Watching the debate on this issue, it becomes crystal clear that a lot of people just don’t understand the concepts of perspective and context.

The question of removing the Confederate flag from its perch atop a flagpole over the Charleston state capital buildings has morphed into a debate of whether the movie “Gone With The Wind” should be banned. This demonstrates the lack of understanding of the deeper and more important aspects of the issue.

“Gone With The Wind” as an artistic statement, presents a world view not only of the period it is depicting but also of the period it was made. Like Huckleberry Finn, its use of racist material is historically instructive and expressive. That’s a lot different from a Confederate flag being displayed at a government building or even on a license plate. The latter has no artistic or instructive merit, and in fact can be interpreted as a statement of pride.

Comparison to the Nazi flag is appropriate though not perfect (because the ideas of the Confederacy linger more strongly in the U.S. than do Nazi ideals in Germany or Europe). It is OK for the Nazi flag to appear in war movies. It is OK for it to appear in museums. It is OK for Nazi SS dialogue to appear in historically revealing books or movies. It is not OK for the Nazi flag to fly over government buildings in any way. It is not OK for descendents of Nazi war criminals to demand respect for their descendents as good soldiers whose achievements should be admired in any way. If swastikas are included on gravestones, it should be seen as a symbol of condemnation, not pride, -although whether they should be removed or not is a more complex question.

And so it is with the Confederate bars and stars. The flag was a symbol of treason against the government established by an accepted constitution. In comparison, the constitution of the Confederate States had the acceptance of slavery as a precondition for membership. There is no question that this flag is a statement of racism and a glorification of a painful period for many people. Its further glorification or legitimization should be simply abolished. However that doesn’t mean that it should be erased from history. Inability to tolerate historical perspectives and place them in the proper context of understanding is a hurdle for social evolution. A knee jerk, black and white (sic) reaction to a flag shows the same shallowness as does racism in general.

The ability to include perspective and context in your understanding of historical ideas and contemporary conflicts is essential.scross

Placing the flag in the space above is an intellectual reference, nothing else.

I’ve said this before, but I’m ready to repeat myself because I just think it is a really effective idea.

Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom” law actually allows private businesses to post signs saying that they will discriminate in their service on the basis of sexual orientation.  It is being widely criticized as a blatantly bigoted law, which of course it is.  This article in The Atlantic does a good job of pointing out exactly how bad this law is.  Much to the chagrin of many people with religious beliefs, it is fueled and rationalized by right wing Christian extremist views and beliefs.  So, how should someone who doesn’t fit into that category, whether religious or not, respond?

One way is to launch a campaign of signs in businesses that say something to the effect of “ALL ARE WELCOME TO DO BUSINESS HERE, REGARDLESS OF RACE, COLOR, RELIGION OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION!” Make some kind of a catchy symbol to go with it.  Make them available to stores who abide by that policy, and then put forward an awareness campaign encouraging like minded people to only shop in stores displaying and living up to that sign.  Those willing to support the campaign have a chance to show their love of freedom and human dignity.  It could be civil rights organizations, large businesses and, yes, even some churches.

Even in the most redneck parts of the U.S., there are large proportions of rational people, often approaching or surpassing 50%.  It is often a vocal minority that pushes this kind of ignorance, -or at least one can hope it is.  Regardless, those who do not post the sign, or who post a contrary sign, would be making their beliefs clear and the discriminating public would be free to exercise their right of choice and withhold their business.

These signs would not be meant for those being discriminated against, although it would have an added benefit of showing them not only in which stores they are welcome, but also how many stores would actually support them.  They are, moreover, meant for the rest of the public, many of which would actually prefer not to financially support a store that so strongly differs from their own ethical views.  I know that I would avoid a store that had a policy that I found repulsive.

I’ve said before that this seems to be a very positive way of solving the problem in a manner that supports tolerance rather than condemning bigotry, -not that that doesn’t have its place as well.  In time, singled out by omission, the stores who chose to retain their redneck ways would more than likely suffer financially, that being one basic way to force them to recognize that it may not be to their benefit to try to shove their outdated religious beliefs down the throats of others.

Just want to put in here that I was equally disappointed in CNN’s Special Report on Atheism.  I found it unfocused and very shallow in it’s view.  I wonder if it was meant as an obligatory “equal time” response to the “Finding Jesus” travesty.  It didn’t really bring out many of the important points that should have been covered, such as establishing “Humanism” as a viable moral philosophy.  Most of it was about how several atheists from religious families were shunned by those families.  Sad stories, but still not really the stuff from which meaningful documentaries are made.

As an Integralist, I like to think that I have a skeptical but open mind when it comes to religion. While allocating much of religion to the realm of superstition, I feel that there are real spiritual values to be found (sometimes deeply buried by dogma) in religions, and I truly appreciate how religion can be important to the lives of many people who are operating with a certain world view, however much I may disagree with them.

So I was very interested in the new CNN series “Finding Jesus”. The advertizing sound bites put forth ideas like “He didn’t disappear without a trace,” and other things that kind of begged the question of scientific or historic evidence. It had the potential of being in interesting treatment of the subject.

I have to admit that I wasn’t very surprised to find out that it is nothing of the sort. After watching two episodes (-and I confess to fast forwarding though the second to try to find more serious parts-) I basically found this series to be rather graphic portrayals of Bible stories with a very slight injection of scientific speculation.

The Bible stories are all presented the way you’d expect to hear them at Sunday school, though perhaps more bloody and violently depicted in order to enthral (or perhaps outrage) the viewers. They are presented from the point of view of being factual, with frequent commentaries from known Christian pundits and clergy, never questioned or corroborated in any way. They’re argument for the existence of Jesus (-which is what the series purports to be about-) is from the assumption that the Bible stories are factual and then trying to support them with cherry picked “facts”. It is the same way that Creationists make their arguments. Start with the assumption that the Bible is true, because anything else is unthinkable, and then proceed from there.

The science being presented is baffling. In the first program there was an examination of the Shroud of Turin with the scientific conclusions being inconclusive. Afterwards several commentators appeared on screen to say that even if it is not scientifically proven, it is important to include the idea of Faith and a need to have something to believe in. The second episode examined a bone artifact that was believed to be from St. John the Baptist, and out rightly proved that it could not have been authentic because it was only about 1000 years old according to carbon dating. Again, commentators stated that it is important to have such artifacts in order to have Faith, totally ignoring that it was just proven on screen that their artifact was a fraud. This is truly baffling. There was some mention of the fact that there were many other alleged artifacts that had not been tested, as if that is supposed to be a consolation. It isn’t.

So we have a series that tells Bible stories from the perspective of them being true and then peppers the hour with scientific examinations that are, at best inconclusive and in some cases completely disprove authenticity. I’m not sure what they are trying to do. To the believer, I guess they can point to the scientific component and say, “See, we are trying to be rational and scientific about this,” totally losing sight of the fact that the science they’re talking about refuts their arguments. I honestly don’t understand the motive behind this, especially on a channel like CNN. It seems more like something that FOX would run.  I will not be watching any more episodes.  As I said, I am a little bit disappointed but not at all surprised.

I thought that I might catch the new movie, Chappie, sometime this weekend, or ever perhaps today (the opening day), seeing that it was playing in some places at 1 p.m. A quick look at the listings revealed a commercial opportunism that I’ve seen building over the past year or two, but never to the degree that currently seems to be prevalent.

If you want to see a new movie in any of the larger theatres, expect to pay extra. I’m not talking about the IMAX or 3D surcharges. Those, at least, make some sense to me. You’re paying for a notably better experience, and you usually have a choice in whether you want to avail yourself of this premium experience or not.

No, I’m talking about the other, recently imposed, fake premium tickets such as the VIP or the ULTRAAVX arrangements. IN the ULTRA situations you pay a surcharge of several dollars for what they claim is superior video and audio, -although I’ve never really noticed any difference. You also get the privilege of choosing your seats before going in to the theatre, although you really don’t have full choice as there are limitations on what seats you can choose. The result in a low use time is having a small group of people lumped into a small area in the middle of the theatre. There is no point in this seat selection. In high use times, you get to choose at the box office between a variety of poorer seats, -something you could just as easily do walking down the hall and entering the movie. In low use times, you get to choose among lots of seats, just like you’d be able to do if you just walked in and sat down. The difference is that with ULTRA you get to pay a surcharge for the privilege, which usually doesn’t do much other than slow down the ticket line. Even if you were the only person in the room, or one of a dozen, you would still pay this premium price. (If they wanted to impose a surcharge for choosing a seat on the Internet, which I personally think is totally unnecessary, then, fine, do that for those taking advantage of that extra service, but don’t make the people in the theatre line have to pay for it.) For today and the following week, the movie “Chappie”, along with several other new releases, are only available in most theatres using the ULTRA option. It is nothing less than a surcharge for seeing a new release wrapped in a thin veneer of crappy extra services.

When I went to see “A Theory of Everything” about a month ago, I chose to see it at the Varsity Theatre in Toronto. It wasn’t playing at anything but a few downtown theatres at that point as it was prior to the awards season. Admittedly, I didn’t look carefully enough at the listing, or I would have noticed that it was only playing in the VIP theatre. I didn’t realize it until they asked for $20 for the movie ticket. I had gone all the way down there and there wasn’t any opportunity to move to another theatre (-there was only one other in town playing it at that time-) so I took the hit, cursed myself for not looking more carefully, and saw the movie. For the additional cost, I enjoyed the privileges of having a slightly more comfortable seat (and I mean slightly), being offered over priced theatre food by annoying waiters and seeing the movie on a relatively small screen.

Theatres, especially the larger chains such as Silver City, are using the pretext of the “premium service” to simply fleece their customers of a little extra cash. It is not enough that they sell popcorn for a price that calculates to $66 a pound, a price that is twice what you’d pay for a fine steak in a good restaurant, and which rivals quality caviar. (I actually calculated this as a Math/Science activity with my Gr. 7 class.) Now they are trying to convince us that their meagre enhancements are worth charging us even more for the actual movie. It’s all smoke and mirrors. If I lived close to a small theatre like the Carlton, it would have all of my business. In the meantime, if theatres want to complete with on line services (and pirating) they would do well not to exploit their customers.

There is a big question in the media currently about how it is possible that young people (and older ones as well) can be radicalized in the western world. How is it that middle class teens or twenty-somethings view Internet sites and then are recruited by ISIS or other radical organizations? Why are the conversion/recruitments more successful with ISIS than with Al-Qaida? Some are Arab Muslims, some are recent converts. Some come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some do not. The question is similar to but not identical to the question of why a middle class student might walk into a school and shoot other students.

In my opinion, one way to better understand what is happening here is to use a cognitive model I first encountered in a book titled Virus Of The Mind, by Richard Brodie (1996). Actually, the book itself was less than spectacular. I found it difficult to read and rather blurry in both its concepts and its writing style. However, the central idea was a very interesting one. One of the problems with the book and with many other renditions of memetic viruses is that they take to literally the foundation established by Richard Dawkins in his original article, “Viruses of the mind”. Because of Dawkins’ strong ties to biological evolution, he applied the same ideas to the evolution of memes. Because of the highly rationalistic world view of many evolution supporters, the ideas ended up being translated to memes quite literally. The other thing that Dawkins seems determined to do in his original article is to relate the whole thing to religion and the transmission of religious ideas (to which he has a rather knee-jerk antipathy), which ends up hobbling the idea al little.

While I believe that there might be some transfer, I think that it is very dangerous to be too literal in applying biological concepts to mental ones. It seems to be too rigid an application of materialism. The model, however, can adopt parts of the biological model. The important thing is the degree to which the model fits, works and predicts. “The map is not the landscape” clearly warns about taking any model or analogy too literally. In fact the analogy of a computer virus may be more appropriate than a biological one.

Keeping that in mind, “meme as virus” is a useful map in order to try to understand the current situation with regards to radical extremism. Let me clarify the way in which I am using certain terms in order to provide perspective.

A meme is a unit of meaning usually summed up in a catch-phrase like “the end justifies the means” or “things go better with Coke”. It is the cultural equivalent of what in science is often called a Holon, which is important because Holons can evolve dialectically and so can memes.

Several memes can combine to create a larger meme, called a super meme, which is far more powerful because it relies on several mutually supportive memes for its inner validation, producing a sense of intrinsic consistency and rationalization.

A meme virus is a meme that is either deliberately crafted or the product of a selective evolution of ideas, and which strongly self replicates, especially in a particular medium of mind, like a seed engineered to thrive in particular kind of soils and environmental conditions. This may be a deliberate configuration of the meme, a product of a selective evolution of a meme (explained below), or a combination of both through the opportunistic utilization of an emergent meme.

In essence, all memes are viruses, defined by their ability to engage and be absorbed by the mind, however some act in a more virus like, efficient manner, defying normal safeguards against them. Take for example a religious meme vs “things go better with Coke”. While the ad meme is weaker and more likely to be mediated by intelligent thinking, the religious meme is far more powerful and can take on more virus like qualities.

The meme in the case of “radical violent extremism”, which for the sake of simplicity we will henceforth refer to as “Jihad”, is in fact a super meme which can be reduced to its supportive sub memes. However, the idea of “radical violent extremism” is not restricted to Muslim extremism or even religious extremism. For example, there are forms of environmental extremism which have exactly the same meme foundation. Comparing religious and environmental extremism yields some interesting insights into the nature of this virus, which I will examine at a later point.

The sub memes which constitute Jihad can be reduced to the following:

  1. The end justifies the means.
    2. Some ends are valued to justify any cost, including martyrdom. They are ends that demand justice. They are ends that have moral or ethical priority over all else. That end can be easily rationalized or may not even require evidence at all.
    3. Using extreme means to fight for these ends is noble and self righteous.
    4. People who don’t agree with the value of this end are working against it and therefore against the ultimate good that is associated with it. If they’re not with you, they’re against you. Their well being or even their lives are therefore a lesser priority.

We can see many of these operate individually with only slight or moderate consequences. When you put them all together, you end up with a radical mind set.

In the case of religious extremism, the morals and dogmas associated with the religion are the end. In Muslim extremism, for example, the values of the religion are so sacred that to defy them is considered a blasphemy. The “end”, whether it be moral righteousness or the promise of an afterlife in paradise, can take on a fanatical and extremist nature. In the case of environmental extremism, the survival of the environment at all costs is the end along with a condemnation of those that defile it. (I’m not equating these on an ethical level, just on a structural one.)

The soil in which this particular super meme of Jihad is likely to take hold most effectively has a relation to the nature of the sub memes. These sub memes have a foundation based on injustice and sense of purpose. Those people who are particularly vulnerable in those areas will be the ones most susceptible to a meme virus directed at conversion and recruitment to such a cause. This may include:

  1. People who have been the victims of injustice and prejudice in their own lives, or who identify and empathise with the injustice done to others.
    2. People who do not have a sense of purpose and feel that there is a void of meaning in their lives.
    3. People who have a fundamentalist conceptual mind set, seeing the world in terms of black and white or good and bad.
    4. People who have not developed a strong or consistent sense of empathy.
    5. People who have other forms of mental illness or personality disorders that lead to hardship in their interpersonal relationships and which encourage them to see the world in extreme terms.
    6. People who have little to lose, which is both the result of and a reinforcer for all of the above.

Combine the above memes with the above mental states in various combinations and permutations, and you have the perfect catalytic situation for the development of the Jihadist super meme. Expose kind of person described above to a Muslim extremist narrative of violence, and that virus will take hold and self replicate. Expose them to a different one, say a political or environmental ideology, and they will be susceptible to that as well. Put it in a racial equality context, especially one in which violence enters the meme through the actions of the “oppressors” and the meme will thrive in the form of violent demonstrations and organizations. One difference is that politics and environmentalism are more difficult to fully comprehend, and so intelligence plays a part as well. Religious ideologies are tailored to not require intelligence. This is not meant to be an insult to religion. They are meant to be highly accessible by nature.

Right now, one of the strongest extremist super memes in the world is Jihadist Muslim extremism. Its strength comes from several sources. There is a legitimate sense of injustice against Muslim people and the Arab world. Even highly rational and politically sceptical people will admit to a certain moral ambiguity in the way that the West has treated the Arabs of the Middle East. We’ve seen it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or in the way Iraq was invaded under the pretense of Weapons Of Mass Destruction. It’s a complex issue, but nobody can deny that it is a huge compost pile for feelings of injustice. Combined with that is the feeling in the western countries post 9-11 which engender a sense of persecution or suspicion of Muslim people. As I said, these are all highly complex issues, the justification for each side being debatable, but the sense of injustice is easily understood and easily made a factor that can influence and promote the meme.

Also as a religion with a strong fundamentalist side to it, Islam can easily be reduced by an evolving meme into extremist views. While the vast majority of Muslims would never resort to extremist violence to express their outrage, most would agree that the depiction or insult of their prophet is a blasphemy and is highly offensive to their religion. That’s not that different from fundamentalist Christians who would be outraged if someone posted a video of a person blowing their nose with pages from the New Testament or perhaps peeing on it. There would be outrage, especially from the fundamentalist corners of the religion who tend to take things more literally. There might even be a violent reaction, although that would be far less likely that it would be in the Muslim case. Why? For two reasons. First, Christian Jihad isn’t a prominent meme. If it were being reported every day that Christians were rising up in protest and violently reacting to certain things, that meme would quickly grow. Second, among fundamentalist Christians, the soil in which such a meme could develop is less likely to exist. Principally, they would have too much to lose. The person susceptible to Islamic Jihad characteristically has little to lose (and often much to gain, at least in their own minds).

ISIS, in particular, has figured out that it strengthens their meme to depict themselves as a source of brotherhood and adventure. To the bored young person who feels alienated from their social environment, or who feels rudderless, this becomes extremely enticing, the way that joining the Army is often depicted as adventurous to young recruits. (In fact, American military recruiters tend to use exactly the same meme and tactics, just replacing religious fervour with patriotic fervour.)

All this may be further complicated by personal issues that involve unresolved issues and Shadows, especially those that might result in a violent temperament. In fact, when the meme lands in the soil of the prospective mind, its very nature will dredge up Shadows, sometimes the worst and most unstable parts of ourselves, and celebrate them. That is part of the virus, to zero in on mental weaknesses and exploit them.

From an Integral point of view, those people who are at a Red/Amber (Pre-Rational / Pre-Modern) state of personal evolution are more susceptible to this process. Mediation by more reasonable forces is less present and the mind is already operating in a more fundamentalist, black & white mode. Feeling empathy for a victimized people and then joining a movement to kill or injure innocents and to make everybody think the same way, is not really empathy at all. It is, I think, related to the pre-trans fallacy that Ken Wilber talks about, where Pre-Modern values are confused with Post-Modern ones. Empathy becomes confused with a kind of murky, dark relativism. The person thinks they are being empathic and working for a higher morality, but really it is all rooted in Red egocentrism and groupcentrism.

By framing the idea of radical Muslim extremism in the model of a meme virus, I hope to illuminate several things. First, it is not the Muslim religion that is at fault here, but the way that it is being crafted to better suit a Jihadi meme. Similarly, the mal-contents that find it attractive are responding to a set of mental pre-conditions that would have likely responded to some other form of violent meme. Perhaps they would have become gang members or criminals. The central cause is the merging of a crafted, violent meme with a fertile mind, -and right now the prevalent violent meme is Muslim radicalism.

Secondly, I hope that this sheds some light on how to spot and avoid this from happening. The media needs to reframe the meme. How to do that would take another long entry to explain. Also, the personal issues that make an individual fertile ground can be addressed. In communities where Arab Muslims feel alienated and where they don’t feel that they have anything to give up or lose, you’re much more likely to find a fertile field for the meme to pursue conversion and recruitment. People in general who feel an absence of purpose or who have been bullied and feel victimized will clearly be more susceptible.

As a model this perspective is far from perfect or absolute. However I feel that it does illuminate and even answer some of the questions which are being asked about the current situation concerning domestic terrorism.

I feel that it was a very lean year for movies. A lot of the films that are garnering award nominations seem to be coming from desperation and would not get that kind of recognition in other years where stronger films were more prevalent. Films like “Into the Woods” and “Foxcatcher”, …and even “Birdman” don’t seem to be of the kind of calibre that deserves recognition, and “American Sniper” hadn’t even been released when the nominations were announced.

“Birdman” seems to be a favorite this year. While it was well produced and directed, the story seemed hollow to me. The filmmakers did an excellent job of telling a very jumbled and largely irrelevant story. It didn’t really speak to me at all in spite of the fact that it was well crafted. “Selma” is probably an excellent film (…I haven’t seen it…), but I have to say (and may be criticized for it) that after “The Butler”, “The Help” and “12 Years a Slave” civil rights issues just might be getting a little overdone. I’m sure that those most directly affected by civil rights issues don’t agree with me, …although the Academy does seem to agree with me as “Selma” got a mention for best film but nothing else.

There are several movies that I do feel deserve award mention.

“Boyhood” is a classic Linklater film. He does a very good job of making a film about nothing in particular. I appreciate the scope of the task and think that it was a novel idea, but the opportunity presented by the film was, in my opinion, squandered. The story didn’t live up to the overall accomplishment. In spite of that, I feel that it is worthy of award nomination as a film, although none of the individual performances were particularly noteworthy.

The two films that I think are on top of the heap are “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game”. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” came out early in the year, a rare January release of an Oscar worthy movie. It got my attention immediately and is an original, funny and well crafted movie. “The Imitation Game” is a far more serious film about Alan Turing, with many layers of story and significance. They are totally different films, but both had fantastic acting performances and were very entertaining.

“The Theory of Everything” comes close to “The Imitation Game” in telling a deeply significant biographical story, but the latter, in my opinion, is just a hair better both in acting and story. There is no doubt that Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking takes on a very difficult task in portraying Hawking’s disability, but personally I think that an excellent performance of a normal person trumps an excellent performance of a person with a handicap. (Don’t misunderstand this. What comes to mind is Meryl Streep’s performance in “August: Osage County” where the melodramatic portrayal of the crazy, alcoholic mother was very deep, but none the less melodramatic. –Not that Redmayne’s performance is melodramatic. It’s actually quite masterful.) “The Theory of Everything” tackles a complicated character and manages to bring a special humanity to it, while still tackling the science that made Hawking famous.

Best actor should go to preferably Benedict Cumberbatch, but Eddie Redmayne would be fine.

Best actress seems to be a thin category with many of the nominations coming from peripheral films. I can only speak to Felicity Jones, in “the Theory of Everything”, who did a very good but not exceptional job.

“Interstellar” deserved some recognition beyond the music nod. Perhaps it was a little too “out there” for the Academy. Films that made my top 10 that aren’t on the Oscar list include, “Chef”, “The Internet’s Own Boy” (for documentary), and “Night crawler”. Movies like”Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Dawn of Planet of the Apes” never get the recognition that they deserve.

Finally, it is disappointing that “The Lego Movie” didn’t get any recognition, other than a music nod for “Everything is Awesome”, which I hope it gets. It clearly deserved a nomination if not a win for Animated Film.