Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Archive for the ‘hardship’ Category

Optimism Doesn’t Work. Voltaire’s Candide.

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 26, 2012

Christmas is a low stress affair in my family. We don’t give gifts to adults any more, so the frantic “What-on-earth-do-I-get-X?” is removed from the holiday. One of the few gifts I did receive is a new translation of Voltaire’s satire Candide, subtitled “Optimism” (published in 1761). I’ve never read it, and it turns out to be very enjoyable and full of surprises.

For example, Candide is a young man. I’d always assumed the hero(ine) was a woman. The name equates to “white”, and by implication, “innocent”. Candide is indeed somewhat of an innocent, being convinced that his tutor Proffessor Panglosse is the greatest philosopher in the world, and that Panglosse has proven beyond doubt that this world is “the best of all possible worlds”. I first came across the idea of the best of all possible worlds when I was studying the problem of evil, and it appears this kind of thing was being promoted in Voltaire’s day – perhaps by Leibniz? More on this below.

Another surprise for me, is that Voltaire’s real name was Francois-Marie Arouet. He published under 178 pseudonyms during his life, but Voltaire was his preferred name, an anagram of “AROVET LI,” the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of “le jeune” (“the younger”). The adoption of the name “Voltaire” following his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark Voltaire’s formal separation from his family name and his past. The name also conveys connotations of speed and daring, and you can refer to Wikipedia for the rest.

existence

Also surprising is how enjoyable Candide is, if an adventure that features rape, hideous floggings, disease and numerous disasters can be enjoyed. In parts it reminded me very much of Monty Python.

From the translators introduction:”The word optimism, first used in print in 1737, represents a philosophical position, a claim that in spite of errors and appearances God’s creation is as good as it could be.”

God, being perfect, can only create perfect things. Ergo, this world must be perfect. In Candide, the entire book is a series of misfortunes which poke fun at this idea. I once read something by evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler, who said this world is clearly not the best of all possible worlds. However, he claims, this world is the best WAY to the best world. In other words, he believes that the sufferings and misfortunes of this world are permissible (or perhaps necessary) in order to achieve the best world. Putting it another way, the horrors of this lifetime do have either some purpose (eg, *some* suffering may improve one’s character) or some necessity (eg God cannot make a consistent physical world without allowing the possibility of drowning or falling). Geisler lists a number of explanations for evil and emphasises that each one only covers *some* aspect of suffering; there is no single catch-all explanation that explains everything. However, Geisler believes that taken together, these explanations make suffering and evil understandable.

In similar vein, I picked up Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God again. For some reason, my mother now owns it. It is a good, popular exposition of the reasonableness of belief in God, specifically the Christian one. But I found his chapter on the problem of evil somewhat dissatisfying. I suppose in this world we should never become comfortable with disaster, suffering and failure and a book that makes us feel comfortable would probably be missing something. Keller is absolutely right, in my view, that the problem of evil is not proof that a good and loving God cannot exist. Where the argument from evil comes undone is that we are finite beings without full knowledge: We cannot KNOW all of God’s reasons for why things happen, therefore evil does not prove that God cannot be. Emphasis on the word “prove” there. However, while Keller is not twee, I think more acknowledgement of how shit this world can be, and sympathy for those affected by it, would improve his book. His chapter defending the church’s mistakes suffers a similar lack – he almost breezes over some of the horrors and banalities of Christianity. I think his defense is reasonable, but a little more humility would make me love him. Ah well, these books are never perfect and the appropriate bits should be added to one’s personal worldview rather than treating the whole as some kind of Bible.

Which leads me to my sister’s cancer.

I think I blogged about it over a year ago when we first discovered it. Briefly, it was pretty serious liver/colon cancer, at the point where she might not have long to live. She went through chemo and it looked successful – Hallelujah. Then the tumors came back and she had more surgery. This may have been successful (test results in the new year will tell us something), but has resulted in very painful adhesions. So she is gaunt, in regular pain, and may only have a year or two to live.

I’ve been thinking about optimism and pessimism. Since the days of Voltaire, optimism has altered in meaning and entered the common lexicon. I don’t think either pessimism or optimism can be proved. One can look at the world and see violence, disease, crime and war. This is Voltaire’s story of Candide. Or one can see beauty, charity, nurture and success. Both perspectives are true, and I think the philosophical position that can sum them up will be extremely nuanced. That’s probably why the Christian story (if it’s true) comes to us as a story, rather than a philosophy. Stories tend to be better for nuance than philosophy.

What can help is a perspective. Some of us like to claim we are “realistic”. Is this possible? Whether true or not, it’s more fun to be optimistic, but at times pessimism seems hard to deny.

Respond

? What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Carbon Based Lifeforms | Photosynthesis

Please share this article:

Advertisements

Posted in agnostic, hardship, personal, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Trust and Occupy

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 23, 2011

In my years of on-again and mostly off-again activism I’ve met a lot of people. It saddens me that so many of those I meet, even in supposedly honest movements, display a basic lack of honesty and lack of trust. I suppose for some it’s understandable. They’ve had Police invade their homes, they’ve had people let them down, they’ve had people with hidden agendas hijack something which was dear to them. They don’t know me, so why should they trust me?

I remember the time many years back when I attended a planning meeting after the national Anarchist conference in New Zealand. I couldn’t figure out why one woman in particular didn’t seem to want my help or allow me to be part of much. Turns out that she assumed I was a Police spy. But she never asked me about it, or told me her concerns.

What annoys me most in these situations is that very few people ever have the honesty to talk to the person they have a problem with about their concerns. Instead they spread gossip and malcontent, much of which could have been cleared up with a simple conversation.

trust

This issue has reared its head again for me recently. I’m trying hard to work with our local Occupy people. I support the international movement and its basic call to limit the economic and political domination of a very small number of people (the “1%”). However, it’s hard to do much when people don’t trust me, and don’t talk to me about their lack of trust. I’ve got so much to offer, I’m 42 and have a helluva lot of life experience and resources. I’ve worked raising money for the CMP workers. I’ve protested. I’ve camped in Civic Square. I’ve talked to everyone I can about their vision for Occupy. I’ve also made mistakes. But I am open to correction, and will fully admit when I’m wrong.

Right now I’m kinda discouraged. I get the need to be cautious. But there’s a difference between caution and petty childishness. Talk to me, people. Find out where I’m coming from. Check me out. And then, if you’re satisfied, use my resources. And don’t forget that at the same time I’m also checking you out, and I won’t be shy about reporting what I find.

If there isn’t a little more maturity, openness and trust, I might just report back to the rest of the 99% that this is yet another idealistic movement that has come aground on its own ignorance and navel-gazing. And the many boring middle class people like me, who have time and resources, will choose to spend them elsewhere.

My previous posts on Occupy are here and here. For balance, here is a nice article by Anne about the same occupation, which sums up the positive side I find in Occupy.

Respond

? What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide…

Posted in hardship, Occupy, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , | Comments Off on Trust and Occupy

The Age of Doubt (and The Day of Hope). Christopher Lane’s New Book on Agnosticism

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 7, 2011

Christopher Lane has recently released a book, The Age of Doubt, on doubt and agnosticism (surprise!). He’s adapted a chapter for New Humanist (UK), which I’ve excerpted below. But first, for those who saw my last post, an update on my sister, Carol.

Carol had her surgery yesterday, and the news post-op is much better than we thought. The colon tumor has been removed, and the ??? in her ovary was not, in fact, cancer. It was removed and her ovary is still intact. No other new signs of cancer were found, so that’s good news too.

She’s walking around a lot today, as that’s a requirement to aid the healing of the colon. Apparently it heals very fast, perhaps in 48 hours. In a couple of weeks she’ll be starting chemotherapy to get the small tumors in her liver. So all in all, the news is very positive.

That’s the hope. Here’s Christopher Lane on doubt:

Our culture has become impoverished by certainty. In our overheated climate of polarised public debate, we give less credence to uncertainty; yet the crises that preoccupy us – including religious extremism – demand that we tolerate increasing amounts of it.

Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry.

Ironically, it was the Victorians, often dismissed as prudish and uptight, who led the way to an open-mindedness and engagement with ambiguity that stands in stark contrast to the impoverishment of contemporary thinking about religious doubt and belief.

Fifteen years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the Scottish editor, writer, and publisher Robert Chambers anonymously brought out a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In it he argued that the progressive evolution of species was fully compatible with God-given laws. Vestiges reached a transatlantic and cross-European audience far larger than David Hume could secure with broadly compatible claims in the mid-18th century. Among Chambers’ fascinated, sometimes horrified, readers were Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Florence Nightingale, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Darwin. The book became a widespread topic of conversation across Britain in particular.
[Interesting: Darwin wasn’t the first to have a concept of evolution, only one of the first to come up with a successful model of how it might work. Apart from Chambers, there was another chap who’s often regarded as a co-inventor of evolution, whose name escapes me. Can anyone remind me?]


[As a sociologist, I find Herbet Spencer’s inclusion illuminating:] One of the most prominent thinkers to advance [the agnostic] claim was Herbert Spencer. The polymath sociologist, philosopher and biologist argued in First Principles (1862) that religion and science must grapple with “the Unknowable”, a blind spot in human understanding that faith had once seemed to fill.

Despite his forceful defence of Darwin and agnosticism, however, [Thomas] Huxley did not embrace full-blown atheism. He acknowledged “a pretty strong conviction that the problem [of existence] was insoluble”, a position that asks doubt and intellectual inquiry to replace hedging, complacency and anything resembling easy acquiescence.

A more astute contemporary thinker than Dawkins on the issue of agnosticism, in its broadest, existential sense, is the American playwright John Patrick Shanley. In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt (also a film), he argues that “doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.” While such questioning takes us past a point of comfort, he claims, it is “doubt (so often experienced initially as weakness) that changes things”, and thus represents “nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the Present”.

Lane’s full essay is here and the book The Age of Doubt is at Amazon.

Even in the last day I’ve had new subscribers to this blog– thankyou. It really flatters me that forty-five people value my thoughts enough to want to be updated when there’s something new. If you haven’t yet subscribed, it’s easy, just enter your email in the box at the left.

Doubt, Hope; let me conclude with the trivial. Today we hired a car seat for the impending arrival of baby (7 weeks or so away), test played the new board game my son Master T is working on and I bought some new clothes. It’s strange how new clothes can make one feel so much better. Not that I was feeling bad, I’m refreshingly happy these days. (Note to self: Get new depression meds on Monday.) Sometimes maybe it’s best to ignore the big picture and enjoy the small things in life.

Respond

? What do you think the piece on doubt and agnosticism?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Please share this article:

Split Enz | Poor Boy

Posted in agnostic, hardship, personal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Is It May Already?

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 5, 2011

Hi all, and a special welcome to the new subscribers. It seems like an age since I last wrote from the land of Spritzophrenia.

Some personal goings-on first. It’s less than 8 weeks until our baby is born. Happygirl is getting extremely round, and is somewhat physically uncomfortable, but all is well and as normal as these things go.

I found out two weeks ago that my younger sister Carol has cancer. She’s not quite forty years old, and it’s serious. It’s colon cancer, with some nodes in the liver and a tumor has spread to one ovary. She goes into surgery tomorrow to remove the growths, and within three weeks they hope to start 9 months of chemotherapy. Things are not good, but the doctors have also said it’s potentially cure-able. All is not lost. Needless to say, I was quite upset after she rang me. (You might want to go back to my short series on sickness and pain.) Strangely, in the last week I’ve become very confident that she’ll be able to beat this thing, and I feel peaceful. I don’t know how much stock to put in such feelings, but those of you who pray are welcome to do so. (Yes, I did.)

My postgrad sociology study is going very well, however there’s a huge workload which doesn’t leave me with much energy to blog. I do have a lot of thoughts, theories and mental meanderings to share with you, it’s just a question of when. I’ve just finished my thesis proposal on “Why Stay if You’re Gay?” (Homosexual Participation and Identity in the Church). Would you like me to put it up here for you to read?

sunrise woman

Among other things, I’ve been reading up on Queer theory. You may or may not know that the word “heterosexual” was only coined a couple of centuries ago. Some people (notably a chap called Foucault) argue that the conception of heterosexuality was very different before this. As part of les-bi-gay studies, the study of heterosexuality has emerged. Given that I’m studying gay Christian men for my thesis I find it enlightening to look at things from the other side, so to speak.

Here’s some thoughts from one writer (Richard Dyer, in a 1997 paper, for what it’s worth). What do you think of these?

Dyer considers heterosexuality and homosexuality are not acts, or an identity, but what we desire. “Heterosexuality is not man-woman coitus, but the desire for it and/or the fact of being identified by the desire for it.”

Here’s his list of five attributes of heterosexuals:
1. Difference is at the heart of sexual object choice.
2. Difference is conceptualised as oppositeness.
3. Difference is, in fact, power imbalance. (Eroticised power imbalance)
4. Sexuality has something to do with procreation. (For many religions sexual reproduction is the purpose of sexuality.)
5. Sexual practice is an affirmation of one’s identity as normal.

The notion of race is profoundly heterosexual. Race is a way of categorising bodies that reproduce themselves.

Society enforces a “compulsory heterosexuality” (Adrienne Rich).

So there we go. How do those of you who are hetero feel about these? Identify with any of it?

Till next time,

Jonathan

Respond

? What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Please share this article:

Tori Amos | Crucify

Posted in agnostic, hardship, personal, Sociology, spirituality | Tagged: , , , , | 24 Comments »

Around the World on Welfare

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 12, 2011

I did some investigation a while back which shows that the rate of welfare fraud is very low. However, there will always be some exceptions and this is an amazing one, from my own country.

A Kiwi beneficiary has travelled the world funded by the dole, spending nearly two years seeing the sights of Europe, Asia and Africa without his unemployment benefit being cut off.

In an international escapade that has left Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Work and Income fuming, Peter Freedom, 34, has admitted seeing the world at taxpayer expense.

Mr Freedom left New Zealand for Australia on April 11, 2009, expecting his benefit would be cut off two weeks later. “I was just amazed when it didn’t,” he said from Dubai.

He visited Europe, the Balkans, Britain, North Africa and Asia before his benefit was finally axed late last month.

Mr Freedom used the nearly $28,000 – $287.12 a week, which later increased to $293.04 – to see some tourist meccas. Note: NZ dollars are worth a lot less than US dollars.

Peter Freedom

Peter Freedom in front of the Pyramids of Giza.

His favourites included the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower and bullfighting in Spain. “The trip was funded by the benefit,” Mr Freedom said. “What started as an accident soon became an opportunity.”

He sometimes slept in a car during his travels to save money. “I would always eat at the cheapest place I could find. It wasn’t very much money.”

Mr Freedom “didn’t feel good” about spending taxpayer money but said he was happy to expose the authorities. “I guess I did rip them off but I needed something to get me on my feet again.”

Before he left New Zealand Mr Freedom had been living in Hawera, Taranaki. He said he was keen to work but when a job came up outside town and he asked Work and Income to stump up some money for transport, he was refused. “I just needed a little bit of help but I never got it.” ~Full story here.

No doubt our centre-right government will use this as an excuse to go harder on welfare payments; they’ve already been making hints about it and this provides the perfect opportunity to beat down the 98% of beneficiaries who are honest.

Peter Freedom (great name!) would have to acquire other income or savings, as there is no way one could purchase airfares on a welfare income. I don’t think we’ve yet heard the full story. Still, nice life if you can get it.

Edit: Updating the story, turns out my prediction was right and this story came to light because of a crackdown on long term beneficiaries where hundreds have had their payments axed.

Respond

? What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Posted in ethics, hardship, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Why Divorce? Why Marriage?

Posted by spritzophrenia on January 19, 2011

How do you write when you don’t know what to say? I’ve been chatting to another friend whose marriage is breaking down. I have feelings, emotions, thoughts, theories, hopes, despair. I certainly don’t have answers.

I’ve met a lot of people who are in marriages that are ending, or who are seriously contemplating ending their marriage. Or who ended it… returned… struggled with it… are considering ending it again. It gets complicated as kids are usually involved. The stories of our lives are often stranger than soap operas. I’m divorced, and have had several significant relationships that ended. I offer no judgement. I know how difficult it is to find someone you can truly live with and be satisfied with. In my case, it’s taken years for me to become the sort of person I’d want to live with.

A large number of marriages end in divorce. I wonder why we continue to seek such relationships? I wonder why gay people are seeking an institution that straights are busy messing up? (It’s about equality to mess up too.)

divorce

Whether we choose to get married or not, most of us seek long term partnerships. What is it we’re seeking? What can a partner give us that a full life of satisfying work and deep friendships cannot give us? I guess it’s intimacy. Sure, that includes sexual intimacy, but goes far beyond it. I guess we’re seeking a person with whom we can be completely ourselves, who we trust implicitly and know will always be there for us. (That perfect person sounds like God, actually. But I’m not going to advocate God as a solution because few people I know have ever managed to achieve the level of intimacy with g0d that can replace human love. I’m certainly not going to advocate the kind of conservative marriage that assigns roles to each spouse.)

I think our situating happiness in a person is partly because we buy into the romance or “soul-mate” myth. All you have to do is watch a Julia Roberts movie to have the impression that we will meet one person who will be the perfect lover, provider, friend, co-worker, co-parent… the perfect everything. No human can do that. Yet we keep a huge industry going, encouraging us to seek this impossible kind of lurve.

When we don’t find satisfaction in our current lover, we begin to look elsewhere. Perhaps we are lured away from our marriage/relationship by the promise of someone better? Perhaps the sex is better, perhaps they understand us more deeply. Yet in time, the cracks begin to show and we realise we’re hooked up with someone who is not completely perfect after all.

Happygirl and I read Sex at Dawn a while back. I’m now quite sceptical of some of the research behind it. Also, it tends to reduce relationship difficulties merely to sex: “If we could be emotionally committed to each other, but let our partners have sex outside the marriage, everything will be all right”. The book doesn’t actually say that, but it’s easy to draw that conclusion. Nevertheless I do think the questions it raises are worth considering.

So I’m left with the mystery of why us humans keep on doing something which often doesn’t work. Why we keep seeking an intimate life partner. Or even one who will last a few years.

What can I do?

Keep talking about it

I don’t think any of us have the full answers. We all need help in finding, and growing with that someone special. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Support friends who are going through divorce

Divorce is never fun or easy, even in the most amicable of cases. Most of us have been there or know someone who has. Let’s get rid of the judgement and simply offer support.

Helpful Stuff on Divorce for Christians

When I was a christian, reading Walter Callison eased a lot of guilt for me. He takes a good look at Jesus’ words on divorce and concludes that divorce is not only acceptable, but sometimes the loving thing to do. Article here, book Divorce: A Gift of God’s Love.

Other ideas?

Respond

? What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Please share this article.

Joy Division | Love Will Tear Us Apart

Posted in agnostic, Christianity, hardship | Tagged: , , , , , | 48 Comments »

Gun Nuts and Peaceniks

Posted by spritzophrenia on January 9, 2011

Right now the major news in the USA is the tragic shooting attempt on an Arizona congresswoman. At the time of writing she is badly wounded, but 18 other people were also shot. Six are dead, including a nine year-old girl. I offer my condolences to my US friends; this is sad and wrong.

As an outside observer, I want to offer a few thoughts, partially based on the Twitter and Facebook commentary I’m seeing.

A Culture Of Blame

To me, it’s strange that many immediately jumped to a political motive. For example, a friend tweeted “I wish the sheriff would just name Rush and Beck and Fox News [as responsible].” Sure, Gabrielle Giffords, the target, is a politician. However it may be a little premature to jump in and reduce this to GOP vs Dems. As Lavika tweeted, “Many are choosing sides & using their vitriol to numb pain. Vitriol on behalf of ‘good’ is still vitriol, btw”. To me, the shooter looked a little mentally unstable on paper. This is not to say he wasn’t politically motivated, but there may be a lot more nuance to this story. Lavika also tweeted: “Mental health care, especially youth mental health, is very political; they have no voice, they can’t get care, but they can get guns.”

One commentator writes “We have no idea what motivated the shooter and whether it had anything to do with politics.”

man with pistol

Us and Them

Given the immediate politicization of this attack, I’m also continually amazed at the polarization in US politics. Either you are a Democrat or a Republican, there is no other choice. This leads to an “us and them”, “black and white”, “right and wrong” circling of the wagons that I believe is deeply unhelpful. How can political progress be made when the other side is always characterised as the enemy? In places like New Zealand, Australia, most of Europe… In fact, every other decent Western nation I can think of, there are multiple political parties. This leads to a) more nuance b) more choice and c) the need for co-operation between various political groups.

What if you are “left” on some issues, but “right” on others? In the US there is no party that fits you. Congresswoman Giffords, who was attacked, is a perfect example of exactly this. As a former republican, she characterises herself as a “blue dog” democrat. In other words, she had to make a hard choice as neither party truly represents her views. There aren’t any other political options.

Is This Terrorism?

SquintingInFog tweeted “Why is this not an act of terrorism? Apparently white people are lone wackos, brown people are terrorists”, and, “If shooter were Muslim, it would be called terrorism, even if he acted alone & was psychotic”.

My answer: If it was ideological, then yes, it’s terrorism. Welcome to another “terrorist attack” by a non-Muslim US man, born and bred within Uncle Sam’s bosom.

We Have A Right To Kill

I’m writing this in a country where hunting is popular. We have a lot of guns here in New Zealand. But we don’t allow handguns (except for target shooting, a minority pastime). We certainly don’t allow people to carry them around in public. Even our police do not carry weapons on their person. So to hear about a “right to bear arms” frankly sounds bizarre to us. It sounds as silly as “the right to buy cars” or the “right to chew gum”. (Don’t laugh, gum is banned in Singapore.) Yes, we are legally allowed to buy hunting guns in New Zealand. And that’s how I’d prefer to phrase it. Maybe the USA would benefit from leaving the word “right” out of the equation? The word “right” gives the purchase and use of an item a moral gravity that I just don’t think is warranted. It makes carrying a gun seem somehow holy, instead of fearful and potentially lethal. I can’t compare the right to own a killing weapon with the right to life or the right not to live in poverty. (I’d like to hear more about the right to a fair wage, having just read Nickel and Dimed.) At least I’m not the only one to see a need for handgun control.

Hope

Turning from the killing in the USA, I want the whole world to know about the peace activism in Egypt— by Muslims, no less. Regular followers will know I write from time to time trying to understand Islam and its relation to the West. Egypt has recently had some horrible attacks on Christian churches. What is wonderful is this story of a Muslim initiative where Muslims attended christian churches in order to shield christians against extremists.

I have no idea how we would “shield” minorities in our countries from attack. But isn’t it a wonderful thing to consider? Perhaps a cadre of straight people could walk with gay people seeking marriage equality. Or upper middle-class people could walk with Wal-Mart staff seeking to establish a union. Any ideas?

Respond

What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Please share this article:

Pink Floyd | Us and Them

Posted in ethics, hardship, Islam | Tagged: , , , , , | 34 Comments »

How Bad Is Welfare Fraud in the USA?

Posted by spritzophrenia on January 4, 2011

What do you see when you see someone on welfare? A lazy welfare Mom living the good life, claiming more than she is entitled to? After all, we all know that welfare fraud is rampant, right? In my previous post we’ve been having good discussions trying to identify what’s wrong with the USA, and the issue of welfare fraud came up. I was curious to find out how much of a problem it is.

What I discovered is that accurate figures are hard to come by; worse, grossly inflated figures are sometimes quoted. For example, a 2003 allegation claims child care fraud was found in 69% of the investigations conducted (the original link is broken and I can’t check if anyone challenged the figure). However, the speaker was at the time the head of a collective of profit-making fraud investigators. It would be in their interests to inflate fraud figures.

Check out my follow-up article with more statistics on welfare fraud

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010 that 24% of new welfare applications in San Diego County contain some form of fraud. However, this statistic was misreported and the actual figure is probably considerably lower. The figure “includes both intentional misrepresentations and unintentional errors, such as information being taken down incorrectly by the county.”

By comparison, two years ago in the UK 56,493 people were caught defrauding the benefit system. This sounds like a lot, but if we consider that in in 2009 5.8 million were on the unemployment benefit alone, this means that less than 1% of all beneficiaries committed fraud.

welfare kids

Well, maybe they don’t find all the fraud. This is certainly true, but if a full-time staff of 3,000 fraud investigators cannot find it then maybe there isn’t much more to find? It’s hard to compare the UK with the US– the American system might be much easier to rort. However, this seems unlikely. If nothing else, at least the UK example shows that is is possible to have a welfare system where almost no fraud occurs.

I’d also like to see good numbers on the seriousness of the crime. Someone who is getting an extra $2 per week they are not entitled to is not exactly high rolling, yet it would still be counted as fraud. Sure, there have been a few notable cases but my point is that these are extremely rare.

The most accurate figure I’ve found for the US is from a 2002 report by The US Department of Labor which says that 1.9% of the total Unemployment Insurance payments for 2001 were attributable to fraud or abuse within the UI program.

For accuracy, we should note a couple of things: This figure only reflects unemployment insurance. It’s conceivable that other types of welfare could have different fraud rates. Secondly, this figure concerns the amount defrauded, not the number of people guilty. Unlike the UK figure it doesn’t tell us how many people took the money. But it’s not hard to do some simple math. In 2001, $580 million in overpayments were identified as fraud. At the time there were 2.38 million US people receiving unemployment insurance. If every one of them was defrauding the system, they’d get an extra $243 in their pocket that year. They won’t exactly be living the high life on that. Even assuming 1% of these people were fraudsters, each of them got $2436 extra that year. That’s a significant, but not extreme amount. The math shows the more people who defrauded the system, the lower the payback. The penalties are high, and the Government has full-time fraud investigators hunting the bad guys. Fraud is only worth considering if you can make serious money. Therefore it seems intuitively right that the percentage of people committing welfare fraud is low.

So, until someone can show me better numbers I’m going to put this out there:

Less than 2% of all people on welfare in the USA commit fraud.

“The myth of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen who defrauds the system lingers even though there’s no proof of it”, said Erin O’Brien, a poverty expert at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

In fact, welfare fraud among Philadelphia’s 95,456 recipients is “minute,” according to Peter Berson, assistant chief of the government fraud unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

The 200 to 400 cases of welfare fraud in the city each year – down 50% since 2002 because of better enforcement and fewer recipients – are not nonworking women having babies to game the government, but working women receiving welfare and working at other jobs without reporting the income, Berson said.

In conclusion, the rate of welfare fraud is so low as to almost not be worth mentioning. The next time you hear an allegation of welfare fraud, ask to see the hard facts. Anecdotes are just that, and urban myths develop quickly. In hard times, Americans blame the poor.

The facts tell me that 98 out of 100 people on welfare are not defrauding the system. Ninety-eight out of one hundred welfare recipients you meet are honest people who are struggling. Isn’t it time we dropped the stigma?

Edits: April 2012. There have a been some good comments below, including discussion about the “definition of fraud”. And there have been some, let us say, more ignorant comments.

Check out my follow-up article with more statistics on welfare fraud.

April 2012: A really good NY Times article Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift.

Respond

Have you been on welfare? What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Pulp | Common People

Please share this article:

Posted in hardship, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 272 Comments »

Paradise Now: A Powerful Movie

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 16, 2010

Yesterday I asked if Muslims would find the movie “Four Lions” funny? Well, at least some Muslims do:

Humour allows us to conquer our own fears of terrorism and terrorists, and allows us to feel brave. We see the human weaknesses of our opponents, instead of buying into the myths of an invincible robotic terror machine. The fear created by the myths – whether perpetuated by the bin Laden’s or the Bush’s of this world – is itself part of the terrorisation process. If we can defuse the myth, we can get down to tackling the criminals at the heart of the violence and destruction…

explosion NYC

…In a global Gallup poll of 50,000 Muslims across 35 countries, the results showed that of the seven per cent of Muslims who said the 9/11 attacks were justified, absolutely none quoted the Quran to support their view. Again, it is politics, not religion.” From Can Terror Be Funny? at AltMuslim. More Muslim commentary here and a good US-based review here. (Some spoilers in these.)

On to another movie on the same topic, much more serious and equally important. Released in 2005, I think Paradise Now is one of the most thought-provoking movies made. (Along with “Dead Man Walking”, “Milk”, “Food Inc”, “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Lord of War”.) Don’t worry, it’s not boringly didactic.

The movie follows Said and Khaled, two Palestinian friends who are recruited to be suicide bombers. This may be the last 48 hours of their lives. Drama, humanity, evil, love, romance, tragedy, comedy, it’s got it all. The movie is not really about the Israel/Palestine question, it merely assumes this as the background to the question of whether killing others in protest is valid. Perhaps even realism, not just humour, can take some of the scariness away. The film is not simplistic, and without giving away too much it portrays both the terrorist and pacifist points of view well. Both men and Khaled’s girlfriend have doubts, but I won’t tell you how it ends.

I was stunned by it.

Independent trailer for Paradise Now:

Respond

Have You Seen It? What do you think?
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Please share this article:

Posted in ethics, hardship, Islam, life, Meaning of Life, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

What the World Needs Now

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 4, 2010

I wonder if yesterday’s post overwhelmed you? Many of my friends in the US were caught up in the fever of mid-term elections. Many of you are Democrats who were disappointed with the results. The last thing you wanted to hear was more misery.

I don’t always tell the whole story in my blogs, I leave some space for your opinion. So let me be up-front here. I believe in optimism instead of pessimism. Call it positive thinking if you like. I know I blogged about the irrational side of positive thinking, but I still believe in encouragement. I believe in “realism”, if you like, although we’re all gonna disagree on exactly what “being realistic” is. It’s hard, as I’m naturally drawn to the negative— perhaps that’s why I suffer from depression.

Regular readers know I’m fairly rigorous about what I believe; call me a skeptic if you wish, although as I’ve explained here, I don’t consider myself a rationalist. I want to hold those things together: rigorous thinking, an openness to spiritual reality and an activism and optimism toward the greater good.

There is a time for pessimism. There is a time for grief. But I don’t want to stay there. It doesn’t help.

hope

Years ago I was fascinated by the late 60s and the hippy movement. I was inspired by their optimism; for a short time it seemed some people believed that peace was really possible, that the world really could be a better place. All we had to do is love enough (and perhaps “drop out”). Laugh all you like at their idealism, but frankly if I have to choose who I’d spend eternity with, it would be hippies. I may not have the look— I think we’re well beyond that now— but I still have the hope, sometimes.

I have a vision of ten people gathering in a room, extremists of all forms: Democrats, Republicans, Anarchists, Terrorists, Peaceniks, Atheists, Fundamentalists, Foreigners, The Rich, The Poor, the Apathetic, you, and me. If we leave contentious issues aside and ask, “Tell me about your family?”, “Who means the most to you?”, “What art do you like?”, “What is the most beautiful place you’ve travelled to?”, “What do you hope for the future?”, “What do you think when you look at the stars?”, “How do you experience love?”. If we could truly hear each other, if we could somehow ditch the rhetoric and just talk as human beings, I believe we would have much more in common than hate.

I don’t care if it’s corny. I don’t care if it’s idealistic.

What the world needs now, is love.

It’s the only thing there’s too little of.

Respond

What do you think? Am i too idealistic?
[Edit: An example would be my meal with a Muslim]
Please subscribe (top left) 🙂

Jackie DeShannon | What The World Needs Now (1965)

Please share this article:

Posted in agnostic, hardship, spirituality | Tagged: , , , , | 13 Comments »