Sunday, February 25, 2007

On the joy of being rational

I really like to use reason - to be logical about things.

Of course, that should come as no great surprise; logic is a critical factor of success in my chosen line of work: software programming.

In fact, all of cyberspace (as well as everything that humans manufacture from the "raw materials" of the world) is based on and needs reasoning, logic, rationality to work.

So, yes, sure, "cold, hard logic" is required to get beyond mere survival, mere existence.

But it is also a lot of fun. Fun, you say? How can it be fun to think about things like:

"If a = b and b = c, then a must surely equal c."

Well, heck, you don't have to ask me.

Ask the millions of people who are not software developers, who do not apply logic so explicitly and knowingly in their work do, but who, in fact, express their joy of being rationale on a daily basis.

I am talking about Sudoko players (and players of other logic puzzles). Same process as programming, but it is a game, and almost addictively enjoyable.

So that's one aspect of the joy of being rationale. I would like to offer another: applying logic and rationality to the activities of human beings to help clarify one's view of the world and how it works.

Today, I spent an hour or so shoveling off the crusty, heavy, wet snow/sleet/hail that fell last night in Chicago. As I did so, I found myself thinking about Martin Luther King and Martin Luther King Day. I have no idea why, I just did.

MLK is universally acknowledged to be a great hero (well, at least as universally acknowledged as is global warming).

And I support that sentiment. He was an incredibly courageous, smart, eloquent and compassionate human being. He was, in short, a good guy.

But you can't have good guys without bad guys, right? That only makes sense. That's only logical.

So who were the bad guys back then? Sure we always hear about Sheriff Eugene "Bull" Connor and others like him, who were in the front lines of maintaining segregation and Jim Crow laws. Who fired the guns, did the lynching, held the water cannons, and released the dogs.

But Connor was not a leader. He was doing his job. He was elected to his job and he was paid, he was protected and he protected in turn. "Elected?" you say to yourself. "Ah, I see where Steven is heading. All those people in the South were bad guys."

Yes and no. Anyone who actively supported segregation certainly was a "bad guy." And those who stood by in silence, whether out of fear or out of secret loathing, were also "bad guys," to some extent.

But let's fact it: most people living in the South then (and now) -- and not just the South -- had no power. The direction and content of their lives were largely determined by the those with real power: those with money, those with property, those who made sure that certain people were elected and not elected, those who financed the KKK and the Christian Conservative Council, as well as the City Councilmen.

The way I figure it, if MLK is a good guy, then the real bad guys of those days were the so -called leaders of our society. The CEOs of almost every corporations, the publishers of almost every newspapers, and certainly the politicians they put into place to write and pass laws that suited them and benefited them.

Isn't that obvious? Isn't this nothing more than simple logic?

Surely, we know how the world works, in our most cynical of hearts. We know that most Congresspeople are in the pockets of the lobbyists who provide most of the funds (and junkets to the Carribbean) that fill their election campaign coffers. We know that, more than ever before, the laws passed by Congress and signed by President Bush are in large part written by representatives of the companies that will benefit from those laws. Think: energy bill and Dick Cheney. Think: hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent on "mark ups" and sweet deals brokered behind closed doors in final "negotiating" sessions.

We also know that when things modern concepts like the 40 hour work week are finally enshrined in law, they are the result of massive social movements, of people who often sacrifice their lives, to bring about a modicum of justice in the world. And the reason they must do this is that they fight against the so-called leaders of our society who push back, who do everything they can for as long as they can to keep their power and wealth as concentrated as possible -- in their own hands.

Now, you might say, "Hey, that is just human nature. Dog eat dog. Nothing you can do about it."

And you might be right. There might not be much we can do about it -- except to work long and hard (decades, centuries) to push back against the most brutal aspects of human society, and make it a little bit more humane (like giving women and African Americans the vote, ending slavery, etc.), just a little bit at a time (and of course, there are periods of setbacks -- such as life under George W. Bush, during which we have seen our civil rights greatly eroded).

But at least while this is happening, at least while there are some people (and I am not so presumptuous as to include myself in this group) who are willing to sacrifice their well-being and often their lives for such noble goals, at least while there are heroes in the making and heroes to be saluted in the past, at least we can be honest and open about not just who the "good guys" were (and are), but also who the "bad guys" were (and are).

They live amongst us now.

They reap billions of dollars in unearned and outrageous compensation, while thousands of children sharing their town, city or state go hungry.

They have cozy dinners and meetings with Vice President Cheney, whenever they are in town.

They get your Congressperson on the phone for a chat whenever they feel the need.

They urge us to drink responsibly while pushing every irresponsible button in our brains.

And they have little or no conception of what it means to be hungry without the prospect of eating, ill without the prospect of receiving medical care, cold without the prospect of getting warm.

They are the most successful people in our society. We are taught to see them as role models, as the ideal to which we should strive. And they are, in so many ways, monsters.

At least that's what rationality leads me to believe.

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