Thursday, April 26, 2012

Eat Some Bugs. Naturally.

I sometimes worry that my rants against lazy language are unnecessary and a little silly.  What's the harm, right?  But then something happens that totally vindicates my stance on the matter and I am once again motivated to be pedantic on the internet!

See if we get lazy with our language, if we get too reliant on those little mental shortcuts we love so much, bad things happen!  We get exploited!  We are deceived!  We eat bugs!

Does this taste buggy to you?

Yeah that's right, I said bugs.  See, recently people were shocked and outraged to find out that the secret ingredient in Starbucks' Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino, Strawberry Banana Smoothie, raspberry swirl cake, birthday cake pop, mini donut with pink icing and red velvet whoopee pie was: insects.  They used crushed cochineal insects to give their strawberry products a nice pink colour.  Naturally once this got out, vegans and vegetarians were upset that their soy frappuccinos had animal products in them, Jews and Muslims were upset that their food wasn't Kosher/Halaal and basically everyone was a little grossed out by the whole thing.  So once the story broke, petitions were signed and Starbucks have now found a vegetable alternative to the beetlejuice. 

So why use the bugs?  Well it doesn't say but I couldn't help but notice that the people at Starbucks kept pointing out how these bugs were a natural food colouring.  Obviously just adding actual strawberries didn't give the food a pink that really popped so they needed something to colour it with.  Obviously they couldn't just add artificial colouring because artificial is baaaaaaad.  So they had to use something natural.  Therefore bugs.  Bugs are 100% natural.

See marketers are prohibited by law to straight up lie to us but that doesn't mean that they're not messing with us.  Turns out you can be fooled by someone telling you the truth.  But I don't blame the marketers.  We are to blame.  We are the ones who got lazy, we're the ones who chose short, easy answers over the whole, often complicated, truth.

Fat free tea.  Just because it's technically true doesn't mean they're not fucking with you.

Until we move past the stupid, simplistic notion that Natural = Good and Artificial = Bad, we will continually end up in ridiculous situations like this.  Natural is not the same as good.  Arsenic is natural.  Hemlock is natural.  Snake, spider, scorpion and blowfish poisons are all natural.  Natural can be really really bad!  On the other hand, houses are artificial (they don't grow on trees after all!) and so are the clothes we wear, the glasses that restore our sight as well as plenty of other good and necessary things.  Just because something is artificially manufactured doesn't automatically make it bad for you!  Saying something like "this product is all natural, it's not full of chemicals" is a completely meaningless sentence.  Like I said, "natural" doesn't necessarily make it good and also EVERYTHING IS MADE OF CHEMICALS!!! 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Symbols are important, Women are not"

I love satire.  I really wish I was good at it because it is such a powerful tool.  When done right it's like weaponized laughter.  When done brilliantly it's a thermonuclear weapon of funny.  What else cuts through hypocrisy like satire?  What else in the world can deflate the powerful and their manufactured outrage with the same efficacy?  I guess the only real downside is that once you reach a certain level of hypocrisy you lose the ability to understand satire.  People who are addicted to outrage typically don't understand humour at all.  Umbrage junkies think "irony" is another word for "metallic".  But, if it doesn't cure the delusional, satire can at the very least vaccinate the rest of us against joining the ranks of the perpetually outraged.

That is why I'm a huge fan of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  I started watching it in 2010 and I haven't missed a single episode!  It keeps me both informed and entertained.  However some people refuse to be informed and don't know what entertainment is and so the clever satire of these shows tend to pass right over their heads.  Case in point, recently someone got really upset after The Daily Show did the following bit:

Now I can understand someone watching that and getting upset.  Here we are in the 21st century and greatest country in the 1st world finding new ways to treat women like they aren't even people!  States are passing one dehumanizing piece of legislation after the next each more ridiculously extreme than the one before.  Everyone should be upset!  Yet here we have one of the biggest and most influential news networks in the country flat out denying that this is even a problem.  That's pretty rich coming from Fox, a network that has yet to meet an issue too insignificant to become hysterical about.  Yet somehow someone saying "Happy Holidays" is a bigger problem than women forced by law to get intrusive medical procedures and using energy saving lightbulbs is more befitting of outrage than a doctor being legally able to lie to a pregnant woman.  But of course that was not what upset the perpetually outraged Catholic League president Bill Donohue.  He is upset because of this:

It's funny, you don't often get to see someone making the point by missing the point.  Donohue is now calling for a boycot of The Daily Show, calling it an "unprecedented assault on Christian sensibilities".  Yes, somehow the act of putting a reminder that Jesus came into the world via a vagina within the vicinity of an actual vagina is nothing less than an assault on Christianity.  I guess I just don't understand why he is so upset.  Are vaginas blasphemous?  Did the Virgin Mary not have such sacrilegious parts?  Pretty sure there would have been no baby Jesus in a manger if she didn't...

Seems to me that all these perpetually outraged conservative Christians have their priorities backwards.  They are fighting tooth and nail for the veneration of a symbol without giving a moment's thought about what the symbol represents.  Isn't the entire point of the Nativity that God cared about people?  Isn't the image of a manger (as opposed to a crib) supposed to be a symbol that God cares more about the well-being of people than He does about comfort, majesty, respect or riches?  How did they get to the point where the meaning is meaningless and the symbol is everything?  Why are they more outraged about a picture than about the violation of a human being?  Isn't the real assault on Christian sensibility the fact that a person is being treated like a thing all while simultaneously demanding reverence and respect for an actual thing?  Surely women are more sacred than graven images!  Symbols mean nothing if you lose touch with what they represent.  If people don't matter to you, if you have no respect for women and their rights then it doesn't matter how highly you value an image of the Nativity, you've completely missed the point.

I honestly don't get why this should be hard to grasp.  People matter.  Women are people.  Women matter.  Images?  They're just images.  If you are going to be judged on anything it will be on how you treated your fellow human beings, not how much respect you showed to a symbol.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Best Laid Plans of Real and Mythical People

I have loved stories from earliest childhood and I still do.  In fact, there's a small chance I may love them even more today than I did as a child.  While stories may not have the laser precision and focus of mathematics and science, they are nevertheless powerful tools for making sense of the world we live in.  The best thing about about a good story is that it can always surprise you by teaching you something new, something you never noticed before.

I had a moment like that regarding a story I really didn't like, the story of Job.  I'm sure anyone who has read the entire Bible would back me up on this, the book of Job is an absolute chore to read through!  There is a good reason most readings of Job only involve the first and last couple of chapters, sandwiched in between those you have about 40 of the toughest, driest, least appetizing chapters in the entire Bible.  I never appreciated chewing through those!  But it wasn't just the prose that was hard to swallow either, the book of Job also happens to be one of the most unpleasant stories in the entire Old Testament - and that is no mean feat!

So last week I got the opportunity to re-evaluate my opinion on the story of Job.  Someone asked the question "Is God a dick?" and I mentioned that the book of Job certainly makes Him look like one.  I don't mean it sort of makes God seem kind of dickish, I mean that the story of Job makes God look like a massive dick:

1) First off, God decides to destroy the life of a really good man to settle a childish bet that the devil kind of tricks Him into making.  First off, why would an all knowing God need to "test" someone?  Secondly, why should God care what the devil thinks?  Thirdly, to destroy someone in order to test their loyalty is something you would expect only from a complete psychopath! Can you imagine if a human parent decided to abandon their family for a year just to test if their kids loved them unconditionally? Or if a husband decided to act like an abusive alcoholic to prove to his co-workers that his wife really loves him no matter what? That’s a serious dick move!

2) After destroying Job’s life, God finally shows up and acts like an even bigger dick, basically acting like school principal dressing down a first grader for asking the wrong question.  I mean the worst kind of drunk on power school principal. He just uses His power and position to cower Job into silence basically. Instead of just offering some kind of comfort or explanation God instead taunts Job for having the audacity to even ask why this happened to him.

3) Then, after making Job feel like a total worm for even daring to question Him, God then goes on to threaten his friends – the ones who spent the entire book defending God’s honour by assuring Job that God is good and just and would never act out of petty spite.

Then there is the alleged “happy ending”. That is not a happy ending! Job lost ALL HIS CHILDREN! Children are not coffee mugs! You can’t just replace one if you broke one!  The fact that they were killed for such a trivial, bullshit reason just makes it worse.

However after getting all that off my chest, I realised that as terrible as the story may seem, there is actually something more there.  Stories, especially old stories, are what people used to make sense of the world.  Job may be the oldest book in the Bible so this is a very old story.  So what is it trying to tell me, really?  That God is a dick?  That might makes right?  Perhaps.  But this story also teaches a deeper truth:  that life is unfair and cruel, often because we are at the mercy of those more powerful than us and their whims. I think that’s kind of a timeless message.

Take for instance all the people who lost their homes, pensions and life savings in the recent economic downturn.  Just like Job, these people did nothing wrong.  Quite the opposite, they did all the right things!  They didn't waste their money, they didn't invest it in some get rich quick scam, they didn't give it to some fly by night operation.  No, they did what you are supposed to do, they took it to the best and brightest people in the financial sector.  The stable ones.  The safe ones.  The smart ones.  And they lost everything.  You know, kind of like Job.

I think that for the first time, I'm starting to appreciate Job.  His story is our story.  We live our lives the best we can, trying everything we know to ensure that nothing goes wrong and yet at the whim of the powerful, everything can go wrong for us.  And there is nothing we can do to stop it.  That is why you shouldn't trust anyone trying to sell you a magic charm that wards off bad fortune.  We have no control, all they are selling you is an illusion.  Positive thinking does nothing, neither does rebuking the devil, visualizing and speaking, naming and claiming or simply just following all the rules and being a good person.  You have no control.  With the stroke of a pen, someone higher up in the food chain than you can take it all away from you.  All you really can control is how you respond to it.

Does that sound depressing?  It does, doesn't it?  But it doesn't have to be.  I don't think the lesson here is that you shouldn't be good or that you shouldn't try to do what is right.  Rather I think the lesson is that you shouldn't be naive enough to think that being good buys you a get out of hardship card.  Trouble comes to all mankind.  When it does, who do you think is harder hit?  The one who realised that bad things are inevitable and prepared as well they could or the one who sent a donation to a televangelist and thought that would make them impervious to problems?

I love stories.  Even when they are kind of sobering.