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When Truisms Lie

Carpooling to work today, it was fitting that the conversation between the driver and myself drifted to the topic of Pearl Harbor.  Today is after all, the twelfth anniversary of another day that will live in infamy.


When discussing the possibility that Pearl Harbor may have been allowed to happen to justify U.S. entrance into the war, the driver seemed skeptical and paraphrased Hanlon’s Razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

More accurately, he paraphrased an interpretation of that maxim from Sir Bernard Ingham:

“Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government.  I do assure you that they
would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.”
The basic idea implied of course is that conspiracy is a far more elusive jackelope than human ineptitude.
Seems true doesn’t it?  After all, we all know stupid people, but in truth we probably don’t know very many outright evil people (though we tend to use good/evil hyperbole in vain in our rhetoric) so the statement resonates with our own experience.  Adherence to this self-evident postulation then allows us to dismiss the very notion that there might be a conspiracy afoot because we are very well-acquainted with human error, and its (counter-intuitively) more comforting to believe human beings are stupid rather than clever.
Well, the problem here is that we tend to associate conspiracy with evil, when more accurately it could be described as “Competitive Deselection.”  In fact, conspiracy itself rarely (if ever) amounts to more than an advantageous commercial/power consolidation decision which has pronounced detrimental impacts on others while benefiting those who perpetrate it.  Evil has nothing to do with it, its simply the ultimate expression of the behaviour demanded by the world we live in.  Namely, getting ahead at the expense of all others.
Once you demystify it and eliminate evil out of the equation, you see that so-called conspiracy exists all around us.  After all, who among us has not been screwed out of earnings or exploited or robbed?  We typically don’t attribute these actions against us to conspiracy, but this has less to do with their dissimilarity from formal notions of conspiracy (i.e. shadowy, behind closed doors, nefarious dealings) than it does with our lack of imagination when extrapolating the consequences of the actions of ourselves and others.
Another such razor, and likely the more famous of the two, is Occam’s Razor.   Although there are more nuanced aspects to this maxim, it is most widely understood as, “The simplest explanation is (often) the best.”  And sure, why not?  We can all conjure in our minds images of some complex lie that was told to us to obfuscate the truth.
But think how easily this maxim can be manipulated to discredit alternate, often more plausible explanations.  For example, you have often heard me rail against superstitious concepts like good and evil, but they serve as much simpler explanation for human behaviour than things like systems theory or sociological studies.  So, should Occam’s Razor be applied here?
Similarly, early explanations of men in the sky (gods) are much more simplistic than concepts like gravitation, electro-magnetism et al., but should Occam’s Razor, or more accurately Occam’s Razor as it is widely (mis)understood, be applied uniformly because it sounds true?
Of course not.
Now I must qualify what I am saying by mentioning one of my favourite quotations from the samurai, Musashi“If you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things”
Fractals, dude!
It’s the difference between saying that some countries are wealthy due to better governance, mineral wealth and scientific progress, and saying that some countries are wealthy due to a global system based on differential advantage.  Notice how both explanations are very simple but only the latter serves to explain socioeconomic divisions at the regional, municipal and individual levels as well (After all, you can’t explain the financial disparity between two next-door neighbours by making reference to better governance, mineral wealth and scientific progress).  It is this simplicity, that of having a single explanation which can be applied to all levels of the phenomena being discussed which I think should be gleaned from Occam’s Razor.
Now I started out writing this post aiming to point out the inherent lies in some of our taken-for-granted turns of phrase and truisms, but it ended up being more of call to be aware of how to judiciously apply your truisms, because these statements (the ones examined and others) do hold at least a kernel of truth if nothing else.  But if you misapply truth you might as well be lying.


-Andre Guantanamo

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Lessons From Star Trek

My Friends,
   This morning while waiting in the doctor’s office I picked up a copy of Maclean’s from this past September.  It was an issue commemorating the ten year anniversary of 9/11.  It profiled the lives of those who had been affected in some way by the incident.  Soldiers, politicians, locals and one Maher Arar.  His case is a few years old and most might be familiar with it, but I had only a cursory knowledge of the details.  I became angry while reading about how this man (a Canadian citizen) endured torture for a year in his native Syria all because he fit the profile of a terrorist (male of Middle Eastern descent who traveled a lot and had a proficiency with computers).  What really got to me was reading about the aftermath of his ordeal; I began to cry when I read how he had returned home a “broken man,” a jumpy and nervous shadow of his former self.  This I think is the real tragedy of the story, and it reminded me of a passage from W.H. Auden’s poem, “On the Shield of Achilles.”

“They were small/
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame/
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride/
And died as men before their bodies died.”

   Throughout all of the debates about torture we have had to endure (I find it offensive that its even debated) this point about its after-effects on the victim is noticeably absent (I have my theories why but that’s a story for another day).  When torture is debated, the focus is never about the permanent damage done to the individual, but rather the legal aspects (is torture a violation of human rights?/are terrorists subject to legal protections?) or the strategic aspects (torture does/does not work for gathering information).  All too often the effects on the person are not brought up.  Best case scenario, if you are are deemed to have been wrongully detained and tortured, the adverse effects are simply quantified and monetary compensation is made (p.s. The going rate for extraordinary rendition if you are a Canadian citizen is apparently 10 million dollars and an apology from Stephen Harper).
   I think what irks me most is that around the time that this happened (2002 to 2003), any number of people would have thought it better to be safe than sorry, and would have supported Arar’s detainment and deportation to Syria, even if reluctantly.  In the midst of crisis our better judgment apparently goes out the window and we will cosign all sorts of human rights infringements under the pretense of increasing security.  I think the following clip will explain just how serious an issue this is and how indignant we should all be about the lives that are ruined in the name of “freedom.” 
   A little backstory: in this episode of Star Trek: TNG, a Romulan spy (the Federation is at war with the Romulans) has been exposed and a military tribunal convenes and begins using “insinuation and innuendo” to cast suspicion on everyone.  One young unfortunate, Simon Tarsus has been singled out for lying on his Starfleet application and saying that he had a Vulcan grandparent when he actually had a Romulan grandparent (the two look similar).  Well Captain Picard don’t take no mess, and as he realizes that his ship has become the setting for a deplorable witch-hunt he elucidates upon the ideals that make the Federation what it is.  Enjoy.

   Upon reading over what I have just written it seems that I have talked about both paranoia and torture.  While each merit their own discussion I did not feel the need to treat this as two separate entries because I believe the former progresses naturally into the latter, and thus both are related.
   Someday in the future we or one of our allies will be attacked again by alleged terrorists.  There will be suspicion, mistrust and perhaps another futile war.  We would all do well to remember the mistakes made in the aftermath of 9/11 when we seek to vilify a particular group or silently assent to morally repugnant war measures.  I will leave you with Captain Picard’s words as I feel they succinctly encapsulate what I am trying to say:
“The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged.”
Stay Thirsty,
-Andre Guantanamo



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