Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Cult of Veganism



I’ve personally abstained from mammalian and bird meat for four years. In the middle of 2012, I decided to remove fish from my diet. And in the final two months—more or less—of that year, I became fully vegan. Given that the majority of my life was spent as an omnivore, I have now experienced the various aspects surrounding food on both the health/nutritional level and the ethical level. I’m no longer a vegan—as dairy and eggs are a part of my diet (provided they’re organic)—and it’s safe to say that I won’t be returning to that lifestyle for a long time—if ever. My reasoning was quite simple, when I began to really observe all that was going on, I came to the conclusion that I was falling into a circuit of belief—one that holds there to be a definable morality and, in many cases, a “narrative” in life.

As an atheist and skeptic, I’ve often fought and argued against the dominant positions that religion, faith, and spirituality holds on humanity. And I hold these to each be destructive, evil, and the cause of suffering and anguish. But what I’ve come to realize is that my most sincere and passionate enemy is in fact the idea that there’s a narrative behind life. This started to become apparent to me when I observed the course of certain things in my life: my parents’ divorce, my music “career”, my broken engagement, my fall from two religions. It became very clear that in every case, I’ve been told very convenient stories about how the world is supposed to work. In all of these, we human beings like to think there is a straight and narrow path—be it a happy marriage, a spiritual awakening and eternity in paradise, a famous and successful career in the music industry, etc. This is, I think, one of the most driving aspects behind a great deal of suffering people experience—the fact that life doesn’t follow a plot as it does in our fiction and story telling.

Narrative is very, very powerful. As Michael Shermer puts forth in The Believing Brain, “a good narrative story can tie [belief] together” (210). Here, he was specifically talking about conspiracy theories and used Oliver Stone’s film JFK as an example of how something can become particularly compelling with a plot as its aid—even if it’s founded on practically nothing to begin with. The truth of the matter is, we do love narrative. In the way that we always talk about our experiences in life, we try to tie it all together as if it were a written plot—and we often utilize music as if it’s our own personal soundtrack. Just listen to the way someone recounts their experience of a relationship and see how much they seem to mirror that of movies or stories in their words—yet, when we look at the entire story objectively, there is no plot and no underlying reason that any of it happened or didn’t happen in the first place. The reason why this occurs goes beyond what I’m trying to focus on here (and it’s implications are significantly greater.) But over time, I’ve begun to become convinced that there was a third religion that I got swept up in: Veganism.

Though I was only a vegan from a dietary standpoint for a couple of months, I had held it to be a respectable ideal for quite some time. I often aspired to “convert” to this much more extreme position. The reasons all made sense over time: I didn’t want to be involved in the process of the suffering of animals. I had no illusions that my actions were making a direct result (because they didn’t) but by not purchasing meat, I was, effectively, taking myself out of the chain of consumerism in the same way that a person who doesn’t drink doesn’t directly fund or take part in the alcohol industry.

But the problem is, as I began to realize, that I was yet again falling into narrative thinking. I wanted to think that human beings could match this ideal of “compassion” and live without causing suffering. It sounded nice. It sounded like my ideal picture of the world: where none suffered and that every sentient creature would experience the same quality of life. The problem is that this isn’t very realistic, and my seeming euphoria at believing such a thing does not, in fact, make it “true.” It would be a lot nicer to believe, for example, that humanity was actually the product of a divine creator and that we all really did have some kind of pure or inherent sense of morality or capacity to do things “justly” than to think that we’re nothing more than very lucky and talented animals who have learned how to do quite a few tricks. As I started to peal away the levels of narrative and wishful thinking involved in veganism, I began to note that it was in fact a very religious and idealistic stance and was densely packed with incredible biases and pseudo-logical thinking.

I won’t go through each of the false presumptions of veganism point-by-point here. I’m concerned more with the bigger picture of the whole concept and the solid fact that veganism, if it does anything, it does one thing exceedingly well: it divides people.

One thing that’s worth ardent criticism over in the vegan community is the extreme bigotry and arrogance that is rampant among its members. I’ll post a little bit of a comment made by someone on a vegetarian/vegan website:

“Stop promoting vegetarianism-VEGANISM is the way to address ALL Animal abuse and murder NOT vegetarianism-Do you idiots on here realise the confusion and contradictions you are causing in regard to Animal Rights- Hypocrites who constantly undermine the movement to end speciesism and establish Animal Rights.”

To claim that this individual’s logic is stupid wouldn’t be fair to stupid people. Though I tried to understand his stance, it was clear that there wasn’t any methodical logic to why he was saying what he was saying. Additionally, there wasn’t anything humble about it. The interesting thing about what he’s saying is that by simply analyzing his words, we can very easily see that it’s no different from any other kind of belief. He claims that there’s only “one true way” to get something and that anyone who disagrees is, for all intents and purposes, a “heretic.” It’s worth noting that nothing good has ever come out of such thinking in the entire course of human civilization. Though we can certainly label people as having incorrect views or being wrong—once we start insinuating that they are somehow inherently evil or against a grand order of the universe, we’re starting to walk the path of a zealot and eventually into chaos—and this is exhibited quite clearly by the actions of groups such as the ALF, and the funding PETA has given to convicted felons and arsonists. This is not a way to unify people and when you speak in such a way, whether or not there’s truth in your words, others will have a hard time understanding you. And there is a big difference between heated debate and this kind of communication—which for lack of a better term is nothing more than hate speech.
            
I’ll highlight another specific issue with regards to the vegan lifestyle and diet. Often, and quite accurately, vegans will criticize commercial and factory farming for its environmental and ecological problems. Methane is the third most common gas that is contributing to climate change and its levels are increasing due to the massive amounts of space we are using for slaughterhouses and feed lots. Animals produce waste, and when they are hoarded on the grand scale that we have in America, we will most certainly see environmental changes. This is all completely valid. However, not all aspects of the vegan diet actually address this problem and in many cases, contribute to it. Take for example, Omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are quite important in a healthy human diet. These can be found in fish and in eggs from grain fed chickens. Neither of these sources are vegan. Some plant based sources for Omega-3s are coconut milk and kiwis. Now both of these are quite easy to procure—especially so at the wonderful grocery stores we have in America and the Western World. But consider the fact that I live in New York City. At the time of my writing this, we are coming towards the end of winter here. I’m not anywhere near a place that’s going to locally grow coconuts or kiwis. What does this mean? Quite simply, if I’m to consume these products, they have to be transported. I really shouldn’t need to say anymore, but I will; in order to ship it here, we’re going to have to burn some fossil fuels in the process. Additionally, if I expect to purchase my coconuts at an affordable price, I have to do so while still providing an incentive for profit for the supplier—this means that it’s very likely that the cheapest means possible can and will be used to procure these items. I shouldn’t have to say anymore, but it’s more than likely that undocumented workers will end up picking these items--and if they're legal, working conditions will be poor in order to ensure the most profit with the cheapest amount spent on labor. Instead, if I consume food locally—whether or not it’s “vegan”—I will be doing less damage to the environment and supporting local businesses in the process.
            
This doesn’t mean that a non-vegan lifestyle is inherently better for the environment (or inherently better in general.) What it does imply, rather, is that there is—once again—no direct path or narrative in life that’s going to guarantee the desires of a given ideology.
            
Going back to morality, and the desire for human beings to treat animals better. Yes, that should be a goal and something to strive for. But one quick look around will clearly show that us clever humans have still yet to figure out how to treat each other any better or with more compassion or with dignity. How can we possibly expect to find solutions to treat other species with such respect when we can’t do it to ourselves? And efforts to label all meat eaters as the equivalent of sociopaths who enjoy torturing squirrels are asinine and potentially malicious at best.
            
As I’ve posed elsewhere before, if there was factual evidence to demonstrate that human beings did in fact need to eat meat to live (which has been scientifically shown to not be the case), the majority of vegans would still abstain from it and even go as far as to restrict the rights of other humans to eat meat as well. It is in this case, and there are others, that I view veganism of being its own cult and can no longer accept it as part of my identity.
             
-ej

Works Cited
Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011. Print.

Friday, January 18, 2013

I Don't Believe: A Quasi-Manifesto



Lately there seems to be this contagious and stultifying trend in which a normal debate about religion is lowered to arguing semantics. This tends to occur, usually, when a Theist tries to find something that would make Atheism as much of a belief as any other. This can get quite tiresome. But it seems to stem from mutual frustration of the Theist as they run up against a wall when speaking with a Skeptic. Now of course this isn’t to say that “running up against a wall” is a mandatory outcome of a debate for the person of faith, but usually it is the result of the Theist having to realize that they in fact are the one who has to prove something. It is not the responsibility of the Atheist to prove or disprove anything. Many unbelievers who have tried to “disprove” god or the supernatural will find themselves up against the impassable wall of faith. Though we can continue to explain the world with ever blossoming science, the Theists will always find new ways of inserting faith into the crevices that appear in the wake of recent discoveries.

So the tactic that the modern Theist seems to use is one of trying to show that “Atheism is a religion too.” This is done through all sorts of methods—some more ridiculous than others. The believer will try to label “science” as the faith of an Atheist—though this fails in the long run as science is a process of discovering the truth through new information, whereas faith is about taking in revealed or presumed truths about the universe which are never subject to question or change. In fact, this is the true difference between the believer and the skeptic. The believer looks at the universe with a predisposed bias; he must look at the world through the lens of seeing everything as god’s work, plan, or process. He comes to believe in his religion either from cultural upbringing or through emotional episodes where something “feels true.” The skeptic, on the other hand, views the world as objectively as possible. For her, the “truth” literally is “out there” and can only be seen by observation. Nothing is to be taken for granted, and nothing is to be assumed before interpreting stimuli. For the believer, the absence of a god is not an option. For the skeptic, everything is an option—and can only be shown to be a fact or respected theory through consistent and reliable information. So to compare Atheism and Theism as one would, say, Islam and Christianity—both being a similar process or thought, just the end result is a difference of opinion—would be foolish. They are wholly different in their function.

In all honesty, I have become completely indifferent, if not opposed, to specific terminology when it comes to belief or unbelief. The question I would put in place of this sloppy name calling would be as follows: “do you go through your day feeling that god or supernatural forces are in someway responsible for the universe?” There are three basic answers: No, I don’t know, and Yes. There are a few clever ones who try to squeeze in an “I don’t care,” but I assume that those who state this are merely in the “I don’t know” category. To say “I don’t care” is quite possibly the result of wanting to avoid the agonizing debates that can occur around this topic—which is completely understandable. But, to be fair, the idea of not caring about believing in a god or not is something worth addressing, but this goes outside the scope of this essay.

Be it Yes, No, or in between, whatever answer comes up from this question is worth patient and diligent scrutiny. Yes, even us often proud Atheists need to be sure that we’re abstaining from belief for personally valid reasons. We should never acquiesce to Atheism because someone else said so or “just because.” Likewise, I would hope the same for the believers. However, as many Atheists will often express, their lack of belief usually comes from investigating why they’d believe in a god in the first place.

The reasons for Atheism or Theism will always differ from person to person. And it is for this reason that blanketed terminology shouldn’t be used for anything more than a box to check on a census form. In discussion or debate, opposite sides have to be clear on the question I mentioned before and why they personally have reached their respective conclusion. This will hopefully clear the air of having to try and pinpoint what someone is by focusing on why they view the world the way they do. Additionally, this requires someone to explain their position methodically instead of just saying “I am a ___________.”

So therefore, I, Eric Jackson, go through my day not at all believing that a god or supernatural force is in someway involved. My reasoning is simple: I am expected to believe in such things only because of when and where I was born—and the details (such as whether one was the Son of God or not) would have been wholly different had I been born somewhere else. I am content with how science explains the world. I do not see reason to add ideas and concepts that cannot be tested or verified to the fields of study that have brought us medicine and the modern industrial world. My morality and ethics are determined by whether or not something causes another sentient creature to suffer. It is clear that an increase in secular values has in fact made the world a better place; everywhere I see that religion has a predominant role in government or society, I see tyranny. Should any demonstrable or physical evidence be discovered that shows a controlling force behind everything, I will happily accept this in my perspective. It is not my duty to disprove the existence of a creator, but rather it is the believer who must show proof. It is my goal as a human being to see to it that all other sentient creatures are brought the same standards of life that I would desire for myself—and religion has, throughout history, shown to be the complete antithesis of secular and liberal freedom that should benefit all.

-ej

Monday, December 31, 2012

Music Spotlight: Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY VII



Final Fantasy VII was one of the first video games I ever really dove into; it quickly became the standard by which I view games in general. The presentation* of the plot, the use of the Playstation’s hardware and visual style, and of course the game-play, all were done so exceedingly well that I’ve yet to find a game that matches it (I could name a few that get very close—but this one stands on its own.)

One thing that truly makes Final Fantasy VII so unique (even within the Final Fantasy series as a whole) is the music. It not only works amazingly with the plot and themes of various characters, but also stands excellently on its own.

The entire soundtrack from the game is available in both physical and digital media—but there is one slight problem with this.  The “Official” soundtrack is directly from the game—meaning midi-programmed synths. Now while these tracks are wonderfully nostalgic and impressive on their own, they do fall short of the increasing demand for high quality audio. Though there exist orchestral arrangements of various songs (from either Advent Children or various other games, as well as concert performances from the Distant Worlds series) composer, Nobuo Uematsu has put together a simply unbelievably collection of 13 classic tracks from the iconic game, all performed on solo piano in, Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY VII.

The fact that these pieces are done solely on the piano seems to do an amazing thing that I think a complete orchestra can’t—and it’s is something that works very well for those who know the game and the soundtrack very well. The solitary nature of the piano creates an added sense of poignancy and nostalgia that is powerfully moving and in some cases, haunting. “Aerith’s Theme” is one such piece, as is the “Main Theme.” “Aerith’s Theme” in particular is that much more heart wrenching with one instrument playing on its own. It instantly springs the memories of the “infamous” scene in VII, her date with Cloud at the Golden Saucer, the loss of Zack, and the ethereal connection between her and Cloud in Advent Children. In fact, this is how I prefer to hear the piece played. Orchestra arrangements of it are nice, but there is simply no other testament to the strength of the song and the character of Aerith, than hearing it played in this way.

Some of the pieces here could nearly be classified as “reinterpretations” of the originals. “Cosmo Canyon” and “Let The Battles Begin!” are two good examples here.  In the context of this album, these songs come off in such a new and authentic way that it’s almost like hearing them for the first time again. “Cosmo Canyon” itself contains within it the emergence of memories and references to Red XIII’s character and “Let The Battles Begin!” showcases an entire new level of emotion and appreciation for the piece as something more than just “Battle Music.”

Other songs aren’t as serious in tone. “Rufus’s Welcome Ceremony”, “Cinco de Chocobo” and a few others demonstrate the wonderful versatility of Uematsu’s compositions in a fun and jovial way.
           
Further praise should be given to Uematsu’s fantastic command of the piano. Though many have come to love him as the beloved composer of countless Final Fantasy classics, his technique as a pianist is tasteful and wonderfully expressive. Though the same cannot be said for some composers, Uematsu is simply the best choice to be seated at the piano for these tracks.
           
This should be a must-buy for any fan of the game. Those who know these songs note for note will enjoy every moment of them as they bring back cherished memories of a simply fantastic work of electronic art.






*Though I enjoy the story of VII, I can’t compare it with the quality of the other things mentioned here. There are legitimate criticisms of the plot and some of the directions it takes (as there could be with any story, really), however the execution of it is what counts for me; it is one of the finest not only in gaming, but in story-telling overall.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

And so it ends...again


The world will come to a violent and calamitous end tomorrow, the 21st of December, 2012. Billions of people will echo out their final cry of utter anguish and terror shortly before the spherical rock we call home is subjected to a fiery wrath of some kind.

Now it would be quite proper of you to express some skepticism towards my claim--that is, I certainly hope that such a response would emanate from most people. So you should, properly, ask me how it is that I know all of this?

Quite simply, I've learned it from the wonderful mess of shoddy journalism and history reporting that our culture has become so voraciously dependent upon. I certainly haven’t learned of it through a study of Mayan culture--because I’ve never studied Mayan culture (but I’m familiar enough with it to know that this infamous calendar which has gotten everyone so excited, in fact continues after this date--which has become more annoyingly engrained in our culture than the word “Occupy”) Though I haven't met anyone yet who sincerely believes the world will end on the 21st, I'm quite sure that this is not the majority position on this ludicrous prophesy. But the market principle decrees that the only way this nonsense has been able to infiltrate our culture (creating lousy fiction, documentaries, and books) is if there is a demand for it, an incentive for profit; the demand is too strong for anyone’s taste, and the profit made off of it, enough to feed many starving people.

I became quite irritated by the nonsense surrounding 2012 a few years ago when I noticed the amount of trash piling up on book shelves in stores. Granted, most of this garbage was appearing in the New Age section (which I frequent occasionally for ideas on magical systems for Fantasy stories, contrived conspiracy theories for similar purposes, and overall for a good laugh), but there was still enough of it to be annoyed that someone was spending money on this--and that resources such as paper and fuel to ship these products was being wasted for simply no reasonable explanation--it certainly wasn’t working towards the enrichment of society with literature or cultural studies.

Now although I give religious texts the same look of scorn on occasion, there's a profound difference. The Qur'an, Bible, and works of the like are staples of culture. Despite the fact that they are demonstrably prone to criticism of their claimed validity, they are uniquely tied to the history of the people from which they came. They are a form of art and expression; they are the collection of works showing humanity’s long search for its origin and spiritual solace. There are some beautiful examples of poetry and literature (as well as music) that stem from these works, and their significance in building our various cultures is not to be pushed aside (merely the theories that these are inherently correct are to be).

The same cannot be said for the recent 2012 scare. Nor the mass amount of pseudo-scientific garbage that has become rampant on previously respected sources of history and journalism. As I've said before, if there's one thing that Occupy Wall Street should have spent more time on (if they did at all), it should have been protesting against the degradation of our culture through insipid and shallow entertainment. And I am in error of stating some of these crackpot hypotheses as entertainment--because for most, it seems like the intention in spreading this trash is the complete opposite. But our love of reality television and vacuous videos on the internet has dulled our senses. It seems quite clear that the only media capable of triggering our collective response are sources doused in pornographic techniques.

And it is not simply the ideas themselves which are necessarily so frivolous, but rather it is their presentation and their refusal to go away once they've been dismissed--the latter being a complete carbon copy of how religious faith has survived so well. There is nothing wrong with someone putting forth a working hypothesis that extraterrestrials have built the pyramids or contacted us in the distant past--that is provided that some evidence has given way to such an assumption. But it is doubly egregious to go forth with the hypothesis--labeling it, mistakenly, a “theory”--without substantial evidence or respectable investigations. And, time and time again, the proponents of these ideas choose the belief prior to the investigation. They make up their minds that something is "true" before doing any research. And as a result, they're able to distribute these "theories" with ease by creating small and contagious non sequiturs and contrived explanations for events and mysteries.

This is why it is pornographic in nature. It is instant and floods the mind with excitement (or, perhaps more suiting, excrement.) But there are possibly quite a few practical reasons the 2012 phenomenon has become such a huge hit. A lot of it possibly subconscious in decision.

I wonder how connected the prediction of the end of the world is with the current economic repression/depression. Seeing as we went from a controversial presidency in the US, to one that didn't live up to the promises, and a falling economy along the way (chock full of upsetting wars) it's possible that a lot of people are subconsciously harboring on this date to bring some sort of vast change--not necessarily the end of the world, but some great sweeping change possibly on a spiritual level. 

But, of course, I’m trying to read too much into it. It’s far more likely, as I’ve demonstrated before, that the 2012 nonsense has arisen from the conditions of our unhealthy culture. In that, however, it seems I’m being too much of a pessimist. It’s hard not to be, unfortunately, when you’ve witnessed such a silly meme sweep over us. And just as it came--out of nowhere--it will sweep away into nothingness in the next 24 hours as it has with countless other End Times predictions:
How Many Times They've Been Wrong

-ej

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mushi-Shi


I've always wanted to get into anime, but for some reason it has always eluded me. The artistic medium has an unbelievable draw on me that I've never really been able to follow enough to start watching a regular series ( I came close with Ghost Hound, though it mysteriously vanished from Netflix)--but at last, I've found one and it comes in the form of a quiet anime known as Mushi-Shi.

An adaptation of a successful manga series (which I know nothing about), Mushi-Shi explores a unique world where invisible creatures known as "Mushi" live within our eco-system. They play a integral part of some of the phenomena we witness but can't seem to find immediate explanations for. Sometimes, however, these little bugs get a bit out of hand--causing a wide array of unwanted results, from minor nuisances to people simply vanishing into other realms. This is where the main character, Ginko, comes in.

A "Mushi Master", Ginko travels long distances, smoking his small cigars and carrying around his wooden backpack--stocked with a whole number of different remedies and tools for dealing with the Mushi. Unable to stay in one place for too long (you'll have to watch the show to find out why), Ginko meets an assortment of different people and situations. As a result, there are very few overarching stories and returning characters between episodes--save the few that deal with Ginko's back-story and one or two other notable characters. Ginko is very likable and has just the right amount of mystery to him. Even after you learn some of his secrets, you still feel like there's a great deal more to the man. And even though he comes across as a wise sage, he has a strong sense of youth. You end up developing a great deal of trust that he can always find the answer to the problem. And when he does find the solution, it rarely feels predictable and almost never feels as if the writers just pulled a Dues Ex Machina on you. There are even a few things that Ginko is unable to resolve, granting a very heavy sense of realism that is sometimes needed in a fantasy world.

Though the story is very enjoyable and immersive, the presentation of the show is one of its most appealing aspects. Everything from the artistic style, to the exotic sounding music, truly creates another world. In fact, the music is one of the most intriguing things about this show. Musical themes become a standard accompaniment to various situations and always come across as authentic--and there's a pleasant diversity to the music that is used, ranging from the acoustic singer-songwriter opening, to the hair-raising metal bells played when the mystery begins to unravel itself.

Unfortunately there's only one season to this show. There is however an entire manga series and even a live-action film adaptation in Japan--which I haven't seen. But the episodes in this season each feel unique. They're short, so you could watch 2 or even 3 in one sitting and get a nice variety of plots. And though a few of the episodes center around children being in jeopardy from the troublesome Mushi, you can expect some very intriguing and refreshing storylines. You'll meet a boy whose drawings come to life and is compelled to stay at his home alone by a strange force haunting the cabin. There's the girl whose voice seems to cause a strange plague of rust to wash over an entire town. And even a man who's compelled to chase after every rainbow he sees in the hopes that he can catch it.

It's a calm and quiet anime which is very suiting for watching late at night--highly recommended. And if you want more to the universe, there's the manga series, which is something I'll probably be writing about in the near future.
-ej


The Sword Swallower

(This blog post originally appeared on my ENG 274 Creative Non-Fiction blog.)

This image is a sobering reminder of the frail threads of mortality.
I enjoy the absence of emotion here: the skull, the spine, the teeth, the ear canal, and the eye sockets as well as the juxtaposition of translucent bone and the solid black metal of the sword. The curve of the vertebrae in the neck next to the straight edge of the sword speaks boldly.

All of the corruptible things about a human are deleted in this image. I can't see his face. I don't notice his clothes or his surroundings. I suppose it is possible to determine, but I have no clue as to his age. I don't even have a hint as to the gender; only the title, "Ajax the Sword Swallower" hints at a male identity.

But despite the lack of such details, I find the picture to be a powerful statement of individuality, an expression of defiance towards pain--or a peculiar embracing of it.

I wonder about who he is now, in raw human form. What was it that lead him to do this? What the x-ray cannot capture are the memories stored in his brain that would reveal such things. We can only witness the physicality of the act. Was he a sword swallower before joining the circus, or did he learn this skill once he stepped away from society? Or was he born into this life? What is this expression to him? Does he put on the show for the eyes of others, or for the thrill of it himself? I imagine that perhaps this is his moment to walk the tight-rope of death, to stand on that threshold and proclaim a strict willingness to defy its permanent touch. To be so close to a force of unrelenting power must be a thrill that no life in common society could hope to provide.

Here we don't see the capture of light imposed on a negative, but a spectrum unknown to our eyes. We don't see the surface but what is underneath and we are left to only ask endless questions.

-ej