Blade Runner and Memory

Blade RunnerLast night, I watched Blade Runner for the umpteenth time — but the first in a while. I began thinking about the main issue in the film: identity. It’s been bugging me because recently I had heard that the director, Ridley Scott, had said that he thought that the main character, Deckard (Harrison Ford), was a replicant. There is no indication in the film that this is the case. And it most certainly isn’t the case in the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? What’s more, such a reading of the film creates all kinds of problems. Replicants supposedly don’t have empathy — something Deckard clearly has, at least with regard to Rachael.

The one thing that really distinguishes humans from replicants is empathy. This raises a problem, because not all humans have empathy. Lack of empathy is more or less the definition of psychopathy. And if ever there were a job that would be helped by a lack of empathy, it is a bounty hunter. Whereas a prosecutor is supposed to look for the truth (which they don’t), a bounty hunter is only supposed to hunt down people. It’s like in that great scene in The Fugitive where Dr Kimble says he didn’t kill his wife and US Marshal Gerard replies, “I don’t care.”

And this makes the ending of the film quite interesting. As Roy (Rutger Hauer) gains empathy, he saves Deckard. But if the roles were reversed, Deckard would not have done the same. That gets to the issue of empathy as a continuum. Clearly, when empathy came to Roy, it came in full measure — a measure that probably doesn’t exist in humans. Is it possible that the replicants are destine to be more human than we are? After all, how empathic is a four year old child? And I wonder if the humans who mandate that replicants only live four years don’t do so because it would be only too clear who are the better creatures.

Regardless of this, the question remains: other than empathy, how would any human know that she was not a replicant? After all, our memories are nothing but chemical storage. The only thing that we can be certain of is that we exist in this moment. Everything else is just a phantom: a construct of what we call time. But I’ve long been suspicious of time. It seems to me just our primitive way of experiencing the totality of the universe. And in that way, Roy is wrong in his final speech:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.

There are only two ways to look at it. It could be that time is an illusion. All our memories are effectively implants. There is only an eternal now. The past is a lie we tell ourselves to explain what is happening now. Or it could be that time is just our limited view of a larger cosmos: we are stuck seeing the three-dimensional world from our perspective in Flatland.

I remember reading that scorpions — some of them anyway — have no ability to create memories. It strikes me that memory is a necessary condition for an animal to develop empathy. So I think that the ideas of identity and empathy are really bound up in the notion of memory. Whether memory has some actual basis in past events hardly matters. And maybe this is why Rachael in the movie seems to have empathy: because she was given memories. Roy was not. Imagine what a great creature he would have been with a longer life.

American Media’s Biased Overton Window

Robert ParryIf two major newspapers in, say, Russia published major articles openly advocating the unprovoked bombing of a country, say, Israel, the US government and news media would be aflame with denunciations about “aggression,” “criminality,” “madness,” and “behavior not fitting the Twenty-first Century.”

But when the newspapers are American — The New York Times and The Washington Post — and the target country is Iran, no one in the US government and media bats an eye. These inflammatory articles — these incitements to murder and violation of international law — are considered just normal discussion in the Land of Exceptionalism.

On Thursday, The New York Times printed an op-ed that urged the bombing of Iran as an alternative to reaching a diplomatic agreement that would sharply curtail Iran’s nuclear program and ensure that it was used only for peaceful purposes. The Post published a similar “we-must-bomb-Iran” op-ed two weeks ago…

Both articles called on the United States to mount a sustained bombing campaign against Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities and to promote “regime change” in Tehran. Ironically, these “scholars” rationalized their calls for unprovoked aggression against Iran under the theory that Iran is an aggressive state, although Iran has not invaded another country for centuries…

I realize The New York Times and Washington Post are protected by the First Amendment and can theoretically publish whatever they want. But the truth is that the newspapers are extremely restrictive in what they print. Their op-ed pages are not just free-for-alls for all sorts of opinions.

For instance, neither newspaper would publish a story that urged the United States to launch a bombing campaign to destroy Israel’s actual nuclear arsenal as a step toward creating a nuclear-free Middle East. That would be considered outside responsible thought and reasonable debate.

However, when it comes to advocating a bombing campaign against Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, the two newspapers are quite happy to publish such advocacy. The Times doesn’t even blush when one of its most celebrated columnists mulls over the idea of sending weapons to the terrorists in ISIS — all presumably because Israel has identified “the Shiite crescent” as its current chief enemy and the Islamic State is on the other side.

—Robert Parry
NYT Publishes Call to Bomb Iran

H/T: Jim Naureckas

Republicans Killing Government With IRS Defunding

Center for Budget and Policy PrioritiesDo you know whose taxes are easy: mine. I don’t make enough money for there to be any questions. There is the amount of money I make. There is the standard deduction. There is the money that I owe (or as is generally the case, don’t owe). Whose taxes are complicated are people like Mitt Romney — with all the shenanigans that his tax people get up to long before he’s even acquired it all. And what this means is that it really isn’t hard for the IRS to police me. In fact, they could have a computer do it (and probably do). But to police the Mitt Romneys of the world, the IRS needs well trained and experienced agents.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that conservatives like the idea of gutting IRS enforcement. Most of them will admit that they want to destroy the IRS. Doing so would turn the United States into a kind of banana republic where those who are currently at the top would stay there and have even more power. Poor people might like the idea of not having to pay taxes, but an end of the IRS would decimate the economy. I would be surprised if it didn’t turn the Land of the Free into the Land of Mad Max.

Chuck Marr, Joel Friedman, and Brandon DeBot wrote a really interesting paper over at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, IRS Funding Cuts Continue to Compromise Taxpayer Service and Weaken Enforcement. It starts with a stunning fact, “The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) budget has been cut by 18 percent since 2010, after adjusting for inflation.” This has the effect of providing far less and inferior help to ordinary tax payers like me who are forced to do our taxes ourselves. But more important, this has a huge effect on the finances of the government:

These cuts make no sense from a fiscal perspective, as the return on investment in enforcement spending is high. Each additional $1 spent on IRS enforcement yields $6 or more of additional revenue from collecting taxes owed under current law, according to the Treasury Department. Cuts in IRS enforcement funding are increasing the budget deficit.

They also note that the Republican budgets out of the House and Senate would make further cuts to the IRS, even while they claim to be all concerned about balancing the budget in ten years and other ridiculous ideas. The truth is that these Representatives and Senators are looking at eliminating their own jobs. This reminds me of the Nazis after they took over the government, they effectively destroyed the Reichstag. A large segment of the Republicans in Congress did not come to fix the government but to destroy it. They are radicals — things totally outside the American tradition.

What are we going to do about this? I really don’t know. It seems that all a Republican has to do to get sent to Washington is to say that abortion is baby murder and claim that she would nuke Iran if given half a chance. Meanwhile, the real work of these Republicans is not what they say publicly. These people are so dangerous, that we would be better off having representatives from General Motors and Walmart. Grover Norquist was apparently wrong. It isn’t necessary to make government small enough to kill in a bath tub. It can be done gradually, just by defunding the IRS. And in a short time, only the little people like me will be paying taxes. And Norquist and his conservative allies should be fine with that.

The Security State Is a Major Threat to Democracy

Lee FangLee Fang reported something that bothers me a whole lot, In New Video, Congressman Explains Why His Fellow Lawmakers Couldn’t Be Trusted with NSA Oversight. The main thing is that Representatives Alan Grayson and Morgan Griffith were not allowed to see information they requested from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). This is a perfect example of a troubling situation in the United States because it involves both a Democrat and a Republican. This isn’t about partisanship. This is about unelected government employees trumping the will of the people. It is, in a word: undemocratic.

In the video, Representative Jim Langevin claims that they were refused access because they didn’t have the right security clearance. It makes it all sound like a secret club. And indeed, the members of the HPSCI are known to be very cozy with the intelligence community. So the only way that we — the people — are ever going to get true oversight is if our elected representatives are allowed access to what is going on. This country hasn’t existed all these years without a religious test only to enact a backdoor security test. Our country’s politics are already overrun with boy and girl scouts. I don’t want to make it any worse.

Eventually, Griffith (the Republican) was granted access to the information she wanted — although it took over three months of pushing. Grayson (the Democrat), on the other hand, was never granted access. The committee claims that it has this right. Grayson disagrees, “The committee has no authority to make those kinds of distinctions. They’ve created two tiers for members of Congress. I’m not aware of any statutory authority for such a distinction; but it’s just a power grab as members of Intelligence and I have the same constitutional authority.” Of course. That’s the point. And remember: the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives claim to be “Constitutional Conservatives.” But they are just entirely typical authoritarians.

Every time there is a major security leak, as we got with Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, what we see is that the secrets have little or nothing to do with security. They are usually just embarrassing things and, above all, things they don’t want the American people to know. We’ve seen the same thing when old security documents are declassified — in the United States and in Russia. I understand that a certain level of secrecy is necessary in the world. But it is clear that we have far too much secrecy and that it is being used as a weapon against democratic control of the country. At the time of this nation’s formation, the concern was that the military would control the country. Now it seems we have the intelligence services controlling the government. And we don’t even know who or where they are.

There are obvious solutions to this problem. But they all depend upon the people of the United States waking up to the threat. Instead, they seem actively opposed to doing anything about it. We saw this last year when the people of Colorado decided to replace the excellent Mark Udall with the wingnut Cory Gardner. Well played people; well played.

Morning Music: George Ezra

Wanted on Voyage - George EzraAs everyone who reads this site should know, I’m not up on pop culture. So when my sister mentioned the George Ezra song “Budapest,” I had never heard of it, even though it has over 38 million views on YouTube. Ezra is really not bad, which is helpful to me since I mostly assume only total crap can be popular. (This is because I am an old man and thinking that society is in decay is a contractual obligation.)

Ezra wrote the song “Blame It on Me” with Joel Pott. It’s a very compelling tune. The lyrics are evocative, but not detailed enough to extract much in the way of meaning. But it’s a pleasant song.

Anniversary Post: Oscar Wilde’s Arrest

The Picture of Oscar WildeOn this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested for the crime of sodomy. It’s an outrage, of course. Just the same, Wilde brought it on himself. The Marquess of Queensberry left a note for Wilde at his club, which read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” So Wilde sued him for criminal libel. Of course, Wilde was a sodomite. And the Marquess had no trouble finding male prostitutes who would testify to that fact. So Wilde lost the case.

Immediately after that, a warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest. He went to court and lost. He was given two years in prison, although the judge believed that the acts were so vile that they deserved far more than that. After serving the full sentence, Wilde went to France, where he should have gone long before. He died about three years later, his health having certainly been compromised by his time in prison.

Pretty much everyone today sees the treatment of Wilde as ridiculous. I think it is interesting, because drug users are treated exactly the same way today. And what is the difference? In both cases it is private behavior. But things have reversed over time. In 1895, opium use was generally considered a bad habit — much like tobacco is today. But homosexuality was seen as a grave threat to society. Today it is drug use that will destroy society. There is really nothing but bigotry behind both positions.

We mark this day as the start of the persecution of Oscar Wilde. The only thing that has changed is which people the UK government persecutes.