Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

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.

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.


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