Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

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.

Social Safety Net Or Bed of Nails? It’s Costly Being Poor

July 9, 2014

images-2Being billed for room and board in jail might sound like a joke. It is not. In fact, it’s increasingly common in America, among cash-strapped local governments. Raising taxes is politically hard because taxpayers vote, organize, and donate to campaigns. It’s easier to extract cash from politically powerless people at the bottom of society.

That surely includes folks already ensnared in the criminal justice system, billing them not only for jail time, but all sorts of “user fees” for administrative processing. This often makes small fines for minor offenses balloon into money hemorrhages these usually poor victims can ill afford. UnknownMany simply cannot pay, so are hit with yet more fees and penalties for nonpayment, or even jailed – generating still further charges.

An article about all this in The Economist cited an Alabama case where a $200 misdemeanor fine metastasized into a 41-month $2100 ordeal, through a system that one judge labeled a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

I used the word victims. Some “conservatives” would have little sympathy – after all, they’re lawbreakers. Those who’d say this cannot envision themselves in such a position, and have no idea what it’s like. Most of the minor infractions we’re talking about (often motor vehicle related) happen not because these are bad people but because it goes with the territory of being poor. Unknown-1When government compounds their plight of poverty by preying upon them,* they are indeed victims. This turns the whole idea of a “social safety net” upside down.

The foregoing is part of a broader phenomenon, highlighted by (bite my tongue) Barbara Ehrenreich. I generally loathe her bilious negativism, but here she actually has a point: it’s costly to be poor in America.

Just one example: financial services. Bounce one check, or miss one credit card payment, and you face a cascade of hefty charges making your already precarious financial situation even worse. Thus do banks and credit card companies frankly exploit the less affluent. If you’re too poor to have a bank account, that’s expensive as well, in money order and check cashing fees, etc. Payday loans might also be mentioned. I don’t agree with attacks on payday lenders; they provide a needed service and their charges reflect costs and risks without excessive profit. But all these kinds of things, and many more, do make being poor a costly proposition, and something of a self-perpetuating trap.

I have argued that out-of-control government spending presages economic ruin. Many “conservatives” respond with a war on the disadvantaged. It’s the wrong target. In fact they’re a small fraction of our population, and spending on them is a small fraction of the total. Unknown-2Far more goes on welfare for the rich. We shame ourselves with the latter while scrooging the disadvantaged.

I have also criticized the “progressive” inequality obsession as reflecting less compassion for the poor as envy for the rich. But I do think there isn’t enough compassion for the poor. We should help them not because that’s “social justice,” or wealth is criminal, but because helping them is humane. We are a very rich society and could afford what it takes – if only, again, we controlled giveaways to the better off.

This essay points to some things we could do. For example, if you hate payday lending, how about government offering low-income people small loans at cheaper rates? Though I’m not actually keen on complicated bureaucratic programs. I’d favor a more global “negative income tax” approach that simply puts more cash in poor people’s hands.

images-3But at least let’s stop taking it out of their hands by charging them for the privilege of being punished.

*Government also rips off the less affluent by pushing lottery ticket sales.

Journalist Ethics: An Oxymoron?

June 12, 2014

 

UnknownI heard a talk by Rosemary Armao, a journalism professor at SUNY Albany, investigative editor in Eastern Europe and other foreign locales, and a regular WAMC radio panelist.

She began by posing the question, can one be both a good journalist and a good human being? To explore this, she discussed the case of Oliver Sipple, who became an instant hero in 1975 by shoving a woman trying to shoot at President Ford, deflecting her aim. Sipple was a gay rights activist but not wholly “out of the closet.” Unknown-1News stories revealing such personal details had an apparent role in his eventual suicide.

Armao asked audience members whether they would have published Sipple’s gay background. A large majority said no. But her own answer (and mine) was a definite yes, because Sipple’s act made him a public figure, and journalism’s responsibility is to inform the public. She said a journalist’s job is to get the truth out, and he or she cannot control the consequences.

Armao posited international standards for journalism: accuracy, fairness, a right to reply, and minimizing any harm. However, she cited some examples wherein she felt that journalists did not properly fulfill their role. Unknown-2One was the Iraq War, where reporters “embedded” with military units got caught up in the testosterone-soaked environment. She also faulted the media for failing to press, over the years, the issue of gun control, prior to the Newtown shootings — whereas many citizens wrongly criticized publication of shooter Adam Lanza’s name, as supposedly “glorifying” his crime.

More generally, Armao saw a big problem in the decline of professional journalism, undermined by a plethora of competing sources, many of them “citizen journalists.” Economics has been driving out reporting in the field as just too costly. The result is rushed and sloppy stories plagued by errors; justification of anything if it makes money; a loss of decorum and professionalism; and blandness, with a fear of offending anyone or taking a controversial stand. (Pertinent here was the case of Schenectady Gazette columnist Carl Strock, forced out due to pressures from advertisers over his critical scrutiny of religion and, especially, Israel. I’ve reviewed his excellent book.)

Also relevant, I think, is the subsequent CNN Malaysian airplane coverage. Did CNN believe viewers were interested in only that one story, to the virtual exclusion of other news, for weeks on end? imagesSurely symptomatic of something gone awry.

Pointing a finger of blame for what she decried, Armao said the culprit is the public, often denigrating the media for the wrong things while oblivious to really valid criticisms. Many people think the press makes too much information public (as in the mentioned Lanza and Sipple cases). Indeed, half of Americans tell pollsters the First Amendment goes too far and there is too much press freedom. (Maybe they’d prefer living in, say, Iran.) Unknown-3Meantime there are silly calls for “balanced” (or happy) news. As a result of all this, people don’t actually support good journalism. While the media is often criticized for favoring trash news over substantive issue coverage, in fact there is plenty of the latter, but it’s the trash that gets the most eyeballs. And too many young people ignore news media altogether, getting their “news” through social media.

images-2Finally, as to her initial question — can one be both a good journalist and a good human being? — Armao answered No! News is inherently about bad stuff, and the very nature of journalism is to be rude and intrusive, to get the story. But one audience member suggested that if a journalist is true to the profession’s standards, in giving the public truth, that’s being a good person.

 

 

The Two Americas: Which is Exceptional?

June 9, 2014

images“The Two Americas” was the refrain of a past presidential candidate, contrasting U.S. affluence with its lack; certainly a familiar theme lately. But I have a different point, prompted by something in a recent issue of The Economist that I felt hit the bullseye.

It was in a review of The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success, by Amy Chua (of “Tiger Mother” fame) and Jed Rubenfeld. The “package,” they say, characterizes ethnic groups that excel in business: a sense of superiority, yet also insecurity, and a great capacity for impulse control, especially the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles.

America, the reviewer said, “was once the quintessential triple package nation” – convinced of its exceptional destiny, yet prodded by insecurity (from Eurosnobbery), and with a strong work ethic. But lately, “insecurity and the will to work have all but vanished. What is left is essentially the swagger, complacency and entitlement of a perverted sense of exceptionalism.” (My emphasis)

So true! But not of America’s entirety; though a large part of America unfortunately fits that indictment. This “America 1” does thoughtlessly feel a sense of complacent exceptionalist entitlement: that our workers should earn pay much higher than Chinese or Indians, regardless of whether those can do the same work far more cheaply. images-2Indeed, as though there’s something wrong about their doing it. As though we can somehow protect ourselves against this economic reality by stopping businesses from “shipping jobs overseas.” As though Americans do have some sort of God-bestowed entitlement to these jobs and their high pay, and Bangladeshis do not. As though raising minimum wages and decreeing other employee benefits can magically boost our incomes regardless of global market forces. As though we can moreover have an ever smaller percentage of people actually working and paying taxes while an ever larger contingent collects pensions, unemployment, Social Security, Disability, welfare, Medicare, etc. As though we can continue this while our educational attainment erodes, and our infrastructure degrades from underinvestment, relative to other nations. As though we can have our cake and eat it too.

It’s ironic that the right knocks President Obama for insufficient devotion to American exceptionalism, when he in fact epitomizes some of the wrong-headed exceptionalism I’ve described, so toxic for our future. America was not ordained by God to be the greatest of nations. What we achieved resulted from the kind of people we were, and the things we did. Fail to keep that up and we’ll suffer the consequences. America 1 is rushing obliviously down that path.

images-1But there are still plenty of Americans who, though (like me) considering this a great (even exceptional) nation, don’t feel the world owes them a living in consequence. In this “America 2,” there is still plenty of go-get-’em industriousness, a willingness to take on great challenges, by one’s own mettle, undeterred by obstacles and setbacks.

This America 2 is the one I love. It’s a cliché that immigrants built this country. But in fact America 2 is heavily populated by recent immigrants. images-3Anyone with the moxie to leave behind everything familiar and strike out for a new land, often at great physical risk, makes the best kind of American. It’s these people who can save America from the syndrome described in that Economist review.

But sadly, America 1, mired in complacency and entitlement, doesn’t see it. America 1 actually hates America 2 and literally wants to build a wall against America 2. I wish we could swap out a big chunk of America 1 for more of America 2.

 

 

 

 

Chris Stedman: Faitheist

June 2, 2014

imagesChris Stedman’s career is in “interfaith work,” but his book, Faitheist, is addressed mainly to his fellow atheists, urging them to lighten up.

It centers upon his own story. His Minnesota family was nonreligious, but at age 11, he experienced a crisis by reading “heavy” books that exposed him to the world’s injustice and cruelty. Also, his parents divorced. Chris found refuge in his school’s Christian group, which welcomed him and assuaged his social justice discomforts.

But there was one wee problem. Christianity seemed obsessively homophobic. And Chris was starting to realize this applied to him. UnknownHis Teen Study Bible labeled him an abomination in God’s eyes, and his resulting inner struggle drove him close to suicide.

At last his mother stumbled upon his personal journal and brought him to a different kind of Christian minister – who took one look at the relevant Teen Study Bible page, drew a big red X across it, and said, “This is dehumanizing garbage.”

So Chris found a different path within Christianity, and went on to a Christian college, studying religion, headed for the ministry.

But there was another wee problem. He no longer believed in God. The book, after many pages chronicling Chris’s agony over faith versus sexuality, has relatively few about faith versus non-faith. That seemed fairly easy for him. But he completed his degree, as the class atheist, and even proceeded to divinity school, winding up as Harvard’s Assistant Humanist Chaplain. (He recently went to Yale.)

His “interfaith work” seeks to bridge religious divides by finding common ground and ways to work together and understand each other better. Stedman classifies the religious as either “totalitarians” or “pluralists,” with the latter actually having more affinities with nonbelievers than with the totalitarians.

But as noted the book is aimed mainly at atheists, who are also divided. Stedman disparages the belligerence of the so-called “New Atheism.” (He singles out PZ Myers, whose book I’ve also reviewed.) With some atheists seeing their goal as eradicating religion, Stedman is unsurprised at the religious push-back. After all, he notes in comparison, the gay rights movement hasn’t sought to end heterosexuality. He doesn’t like a “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude.

images-1I’m guilty of some of that myself. Obviously if you believe something, you believe people thinking differently are wrong. But I draw the line at “we’re right, they’re insane,” and I’ve criticized writers like Charlie Pierce for that. It might be different if religion were practiced only by an eccentric minority; but in a country where most folks are religious, that must be considered normal and sane. And I’m all for greater mutual understanding, working together, and apple pie; and I do try to avoid personal insults, calling people crazy or stupid. Yet religion should not enjoy some special exemption from critical scrutiny; its ideas should be subjected to vigorous public debate like any others. That’s what the “New Atheism” is about.

Furthermore, it would also be different were this just a matter of personal beliefs, kept personal. But most atheists would like to see the end of religion not only because it’s false but because they consider it harmful. Religion’s defenders can’t deny some very bad things, but of course claim the good outweighs the bad. As I see it, the good works ascribed to faith are things people could, and mostly would, do even without religion,

Faith in action

Faith in action

because we are in fact more good than bad (societies like Denmark’s or Norway’s where religion has almost disappeared are some of the world’s nicest); while the bad things (9/11; Boko Haram) are uniquely products of religious belief and would be hard to imagine absent that factor.

Religionists will of course retort that some of the worst crimes have been committed by atheistic regimes (though Hitler’s at least wasn’t atheist). But those crimes were not committed in service to atheism; not motivated by disbelief in God; the concept of God was simply irrelevant. In contrast, many bloody crimes throughout history were of course motivated by religious belief.

Believers will also say such crimes are perversions of proper faith. But the problem is that religion has an unavoidable tendency to inspire absolutism (Stedman’s “totalitarianism”) – the “one truth” so powerful that it can justify almost anything in service to it. Disbelief doesn’t come close to having such inspirational power – a very good thing. In fact nobody kills for atheism.

images-2This is why we would like to see religion disappear. But it bears emphasizing that – so unlike religion throughout most of history – atheists wield the pen, not the sword; words, not violence. And, given its long history of burning people at the stake, it’s a bit rich for religion to be telling atheists to dial it back.

And Chris Stedman, of all people, should know the harm of religion. An inhumane religious dogma drove him to the brink of suicide. Just one more reason why atheists believe the world would be a better place without religion.

Lessons From the VA Scandal

May 30, 2014

Suppose you’re Eric Shinseki (Veterans Administration head).

Actual VA photo

Actual VA photo

You learn of huge problems – a vast backlog of unprocessed paperwork (partly because it is literally paper, mountains of it, not computerized) – and now this scandal of delayed medical attention and resulting horror stories and even deaths – compounded by widespread cover-ups of those treatment delays via fraudulent record keeping.images

So you snap your fingers and order it all fixed. Right? Wrong. The VA is a vast organization, but these scandals tell us it’s not actually vast enough. The paperwork piled up because the VA lacked the manpower to deal with it, let alone take steps to computerize it. Likewise, appointments were delayed because there weren’t enough doctors and other resources to meet patient needs.

Unknown-2No snap of the fingers could have fixed this. It required money. Shinseki should have been shouting from the rooftops, “Houston, we have a problem,” pre-emptively telling Congress and the president the VA is in trouble and needs more money.

But wait, you’ll say: isn’t that what bureaucrats are always whining? That they could do wonderful things if only their budgets were increased? Was there ever a bureaucrat who said, “My budget is quite adequate, thank you very much”?

We’re told the VA scandal shows what a lousy manager President Obama is. I’m loath to dispute that; but I take a bigger lesson. It shows what a lousy manager government is. Especially big government.

Unknown-1It’s actually probably unfair to imagine Obama should somehow have seen and fixed the VA problem. The VA isn’t exactly all he has to worry about. The government is a monster with a million tentacles and a very small brain – the president and his administration – to minutely direct those tentacles’ behavior. Good luck.

Yet the essence of American liberalism is the faith that government, because it is the avatar of disinterested public spiritedness, of the wish to do good – in contrast to a (selfish, grubby, greedy) quest for private profit – will do good, if given our trust (and money). images-5But the fly in the ointment is that government is comprised of human beings, not angels, and while they may indeed be motivated for good, they are also subject to all the other personal motives that govern human behavior in any context. And when those motives conflict with the disinterested desire to do good, it’s a rare person who will sacrifice the former for the latter.

VA staffers are probably mostly altruistic people who sincerely want to help veterans. But caring also for their own asses, in the situation, has made many of them perpetrate a great crime. Performance incentives, great in theory, merely incentivized VA personnel to cook the books to earn the rewards despite screwing patients. (And it’s not obvious how Shinseki might have avoided bamboozlement.)

At least in the private sector, the (selfish, grubby, greedy) profit motive – and competition – impose a certain discipline that’s lacking in the public sphere. Unknown-3That’s a fundamental reason why government is so problematic. No private sector organization could survive in a competitive marketplace treating customers as badly as the VA.

More broadly, the VA scandal shows that we, as a society, have gone way overboard in what we ask of government – greatly outstripping the money to pay for it. It’s not as though we’re miserly with the VA; its budget is huge; yet still evidently insufficient for its ever expanding mission, as more and more veterans survive better and live longer, with ever more and costlier medical advances to help them do so. This story is emblematic of so much of what government does, and why spending outgrows what we can afford. We borrow the difference, but as I keep saying, there’s a limit to how far we can stretch that without triggering economic disaster.

Unknown-4I’m not suggesting shutting down the VA. We must honor our commitment to veterans. But we, as a nation, must get serious about the overall gap between what we ask of government and what is affordable. This is the great problem of the age, which Obama is sweeping under the rug.

 

 

Utilitarianism: Is Killing One to Save Five Moral?

May 24, 2014

You are a bystander seeing a runaway trolley, about to hit and kill five people. imagesYou can grab a switch and reroute it to a different track where it will kill only one person. Should you? Most people say yes. But suppose you’re on a bridge, and can save the five lives only by pushing a fat man off the bridge into the trolley’s path? Should you? Most say no.  Or suppose you’re a doctor with five patients about to die from different organ failures. Should you save them by grabbing someone off the street and harvesting his organs? Aren’t all three cases morally identical?

Our intuitive moral brain treats them differently. Pushing the man off the bridge, or harvesting organs, seem to contravene an ethical taboo against personal violence that the impersonal act of flipping the switch does not.* (This refutes the common idea that humans have a propensity for violence. Ironically, those who believe it may do so because their own built-in anti-violence brain module is set on high.)

UnknownSuch issues are central to Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes. Our ethical intuitions were acquired through evolution, adaptations that enabled our ancestors to cope and survive in close-knit tribal societies. And our moral reflexes do work pretty well in such environments, where the dilemmas tend to be of the “me” versus “us” sort. But, because our ancestral tribes were effectively competing against other tribes, “us” versus “them” issues are another matter; and different tribes may see moral issues differently too. That’s the problem really concerning Greene.

He argues for a version of utilitarianism (he calls it deep pragmatism). Now, utilitarianism has a bad rep in philosophy circles. Its precept of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is seen as excluding other valid moral considerations; e.g., in the trolley and doctor situations, violating the rights of the one person sacrificed, and Kant’s dictum that people should always be ends, never means.

Greene’s line of argument (identical to mine in The Case for Rational Optimism) starts with what he deems the key question: what really matters? You can posit a whole array of “goods” but upon analysis they all actually resolve down to one thing: the feelings of beings capable of experiencing feelings. Or, in a word, happiness.

Unknown-2Happiness is a slippery concept if you try to pin down its definition. Is it a feeling – that one is happy? That’s circular; also simplistic. As John Stuart Mill famously suggested, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.Unknown-3

But in any case, nothing ultimately matters except the feelings of feeling beings, and every other value you could name has meaning only insofar as it affects such feelings. Thus the supreme goal (if not the only goal) of moral philosophy should be to maximize good feelings (or happiness, or pleasure, or satisfaction) and minimize bad ones (pain and suffering).

A common misunderstanding is that such utilitarianism is about maximizing wealth. But, while all else equal, more wealth does confer more happiness, all else is never equal and happiness versus suffering is much more complex. Some beggars are happier than some billionaires. The “utility” that utilitarianism targets is not wealth; money is only a means to an end; and the end is feelings.

This is what “the greatest good for the greatest number” is about. Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism’s founding thinker, imagined assigning a point value to every experience. This is not intended literally; but if you could quantify good versus bad feelings, then the higher the score, the greater the “utility” achieved, and the better the world.

images-1But doesn’t this still give us the same problematic answer to the trolley and surgery hypotheticals – killing one to save five? In fact that answer flunks the utilitarian test. Because nobody would want to live in the kind of society where people can have their organs taken involuntarily (see this Monty Python sketch). That might be utilitarian from the standpoint of the people saved, but extremely non-utilitarian for everyone else. And while one can concoct bizarre hypotheticals as in trolleyology, the real world doesn’t work that way. In the real world, “utility” can’t actually be maximized by, say, 90% of the population enslaving the other 10% (another typical anti-utilitarian hypothetical).

images-2Utilitarianism doesn’t require narrow-minded calculation of “utility” within the confines of every situation and circumstance. What it tells us instead is to keep our eye on the big picture: that what really matters is feelings; what tends to make them better globally is good; what makes them worse is bad. As Greene puts it, utilitarianism supplies a “common currency,” or filter, for evaluating moral dilemmas among different “tribes.”

Meantime, if X is willing to sacrifice himself for what he thinks is the greater good, that’s fine; but if X is willing to sacrifice Y for what X thinks is the greater good, that’s not fine at all. images-4It’s the road to perdition, and we know of too many societies that actually travelled that road.

Thus, a true real-world utilitarianism incorporates the kind of inviolable human rights that protect people from being exploited for the supposed good of others – because that truly does maximize happiness, pleasure, and human flourishing, while minimizing pain and suffering.

* “Trolleyology” is big in moral philosophy precincts. For another slant on it, see an article in The Economist’s latest issue. 

Ideology and Insanity: What is Mental Illness?

May 16, 2014

UnknownI was hooked in by the book’s title, Ideology and Insanity, by psychiatrist Thomas Szasz; ideology can verge on insanity. But Szasz’s focus is instead on the “ideology” of the mental health industry. He says there is no such thing as mental illness. Szasz acknowledges the behaviors we label mental illness, but deems it a mislabeling – actually a metaphor, we apply to behaviors outside ethical and social norms. That’s very different from a true illness like, say, chicken pox, with a clear physiological etiology. (But Szasz’s brush is too broad. Some mental illness is physiological: depression, for example, is often a brain chemistry problem.)

Unknown-3Szasz’s argument has a political dimension. The basic political divide is between individualism and collectivism – and perhaps wisdom would steer a middling course, because we all crave autonomy but also social connectedness. However, Szasz importantly notes that the dichotomy isn’t symmetrical, because while in an individualistic society, images-4people would be perfectly free to also satisfy their communitarian social instincts, a collectivist society would not correspondingly allow free pursuit of their individualistic proclivities. Indeed, that can be punishable, an element of coercion that makes all the difference.

images-3The point isn’t merely theoretical. Szasz cites Joseph Brodsky, a poet in the Soviet Union who was sent to a labor camp for, literally, the crime of being a poet. The state judged that poetry was not socially useful and did not fulfill Brodsky’s obligations to the collective. So in the “worker’s paradise” you had to be a worker, with no choice about it.

Szasz’s main argument is that the whole enterprise of modern American mind doctoring aims at making us a more collectivist society. That’s the import of his saying “mental illness” labeling is a guise for enforcing social conformism. Szasz maintains that for most people in mental institutions, being “treated” for “their own good” is basically a fiction for what is really imprisonment. Moreover, since Szasz wrote in 1970, there’s been a huge shift from putting mentally ill people in asylums to literally jailing them. (See this recent article in The Economist.)

While reading all this, I kept thinking, Okay, but schizos really do have something gone wrong, and whether it has a physical cause like chicken pox or not is kind of beside the point. Unknown-2But on the other hand, the problem of stigmatization and the nexus of mental diagnosis with politics is a very real concern. I’ve written before about the plague of “analyses” by those who actually do think the views of people they disagree with – whether on matters of religion, science, or even economic policy – reflect mental disorders. Szasz describes one egregious example: in 1964 a magazine devoted an entire issue to printing psychiatrists’ diagnoses of presidential candidate Goldwater, mostly calling him a paranoid schizophrenic. None had ever even met the man. (Incredibly, the magazine’s name was Fact! Goldwater was one of the sanest politicians I’ve seen.)

images-2While the mental health industry strives mightily to cloak itself as science, especially with its sciency-seeming DSM encyclopedia of diagnosable “mental disorders,” the trouble is that none can be tested for objectively. It’s all just subjective evaluation of a person’s behavior. And if a doctor disapproves of how a person chooses to live and act — or his politics! — it’s all too easy to label him with some “disorder.”

That slipperiness is illustrated by own diagnosis. To get insurance coverage when a girlfriend and I went for counseling, the therapist said, “I’ll just put down ‘anxiety.’”

And don’t forget that, until quite recently, homosexuality was in the DSM, formally labeled a mental disorder, with gays stigmatized as diseased and defective (rather than just different) vis-à-vis the norms which, via that diagnosis, the mind doctors were indeed seeking to impose societally. And of course homosexuality was furthermore duly criminalized. (Szasz actually doesn’t even mention this because, when he was writing, few people thought twice about it.)

imagesThe term “mental illness” itself has no clear boundaries. Indeed, a lot of the “disorders” in the DSM, truth be told, fall within the spectrum of what common sense tells us is normal behavioral variation. I’ve written, for example, about “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” With respect to that personality feature, normality encompasses a range. Maybe extreme outliers merit the word “disorder.” But most people diagnosed with ADHD (a substantial percentage of the population!) are actually within what should be considered a normal range.

Unknown-1Society used to be more rigid about how people had to be. Today we’ve grown more open, tolerant, and accepting of diversity, more willing to allow people the freedom to be the way they are, or want to be. That’s all good. And yet, contradictorily, ever more people are diagnosed (and stigmatized) with “disorders” that really amount to non-conformance with the dictates of the normality police. Thus, while the goal of improving mental health in the abstract is hard to argue with, too much of the mental health industry is geared toward the suppression of individuality. That’s so Twentieth Century. (Or, really, Nineteenth.)

There are of course some true whackos. images-1But, as Szasz argues, most “mentally ill” people don’t actually have minds on the fritz at all but, rather, face what might better be called problems of living. How to live is the salient question in philosophy, and for many people, enmeshed in their webs of trying circumstances, its solution is far from clear. True, counseling may be helpful to them. But their problems are not all in their minds.

 

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition*

April 29, 2014

imagesIn the Spanish Inquisition, if your beliefs did not conform to religious orthodoxy, you would be tortured to change them; and failing that, burned alive. America is different and, being nonconformist myself, I cherish that difference. I’ve always felt free to express myself. Yet even America has its Inquisitors.

Brendan Eich was not tortured or burned alive for his beliefs. images-1Not quite. But a campaign by gay activists recently forced him out of his job as head of Mozilla. His crime? In 2008, he donated to California’s referendum against gay marriage.

Now, such censoriousness might arguably be defensible were the beliefs in question especially stupid and/or heinous. Holocaust denial, say. Though in my view even Holocaust deniers have a right to hold and express their ideas (and not be jailed, as has occurred in Europe).

However, in Eich’s case, the views at issue were not beyond the pale. In fact, at the time, his was the prevailing view. That referendum passed, remember. Yet now, to have supported it is deemed so atrocious that a man should lose his job over it? Have Eich’s persecutors lost their minds? What about the other 50+% of Californians who voted “yes”? Fire them all too? (Good thing there’s a secret ballot.)

Gay marriage is a just cause. But it’s sullied when its advocates pursue it by unjust means. You (and I) might think opponents are wrong, but theirs is not an illegitimate opinion to which they have no right.

Unknown-2Unfortunately the Eich episode isn’t some isolated aberration. It’s all too typical of the mentality of the so-called “progressive” left, which thoroughly contaminates their politics. While the left is all “free speech” and “freedom of expression” and “academic freedom,” what they really mean is freedom for them and them alone. The hypocrisy mirrors Putin’s – he’s all against outside interference in a country’s affairs – Russia’s affairs — but not Ukraine’s. (And all against Ukraine “killing their own people” – after Putin killed at least 25,000 Russian Chechens.) The left even has a magazine named Dissent! I guess opposing gay marriage doesn’t count as dissent. Or at least not the good kind.

Eich is, again, no aberration. Remember when Larry Summers speculated that women’s underrepresentation in math and sciences might be due to brain differences? Truthiness didn’t save him from Harvard’s feminist political correctness Inquisition, which ultimately booted him out of the school’s presidency. images-2And in campuses all across America, students and teachers are criminalized and booted out for violating “speech codes” that sacralize particular political orthodoxies. Is this what the 1960s campus “free speech” movement was for?

Of course, the right too demonizes opposing views. But there’s a real difference. You don’t see the right seeking to punish anyone for their opinions. At one time communists were jailed, but nobody would seriously suggest that now. Indeed, for all the liberal alarm about the religious right and putatively looming theocracy, nobody – nobody – would seriously suggest punishing atheists! Only the left is into punishing dissent.

Why? Why is the left so gosh-darn intolerant? Because they are imbued with hypermoralism? Seeing politics as a morality play, with diverging views not just mistaken but evil? There is certainly a lot of that. Yet that’s true on the right as well, but, again, the right doesn’t generally seek actual suppression, and indeed punishment, of opposing opinions. Maybe the difference is that the right doesn’t imagine for a moment they could get away with it; whereas the left, certain of its monopoly on virtue and posturing on the high horse of a tolerance ethic, can get away with the worst intolerance. Sanctifying nonjudgmentalism, they are the most judgmental of people. And don’t forget McCarthyism and blacklisting — people persecuted, and kept from working, due to their political beliefs. The left still lionizes those victims and loves to cry “McCarthyism!” Yet isn’t the Eich story perfect McCarthyism?

The howling contradiction between the left’s professed ethos and its actual behavior seems baffling.

Then again, so many policies embraced by the left are likewise grounded in curbing other people’s freedom. Unknown-3Progressives seem to have an Orwellian understanding of the word. (They certainly have down pat 1984′s concept of “thought crime.”) And how about their excusing the rottenest human rights abuses by monsters like Castro or Chavez? But cynicism is a hallmark of left thinking too.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer recently addressed the whole Citizens United money-in-politics issue. There’s irresolvable tension between the undeniably corrupting effect political money can have, and the idea that in a free country government has no business regulating political participation at all (which always really amounts to incumbent protection). Krauthammer saw the ideal answer as full disclosure of political contributions and spending. But then he noted how disclosing Eich’s referendum donation resulted in the man’s persecution, ruining his life. Krauthammer therefore concluded that his full disclosure solution to the campaign finance conundrum is – as often happens – ruined by zealots. People should feel free to make political donations without expecting the Spanish (or American) Inquisition.

Here yet again we see the scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners style of partisanship poisoning our body politic.

Unknown-1Jefferson said that the best response to bad ideas is not suppression, but better ideas. Nobody should expect the Spanish Inquisition, and punishment for their beliefs. In general I see people whose views differ from mine as being wrong, but not evil. These are the precepts of a genuinely free and good society. But undermining those crucial precepts – as happened in the Eich case – may be not just wrong but evil.

*For my younger readers, the reference is to a famous Monty Python skit. In a conversation, one guy being questioned a bit closely blurts out, “Well, I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition!” At that, a bunch of red-robed churchmen suddenly materializes, intoning “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

UPDATE NOTE: The comments by “Rob” illustrate exactly what I’m talking about regarding the left-wing mind and freedom of speech. Worth a look; really frightening.

Are We Becoming Less Trustworthy – Or Just Less Trusting?

April 25, 2014

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll finds declining levels of trust among Americans. Lost faith in institutions, like government, or churches, might be no surprise. But we’re also losing faith in each other. Only a third now say most people can be trusted, down from half in 1972. images

But are we becoming less trustworthy – or is it just that more of us believe so? Yet this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we relate to others with increasing distrust and circumspection.

The AP report said “social trust” brings benefits: people more willing to compromise, make deals, and work together; whereas distrust diverts energies and encourages corruption. So trust boosts the economy. Indeed, a generally high level of interpersonal trust is one of humanity’s “killer apps,” enabling our species to develop our uniquely elaborate social structures.

A good illustration is auto travel. UnknownIt couldn’t work if we didn’t all observe the rules of the road – and trust that everyone else will too. (Or practically everyone.)

I don’t perceive the trustworthiness of the average person as declining. Sure, some are always eager to take advantage of others (the “free rider” problem in academic discourse); but that’s a small minority. A key curb on such behavior is that it doesn’t usually occur in a vacuum; people generally foresee future interactions, wherein their past conduct will be taken into account. In my own little coin business, I send almost all orders in advance of payment, even to people I don’t know. images-1The nonpayment rate is negligible. Of course, if they hope to order again, they’ll pay. A further incentive is the “deadbeat list” publicized on my website. Such shaming is actually a very ancient method for deterring cheaters.

Interestingly, I got an e-mail recently from a guy in Tanzania I’d never heard of, selling coins. He was smart enough to realize Western buyers probably wouldn’t trust an unknown African; but also that they probably could be trusted. So he too offered sending merchandise before payment. I ordered; he sent it; I paid.

This is in fact how most of the world’s commerce takes place. Without somebody trusting somebody, elaborate and cumbersome safeguards would be needed, inhibiting trade, to everyone’s loss.

I’ve written before how China differs here, its pervasive societal norm being deceit and corruption. If the AP’s survey questions were asked in China, they’d reveal far lower levels of trust than in the West. A reading of Chinese history shows that this factor has, in past epochs, held the country back. More recently China has advanced greatly in spite of it; but this is still a fundamental handicap that cannot but limit the nation’s progress, if they don’t learn to be more transparent, trustworthy, and trusting. (Note to leadership: in traditional Communist party style you can call these “the three tr’s.”)

Getting back to America, why has trust declined? The AP report quotes some professor blaming economic inequality – “more Americans feel shut out,” and have “lost their sense of a shared fate.”  This says more about the professor than about trust, reflecting an obsession with inequality and imputing a resentment most Americans in fact do not feel (even if politicized lefties believe they should).

No – this is not about politics, or economics, this is sociology. As the AP story also does suggest, it has a lot more to do with the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon (from the title of Robert Putnam’s landmark book). Unknown-1Quite simply, we spend less time actually interacting with other people.

I’m not one of those who laments modernity as pathology; its benefits are worth the costs; but one of those costs seems to be reduced face-to-face social intercourse. That impedes building a body of experience validating an assumption of trustworthiness; while perceptions get skewed in the opposite direction by increased exposure, from ubiquitous media, to the underside of human conduct. It’s a cliché that an air crash makes the news but thousands of safe landings do not. Similarly, we are relentlessly informed about people behaving badly while the vastly commoner examples of decent behavior become invisible. I send coin orders before payment because, having done it thousands of times, I know to a fare-thee-well what the payment rate is. images-2But few people nowadays get the benefit of comparable experience with human trustworthiness.


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