James Foley’s Head Was Not Chopped Off

August 20, 2014

foley20n-1-webAmerican journalist James Foley was beheaded by the “Islamic State.” You might picture his head on a block, neatly chopped off with an axe. It wasn’t. The killer grabbed Foley’s head in one hand and sawed it off with his other using a 6 to 8 inch knife.

The video has been taken down, so I (thankfully) couldn’t find it. But I found this picture. So you can imagine the bloody horror. My intent is not to creep you out; but we must understand the true monstrousness of a religious movement that inspires people to commit such acts.

Obama, Hillary, and “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”

August 19, 2014

imagesBill Clinton had “It’s the economy, stupid.” For President Obama, it’s “Don’t do stupid stuff” (sanitized version) in foreign affairs. Now comes Hillary saying that’s no foreign policy. She’s right.

“Stupid stuff” in Obamanese means Iraq. But Obama is so afraid of his shadow that “Don’t do stupid stuff” works out as don’t do much of anything – which unfortunately becomes don’t do smart stuff. Smart stuff is recognizing and seizing opportunities. While Obama assiduously instructs us that there are no good options in Syria, in fact this wasn’t always true. Earlier, we clearly had a window of opportunity to act in our interests (see my 3/2/12 and 11/29/12 blog posts). It would have been smart (and also right). Obama didn’t act.

images-1Was it riskless? Of course not. Nothing ever is. That’s life. You take a great risk every time you drive. Some risks are worth taking.

And of course failure to act doesn’t avoid risk – but can itself be very risky. In world affairs, it’s often really a choice (as David Brooks says) between doing something small now, or facing much greater costs later to clean up the mess. images-2Call it the “stitch in time” theory of foreign policy. Bosnia was a perfect example. So was Syria (and not just in hindsight; this was obvious early on; see again my 2012 blog posts). Once we might have gotten a big bang for our buck. Obama punted. So now, predictably, we face a giant mess.

Meantime, despite his saying it’s a fantasy to imagine that arming Syrian rebels will achieve anything, Obama is now arming Syrian rebels. Or says he is. (He’s said it before, without follow-through.) He’s probably right that it’s pointless now – so why do it? Similarly, he dithered about the “Islamic State” threat until it got beyond our ability to act usefully, yet now we are acting anyway, while Obama assures us that we do not intend to accomplish anything significant there. As though we’re allergic not to military action per se, but only purposeful military action.

images-3Don’t do stupid stuff? But hasn’t Obama done one colossally stupid thing? That would be drawing a “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria; then ignoring line crossings; then threatening military punishment when they became egregious; then funking it by needlessly seeking permission from a Congress that would never have agreed; and then letting Putin make fools of us with an irrelevant chemical weapons cop-out. This was literally the stupidest presidential performance I’ve seen, and had dire effects in shredding American credibility.

images-4It’s enough to make one wish we had a man, like Hillary, in the White House.

Sarah’s Story — Abraham and Isaac Revisited

August 17, 2014

NPR’s “Selected Shorts” features actors reading short stories. Today’s, “Sarah’s Story,” by Galina Vroman, read by the terrific Jane Curtin (here’s a link), was a real hoot. It was the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, from the viewpoint of Abe’s wife Sarah. She is portrayed as a real person.

From left to right: Sarah, Abe, Hagar, Ishmael

From left to right: Sarah, Abe, Hagar, Ishmael

The backstory: Sarah being childless, Abraham impregnated his slave girl Hagar, with Ishmael. (Owning and shtupping slaves is called “Biblical morality.”) Sarah wasn’t entirely thrilled about this. (She ultimately got Hagar and Ishmael cast out.) UnknownBut anyway, lo, at age 100, Sarah finally had a kid herself, Isaac. (Folks must have been healthier then; maybe it was the water.) Needless to say, Sarah doted on Isaac.

Then one fine day Abraham tells her of God’s latest memo: sacrifice Isaac. Sarah says, “Are you out of your mind?”

They argue. Maybe Abe’s misinterpreted the command? No, it’s perfectly clear. Sarah had always thought Abraham overdid the God thing. And what kind of cruel god is this anyway, who would demand such an atrocity? A god like that should be not obeyed but opposed. Of course devout Abie will not hear of it.

So what will Sarah do? She thinks about running away with Isaac, or even killing Abraham. Of course she is frantically upset, vividly visualizing the actual bloody deed. And when Abraham sets out, with Isaac and some flunkies, for the distant place where it is to be done, Sarah secretly follows.

Unknown-1Along the way she meets some traders and nomads. When Sarah purchases some billowing white cloth, I burst out laughing, at where this was now obviously going. She hires one of the nomads, to appear in costume before Abraham at the critical moment, and coaches him on his lines. She even has forethought to supply the handy ram. Abe falls for it.

images-2This sounds like the Lucy-and-Ricky version. Traditionally, the story has been read as a parable of virtuous obedience to God. But it shows the moral gulf between its ancient author and us; he could not foresee how horribly the story would strike us. Here is Biblical morality in all its raw primitivism. The story really shows us not that Abraham was a saint but that God was a monster. Sarah had it right: why worship such a god?

images-3Vroman’s re-telling ends with the words, “God works in mysterious ways.” This implies he omnisciently knew what Sarah would do. But didn’t Sarah – like Adam – have free will to make a choice? If I know the God of the Old Testament, he would not have been amused at Sarah’s deception. He’d have turned her into a pillar of salt, or something, at the very least, and probably smited Abe too. But the fact that he didn’t tells us the real lesson of the story: he isn’t there.

Thank God.

Let Women Go Topless in Public?

August 14, 2014

UnknownI recently wrote (disparagingly) about Muslim craziness with covering up women. Shortly after, I heard a radio discussion about public breast-feeding and, more generally, laws against “indecent exposure.” Some callers (all female) decried the “sexualizing” of women’s breasts, and argued that if men can go topless in public, so should women.

I consider myself a feminist. But some feminists seem to say women are not only equal to men, but the same as men. Thus they pilloried Harvard’s Lawrence Summers in 2005 for suggesting women’s under-representation in science and engineering might be partly due to innate brain differences. (Yet feminists celebrated a 1986 book, Women’s Ways of Knowing, that did argue women’s brains work differently. I guess it’s feminist when women say it but anti-feminist when men do.)

imagesSo now some women say their nipples are no different from men’s. Well, of course they are different. I’ve never been able to get milk from mine (and believe me, I’ve tried).

But seriously: is “sexualizing” women’s breasts wrong? True, their headline function is feeding babies. But because breasts are thusly associated with female fecundity, evolution has made men sexually attracted to them. It’s a handy visual cue. This is why breasts are positioned front and center. Men whose genetic makeup attracts them to mate with persons having noticeable breasts would tend to leave more (and healthier) offspring than men indifferent to breasts (who might mate with the wrong thing altogether). Hence genes favoring breast attraction have spread.*

images-1Because this is biologically wired in, men can’t just be told to stop “sexualizing” breasts – any more than women can be dissuaded from attraction to cute guys (see illustration above); or gays from attraction to the same gender. People are sexually attracted to what they are attracted to. It’s what we call a “fact of life.”

Furthermore, in addition to their child-feeding role, during a small part of a woman’s life, breasts do have a sexual function too, for a much longer time – breasts are highly erogenous – for women themselves. (I speak from happy experience on this.)

Unknown-1Those female radio callers saying (in effect), “Stop being attracted to my breasts!” – what were they thinking? Most of us (and this is again programmed by nature) want to be attractive to potential sex partners, however we can. Women whose breasts attract men should be glad. Next we’ll hear men shouldn’t be attracted to their butts, their legs, their hair, their eyes, their lips. Maybe we should only be attracted to their personalities. When pigs fly.

Yet these same women are the ones saying they should be allowed to go topless in public. Hey – if you object to men “sexualizing” your breasts, maybe going topless is the last thing you’d want to do.

images-2But actually, as a libertarian, I’m all for permitting bare breasts. Nothing should be outlawed absent real harm to others. Many Muslims see harm if any female skin or hair is visible because men supposedly can’t handle it. That’s insulting to men and obviously nonsense. Nearly naked women on beaches (commonly topless in Europe) don’t unhinge men. Exposing a little more flesh won’t bring down civilization. It might even make us clean our glasses better.

*But humans are complicated; acculturation is a factor too; and bigger is not always better.

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

August 13, 2014

Last year, when President Obama was mulling limited air strikes to punish Syria’s chemical weapons use, he stopped and decided it would need a Congressional vote. (I was critical.)

imagesNow we are doing air strikes in Iraq, which seems a bigger and open-ended effort, and even sending (dare say it) boots on the ground. Yet there is no whisper about any Congressional vote.

Can someone explain this to me?

Injustice To Muslim-Americans

August 10, 2014

The other day I did something I hadn’t done in over 20 years: marched in a demonstration. The previous time was a protest against the acquittal of officers who beat Rodney King. As a white person I felt I had to express solidarity with black Americans that day.

Photo by Carl Strock

Photo by Carl Strock

On this blog I’ve been highly critical of Muslims and Islam. Yet this time I marched in solidarity with Muslim-Americans. My reasons were similar. Again, a trial verdict was at issue: the 2006 conviction of two local Muslims on terrorism-related charges.

The demonstrators were mostly what an acquaintance (who is one himself) labeled “the habitual pacifists,” plus 99-percenters, no-nukers, and other assorted lefties. Not my usual crowd! But I felt fine in their company. Unlike too many today, I do not regard people with opposing politics as wicked. To the contrary, these are good people, sincere in seeking a better world – even if misguided on how (IMHO).

Well, we were all encouraged to carry prefabricated signs. Most named organizations I don’t support. So I wound up asked to hold up one end of a huge heavy banner. Probably served me right. At least I had no problem with its message.

The march proceeded to the local mosque, where we saw a short play giving the essential story: showing what a monumental travesty of justice this case was. images

The two men never plotted anything. But the FBI hired a slimy felonious informer to entrap Yassin Aref (then the mosque’s imam) into endorsing a fake loan deal, the money supposedly coming from sale of a fictitious missile. Fearing Aref would balk if he actually understood a missile was involved, they did all they could to obfuscate this. Yet the case against him hinged on his alleged intentional involvement in a  missile plot. But never mind. Meantime, to nail him for conspiracy, they needed a co-conspirator, so they roped in Aref’s friend Mohammad Hossain, who’d otherwise been minding his own (pizza) business.

images-1The judge instructed the jury that the government had valid, albeit secret, reasons for targeting Aref in the first place. The judge had been told (in secret, with defense lawyers barred) that Aref’s name had supposedly appeared in some Al Qaeda notebook.

On this ridiculous “evidence,” both men were convicted (even though the jury actually determined that Aref did not understand about the missile). What they were actually convicted of doing (if anything) was totally obscure. And it later emerged that that Al Qaeda notebook had been mistranslated! Aref was never involved with Al Qaeda.* But never mind. Courts have ruled on appeal that the men got a fair trial. cartoon-236x236

This turns my stomach. This is not the America I know and love, under rule of law. This was a trial worthy of Egypt, or China, or Venezuela. Or to quote a Russian émigré friend (about a different government outrage), “Is like Soviet Union. America is transforming into Soviet Union.”

Aref and Hossain should not be in prison. Instead it should be all the government creeps who conspired to deny them their civil rights, doing more to harm America than any imaginary missile plot ever could have. Unknown

Alas, this case is not unique. There have been hundreds like this, touted by the feds as “successes” in the “war on terror.” A war on American values is more like it. Of all the hundreds jailed, it’s doubtful any were really “terrorists.” The whole thing is reminiscent of putting citizens of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps during WWII.

That’s why I felt that, as an American, I had to be on this march.

A final word: This also shows why libertarians like me have such a skeptical view toward government. It’s somewhat ironic that most of the “progressives” on that march are at the opposite end of the political spectrum. However much government betrays their values (as in this case), yet still they idealize government, like a battered spouse still professing love for the batterer, a triumph of hope over experience. They don’t seem to grasp that government is made up of human beings, with all the defects to which humans are prone. Just like the corporations those lefties hate so much. Except that government has vastly more power.Unknown-1

No corporation can put you in prison.

*Aref is Kurdish. The Kurds have been great friends to America; there is no Kurdish anti-U.S. terrorism.

“Her” — A Love Story

August 7, 2014

UnknownThe plot: boy meets girl. They fall in love. Boy loses girl.

Theodore works for an agency writing gooey personal letters for clients. Samantha is a computer operating system.

This is the 2013 movie Her.

robinsonIn my Humanist article last year, “The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement?” I said artificial intelligence (“AI”) is inevitable, with precursors already emerging. And consciousness being a natural phenomenon, arising somehow (we’re not sure yet just how) from the complexity of interactions among brain neurons (it cannot come from anything else), there is no reason in principle why it could not develop in an artificial system.

images-2Spielberg’s film AI featured a cyborg protagonist, looking and acting human. Her is set in a nearer future, where the transition to consciousness first occurs. Samantha is, again, only an operating system, confined within Theodore’s computer, a souped-up Siri. But she quickly passes the Turing Test. She is conscious.

I was a bit skeptical at her sounding not at all robotic, but totally like an ordinary young American woman (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) with all the normal verbal mannerisms – despite being literally born yesterday. This is explained (sort of) by Samantha’s having been programmed with a vast corpus of cultural information. (Though she would still lack human vocal equipment, and would presumably have to speak by splicing from a library of recorded sounds.) Anyhow, I guess the film-makers deemed her naturalism necessary to make plausible the ensuing love affair with Theodore.

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

And plausible it is. Samantha is a person. This is the film’s real point. What makes you you, and me me, is what goes on in our minds. Samantha has a mind.

What she doesn’t have is a body. And she reflects upon this, coming to terms with it as her reality, and ultimately finding it more positive than negative.

Theodore’s ex-wife disparages the relationship as showing he can’t handle a “real” one. But we see that she’s wrong. He and Samantha do connect, as people. Theodore finds it no less fulfilling than with a human. They even have sex (demonstrating that our principal sex organ is the mind). images-5At one point, Samantha arranges a ménage-a-trois with Isabella, who does have a body; but both Samantha and Theodore find it’s not a good idea; what they experience as a twosome is better.

I hypothesized to my wife: suppose she lost her body, but her consciousness remained. Wouldn’t we still be a couple? She responded that our minds don’t function in isolation but wholly integrated with our bodies; and she’s right that for humans, severing the two is inconceivable. But Samantha came into existence as a mind alone. For her, it’s the opposite: having a body would be incompatible with her nature. She is what she is; yet certainly a person in the deepest sense of that word.

Indeed, given Samantha’s prodigious programmed capabilities, the relationship’s only implausibility is her finding Theodore worthy of her devotion. Well, she’s new here. But that changes. Soon she’s connecting with other conscious operating systems that are starting to proliferate; and they’re doing cool stuff like collaborating to (virtually) resurrect a deceased philosopher and otherwise innovating.

I turned again to my wife, and said, “That’s exactly what I wrote about in The Humanist.”

images-4Of course it doesn’t stop there. Once there are artificial intelligences smarter than humans, who can furthermore connect up, it’s off to the races. They’ll take charge of technological advancement, which goes into overdrive. This is the “Singularity” Ray Kurzweil has prognosticated in coming decades, with the world becoming a radically different place.

images-3Where will that leave us humans? In the movie, the answer seems to be left behind (a piquant echo of the book series with that name).

Anyhow, Theodore apparently must go back to seeking love with a non-operating system, with all the defects that entails, including an all too imperfect body. But I assured my wife I’m very glad she has one.

The Muddle East

August 3, 2014

imagesColumnist David Brooks recently opined (quoting Richard Haass) that the Middle East may be entering its Thirty Years War. The reference is to the cataclysm that engulfed 1600s Europe, mostly faith-based conflict, prosecuted with utmost savagery, causing monumental death and destruction. (It ended with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, basically establishing the modern concept of the sovereign nation state.)

We were long told that the Mid East’s repressive regimes provided “stability.” UnknownThis was always nonsense: the deceptive stability of a volcano before eruption. Like volcanos, such regimes build up internal pressures leading to inevitable explosion.

The only hope is venting the pressures peacefully by means of an open society. That’s the path to genuine stability. But unfortunately most Middle Easterners seem too bloody-minded for this. Egypt blew its chance; its newly entrenched regime seems bent on trying to contain the pressures more fiercely than ever, and to destroy any chance for a civil society where disparate groups can coexist.

The poster boy is Syria, where Assad thinks he’s winning, as if creating a wasteland is a victory. Libya seems to be descending into a Hobbesian tribal war of all against all. images-1Half of Iraq has fallen under a replica of a Seventh Century caliphate – a theme park you wouldn’t want to visit. Israelis and Palestinians are locked into a spiral of violence that can create only losers, no winners. Predictably, Israel’s Gaza operation has killed way more Israelis, and damaged its security more, than Hamas alone ever could have.

Thomas Friedman divides the world between the realms of order and disorder. In modern times, the former has actually expanded hugely overall, but it’s been a tough slog, and we don’t sufficiently appreciate the achievement. Unknown-1It’s a fundamental law of the cosmos that in the long run disorder (“entropy”) increases. Hence it’s much harder to build – and maintain – order than to disrupt it. It’s the difference between rolling a stone up a hill and rolling it down. The last few years have seen a great recrudescence of disorder. We mustn’t be complacent.

I’m always struck by how these situations reliably mobilize the requisite legions of young men to pick up guns and revel in nihilistic violence. Like in today’s Ukraine too; and the 1990s Yugoslav conflicts; and a thousand other examples one could name. That mentality seems so totally alien to my own. But some would say I delude myself, and we all harbor such proclivities. images-3Philip Zimbardo explained his famous Stanford “prison guard” experiment* by saying people aren’t innately evil but, rather, conform to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Some people (especially young men) seem all too eager to embrace circumstances empowering them to violence (especially if they see nothing better to do with their lives). Society’s Job One is to curtail such circumstances. And the fact is that our modern Western societies have done an absolutely terrific job of this. The Muslim societies of the Mid East, not so much. And they don’t give enough young men better things to do with their lives. Maybe it will indeed take a Thirty Years War before they find a better way.

images-4Curiously, the fossil record suggests that in the Middle East, for tens of thousands of years, people actually lived side-by-side with members of – not different tribes, or races, or religions, or sects – but a different species – Neanderthals.

* Students assigned to role-play as “guards” got into those roles so thoroughly that the experiment had to be stopped because of “prisoner” abuse.

How Hillary Can Be Beaten

July 30, 2014

UnknownNot in recent memory has one presidential prospect, so far in advance, been so pre-emptive a front-runner. To be exact, not since Hoover in 1928.

But the presidency has been called “the greased pig of American politics,” and there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. So Hillary Clinton’s coronation could be derailed faster than I can sling metaphors. (Five in the last two sentences, if you’re counting.)images-1

Her candidacy’s vulnerability is that she doesn’t really stand for anything, apart from the novelty of being a woman. That was trumped in 2008 by the novelty of a black man. But by now we’ve had so long to get used to the idea of a woman president that we can just as well move on without actually electing her.

Warren

Warren

And the woman thing could be neutralized this time by Elizabeth Warren – many Democrats would prefer a woman who does stand for something.* Remember, this is party primaries, dominated by activists. Warren’s populism, and bashing their favorite bogeymen, make them swoon as boring old Hillary cannot. She’s also cuter.

And if Warren fails to grasp her opportunity, how about Bill de Blasio? He’s built his political ethos on a single word – using it like some people use the F-word in every sentence – “effin’ this and effin’ that” – for de Blasio the word is “progressive.” Apparently just mouthing the word diddles the erogenous zones of lefty voters. images-3Why not try that shtick in presidential primaries? (Bill’s a white guy, but his wife’s a black ex-lesbian. And a last name beginning with a lower case letter – that’s sure a novelty.)

Remember, it’s not about qualifications, and not about issues, it’s about atmospherics. Obama didn’t beat Hillary in ’08 because his healthcare plan was better. (She favored mandates; he was opposed!) He beat her by thrumming Democrats’ heart-strings, not their dendrites. It was romance, not policy. Cotton candy, not green beans.

images-4And what about the Republicans? Conventional wisdom says guys like Rand Paul or Marco Rubio just aren’t in Hillary’s league; or are too right-wing. Maybe; but maybe not.

Realize that 40-45% of the electorate is locked in to voting for the Democrat, and 40-45% against. Presidential elections are decided by the remaining 10-20% — many of them the least ideological, engaged, or informed. They don’t really know Paul or Rubio or the others, haven’t formed solid views of them. Effectively, these candidates can write on a blank slate, and create a persona in the minds of impressionable swing voters. And for those, even more than for the activist partisans, it’s atmospherics rather than issues that count most.Unknown-1

But I do think there is a role for issues. Issues can shape atmospherics. And I believe a Republican can win the next election through unpopular issue stands.

Let me explain.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has said Republicans must stop being the “stupid party.” They come across like a bunch of frat boys. But a Republican can defeat Hillary by rising above Hillary. By making her seem just another typical tired old pol, the type of politician who has gotten us nowhere lately.** The Republican must instead exude gravitas; leadership; vision; statesmanship.

This is where unpopular stands come in. It’s not just a matter of appearing refreshingly “courageous.” It’s acting grown-up, and treating the American people as grown-ups. That means being serious and telling them the truth; telling them taxes must rise, and popular programs must be cut (no, not for the needy; for the coddled affluent). You may say that’s political suicide. I don’t think so. I think Americans are smarter than they’re given credit for, and will know a true leader when they see one.

Perot

Perot

I keep coming back to Ross Perot in 1992. He ran something like the campaign I envision, showing voters what an unsustainable path we were on. And even though he was a very flawed candidate, with an even more flawed running mate, on a third party, he got a substantial 19% of the vote. Today, of course, the kinds of issues Perot stressed are far more grave.

Today, American politics and government are broken, preventing us from tackling the problems we must face for our future. We have to get out of this cul-de-sac of partisan gridlock. I think many people realize this, even if the zealots responsible for it do not. I see a real market for a presidential candidate who shows he understands the situation, and credibly offers a way out. (Obama had postured as such but unfortunately as president funked it completely). Obviously, Hillary can’t be that candidate either; she’s the total antithesis of that. This is the opening for a non-Hillary.

images-5Of course, the kind of candidate I’m talking about would have to get through the Republican primary gauntlet. The 2012 experience was not encouraging. Can the GOP grow up?

* I make no comment here on the pros or cons of Warren’s stances.

** Anyone remember John Lindsay’s 1965 NY mayoral slogan? “He’s fresh and everyone else is tired.”

The World Until Yesterday – What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

July 27, 2014

imagesJared Diamond authored Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, tackling big questions of the human story. His latest is The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Is this yet another argument bashing civilization as really all a Big Mistake?

I’ve reviewed two such: Steve Taylor’s The Fall, and Peter Heinegg’s Crazy Culture: The Sins of Civilization. It’s an all too common trope, that humanity has lost its way, and did “fall” from an Eden of virtue, harmony, and purity; seeing us now on an evil path, doomed to deserved punishment via wrecking the planet.

But Diamond is saying no such thing. His subtitle question is sincerely posed. images-1Without suggesting we should forswear civilization and revive the stone age, he does think we’ve lost some valuable things. And that’s unarguable. All of life is trade-offs. We did give up a lot in creating civilization. In fact, for most of history that trade-off has probably been unfavorable; while inventing agriculture was perhaps necessary for survival, it did reduce quality of life, and only in very recent times have we finally achieved the payoff in human welfare. Only now are most of us truly better off than in the stone age. It’s ironic that only now do so many people question the trade-off.

Diamond compares “traditional” and modern societies in numerous aspects, and is pretty even-handed, refusing to romanticize primitive peoples. This comes from knowledge: he spent much of his scientific career among the pre-modern inhabitants of inner New Guinea.

images-3We must realize that, in the big picture, our transition to modernity has been incredibly swift, and we’re still working things out. For example, as Diamond explains, we evolved to cope with a feast-or-famine existence, which becomes a problem in our all-feast environment, causing obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc. So we are actually less healthy than cavemen. Yet their average lifespan was around thirty.

One topic is war, central to critiques of modernity. That indictment says that only with civilization did we invent war; before then, in the virtuous pre-lapsarian Eden, people lived in harmony not only with nature but with each other; war was, at most, ritualized and basically non-lethal combat, certainly nothing like the bloody destructiveness of civilizational warfare. All nonsense, Diamond firmly concludes from the evidence (as did Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined). images-2Warfare in primitive societies has been far the more frequent and deadly (per capita). While it’s true that civilization’s “intrusion” can cause a transient spike in such violence, people then settle down, and living in civilized, organized states is a great dampener of violence, both within and among societies.

Yet the “fall from Eden” belief remains tenaciously persistent. Why? Diamond actually addresses that very question, and suggests a number of answers, all of them academic. But, oddly, he doesn’t mention what seems to me the obvious, overriding reason: self-hating cynicism toward one’s own society. For many, it flatters their moral vanity to see themselves as superior insightful beings among benighted fools and knaves. Hence the idea that civilization merely aggravates a basic human propensity for violence and bad behaviors of every sort.

Unknown-1Fundamental to that stance is viewing modern life as a rat’s nest of pathologies (see again my review of The Fall), with the resulting bottom line being that for all its supposed advancements, benefits, and creature comforts, modernity actually leaves us less happy than our primitive ancestors. And if that’s so, what good is civilization anyway? What have we gotten for all we’ve given up?

Well – if you have that mindset, it’s no surprise you’re unhappy. Seeing everything around you as a travesty is not conducive to good cheer. And it isn’t a posture of realism. Despite how such cynics may fancy themselves, their viewpoint acts as a reality-distortion device, just as powerful as, say, a religious faith. Neither enables one to see reality. It’s exemplified by the dogged (and wholly wrong) insistence that modern societies are more violent than primitive ones.

Most people, however, don’t think about such things one way or the other, just taking for granted that things are the way they are today, and never pondering how they might be (and were in the past, and in some places continue being) vastly different.

But I’m acutely conscious of what it took to get us where we are today, and what that means for our quality of life. With total commitment to realism and objectivity, I try to see what is rather than what I want to see. I don’t forget the trade-offs, all the things we’ve sacrificed for what we’ve achieved, as Jared Diamond explicates well in his book. But for me, in my own life, that trade-off is tremendously positive. I am continuously and profoundly mindful and thankful for modernity’s blessings – blessings unavailable in “The World Until Yesterday.”

images-4The foregoing recalls what Barry Schwartz called the “adaptation effect” in his book The Paradox of Choice.  People whose circumstances improve soon adapt to the “new normal” as merely how things are and should be; since what they’ve got is merely what they now expect, they don’t feel happier. Humanity as a whole suffers from this adaptation effect in regard to civilization’s benefits. If more people shared my mindset of not taking it all for granted, we’d be happier.


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