Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

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.

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.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Female Genital Mutilation and Islam (WARNING: Graphic content)

July 15, 2014

UnknownAyaan Hirsi Ali’s beautiful and inspiring memoir is titled Infidel. Born in Somalia, she escaped to the Netherlands from an arranged marriage; became a member of parliament; worked with Theo Van Gogh on a film critical of Islam; he was murdered by a Muslim fanatic; and she wound up in America, at a think tank. Along the way she freed herself from religion.

Hirsi Ali had lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia as well as Somalia, her father usually absent on revolutionary organizing. As a young woman she tried to be the perfect Muslim. But the Koran’s fulsome verbiage about Allah’s justness jarred with how unjustly she saw women treated.

This is heart-rendingly portrayed in the unhappy saga of Hirsi Ali’s mother. But she was almost fortunate to have an absent husband, because domestic tyranny and wife beating is the norm to which Muslim men are acculturated. The picture contrasted harshly with my own loving marriage.

Unknown-1The twisted Muslim mentality about male-female relations is epitomized by the cover-up fetish. Hirsi Ali’s culture insisted that glimpsing female skin or hair* would make men crazy – so she was astonished that in the West, bare limbs hardly rate a glance, and men don’t lose it even on beaches with practically naked women. images-1To my eyes such scenery provides a pleasurable frisson but nothing more, thus it’s wholly innocent. In Muslim societies there is no innocence; the men seem unhinged by the very concept of feminine sexuality.

Female genital mutilation is widely practiced, mainly in Muslim Africa and the Middle East. It’s been done to an estimated 125 million women. Muslim immigrants bring it to their new countries. It was endemic in Hirsi Ali’s Somalia. “Circumcision” is a euphemism; it’s in no way analogous to the procedure for males, which normally has notable benefits and no real downsides. For girls it is an atrocity of sexual mutilation.images-2

I first learned of it long ago from a big New York Times feature, which puzzled me because it gave no clue why this is done. In fact, it’s to curb infidelity by preventing females from enjoying sex.

Muslims are obsessed with female “purity” and in genital mutilation this goes to an extreme. Not even virginity is enough; an uncut girl is not considered pure. (“Pure from what?” a Western friend once asked Hirsi Ali, unsettling her.)

Use your imagination

Use your imagination

Infidel graphically describes Hirsi Ali’s own mutilation at age eight: cutting out the clitoris and labia, usually without preparation or anaesthetic – obviously exceedingly painful and traumatic. The wound is sewn up, so scar tissue forms to largely close the vaginal opening.** Lifelong pain and complications are common. The death rate is significant.

Hirsi Ali says that “excision” doesn’t even actually keep girls from wanting sex. In her own case, reading novels – specially Harlequin romances! – revved up her hormones, and she fell in love and into a quickie quasi-legal marriage with a cousin. She lusted for him – but the wedding night was a grotesque disappointment.

What I never realized until reading her book is that for sex the man must tear through the scar tissue sealing the opening, and not only is this of course agony for the girl (it took her weeks to recover), it’s really hard work for him (often an extended process, even requiring a knife). imagesCan’t be much fun for men either. Maybe the frustration helps explain all the wife beating and other “Muslim rage.”

We constantly hear the words “sick society” applied to ours. While multiculturalists say one society’s practices aren’t better or worse, just different. And I’ve reviewed here a book that used “the Muslim question” as a pretext to focus on supposed “oppression” of women in America and the West.

Hirsi Ali is clear-sighted about what garbage that all is. It was a joy to read of her culture shock upon arrival in the West, which she’d been taught all her life to despise. While many Muslim immigrants do sustain that attitude, not Hirsi Ali.*** One of her first encounters was with a policeman – helpful, not predatory. Unknown-2That blew her mind. She grasped immediately that here is a society that works – far better, in enabling human happiness and flourishing, than any of the Muslim ones she’d known. Especially for women.

Hirsi Ali wanted to understand the root of this difference. She came to trace Muslim dysfunctionality to Islam itself – the very word means “submission,” denoting a master-slave relationship with God. A religion of fatalism. And assuredly not one of peace – the Koran incites a culture of sacralized violence. Genital mutilation fits right in, but Muslim societies are more violent in numerous other ways. Whereas the West had managed to confine its soldiers of faith to their barracks, Islam has not. Nor has there been a Muslim equivalent of the West’s Enlightenment. images-6“We had been hiding from reason for so long because we were incapable of facing the need to integrate it into our beliefs,” she writes. “And this was not working; it was leading to hideous pain and monstrous behavior.”

Our society, where men and women can relate to one another as free and equal human beings, is virtuous. A society that tyrannizes, brutalizes women – one that cuts out their genitals – is vile.

* BTW, I’ve read the Koran, and it merely tells women to dress modestly, that’s all.

** Hirsi Ali relates accompanying another Somali girl to a Dutch gynecologist who recoiled in horror at the sight.

*** Muslims were inundating the Netherlands, whose values of freedom and tolerance empowered those immigrants to undermine those very values. Defending those Western values against the multi-culti onslaught was what brought Hirsi Ali to prominence.


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