The Age of Balance

kurt staring at the sky

We live in an age of wonders.

We live in an age of turmoil.

We live in an age of transformation.

We live in an age of destruction.

Each one of those sentences is true, 4 strands that co-exist in the DNA of our reality. It’s easy to handpick a number of examples to validate each assertion. Space travel and the curative power of modern medicine are certainly wonders. Turmoil rages in the Middle East as well as in the corridors of Washington, D.C. The internet and new technology is transforming the world into something never before seen in human history. And technology, like bombs, or the results of our technology, such as pollution, are capable of greater levels of destruction than any other historical era could have even imagined.

Optimists and pessimists can cherry pick a bushel’s worth of evidence to support their personal predisposition, and sometimes the same piece of evidence can be used by both to support their respective arguments (the internet is both the greatest achievement of humanity, and our likely undoing, depending on the messenger). Everything is going to kill us. Everything is going to save us. Just you wait and see.

Not Optimists Vs. Pessimists. Optimists and Pessimists

[Note: Portions in red discuss current political happenings. If you are such a person who finds such topics unbearable, feel free to skip.]

Place me firmly in the optimist camp. I’ve lived through enough faux-apocalypses and read about enough historical ones to cast a weary glance at anyone whose predictions are death, destruction and doom. Like cockroaches, we survive.

I’m also a pragmatist, though, so I understand that oftentimes it’s people freaking out about a potential catastrophe that helps us avert it. In recent memory, the ‘Y2K‘ problem is probably one of the most famous cataclysmic events that never happened, now nothing more than a punchline. What gets lost in the discussion of Y2K’s uneventful arrival is that people had been working on addressing the potential problems for months and years before January 1st, 2000. Was all the doomsaying for naught? Perhaps, but we can never know what would have happened if some people hadn’t taken the threat seriously and sought solutions.

Society needs optimists and pessimists. Just like society needs liberals and conservatives. As an optimistic liberal, pessimistic conservatives annoy the living hell out of me quite frequently, but that doesn’t mean I think they shouldn’t exist. I’m predisposed to role my eyes when someone predicts destruction ahead, but I think it’s good that people take such prophecies seriously enough to address them and hopefully find solutions. A pessimist with solutions is mighty handy to have around.

Pessimists without solutions, on the other hand, are dangerous.

This is why the government Shutdown/Obamacare kerfuffle is so fingers-on-a-chalkboard aggravating to me. Ted Cruz and his compatriots claim that the Affordable Care Act is hurting people, not helping. This may or may not be true (the evidence suggests that there are some negative effects being felt now, but time will hopefully rectify those issues), but defunding the program doesn’t solve any problems for 2 reasons: Obamacare still exists, defunded or not, and even if you eradicate it, no Republicans are offering any alternative that will help fix the increasingly unsustainable healthcare crisis in this country.

Ted Cruz and John Boehner are pessimists without a solution.

The Balance

American history is the story of finding balance, swinging too far one way and swinging back, always in search of the sweet spot. We are constantly attempting to maintain a balance between liberty and control that doesn’t collapse into anarchy or succumb to tyranny. We enjoy the progress of liberalism, but conservatism attempts to uphold a recognizable society. We embrace technology but maintain a constant vigil against its more dangerous and excessive applications.

Every election cycle in this country brings about op-eds about how our 2-Party system is bad for democracy, keeping out the smaller voices. The assumption, presumably, is that if only the Green Party or the Libertarians were given the same platform as the Republicans and Democrats, they would help change the conversation. This belief is, to be blunt, stupid. The Green Party is just the Democratic Party as your crotchety, conservative father would describe it. And Libertarianism is the worst idea since unsliced bread. Neither one of these parties is ever going to capture a substantial minority in the House or the Senate, and certainly not a majority nor the White House.

Democrats and Republicans represent generic versions of the most common political stances. If you want a representative 3rd party, you don’t go to an extreme, you go to the middle.

We actually have a 3-Party system now, and it’s a disaster. The Tea Party is called a wing of the Republican party, but the divisions within the GOP reveals how erroneous that description is. The Tea Party and the Republicans might agree on a great deal of policies (number 1: destroy Obama), but they are about as unified a party as oil and water. That’s not to suggest that gridlock hasn’t always existed in our government, but this is probably the first time in our nation’s history where such an impasse can only be broken by a majority of 1 party siding with the opposition party against their supposed allies.

Our political system is unbalanced right now and it’s a disaster.

Proving a Point 2

The Pendulum

While I believe it is important to maintain balance, I don’t think it’s something that requires concentrated effort to accomplish. We swing left and right, back and forth, and an equilibrium results, albeit one that never quite settles into stasis (which, I would argue, is vital for the continued growth of our society and species). History’s pendulum is a perpetual motion machine, the engine for all of our advancements.

We will never achieve a perfect middle ground, nor should that be our goal. Instead, we should continue to seek a society and world that allows room for opposition. I’m never going to be anything but a card-carrying Liberal, but that doesn’t mean I want Conservatives to be silenced. Quite the contrary, a nation built on nothing but unbridled liberalism sounds just as terrible as one built solely around conservatism. The promise of America has always been that it’s a land where the pendulum swings freely.

As long as that remains the case, consider me an optimist.

Fake Women Don’t Have Curves

I’m not sure when I first heard the phrase, “Real women have curves,” but I do know that it’s always struck me as odd.

I understand it, of course. Both as a physiological point of true femininity and a feminist statement about body image, I get why the message is out there. Our culture definitely puts a heavy emphasis on the appearance of women and little girls are raised up often being pressured to pursue a difficult (if not flat-out impossible) standard of beauty.

The common refrain is that “these days” we expect women to be stick figures with barely any curves, whereas in the past (ah, the nostalgia) we used to think women with a little meat on them were beautiful. Remember Marilyn Monroe?

American Masters: Marilyn Monroe

That icon of beauty would be considered a heffer by today’s standards, or at least that’s the common wisdom.

But this “fact” ignores a couple of things. One, while Monroe for a few years was THE torchbearer for Hollywood beauty, she wasn’t the only one. And two, she really wasn’t that big. People talk about her like she was Roseanne Barr. Hardly. She had some thickness to her, but she was still rather svelte, even by “today’s standards” (whatever those are).

You know who else was a Hollywood superstar in the same years that Marilyn was going around being all Ms. Fatty McFatcheeks? Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey Hepburn

Marilyn might have been the bigger star for her looks alone, but no one was going around calling Aubrey Hepburn an ug-o.

Here is my admission: While I think Marilyn was a gorgeous woman, I personally feel Audrey was one of the most beautiful women to ever grace a negative. The wonderful thing about this world is that both beautiful women can exist and they don’t undermine the other.


Let’s fast forward to our modern day, where the only women we’re forced to be attracted to are anorexic sticks. At least, that’s what I keep hearing. The fashion industry only uses models with bodies like teenage boys who puke up every meal while their ribs stick out from behind their -A cup breasts.

But wait, men are berated for being obsessed with bimbos with big, fake boobs. So, what is it? Are men into big-titted whores or translucent Skeletors?

Is it possible that men aren’t actually one size fits all and some of us like women with curves and some of us like skinny women and even more of us like both, depending on a multitude of factors? No, that can’t be it, men aren’t that complex.


The problem I’ve always had with the phrase “real women have curves” is that it’s insanely sexist, both to men and women. First, it implies that women need a counterattack against all the mindless cavemen who only drool over runway models (pro tip: It’s mostly gay men picking those models, not straight dudes). The truth is, males, the multifaceted gender that can’t be summed up in sitcom tropes, actually like women of all sizes.

Jennifer Lawrence, Aubrey Plaza, Christina Hendricks

The above women probably draw about equal shares of salacious attention from male internet commentators, though, admittedly, I haven’t done the research. Jennifer Lawrence, Aubrey Plaza and Christina Hendricks couldn’t be any more different in body types (other than, of course, all being white), yet they all play into male sexual fantasies.*

Men don’t need to be told that women can have curves, we are all very aware of it.

But the truly sexist aspect of the “real women” phrase is aimed at women. What an odd notion this is: a woman is only ‘real’ if she has curves. So all those naturally thin women who have small breasts and/or straight hips are clearly not “real women.” What a gross and utterly hateful way to supposedly assert feminist strength.

It always bothers me when, in an attempt to battle one societal ill, a group swings in the complete opposite direction and creates an equally vile counterattack. The worst part is that this disenfranchisement of ‘skinny women’ (and I’m not talking about thin, Victoria’s Secret Supermodels, I’m talking about true skinny women) has spread to men. Those ‘Gender Study’-taking, enlightened males who would never insult a heavyset woman feel no compunction when mocking a naturally skinny woman as being a ‘skeleton’ or ‘gross.’

Is this really better? Is this actually helping?

I get it. When a person is made to feel bad about themselves, the first reaction is to lash out against someone else. But this natural instinct has solidified into a movement where skinny women, women who can no more naturally change their bodies than ‘fat’ women can, have suddenly become open target for our societal mockery.

Progress? I think not.

If you want to celebrate the women with curves, celebrate the women without them, too.

As for me, big or small breasts, hips or not, I am forever a leg man.

*A conversation like this almost necessarily must reduce any female examples to their purely physical appeal. All of these women are very talented in their art, but for the purpose of the conversation at hand I’m merely focusing on the physical.

Socialism and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Karl Marx

As we march towards the Secret Muslim Totalitarian Socialist Society, it seems that the earmarks of Socialism are everywhere. Taxes, an institution of civilization that have always been begrudgingly accepted as part of living in a community that serves public needs, are now “Taking from us to give to them.” Social Welfare programs, created to help keep fellow citizens from falling through the cracks into utter ruin, are now nothing more than scams used by The Lazy (code for Black People) to milk the hard work of True Americans.

I know all of this is true because I have coworkers that told me so. One of these particular True Americans ranted about how he always sees these welfare rats driving around in nice cars, never working. “They” are lazy and will never do any real work as long as society keeps supporting them. This is, generally, the Conservative standpoint, and it has its roots in a sociological understanding of Game Theory, specifically the version known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Via Wikipedia:

The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992), presenting it as follows:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

Or put another way:

How does this play out in society? Pretty simple in a system like ours. We would all be better off if everyone contributed their fair share, allowing us all to equally partake of the mutual benefits. Alternatively, we could all refuse to work and then society would crumble. The more realistic scenario is in between, a society where some people work and others do not and those who don’t (or don’t work as hard as others) benefit disproportionately.

Selfishness pays off, as long as some people are not selfish.

This is the reality of civilization. Not Socialism, civilization. Socialism (government mandated communism) actually gets around this problem by basically turning its citizens into slaves for the state. This is why I don’t want a Socialist society, and it’s why the U.S. is in no way Socialist.

This fear of ‘moochers’ is rational and based in established understandings of human nature, which is why I can sympathize with the Conservative view. But the far Right response to the problem strikes me as a kind of political Cold War in reverse, in which we strip our government further and further of all social programs and “entitlements” until the federal government is toothless and as symbolic as the British Monarchy and we return to the failed version of America that existed briefly under the Articles of Confederation.

It didn’t work then, it won’t work now.

So, what (the Conservative asks), we just let the moochers win?

Socialism In The Wild

While at work the other night, it struck me: I’m watching a miniature Socialist system and it’s exactly what the Conservatives fear. At my restaurant, the servers all pool their tips. It doesn’t matter if you serve 10 tables and the other server(s) only has 5, at the end of the night everyone splits the tips evenly. There is a logic to this sort of system (it doesn’t punish a server for having a particularly needy table) and generally it works well. A server has their own tables, but if they can help another table they should.

There’s no denying, though, this system also works in the favor of a selfish server who only looks out for him or herself. Since there are managers, food runners and other servers to do work, if one particular server chooses to do the bare minimum to get through the shift, it’s almost invariable that one of the other workers will be forced to pick up their slack and the lazy server’s pay will suffer none for it.

Remember that coworker I mentioned earlier, the one who is terribly annoyed by the moochers on welfare driving nicer cars than him? Let’s call him Cal. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Cal is milking the Socialist Tip system at work. He only takes food to a table if it’s his own, and usually when he sees a food tray coming he walks the other way. He’ll let a dirty tray of dishes build up and wait for a food runner to take it instead of just caring it back himself. And at the end of the night when the side work must be done, he disappears for upwards of twenty minutes.

But at the end of the shift, Cal’s share of the tip pool is no lesser. If Cal worked harder, it’s likely the guests would get better service and, thus, give bigger tips, but even if that wasn’t the case, working harder would get everyone out faster. In other words, everyone working together benefits everyone, but everyone else working hard while Cal twiddles his thumb benefits only him.

How is this allowed to happen? Shouldn’t someone call him out on it? Shouldn’t the management step in? Of course, and Cal has been called out on it, but the management is largely ineffectual. Cal knows that the managers are usually distracted and too busy doing other things to pay attention to work ethic.

Imagine both the stereotypical Conservative and Liberal responses to this problem. Liberals might suggest the restaurant add another manager whose sole job was watching the servers and making them work fairly. This manager would cost the restaurant more money to basically babysit adults who would resent the ever present eye. On the other hand, the Conservative would abolish all management, saying, “Hey, we’re all adults, we can govern ourselves.” Now there’s no one but servers on the floor and it becomes an everyone for themselves Wild Wild West.*

Neither solution is ideal. Neither solution is really even feasible. But in our politics, this seems to be the two choices we are left with as both sides of the debate are seemingly moving more and more extreme in their positions.

There is a middle ground, though, and I think both the Republicans and the Democrats will come to it when (if) they stop listening to their extremist factions (in reality, the leftist extremists have rarely had any real political power, certainly not in the way the Tea Party has; Obama is pretty damn Centrist).

The restaurant doesn’t need more management, it needs better management. Maybe that means paying a little more to either a) train the management or b) bring in stronger talent, but that cost wouldn’t be nearly as much as hiring a whole other manager. On the opposite side, once that better management is in place, we need to cut off the moochers. Have a server that consistently and blatantly abuses the system? Stop giving him shifts, especially on the busy nights, and if the problem is bad enough, lose him altogether. There are plenty of people looking for work, and some will work hard to earn it.

This sort of compromise doesn’t appeal to people on the edges of the debate, but for the rational middle this is an effective way to eliminate the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Will it be perfect? No, no system is, especially when you add in millions of independent factors with minds of their own. However, a solution that allows us to preserve a social safety net while cracking down on moochers is truly a win/win.

How does this play out in the real world? Well, it will require more of “our tax dollars” being spent to patch up the holes in the welfare system, but in the end that will make the system more effective, allowing these programs to fulfill their promise: Keeping the poor and downtrodden from falling between the cracks long enough to get on their feet and become productive members of our True American Capitalist Utopia. More productive citizens benefits everyone, even the rich (especially the rich).

In other words, we have to spend money to make money.

There will always be selfish people in this world, and no system of government will ever change that. But having no system of government will only allow that selfishness to spread like a disease. There is a reason we as a species came together to form civilizations and, eventually, governments. Left unchecked, our natural selfishness will kill us.

It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating: The solution to our selfishness is not more or less government, but more effective governance.

Give Em Something

*The other Conservative response could loosely be called Privatization: Get rid of the tip pool and just have everyone earn their own. I’ve worked in both types of restaurants, and while there is an appeal to not sharing one’s tips, there are plenty of ways this sort of system can be abused and plenty of ways that circumstances can cheat a particular server. When you work in a restaurant (or live in a society), there is no such thing as being truly, completely autonomous.

Cynicism & the Death of a Celebrity

“The talk of the ignorant is like the rumblings which issue from the belly.” ~ Demetrius the Cynic

This weekend, as we all know by now, Amy Winehouse died.  Likely an overdose, though from what I’ve read, cause of death hasn’t been confirmed.  As a very public drug addict, death by addiction has the feeling of inevitability; even  more so now that she joins the 27 club.

In response to the news, I posted this comment on my Facebook:

Amy Winehouse is dead. Now it's time for the usual FB cycle: 
24 hours of "So sad" posts followed by a week of cynical jokes mocking her.

Probably inevitably, the responses to this comment mostly missed my point.  The misinterpretation was that I found grief ridiculous and that cynicism was the rational response to this famously trainwrecked celebrity’s death.  In fact, what I meant was that 24 hours of grief followed by immediate derision is a horrific response to the passing of someone, famous or not.  We, as a culture, seem incapable of sustaining a genuine emotion and we mock and deride any outpouring of it.

My problem isn’t with those who feel sad for the passing of Amy Winehouse (or any celebrity), my criticism is for the kneejerk cynicism that must immediately turn every public death into an attempt to one-up each other’s blasé attitude.


I think my atheism and penchant for dark, at times even morbid humor has given people the impression that I am a cynic.  The assumption being, since I have rejected the ‘feel good’ story of Christianity and enjoy a healthy dose of perversity I must think everything is stupid and worth mocking.

Well, that assumption is stupid and worth mocking.

Let’s set something straight:  I’m a realist, and I balance my innate personal pessimism with my general societal optimism.  I am always planning for the worst case scenario in my own life, expecting misfortune just around the corner.  It’s the rational approach to life’s uncertainties.  It is better to be prepared for a downturn that may never come than to depend on a lucky turn that will likely never materialize.

But when it comes to the overall evolution and progress of our society and species, I’m an eternal optimist.  I don’t buy into anybody’s apocalyptic predictions, whether they be religious or political, conservative or liberal.  Dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels and movies always ring hollow to me. 

In the wake of a Great Depression, Adolf Hitler, the Cold War and other great scares of the 20th century, writers predicted a variety of nightmarish futures.  Futures that never came to pass.

We live in hard times now, so naturally there is an abundance of doomsayers proclaiming the end of our society, but all I can do is look at the historical context of the hysteria and remain unmoved.  We will overcome.

But you’d be hard pressed to hear that kind of optimism coming from your television personalities.  Cynicism is the de rigueur attitude of talking heads and tastemakers (maybe it always has been?), and I have no use for it.

You Non-Contributing Zero

Cynicism is a useless stance.  It creates nothing, adds nothing, offers no solutions.

A cynic looks at problems (or potential problems) and merely points them out, almost gleefully.  It’s like a guy sticking his finger into your bullet wound just to poke and prod. The cynic would rather tear down than build up, and relishes the failures of others.  The cynic looks at Amy Winehouse and says, “Eh, saw that coming.”  Well, congratulations Miss Cleo, that astute observation (after the fact) was worth the price of admission.

Cynicism Masquerading as Critique

The cynic appears in many forms these days.  Perhaps most annoying to me is the cynicism that tries to pass itself off as the aged and wizened critic of artistry.  Maybe you’ll recognize this particular form of cynicism:

“Music today is terrible!”  Or, “Kids television is crap compared to what we had!” 

This ignores the fact that most of us are only a decade or so out from being ‘kids’ and that people said the same thing about our music and television.  You know why you don’t like kids television?  Because you’re not a kid.  You shouldn’t like it.  Stop trying to remain  a child and grow up.  And stop fetishizing your youth as if it was the best time of your life and nothing will ever be better.  If that’s really your outlook, I feel sad for you.  Try living with the belief that the best years of your life are still ahead of you.

The creation of art is going to keep happening, whether you appreciate it or not.

Cynicism is only interested in criticizing, never appreciating.  There is certainly a place for intelligent criticism in this world.  Reading articulate art criticism, for instance, is how one becomes an informed and well-rounded consumer of art.

An unfortunate drawback of the internet, though, is that in its democracy it has given voice to a million ignorant critics and very few educated or informed art lovers.

Personally, while I could talk about bands or movies I hate, I’d much rather and more enthusiastically talk to you about gorgeous songs and awe-inspiring films.  When you can intelligently discuss the merits of art, then you can legitimately discern when they are lacking.  But our age of cynics would rather shit on everything indiscriminately, as if the sole mark of being a critic is the ability to hate on things.  (My favorite film critic is the New York Times A.O. Scott, partially because we have similar film tastes, but mostly because his enthusiasm and love for the medium shines out of everything he writes.)

Ironically, no one is more cynical than early 20-somethings who have just had their first taste of freedom from high school and their parents.  They think because they’ve done a few drugs and had a few fucks, maybe even backpacked Europe (on their parent’s dime), that they’ve seen it all, and it all sucks compared to some Platonic ideal that never existed.  Their voice of disdain pervades the internet, and thus our culture.

Good riddance.

Another odd strain of cynicism that I’ve seen rising lately is the Christian Cynic.  This is probably a reaction against the Naive Christian, the easily ridiculed punching bag for rationalists and cynics alike.  The Christian Cynic is indistinguishable from most of the negativity of the world (usually with a Right Wing bent), a kind of chameleon of faith who wants to hold onto the keys to the kingdom while getting to join in with the fearmongering.

Maybe they’ve forgotten what it says in 1 Peter:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” 

We Atheists get blamed for the decline of Christianity (and it is declining), but I think the true answer lies in that verse.  Christians don’t seem to be all that hopeful (certainly not the sect that holds up Glenn Beck as a voice of reason), and those that are hopeful tend to beat that ‘hope’ over our heads by claiming that we non-believers can’t possibly be as happy and content as them.

(Yes, there are exceptions, hopeful Christians who are kind and considerate of other beliefs or non-beliefs.  Sheesh, I have to say this every time.)

The Danger

Cynicism is the destructive force that will undermine our culture.  But your cynicism can’t destroy hope.  Certainly not mine.  I will succeed on my own merits.

The only danger your cynicism poses is to yourself.  You risk living a life devoid of beauty.  You put yourself in a position to miss out on just how amazing the world we live in truly is.  And it also makes you look like a prick, because while you cynically dismiss everything around you, there are people in this world with legitimately dire situations who don’t have access to all the perks that your cushy American life provides.

If you want to waste your life hating on things you know nothing about and whining about a society that is as close to utopia as our species has ever known, than go for it.  Be proud of the absolute nothing that you bring to the table.

I think Louie says it best:

And in memory of Amy Winehouse whose death is a tragedy, even if you’re too cynical to see it, a friend’s genuine tribute: