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In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his opinion that a milestone was recently passed in the fight between liberals and progressives for the future of the Democratic Party, and perhaps for the future of America.

THE CRITICS ADORE! “The eternally intolerable Sunstone has no more insight into politics than a six year old brat has into the chemistry of fire.  All Sunstone does in his recent post is play with matches, and quite predictably, he burns the house down.” — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

Continue reading “In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News”

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Alex Jones and the “Paradox of Tolerance”

(About a 7 minute read)

I think it can be said of Alex Jones that he is the poster-child for the “American disease” of tolerating the intolerable.  Perhaps out of all major democracies, America’s democracy is the most susceptible to the disease.  That’s because we tend to be extremists when it comes to protecting freedom of speech.

To be sure, America does limit free speech somewhat, but the limits are absolutely minimal.  You cannot advocate physical violence against someone and/or their property, nor can you “yell fire in a crowded theater” for the mere sport of it, since that might lead to physical injuries.

Continue reading “Alex Jones and the “Paradox of Tolerance””

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Free Speech Today

(About a 3 minute read)

In recent years, there have been many cases of people denied platforms to speak to audiences by publicly funded institutions, such as universities and even radio stations.

So, what are the reasons or grounds for denying a speaker a platform on which to speak? And are those reasons or grounds justified?

What has happened is this: There has been a shift or change in the philosophical grounds on which freedom of speech has traditionally been limited. The old, less restrictive, reasons have been kicked out the door, and new, more restrictive, reasons have been adopted. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

To answer that question, let’s take a look first at the old reasons, and then the new ones.

Continue reading “Free Speech Today”

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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

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Tara Lyn: Leaning Into the Light

(About a 10 minute read)

At the time I knew her, Tara had but one passion in life: People.  Specifically, the people she personally knew.  I don’t recall her ever mentioning someone as remote to her as a celebrity or some other personage she’d never met, but she was just as fervent in discussing her friends and acquaintances as any newlywed is about discussing their beloved.

Indeed, perhaps the only really significant difference between a newlywed and Tara was that a newlywed tends to ignore any faults or flaws in their beloved, while Tara seemed incapable of ignoring anything about the people she was so fascinated by.  That’s by no means, however, to imply she was overtly critical of people.

As a rule, she was not.  Or at least, she appeared not to criticize people.

It took me awhile to catch on to her because she would say things about people, such as “Brian is so jealous of Sammy”, that I assumed meant she was judging them.  That is, I assumed she believed, as I did, that jealousy is a negative emotion, and that she must therefore on some level disapprove of it in Brian.

Gradually, however, I learned that Tara was oddly — quite oddly, when you think about it (for it is human nature to judge) — rather on the dispassionate side when it came to communicating her thoughts about people.  Almost as dispassionate, I sometimes thought, as a chemist reporting on the interaction of sodium and chlorine.

Of course, I’m sure she did in fact judge people.  How could she not?  But the fact is, she seldom expressed judgment.  She spoke of the commonplace and the outrageous in the very same tone of voice, the very same body language.  She could say — and this is a true example, near as I can recollect it now — “Danny hit Rene last night because she said something he didn’t like about his getting a job.” — and sound just the same as when she once idly mentioned that Rene and Danny were moving in together.

The one time I can now recall Tara actually expressing disapproval — if that’s what it indeed was — was when she told me about a young woman who, at the age of 14, had been raped by her step-father.  Tara ended her otherwise dispassionate account with something along these lines, “She was always telling jokes and laughing before that happened.  Then she kept to herself a lot, and never much laughed again.”  I have a fairly vivid memory of her saying that because it was so rare of her to express disapproval.  But she expressed it so subtly, so gently, that I think you would have needed to know her as well as I did by then to detect the disapproval in her voice.   Disapproval or sorrow, I’m still not sure to this day which.

Tara was one of those very rare people who seemed to more or less embody Spinoza’s statement, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”  She would not, however, have ever heard of Spinoza, and had I quoted him to her, her first question would surely have been, “Is he a friend of yours?”

She could show surprising general insight into people, even though she herself seldom spoke of people in general terms.  I once shared a poem with her that I’d written about a fictional “Kathy”.   After I’d read the poem to her, Tara fell silent, looking deeply perplexed.  “What do you think of it?”

“I don’t know.” Tara said.

“You didn’t like it?”

“No, it’s not that.  It’s just that I’ve never known anyone in my life like Kathy.  Did you make her up?”  I no longer have the poem to test it, but I’d wager eight in ten people would not have so quickly realized Kathy was a fictional character.

I hired Tara as my “secretary” in my final year in business.  “Secretary” was a bit of a stretch; she had almost no real secretarial skills; and she served instead as my data entry clerk.  That’s to say, I hired her with the expectation I could train her up right and whole to be a real secretary, an expectation she proved to have little or no interest in fulfilling, just as she had little or no interest in anything other than the people she knew.  I eventually resigned myself to her much needed help with data entry, for that she was willing to do, and do well.

Tara also resisted any urge I had to keep to a strictly formal employer/employee relationship.  A mutual friend once told me, “Tara says you’re more of an uncle to her than a boss”, and I had to admit, that was how she treated me.  There came a time, for instance, when she made a habit of calling me each evening in the office.  Around nine o’clock the phone would ring, Tara.  For the next forty-five minutes to an hour, she would fill me in on what everyone had been doing since she her last update during her working hours.  It took her that long because Tara so seldom, if ever, generalized.  Instead, she recounted details.  All the details.

It also took her that long because she quite often asked me for advice.  I once questioned her about that, and she replied, “You’re the only one who gives me good advice.  Everyone else just says things like, ‘Go burn his house down’, but you give me things I can really do.”  Which was ironic because, by that time, I had discovered that — of the two of us — Tara was the wisest.

No, she didn’t know she was wise, but she was.  And she was wise in a very special way — a way that is often neglected or under-valued by Westerners. For we in the West so often think of wisdom as something shown through a person’s words.  So far as I recall, the closest Tara ever came to saying something that might pass as wise with many of us was perhaps when she one day told me, “Boss, I don’t worry about doing the right thing or the wrong thing like you do.  I just try to do the best thing.”

Somewhere in his book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez mentions that the Inuit word for “wise person” literally means, “Someone who makes wisdom visible through their actions or behavior”.  The word has nothing specifically to do with what a person says or doesn’t say, except as that might be accounted a part of their overall behavior.  Rather, the emphasis is on visible actions (and perhaps equally telling moments when one chooses not to act).  Tara, I came to believe, was a wise person in the sense of the Inuit word.

It was quite a long haul for me to arrive at that conclusion about her.  For one thing, I had to overcome my prejudice that wise people spout wise sayings.  The thought that a wise person might not say many wise things at all was simply foreign to me.  Another prejudice I needed to overcome was that someone who routinely asked me for advice might actually be wiser than me.  But when I finally got around to observing how skillfully Tara appeared to be negotiating her life, as compared to how clumsily I seemed to be negotiating my own, it revolutionized my understanding of her.

For instance, at about midpoint during the year I employed her, Tara’s boyfriend abruptly decided to cheat on her.  Tara spent all of three days and nights crying on her couch, waiting for him to come home.  Then she had, as she put it, the revelation that, “I was doing no one any good, least of all myself, by feeling sorry for me”.  With that, she picked herself up, and returned to her circle of friends.  The ache was not over for her, nor were any of the issues involved resolved.  But she was firmly set on getting on with her life, come what might of the boyfriend business.

I doubt Tara had ever heard of — or at least had absorbed — the expression, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”, but no one had to have told her that, because she lived it.  Not just when her boyfriend cheated on her, but in one manner after the next.  Tara could drop an emotional burden as spontaneously as a child can let go of a grandparent’s hand to run play on a swing.  I believe the metaphor of a child is correct because hearts as resilient as hers usually belong either to children or to sages.

But was Tara really a sage?

I do not think she would compare with the Buddha, nor even, perhaps, with a few other people I actually know.  I saw her falter more than once; that is, I saw her do something I regarded as foolish, sometimes terribly foolish.  But it seemed to me that each time she faltered, she picked herself up, and made the best of her new situation.  Sage or not, I am fairly certain she was at the time I knew her, wiser than me.  Yet, only if you looked at, not what she said, but at what she did or did not do.

Barry López again:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

I mean it as no criticism when I say that Tara would not have fully understood Lopez’s words.  She wasn’t educated well enough to entirely grasp what Lopez might mean by “finding darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself”, for instance.  And life’s “great pressing questions” never seemed to me to cross her mind, at least not in any abstract way.

But Tara was as level-headed, as dispassionate as anyone I’ve known when it came to seeing people as they are, seeing both the light and darkness of them.  And she was surely empathetic, although I’m not certain that her empathy often rose to the level of compassion.  It might have, but I just don’t know.  She did, however, in so many ways, “lean into the light”.

I never discovered even a hint of malice or cruelty in her.  She was forgiving perhaps to a fault (unless one understands her willingness to forgive as a refusal to emotionally cling to things she had no control over).  She strove to tell the truth when talking of the one thing that really mattered to her, people.

Her circle of friends and acquaintances included many people whose behavior can be clinically described as “dysfunctional”, people full of petty hatreds, foolish envies, habitual cowardice towards the more powerful, and just as habitual bullying towards the less powerful then they; people who never seem to value what they have, nor ever get what they want.  Tara lived in that world, but she was not of it.  It did not turn her.

Instead, she was to some remarkable degree true to herself, albeit not like a stone, but like water.  She didn’t oppose things that were not her, she flowed around them, under them, or over them.  I would not call her a sage at the time I knew her, more than twenty years ago, but I would not be at all surprised if I’d call her that today, should we ever meet again.  Last I knew, she was married to a man she loved and the mother of six children.

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The American Class System and the Political Correctness of the Regressive Left

By political correctness, I do not mean the term as it has come to be employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets. I mean its older, intramural denotation: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.  — William Deresiewicz

A few days ago, The American Scholar published a revealing article by William Deresiewicz on the political correctness of the regressive left.  The article, which is beautifully written, entwines several themes, and one of those themes is that advocates of political correctness on the college and university campuses in the United States are almost exclusively drawn from two social classes: The privileged upper and upper-middle classes.

Those two classes are predominantly comprised of affluent, politically liberal or neoliberal White and Asian professionals.  They overwhelmingly attend elite private colleges and universities  — the hotbeds of political correctness — and at those institutions, they constitute by far and wide the vast majority of the student body and faculty.

If Deresiewicz is correct, the implications are interesting.  Today’s elite students will almost certainly go on to become tomorrow’s elite professionals.  I wonder if we’re going to see safe spaces in the corporations, trigger warnings on business memos, and endless cat and mouse games of “Gottcha for being Politically Incorrect!” played out in business offices.  Of course, those would be the minor changes.  The major changes would be made in politics and law.

Deresiewicz’s article is a long one, but an excellent read.

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Are Our Hierarchical Societies Intrinsically Abusive?

As I understand it, civilization got its start about 5,500 years ago when folks in ancient Sumer began living in agricultural-based, hierarchical societies.  Before then, our species almost exclusively lived in egalitarian bands of hunter/gatherers.  And one thing the anthropologists have noticed is that the shift from uncivilized hunting/gathering to civilized agriculture was not physically healthy for us.

It’s been discovered that our uncivilized ancestors were on the whole better fed and nourished than our civilized ancestors. Consequently, our uncivilized ancestors were taller, more robust, healthier, and possibly lived longer, than their civilized cousins.

Agriculture was a devil’s bargain.  It supported more people per acre than hunting/gathering.  But most of those people were malnourished.

I think the more you study it, the more you realize that civilization itself was a devil’s bargain — and not merely, or even primarily, because it was physically unhealthy.  Rather, I think civilization has been emotionally and mentally unhealthy for us when compared to our uncivilized past.  Why?

There are a lot of answers to that “Why”, but here’s one — it might even be the best: Civilized societies, perhaps much more than uncivilized societies, abuse their members.  And the abuse most likely creates all sorts of emotional and mental problems.

At least, that’s my hunch.  For the most part, my hunch comes out of what I’ve read in anthropology and closely related fields over the past 35 years.  But of course, I could be wrong.  For one thing, my reading in those fields has been casual, rather than systematic.  After all, I am a proud intellectual who tackles information in order to get laid, rather than a confused scientist who tackles information in order to discover truths  (But why isn’t it working?  Why am I not laid? Who must I see about correcting this?).

At any rate, let’s put aside for a moment the immense and meaningful tragedy of my not getting laid (Readers should seize this opportunity to dry their tears!), and ask ourselves the more relevant question:  If it can indeed be said that civilized societies, perhaps much more than uncivilized societies, abuse their members, then what is meant by “abuse” here?

As I am using the word, “abuse” is any unnecessary repression of a person’s true or genuine nature.

Of course, there is always someone who will object to that definition on the grounds that — if that is abuse — then most of us these days are to one extent or another being abused.  Or put differently, someone will object that abuse simply cannot be any unnecessary repression of a person’s true or genuine nature, because if that were so, then how can society function without abusing its members?

Well, that “objection” all but makes my case for me, doesn’t it?

It seems to me highly likely that the hierarchical societies our species first began living in some 5,500 years ago are intrinsically abusive.  Or, as some might say, “structurally” abusive.  In other words, I think it highly likely there is no real way we humans can live in hierarchical societies without, to various extents, abusing most of the people living in them.

Of course, some hierarchical societies are comparatively more abusive than other hierarchical societies.  Liberal democracies are significantly less abusive of their citizens than dictatorships are abusive of their subjects.  Even though all hierarchical societies today unnecessarily repress people’s genuine natures to one extent or another, it would be foolish to see no difference between one society and the next.

I think you could write a hundred blog posts on this one subject and not exhaust it.  In this post, I am attempting to merely introduce the topic.  I am certainly not, in so few words as these, attempting to persuade anyone that there is truth to the notion our hierarchical societies are intrinsically abusive.  So, I could go on and on about this, but I am now sure and certain I have already said enough to get me laid.  In the future, I hope to return to this subject again and again and again in order to probe deeper and deeper and ever more passionately into the hot, wet, willing TRUTH! of this wonderfully throbbing, hungry subject in order to get at whatever truths there might be in this matter.