Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Thomas More’s Utopia: The First Communist Manifesto?

September 12, 2014

UnknownSaint Thomas More (1477-1535) wrote Utopia in 1516.* Not only the first in the utopian fiction genre, it’s also been called the first communist book.

In the imaginary country Utopia (the name means “noplace”), there is no money or private property. Everyone has a job, working for the commonwealth, and productivity is such that all needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) while also leaving ample leisure time. Needless to say, everyone is happy, there’s no cause for dissatisfaction, hence practically no cheating or crime or grasping for power.

Communist” or not, this might seem attractive (albeit kind of boring). imagesBut of course it’s a vain dream, because actual human beings resist such regimentation, and mainly because there’s a powerful drive for status (biologically installed by evolution since higher status means more mating opportunities). That’s the ultimate reason why utopian experiments (many in 19th century America) invariably collapsed. Moreover, while More depicts everyone performing diligently at their jobs, no reason appears why they should, since benefits are unrelated to how hard they work. In the real world, failure to reward effort elicits less of it, resulting in a poorer living standard (as places like East Germany have proven).

Still, the book is nicely imagined, and contains some very advanced thinking. images-1It came mainly out of More’s concern over inequality, an unusual view in the 1500s (far less equal than today); some passages sound like “Occupy” movement stuff. More says no existing social system is “anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests.” He’s particularly troubled by the vast numbers of thieves hanged, seeing them driven to crime by unemployment. That’s what he envisioned Utopia to remedy.

Also unusually for his time, More was a pacifist, disparaging military aggression as rarely worth the cost in lives and money. images-2I enjoyed Utopia’s game-book for war: start with secret agents plastering enemy lands with posters offering huge rewards for anyone killing (or delivering alive) their king and other named functionaries. This sows enough distrust and dissension that Utopia can usually triumph without firing a shot.

So the book makes More seem a good man with his heart in the right place. As did the popular 1966 biopic, A Man For All Seasons. More became a high public official under Henry VIII, and the film casts him as a moral hero for refusing on principle to endorse Henry’s making himself head of the English church in order to divorce his first wife. For that refusal, More wound up beheaded.

images-3However, a rather different (and historically more accurate) picture emerges from Hilary Mantel’s novelization Wolf Hall (centered on Thomas Cromwell), showing More as a remorseless religious hard-ass responsible for the horrific torture and burning alive of numerous (so-called) heretics. And this man was declared a saint by Catholicism! By the end, one was glad to read of More’s own execution.

It’s hard to believe the same Thomas More wrote Utopia. Indeed, only late in Utopia is God even mentioned, with Christianity introduced to (and gladly received by) the islanders. But they maintain a principle of religious tolerance. In fact, punishment is prescribed not for “heresy” but, rather, “for being too aggressive in religious controversy.” And More even suggests “that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.”

And then More himself turned into exactly the sort of religious persecutor he’d once decried. People do change.

Meantime, though Utopia vaunted religious tolerance, even there, on one point More drew the line: disbelief in an afterlife incurred harsh condemnation and punishment. He thought anyone unconcerned about eternal penalty or reward would have no reason to behave decently in this life. Nonsense of course (but in those days nobody ever met an actual nonbeliever). Anyhow, it seemed bizarre that More worried so much about maintaining posthumous incentives, yet not at all about a lack of incentives on Earth.

images-4I was also quite surprised at More’s denouncing the illogic of religious zealots who advocate asceticism, self-denial and even mortifying the flesh, yet urge devoting oneself to relieving the suffering of others. If happiness (or at least freedom from pain) is a good thing for others, why not for oneself? (Garrison Keillor has quipped, if the purpose of life is to serve others, what purpose is served by the existence of those others?) Charity begins at home, More wrote; and “The Utopians themselves therefore regard the enjoyment of life – that is, pleasure – as the natural object of all human efforts, and natural, as they define it, is synonymous with virtuous.” Yet on this point too More apparently changed his mind; he was later known to wear, under his clothes, a literal hair-shirt, whose purpose is to inflict not only discomfort but actual pain (it drew blood). And his refusal of any compromise, to save himself in the controversy with King Henry, may well have reflected something of a martyr complex.

Some people improve with age, and grow wiser. Thomas More, it seems, went the other way. What a pity he didn’t die promptly after writing his book. Then maybe he’d have deserved sainthood.

*I read a plain English translation (from Latin) by Paul Turner.

Net Neutrality, and Regulation by the Unicorn State

September 3, 2014

images-4Net Neutrality” is a hot issue. It refers to equal service quality for all web-based traffic, against a fear that Internet providers (like Verizon) will allow (or effectively force) some to pay more for faster data delivery, making others second class netizens. So some advocate designating the Internet a “public utility” subject to FCC regulation to enforce net neutrality. This plea is highly seductive.

UnknownSimilar regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission was imposed on railroads in 1887. No; “imposed” is the wrong word; actually the railroads wanted this, seeing ICC regulation as a tool to protect their market power against upstart competition.

I spent my professional career as a public utility regulator. One of my first cases targeted a small moving company breaking the rules. Its transgression? Prices too low. Were we protecting the public? Certainly not; we were protecting the established moving companies. This is the face of regulation in the real world.

Columnist L. Gordon Crovitz in the 8/18 Wall Street Journal notes that the ICC enforced a kind of “net neutrality” on the railroads: prohibiting “discriminatory” volume discounts or other market-oriented pricing schemes.* Result: a stagnating U.S. rail industry. The ICC was finally abolished in 1995, but the lingering effects of this deadening regulation leave American train service shabby compared to spiffier European or Far East rail systems.

images-1Crovitz also discusses the heavily regulated taxi industry. He quotes the New York City regulator’s website explaining that before it stepped in, the taxi business was a free-for-all with numerous competitors using “underhanded tactics” – like “drastically lowering fares to get more business.” The horror! The horror!

But today, across the globe, the taxi business is being up-ended by innovators like Uber and Lyft giving smartphone-using consumers service better tailored to their needs. And a battle royale is underway between these feisty upstarts and the old regulators (backed by the stodgy old taxi firms) struggling to hobble them. A similar war pits the old hotel industry against newcomers like Airbnb disrupting their business model by providing alternatives more attractive to consumers. This is what economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” – it’s how an economy progresses – a great virtue of a truly free market.

imagesDo we really want to give the FCC regulatory power to squelch this by enforcing its ideas of service and pricing for the Internet? Or let creativity rip, with businesses free to innovate on services and pricing tailored to a swiftly changing technological landscape, responding to market forces and consumer preferences and needs?

Business-hating lefties think government must keep them on a tight regulatory leash lest abuses occur. And absent regulation they would occur. But I believe the costs and harms to consumers would be simply overwhelmed – overwhelmed – by the benefits in better products and services, lower prices, and greater overall societal wealth, if all regulation were abolished.

Think I’m nuts? Then look at China, where that’s exactly what happened. Since 1978, China’s private sector has been virtually free of regulation. And, yes, abuses have occurred. But meantime average per-capita income has grown 3000% – thirtyfold. I repeat: thirtyfold. (99-percenters take note.)

I wrote recently about an abuse by government, the unjust prosecution of innocent Muslim-Americans on phony “terrorism” charges. I marched in protest with local liberals. But they, I said, are like battered spouses who still profess undying love for their batterers – no matter how much it tramples their ideals, still liberals love government. images-2The same Wall Street Journal issue elsewhere quotes economist Michael Munger: “My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of ‘the State.’ That seems literally insane to me . . . Then I realized they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge and abilities that they can imagine for it. [They] imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world.”

I just got a call from a car repair business asking if I was “completely satisfied” with their service. I’ve never received such a call from a government agency.

* America’s first federal conviction of a corporation, in 1909, was for a railroad’s crime of cutting prices.

Nude Celebrity Photos

September 2, 2014

Big breaking news! Hacked nude photos of celebrities on the Internet! Holy Cow!

UnknownLike, this is the very first time we’ve ever seen pictures of these actresses WITHOUT THEIR CLOTHES ON! I am shocked, shocked.

The celebrities are indignantly huffing and puffing about the scandalous invasion of their privacy.

Excuse me – these people were not kidnapped, forcibly stripped, and photographed against their will. Hello, this is the 21st century. It’s the friggin’ INTERNET. If you don’t want your nude photos splashed all over the Internet – then don’t let them get anywhere near the Internet. Why, it’s just that simple. But, of course, naïve celebrities can’t be expected to understand such things. (Don’t they hire “people” for that?)

[Nerd note: How many hits will this blog get from folks googling “nude celebrity photos?” I got an unexpected traffic spike on a recent post from people using the search term “head chopped off” or variants thereof.]

The Passion of the Western Mind

August 30, 2014

UnknownThis book by Richard Tarnas is a history of Western thought. Now, yes, Eastern thought is also worthy of respect. But the Western intellectual tradition is the 800 pound gorilla, the elephant in the room, the hippo in the bathtub.

I have written about our falling down on humanities education. Tarnas presents his history as a story – the tale of how we got from Point A (the ancient Greeks) to Point B (where we are today), with hints of a further Point C. It’s actually a thrilling story – but more, it’s vital to understanding our world and its challenges.

Play-doh's Forms

Play-doh’s Forms

Tarnas says he aims to describe systems of thought “on their own terms,” without “condescension,” so that we can better understand our journey. He begins with the Greeks, notably Plato, whose theory of “forms” was a first stab at understanding the nature of reality, starting a conversation that’s never stopped.

Then comes Christianity. True to his word, Tarnas gives us Christian thought and its development straight, “on its own terms,” nonjudgmentally. images-2This takes many pages. Frankly I skimmed over much of it. However, one thing that impressed itself upon me was how impossible it was, in Europe at least, during the centuries of church domination, to break free of that influence. The Christian way of thinking was the only way of thinking.

But then the story gets good. Revolution bursts out all over. You’ve got your Renaissance. Then your Reformation. And then your scientific revolution, and your Enlightenment. It all makes the church’s head spin.

When it comes to discussing the modern intellectual paradigm – the Enlightenment of science and rationality – Tarnas lets slip his straight-faced mask of nonjudgmentalism. images-4He is downright triumphalist about how thoroughly the modern idea demolishes the older mentality grounded in religion. To read his passages on the sweeping victory of science over faith, you might think religion has slunk away, crushed and banished. This may be true in the academic groves Tarnas inhabits; but it sure ain’t true in Kansas.

Meantime, though, it wasn’t just religion having trouble with science; philosophy did too. It’s the eternal problem of epistemology:  what is true knowledge, and how can a human mind possess it? “The Crisis of Modern Science,” Tarnas calls this chapter. In particular he invokes philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), and the notion that what we’ve got is not so much information as interpretation; we cannot truly know anything. And then we find sentences like this: “The aggressive exploitation of the natural environment, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the threat of global catastrophe – all pointed to an indictment of science, of human reason itself, now seemingly in thrall to man’s own self-destructive irrationality.”

Please. This is indeed the pessimistic post-modern mindset. But just as Tarnas was over-the-top in declaring that science had killed faith, he is even further off the mark in declaring science mortally wounded.

Unknown-1Firstly, you can bullshit all night in your dorm room over the epistemological conundrum, whether we can truly know anything – but airplanes fly (and pigs don’t). That airplanes do fly actually proves that the great corpus of modern scientific knowledge is true. Not probably true, as Kuhn might at most allow, all encrusted with qualifiers and caveats – but absolutely true, full stop. (But perhaps Professor Kuhn, believing as he did, never boarded an airplane; or did 99% of the other things modern people do, like using computers, thanks to scientific knowledge.)

As for “man’s own self-destructive irrationality,” etc., it’s undeniable that we are at least imperfectly rational and sometimes cause great harm to ourselves and others. But is that the whole picture? It’s not even most of it. The bigger picture – vastly bigger – is that, from our emergence as a species, and especially from the start of civilization, and especially in modern scientific times, we humans have increasingly utilized rationality to create societal structures and to gain knowledge to advance technologically, to give ever greater numbers ever better quality of life.

Unknown-2That’s the bigger picture. All this “self-destructive irrationality” crap makes me sick. We have not blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons. Most of us are less violent than ever (yes; see again my review of Pinker’s book). More people than ever have more food, better health, more education, and more rewarding and longer lives.* True, all this has put a strain on the planet, but rather than being irrationally self-destructive, to the contrary it’s been a rational effort to improve life. There’s no free lunch, but the price has been worth paying, and so far growing knowledge has enabled us to handle the resulting environmental challenges.

Now what about that Point C I mentioned? In the spirit of Tarnas I’ll try to present this “on its own terms.” He suggests a resolution to “the profound dualism of the modern mind” – man vs. nature, mind vs. matter, self vs. other, etc. One’s birth is an expression of a larger underlying archetypal process of moving from one paradigm to another. The newborn is expelled into a world of confusion, needing a “redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix.” It’s not a matter of our seeking to extract knowledge from the world; rather, “the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind.” There is a “universal unconscious” that “reflects the human mind’s radical kinship with the cosmos.” images-6This break-out is what the great Western intellectual journey has been leading toward. But so far it’s been mostly a masculine thing, and only now are we beginning to reunite our masculine and feminine. For this, “the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death.” This evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stage.

Well. As Francis Urquhart, in the original House of Cards would say, “You might think that; but I could not possibly comment.”

* No doubt some lefty cynic will deride me as a blind fool. Much though such folks love to believe everything is getting worse, it just ain’t so.

Ferguson

August 27, 2014

imagesAs a blogger, I’m required to comment on Ferguson.

I’ve read that 65% of blacks polled believe the police overreacted to the protests. This shocked me. I thought: were those other 35% stoned?

But seriously: of course police overreacted, making a bad situation worse.* And gratuitously busting on journalists? Do those policemen think this is Russia or China?

Why did President Obama not go to Ferguson? Shame on him.

Police forces represent a Faustian societal bargain. To protect us, we arm them, while recognizing this can turn around and bite us. Not a concern if police were saints, but alas most are human, and worse, police work too often attracts the wrong sort for the wrong reasons. So cops must be kept on tight leashes by civilian authorities (in a free society, as opposed to a police state).

images-1Modern technology could help on a lot of problems. In Rialto, California, after cops were equipped with cameras recording interactions, their use of force declined 60% and citizen complaints 88%. But law enforcement generally seems stubbornly resistant to such advancements. Ferguson actually has the cameras – but hasn’t deployed them. Police still do not routinely videotape interrogations and confessions, sources of so much subsequent repercussion. Nor do they routinely test DNA. In fact, police and prosecutors often fight tooth and nail to prevent DNA tests. Because they’d rather punish an innocent than be proven wrong.**

All this is exacerbated by the militarization of the police. America has the posse comitatus legal principle barring use of the army to enforce local law. Yet now the police are turning into another army. images-2True, sometimes they’re met with bad guys toting serious weapons. But we read about local cops in a small town patrolling a pumpkin festival in an armored personnel carrier. Ferguson police behaved like an occupying army going into battle.

U.S. cops killed 409 people last year. In Britain and Japan — zero. The difference is chiefly due to the ubiquity of guns in America; police are always worrying the guy they confront has a gun, and act accordingly.

Looming over everything is the drug war. The illegality of drugs is key to the big-time criminality that is the police’s greatest challenge (just like in an earlier era, Prohibition gave birth to America’s organized crime). Race relations – and particularly relations between minorities and police – are poisoned by the high arrest and incarceration rate experienced by minorities. And that too is a direct fallout of the drug war.

images-3So is police militarization – it’s not only because police think they need heavy duty weaponry against the most extreme drug criminals, nor just because the Pentagon has been handing out surplus military kit. Under the pretext of the drug war, U.S. police forces have been on a rampage of confiscations and forfeitures, of cash and other kinds of property. I’ve written about this scandal. Any property police say they suspect may possibly have something to do with drugs can be seized, without them having to prove a thing. (Forget the Fourth Amendment!) images-6In many cases police get to keep what they grab (a big incentive factor). And this has filled the coffers of local police forces with a flood of lucre, with which they can splurge out fulfilling their testosterone-fueled fantasies with military-style toys.

Legalizing drugs might cause some harm, but not remotely approaching the harm done by keeping them illegal. The insane drug war’s damage to America is beyond calculating.

*Gene O’Donnnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice says, “It is hard to point to anything that Ferguson police did [after the Brown shooting] that was not wrong.” (But in the same mentioned poll, only 33% of whites thought police overreacted.)

** Thus often leaving at large the true culprit, who goes on to commit further crimes.

TSA Follies and The Death of Common Sense

August 25, 2014

I hear the TSA is seeking public suggestions.

imagesRecently at airport “Security” we almost missed a flight because TSA thought a boarding pass didn’t look quite right. They might have simply checked with the airline. But that would be too sensible. This is government, remember.

UnknownWhat is TSA’s mission? To prevent hijackings and bombings? Maybe in theory; but that’s not how TSA actually functions on the ground. For its employees, the real mission is to follow procedures and tick off the bureaucratic boxes. So your boarding pass must look a certain way. (Some think the true purpose of TSA is “security theater” — to make travelers believe flying is safe.)

But anyway, two seconds thought shows that the whole rigmarole of officiously checking boarding passes and IDs makes no sense. Faking them would be the easiest part of the plot for a would-be hijacker. Nor does x-raying every bag and person make much sense – especially with TSA personnel being (forgive my bluntness) low-paid drones proven unable to spot true problems.

Unknown-2I’m reminded of Philip Howard’s enlightening 1994 book, The Death of Common Sense. In his latest, The Rule of Nobody, he relates that after some nasty scandals, Australia scrapped hundreds of detailed rules governing nursing homes. Regulatory experts were aghast. Yet, with facilities now enjoined simply to provide a “homelike environment” with “privacy and dignity” – freeing them to think creatively rather than blindly following checklists – they measurably improved.

Howard’s point is that we tend to impose complex regulatory schemes because we don’t trust their targets – be it governmental arms, or businesses – to behave reasonably and fairly otherwise. It’s a big mistake, as evidenced by Australia’s experience. And by TSA.

images-1Before my next flight folks on the security line were told that “if your boarding pass says ‘TSA Pre’” you go on a different (shorter) queue. I’d thought one had to register and pay $85 for that preclearance program. Yet on my return flight, I was surprised to see “TSA Pre” on my own pass. So I was waved through with shoes on, no body scan, no pat-down, nothing. Inquiring, I was informed that “TSA Pre” is now put on some boarding passes strictly at random!

images-2When I told my wife, it took her, yes, exactly two seconds to realize, “Well, if a terrorist just buys multiple tickets . . . .” (Or he could just pay the $85 fee!) What’s the logic of “TSA Pre” when they still insist on otherwise x-raying toddlers and centenarians in wheelchairs? If it’s okay for a few people, some at random, to go unscreened, why not most people?

My next flight: TSA busted me for carrying knives. Lest you think I’m a moron, they were ancient Chinese “knife money”–somewhat knife-shaped, but for use as currency, not cutting, hence without sharp edges, generally encrusted with green corrosion product, and quite fragile to boot. It had never occurred to me, but in TSA’s inane bureaucratized mentality, a “knife” is a “knife,” and there was no arguing. (Fortunately, I was permitted to spend $5.60 to mail them home.)

Chinese knife money

Chinese knife money

If I were in charge of TSA, instead of having an army of drones uselessly torturing travelers by scrutinizing every ID and bag, I would hire a third of the number at three times the pay – highly trained professionals who’d simply eyeball passengers passing (mostly) unmolested through a gate, with discretion to stop for intensive screening anyone who, for any reason, they deem suspect, or at random. (This is pretty much how U.S. Customs operates. Most travelers just walk right through.) And normally innocent items like hand cream or scissors (or Chinese knife money) would be subject to exclusion – but not required to be excluded.

Wouldn’t this make a thousand times more sense?

Unknown-1My wife constantly mocks my supposed belief in human rationality. What I actually believe is that people are capable of rationality, and act rationally most of the time. But not, alas, always. True rationality might abolish the TSA altogether. We might lose some planes and lives, but many more lives could be saved if the billions lavished on TSA were spent instead on, say, auto safety, or public health.

And if you really love to hate the TSA, take a look at this!

Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy

August 22, 2014

imagesFor a long time I was vaguely aware of writer Paul Auster. His name would come up here and there. I’d never read his stuff; nor anything, really, about it. Yet I had a picture in my mind. He was always called a “New York” writer. I saw one of those effete, affluent intellectuals who write precious narratives about people just like themselves, their relationships, neuroses, ennui, and (almost obligatory) horrible parents.

images-1His very name suggested that picture. “Paul” has never seemed like the name of a real person to me but, rather, a fictional character. Fiction does seem disproportionately populated by Pauls. And “Auster” – not a real person’s name either; an austere name. If this was indeed a pseudonym, it was chosen perfectly to evoke exactly the picture that it evoked for me.

Of course, all of this says more about me than about Paul Auster. Anyhow, it made me disinclined to read him. And I probably never would have, if I hadn’t met his ex-wife.

Unknown“Met” is perhaps a bit strong. She is a writer too, Lydia Davis, who recently won the Man Booker Prize. Now that is a Very Big Deal. So when she was honored at the Albany library, I went, was able to chat with her briefly, bought a book for her to sign, and asked a question after her talk. Googling her, I noticed that she’d been married to Auster, which served to etch his name a little more vividly into the recesses of my brain. So when I came across a work of his at a used book sale, I figured, for fifty cents, why not.

Unknown-1Even though the title, The New York Trilogy, put me off. Having imagined him one of those “New York” writers I’ve described above, that title could only amplify the preconception.

So I start reading, and he introduces a character who is – guess what – a New York writer – par excellence – thirtyish, living in an apartment, in Manhattan. Based on the literary landscape, you might suppose New York is almost entirely inhabited by people like that.

Scant appetite though I had for an apartment-dwelling Manhattanite writer’s writing about an apartment-dwelling Manhattanite writer, I persevered. The book consists of three novellas. After the first one featuring the writer, the second features a private detective, hired for surveillance of – guess who – a writer (a Brooklyn writer, but for the cognoscenti Brooklyn is the new Manhattan). The third novella features not just a writer (back to Manhattan) – but two of them.

Millhauser

Millhauser

Yet despite this inauspicious syllabus, I was totally sucked in, and riveted by these weird, unsettling tales – not at all what I’d expected. All three seem to concern obsession. Each begins somewhat plausibly, with the protagonist caught up into trying to solve a mystery surrounding some other person. His life is taken over by it, and the developments go to extremes. I was somewhat reminded of Steven Millhauser, who also writes phantasmagorias that ascend to absurdist heights.

In each story, plausibility comes under great strain – the protagonists make choices and decisions which, though in a sense following the remorseless logic of the situations in which they find themselves, seem patently self-destructive, even self-obliterating. It’s as though they have no choice. Maybe this book is an insidious attack on the idea of free will.

Unknown-3In the first story, Auster brings in a character named Paul Auster – who (surprise) also happens to be a New York writer. His wife appears. Now, this was written at the time when Auster (the real one) was married to Lydia Davis. So I thought to myself, this would be a first: encountering a character in fiction whom I’d actually met in real life. However, alas, the wife in the story had a different name, and bore no resemblance to Lydia Davis.

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.

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.

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.


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