Archive for May, 2010

Hello – if you got here googling Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist –

May 28, 2010

Please also check out MY recent book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM, which makes similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism discussing a broader range of subjects. Click HERE for more information.

And welcome to my blog. I hope you like it too.

“Our Sick Society” (Afghanistan I)

May 27, 2010

“Our sick society” – how often do we hear this sort of thing?

I recently read “Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini’s second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. This novel traces the history of two Afghan women, and their one husband, from the 1970s through 2003. If you want to know what a “sick society” looks like, read this. It put me in mind of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which also depicted a society where male-female relations are, well, crazy. But that was an imaginary society; Afghanistan’s, in Hosseini’s book, is all too real.

At least one married couple portrayed had a relationship we’d almost recognize as normal. But not the main characters. The husband, Rasheed, didn’t start out bad. He’d been a longtime widower. One of the book’s most affecting scenes was when his new wife discovered his stash of porno magazines. She was shocked and confused. But she also found his hidden photo of his son, who’d drowned in childhood. “And she felt for the first time a kinship with her husband. She told herself that they would make good companions after all.”

But Rasheed, alas, is a limited man, trapped in the cultural norms of his society. He’s been programmed to behave a certain way, and he follows the program remorselessly, rather than actually relating to his new wife on a human, companionable level. When she can’t produce a child, and an additional wife produces that “useless thing,” a daughter, the marriage spirals down into bleakness and violence. Bad enough anywhere; but this was under the Taliban, with all women veritable prisoners (not even allowed to leave the home unaccompanied by a man; not even in the obligatory burqa). The eventual arrival of the longed-for son comes too late to detour this human train wreck.

I kept comparing against my own family relationships. Muslim fundamentalists sneer at our supposed immorality. But the ultimate test of any moral system is how it serves human flourishing. My family – and most of those I know – have a modus vivendi enabling us to love and cherish one other, to help each other to flourish, and we do flourish. I think that’s supremely moral. In Rasheed’s family, with all its rigid adherence to a putatively moral code, no flourishing can take place. Indeed, the contrary occurs, their lives are blighted, Rasheed’s included. (And – spoiler alert – he ends up with his head smashed in by a shovel.)

But the book has a happy ending. The Americans ride in to the rescue, ousting the Taliban. (We mustn’t let them back.)

I recently attended a presentation by a photojournalist who’s traveled in Afghanistan. See the posting below for a report. Interestingly enough, she noted the cultural dictates for domestic violence; but she said the men actually don’t like it, are receptive to a different marital model, and want to be shown the way.

Cultural norms can be powerful, but they are not written in stone. Societies can and do change. Our own has changed enormously in my own lifetime, and mostly for the better. It’s one of the things that makes me an optimist.

Afghanistan II

May 27, 2010

I recently attended a presentation by photojournalist Connie Frisbee Houde, who traveled to Afghanistan 4 times since 2003; her last trip, in late 2009, was with an activist women’s organization, spending 10 days in Kabul.

She began with a slideshow of a visit to Kabul’s street of music stores, focusing on one musician in particular (see photo), whom she labeled “the essence of Afghanistan.” His music was handed down among generations; music, poetry, and story-telling are crucial to Afghan culture. However, music was outlawed under the Taliban. People buried their instruments; some were later recovered, some were lost forever (like the giant ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan that the Taliban destroyed as un-Islamic.)

Houde presented some sobering Afghan statistics: 87% lack access to clean water; 53% live below the government’s poverty line (the Afghan government’s – not the U.S. poverty line); 40% are unemployed (much more if you count women); 70% are malnourished; Infant and childbirth mortality are both the highest in the world; more than a quarter of children die before age 5 (unclean water a major factor); life expectancy is about 43; literacy 35% for men, 10-20% for women; and 3.7 million Afghans are still refugees in neighboring countries (as against total Afghan population of 12 million).

Houde spoke glowingly of Kabul’s wonderful street markets, mentioning grapes in particular. The Taliban regime had seen the grape-growing region as hostile, and hence attempted to destroy the industry by poisoning the vines. Houde never expected grape growing to recover, and expressed surprise that she turned out to be wrong.

Another aspect of Afghan culture banned by the Taliban was “wedding palaces.” For Afghans, with huge families, weddings are a very big deal and are celebrated lavishly. With the Taliban’s ouster, the “wedding palaces” are back.

The Afghans also have a great thing for birds, and sellers of birds and cages were legion in Kabul. Now, that is; under the Taliban, guess what? Yup, banned. What a bunch of killjoys.

Houde also talked about an orphanage she visited; Afghan orphanages are full not only for the obvious reasons but because many parents simply cannot afford to care for their children (this happened in Hosseini’s book, discussed above). The orphanage Houde visited was featured in an MSNBC story, resulting in over $100,000 in contributions. Houde saw this as demonstrating that we Americans “really want to do good there.”

Not everything in the country reflects progress. There was much controversy about recent enactment of a new Family Law for Shias (about 10% of the population) which has been called a “marital rape law” since it requires, among other things, that women submit to spousal sexual demands four times weekly. But women have mobilized in opposition. One was Soraya, 52, a gynecologist, who fled Afghanistan upon the Taliban’s advent and was one of the first to return after their ouster. She currently leads a women’s rights organization, insisting that women need to become political. To that end, Soraya is now working toward a Political Science degree. Houde also spoke about a peaceful protest march by women against a big madrassa (religious school); when the marchers were met with stone-throwing, the police protected them, and no one was hurt; a perhaps surprising and encouraging outcome.

The Invention of Lying

May 22, 2010

We saw the film, The Invention of Lying. The premise is a human society exactly like ours except nobody has the ability to lie; so everyone believes everything anyone says; there isn’t even a concept of “truth” since its opposite doesn’t exist. Apparently, there isn’t even fiction; TV and movies feature only history. And one major aspect of our own culture is absent in this one: religion, being, of course, impossible here. (However, there is still crime; bit of a puzzle, that.)

Anyway, Ricky Gervais plays Mark, basically a loser; but apparently a mutant who eventually accidentally discovers his ability to utter an untruth, with positive consequences for himself. This quickly resurrects his finances and failed screen-writing career. Soon, his mother is dying, and very frightened at the nothingness to come. So to comfort her, Mark delivers his biggest whopper: there is life after death. This is overheard in the hospital; pretty quickly there is a media sensation, and a huge crowd gathers on his lawn, wanting to hear more of Mark’s startling revelation. Mark duly appears to reveal that the info was told to him by the Man in the Sky, who controls everything. (Who knew?)

And then, after an hour setting up this pretty wacky but intriguing premise, the film basically, well, drops it – and reverts straight to being an absolutely predictable formulaic story focusing on Mark’s effort to get the girl, as against his (superficially) more attractive rival, complete with the standard scene where she’s standing at the altar with Mr. Perfect, and Mark is in the back of the church. This seems particularly silly here, inasmuch as Mark has become fantastically rich and successful, a huge celebrity, and, indeed, the prophet of the Man in the Sky – the church features a huge stained glass window depicting Mark delivering his gospel! And yet she still sees him as a loser! Huh?

Of course he gets her in the end. And of course, in the clinch, Mark virtuously refrains from exploiting his Power of Mendacity to get her.

This film is basically about free will. Everyone except Mark is unable to lie, so their truthfulness is devoid of moral import. Only Mark has free will; only Mark has the choice. So when he chooses to forego the lie that could get him what he wants, this is a consequential moral choice. It encapsulates the gut moral dilemma we face every day. It’s easy to do the right thing when there’s no personal cost. But usually there is a cost, and we have to decide whether to pay it. And when we do decide to pay it, is it because it’s just the right thing to do, or because we calculate that it’s ultimately more in our self-interest?

(A plug for my book: it actually explores this issue in some depth.)

Antony Flew off? (Or Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?)

May 20, 2010

I stumbled across an online article in eSkeptic about Antony Flew. I thought readers might be interested; so here’s the gist of the piece, authored by Kenneth Grubbs.

Flew (1923-2010) was a prominent British atheist philosopher and author, starting with a thunderbolt, Theology and Falsification (1950). Then, in 2007, HarperOne published There Is A God – How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind – purportedly by Flew. The book’s main progenitor was co-author Roy Varghese, a Christian polemicist, who actually wrote most of it, with an appendix by a Bishop, and an unacknowledged re-write by an evangelical pastor.

Varghese asserts that anyhow, Flew “signed off” on the manuscript; and that he had a prominent Christian apologist friend of Flew verify that Flew did embrace the book’s content, and was mentally competent. However, not long after, Flew was institutionalized with severe dementia. His longtime wife avowed that he died a “deist.”

A 2007 NY Times Magazine piece by Mark Oppenheimer (which I perused) reviewed this tale, describing a lengthy tug-of-war, between atheist and religionist proponents, over Flew’s mind, which was gradually deteriorating. Oppenheimer declined to conclude that the last book was a contrivance by Varghese, taking advantage of Flew’s declining mental state, and giving both the benefit of the doubt. But, Oppenheimer told Grubbs, “The most disappointing thing . . . is the cynicism of the publishing industry.”

So what’s in the book? Grubb suggests that such a dramatic conversion as Flew’s ought to have been the result of equally dramatic new insights. Yet the book is just a farrago of shopworn theistic sophistry – which Flew had cogently refuted in a half century of prior works – the argument from design, the anthropic argument, and even the claim that God must exist because it can’t be disproven – an idea that Flew had earlier treated with contempt.

Grubb, like Oppenheimer, professes agnosticism about what really happened, content to query, “Did [Flew] change his mind, or did his mind change him?” In so many human situations “truth” can be complex and elusive. But I do think the whole episode highlights the fundamental intellectual disingenuousness of religious propagandists in general. I often wonder how many truly believe what they say, or whether they do it for other reasons. (Of course, the meaning of the word “believe” in this context is also problematical.)

Property, egalitarianism, socialism

May 11, 2010

I got an e-mail from a frequent commenter here, Lee Newberg, which I will quote (with slight abridgment) and then reply to:

Perhaps it is already in your book, but … I’d like to hear your thoughts on the capitalism / socialism continuum — we live in the United States, often cast as an “ownership society” … where we have deeds, titles, etc. that indicate which property and assets are more-or-less for the exclusive use of specified individuals.  However … there are other societies, such as some of the Native American nations, that would consider ludicrous the claim that, e.g., land could be owned by an individual … In a strange twist of perspective, I suppose these “socialists” might argue that it is the individuals who dare to claim titles to land who are the ones with an overactive sense of entitlement.

I think all rational beings agree that there is a proper balance between too much and too little ownership, though, of course, there is much disagreement as to where that balance should be … Although there may be no way to sway the most ardent supporters of one side or the other, what arguments might be convincing enough to sway some of the more open-minded capitalists and socialists?  And how do these arguments apply to the topics of the day, such as public health care, financial institution reforms, inheritance taxes, ….

…  Since I can imagine how either side might describe the other side as overly entitled, I am seeking reasons and arguments that avoid the use of the “entitlement” label.

MY RESPONSE: There is a viewpoint (e.g., John Rawls in A Theory of Justice) that regards wealth and property as fundamentally illegitimate, the result of mere fortuity or, worse, malfeasance; thereby justifying various egalitarian (or “socialist”) approaches to how we deal with wealth. There are two problems here.

First, the premise is simply wrong. Most possessions and wealth are acquired by most people by working, which actually means contributing to society by producing things for which other people willingly pay. Or else they are acquired by gift or inheritance from former owners who had to work (contribute) to get them. As for land in particular, some may have been granted royally, but most was again acquired by work (e.g., hacking it out of wilderness), and that work, making land useful, was likewise contributory to society. And anyhow, practically all owners of land today got it via legitimate purchase (i.e., exchanging something of value).

Accordingly, the notion of achieving some kind of “justice” by taking property or wealth away from its owners, to benefit others who did not work to earn it, strikes me as antithetical; quintessentially unjust.

The second problem is that severing the link between effort and investment, on the one hand, and wealth and property on the other, de-motivates effort and investment. “Share the wealth” presupposes wealth to share; but without effort and investment, wealth is not created. Thus socialism fails.

Of course, we as a society of highly social creatures care about the well-being of others, even strangers, and thus we willingly do share some of our wealth, through collective decisions to relieve distress. That is not “social justice;” it’s not because the wealthy are guilty toward the poor; it’s instead simply humane. And it avoids the toxic class antagonisms implicit in Rawlsian egalitarianism.

Still, some lefties imagine that institutions of private property are somehow bad for the poor. The opposite is true; worldwide, great numbers of people are stuck in poverty precisely because private property protections are weak. Where governance and rule of law are shambolic, people don’t have clear title to their property, making them vulnerable to abuse and inhibiting investment and development. The economist Hernando DeSoto has done great work highlighting this problem and promoting correctives; and it’s been shown that strengthening private property protections is a great boon for poor people.

(And yes, all of this is indeed covered in my recent and very excellent book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

“Common Ground”?

May 5, 2010

My local newspaper published an opinion piece by Tom Ehrich (4/21), “Something in Common.” Erich professed a wish to “reach across the aisle” to tea party activists. “I suggest,” he says, “we put down the vicious placards and actually talk to each other.”

Yet his own essay includes this show-stopper: if tea partiers got their wish for smaller government, “the prosperous would intensify their war on the poor and middle class.”

Look in the mirror, Tom. It’s an all too common pathology — admonishing political adversaries for extreme and divisive rhetoric — while in the next breath demonizing them with equally extreme and divisive rhetoric.

For the record, I happen to know a lot of quite prosperous people, and not one is waging “war on the poor and middle class.” Most indeed seek policies that would help everyone — especially the disadvantaged.

Tom, you can’t find “common ground” with someone whose motives you’re attacking. This must stop. Most of us want what’s best for society; we just disagree about how to get there.

Further regarding tea party rhetoric, the same 4/21 newspaper published a letter to the editor by an Al Harris mocking references to “that other socialist,” Hitler. Harris says, “Here I’d been thinking since 1938 that Hitler was a fascist.” In point of fact, “Nazi” was short for “National Socialist,” the party’s formal name. Because the left is so fond of labelling opponents “fascist” we’ve been confuzzled into thinking that fascism and socialism/communism are opposites — extreme right versus extreme left. In truth they’re birds of a feather, both entailing a high degree of government control over society. The true opposite to both is a society where government’s role is limited and opportunities are maximized for all people to pursue happiness in their own ways.

Many (like Mr. Harris) dismiss use of the word “socialism” in U.S. political debate, as simply ridiculous. Socialism refers to government, rather than private, ownership and management of business enterprises. A lot of Democrats have advocated a “single payer” health care system, where government would displace privately run insurance companies. They may not like the label (for good reasons), but that’s textbook socialism.