have dialog and deduction.

The ancient Greeks figured out the existence of atoms long before they ever figured out cells, centuries before microscopes and particle accelerators; and they did it by thinking about if for a long time and deducing the truth. Ancient Roman philosophers (specifically Ptolemy of Alexandria, if I remember correctly) figured out not only that the Earth was spherical but also figured out how big around it is, without ever leaving Egypt much less sailing around the world or launching into space. They sat around and argued possibilities, looking at a question from all sorts of different angles, cogitating on what they knew and what they supposed, inferring further possibilities on top of the first, and eventually getting at the truth without even being able to produce much in the way of supporting evidence.

And they did this by using the predecessor of Scientific Method, the Socratic Dialog: they entertained and discarded a variety of possibilities, never becoming so enamored of one possibility that they altered the question to accomodate it. It is always fatal to become enamored of a theory, because the only way to prove a theory is to consciously try and disprove it... if a theory resists all valid attempts at disproof, it is considered proven (until new information is introduced).

On the other hand, it is impossible to form a theory without having some idea of what outcome you'd like. We do not have access to any information or any form of truth without it filtering to us through our perceptions. Everything we hear and say is inevitably slanted by our egos, the way light is slanted through even the clearest glass. So the entertainment of dissenting opinion, like the entertainment of alternate theories, is a must when trying to seek the truth... for only in passing the information through multiple layers of perception, only by testing our perception of Truth against other people's perception of Truth, can we get the slant out and know actual Truth. And that requires a dedicated conscious effort and a great deal of mental discipline.

It is very difficult, though, to discuss certain things with an open mind; so many topics will piss us off so thoroughly and immediately that our Socratic dialog devolves quickly into a demagogic mess of name-calling and fact-skewing. And if either of the correspondents in a dialog is untrained in the discipline of open-minded debate, the dialog will fall apart and perhaps even become physically violent within minutes.

And to me, that is why education is important: if we were all capable of speaking rationally and openly about things, even and especially our deeply-held beliefs and greedily-treasured theories, then the human race can progress beyond the warlike shouting and competitive posturing that currently plagues us, leading to anger and separation and destruction. We should always be prepared to die for our beliefs, but never ever should we kill for them; and unless we can all learn to hear and speak about deep and difficult topics, someone will always die for someone else's beliefs.

So I hereby open myself to the universe: Please Prove Me Wrong. I would love to believe in Dubya the way 52% of the country apparently does (though I don't really believe that, either... there can never be true representative government without comprehensive suffrage). I would love to sleep better at night, to not worry about the seeds of our own destruction that are being sown in our name, to not worry about my nephew in the Army with his life being directed by a commander-in-chief I consider mad, to not wonder how much worse things are going to get before they start getting better. Educate me.

But to do so, you'll have to produce evidence... if not concrete facts, then at least truly plausible and fairly watertight scenarios (I don't have to prove mine, because I am happy to relinquish my position and will not waste time defending it); you'll have to answer my questions without getting angry; you'll have to behave with respect for the beliefs that I hold dear. And I'll do my best to return the favor.

In the Eye of the Beholder

Speaking of beliefs and irrationality, I have been giving a lot of thought to the feelings I expressed in my post on physical beauty last week. I posted some of the thoughts in the comment box, in response to Vince's comment; but it has been niggling in the back of my mind all this time. When DM commented, it brought back some of the things I was trying to express about Perfect Form versus sexual or personal attraction.

I am assailed by the possibility that my belief in Perfect Form is bullshit... or rather that it is possible to project an ideal of Perfect Form on an object of desire when it does not in fact exist there, and therefore I haven't got the ability to discern actual Perfect Form in animate objects, and any attempt to describe Perfect Form in human beings devolves into an excuse for deviant biological urges.

However, I don't really believe this is true. But I find that my own sexual psyche is very much influenced by certain things which may (by pure accident) also be Perfect Form, but my reaction is to the sexual and I am trying to rationalize my sexual desires with a lot of teleological architecture in order to elevate my animal lusts to an intellectual sublimity... or, in short, to make my shit not stink.

Nevertheless, the feelings I described about beautiful boys and my own anger at having never been (and knowing I'll never be) a beautiful boy has nothing to do with whether or not Perfect Form really exists in the person of Kevin Zegers or Tom Welling. The fact is that their beauty touches me on a higher level than just lust... I don't really become sexually excited when I see them. I mean, I don't get a hard-on when I look at them; but beholding their faces and watching them move and talk and blink grabs at my heart and obsesses my mind. I derive a satisfaction at the sight of this kind of beauty that is separate and apart from the sexual thrill of hard young bodies and succulent mouths and imploring eyes.

The anger, though, comes from something else: the fact that I have never found myself sexually attractive. This is, I think, at the heart of the problem.

I mean, I can see what are my good features and what are my bad features and what could be improved here or there to make me more sexually attractive to others; I comprehend that not all people are attracted to hairless pretty-boys on the brink of adulthood, that many people (if not most) prefer character to looks... though nobody ever holds looks against a person if he's also wonderful in other ways; I understand that Perfect Form is not sexually attractive in and of itself, and that what is sexually attractive has absolutely nothing to do with Perfect Form.

But I don't like my physical self. My face isn't ugly, but I don't see anything very attractive about it, with its smallish features gathered in the middle of a large off-square head, the thin skin and coarse beard and screwy teeth behind narrow lips; my body isn't too bad, but even when it wasn't fat, I didn't find the sight of it remotely alluring... it's badly proportioned, not well-muscled, hairy in all the wrong places, too loose in general, and sort of awkward all over.

Not only am I not my own type, I simply can't see why I would be anybody's type... and even though I know there are plenty of people going around having sex with people way uglier than me, and that there are even people in this world who do think I'm attractive, God help them and bless their little hearts, my bafflement at what they see makes me tend to discount them. I just don't get it.

When I look at myself, even when I look at the features of my body that I like, I can still see room for improvement, or some element nearby that I actually find repulsive. And I really am seeing what's there, I'm not making it up to bolster my low self-esteem. I know exactly what I look like, but I don't like how I look... I'm judging myself by a different standard than others might judge me, judging by my own erotic paradigm, to which I do not conform.

I mean, I think I have rather nice eyes, nicely shaped and a pretty color, but I'd like them better if they were bigger and didn't have those little circles under them. I have nice skin, smooth and soft and a nice color, unless the sun touches it anywhere, whereupon it becomes spotted and gross. My nose is cute, too, but for being kind of undistinguished and having hair in it. I rather like my hands, and my feet, but not the hair on them. I'm exceptionally fond of my penis, of course, he's my best friend some days; and though it's quite big enough, I certainly wouldn't feel slighted if it was bigger, and then again there's all that coarse untidy hair.

Actually, all this hair really grosses me out and always has... I've gotten used to it, but I still don't like it. And it doesn't help that I'm not all that hairy, or that lots of people do like body-hair, or that it's natural or whatever. I just don't like it, not on other people but especially not on me. Shaving or waxing doesn't help much, because it comes right back quick as a wink, and usually causes unsightly and uncomfortable bumps in my too-sensitive skin.

And you know, I do often find myself sexually attracted to people who do not fit in my own generalized paradigm, hairy guys or overweight guys or crooked-kneed guys... but it's always something non-physical that tips the scale. I can even sexualize body-hair if it has a nice texture or is elegantly placed or reminds me of something comforting, even though I don't like it for its own sake.

However, finding onesself sexually unappealing shouldn't stop someone from having sex, or rather shouldn't keep anyone from exposing his body for sex with someone who is (for whatever incomprehensible reason) attracted to that body. I mean, straight people never find themselves sexually appealing, do they? They can admire their looks and enjoy the effect on others, but they don't want to do it with themselves, do they? So why should I expect myself to want to do me?

This is one of those places where biological inversion can really fuck with you... where the biological mating portion of sex gets all mixed up in the spiritual loving portion of sex. It's an old gay tradition that you should do everything you can to become the man you want to sleep with... that's what all those gym-bunnies and fashion-clones are up to, you know: they see what they like, and they do everything in their power to become it in hopes of attracting it. It becomes completely circular, because muscles and hot clothes are attractive in themselves, and people build bodies and buy hot clothes to become what they want, and then they are what other people want, who then become that in their turn, and so on and so on.

But we're not all narcissistic in this manner, surely. Look at all those "different" couples out there, who must outnumber the mirror couples (though the mirror couples seem more visible, somehow); most of the men I know in long-term relationships do not fit into any of the artistic or pornographic ideals of beauty, nor do they look remotely alike. Handsome, maybe... sexy even, but not beautiful... and yet there they are in love with each other, different from each other and nevertheless sexually attractive to each other.

But I am narcissistic, though not in the way that I desire the mirror of what I am, but instead desiring the mirror to impossibly turn and make me the image of my own desire... for some idiotic self-defeating reason I feel like I have to be what I want, and what I want is something that I could never be no matter how hard I tried.

I mean, there isn't a plastic surgery in the world that would turn me into a beautiful nineteen-year-old boy who's six inches shorter than I am; there isn't a gym routine in existence that would actually alter the imbalanced proportion of my frame. And though there's a lot I could do to make myself into something at least closer to my own ideal, I just don't have the energy and the resources to do it. And so I feel bitter and angry.

These are deep waters, here... waters that I have explored before, and I have never found a path out the other end, so I always just retreat whence I came and try to think about something else.

If I want to do the work, I can change: either my body or my expectations... this is a truth I know. But I feel so tired, the very idea of the amount of dieting and exercising and pecuniary sacrifice I would have to go through to make myself attractive in my own eyes just makes me tired; the idea of years of therapy to overcome my horrid self-esteem issues and inverted narcissism and freaked-out sexuality makes me tired.

I want it all to be solved for me without any work work from me, tomorrow, so I can just have what I want and go on to something else.

But you know what? I'm glad I have you to talk to. I resolve so many issues in this diary, receive so much useful feedback, vent so many painful psychological boils that even getting into deep waters and having to retreat is a worthwhile and eventually effective learning process.

So thanks for listening, thanks for reading all my stupid big words and show-offy long sentences and rambling topheavy paragraphs. Thanks for being here with and for me. Thanks for being you!

And now I really am tired. It's eleven p.m. now, and I've been writing this (and related things) and editing it for the last six hours (with a little break to eat dinner); I didn't get quite enough sleep last night (which is probably the genesis of this squirrel-in-a-cage thinking) and now I'm going to bed. Nighty-night!

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