Archive for December, 2015

The sense of grievance: a personal lesson

December 30, 2015

UnknownOne factor motivating Islamic radicals is a deep sense of grievance. A feeling that Muslims are victims of injustice, disrespected, a grievance crying out for expression and expiation. Humans have a pre-installed injustice detector (mine is set on “high”). These are powerful feelings.

imagesWe traveled as usual to my wife’s family for the holiday. My daughter flew in from Jordan. On Christmas eve I got left at the hotel, waiting for my wife to fetch me around 2 PM. Well, two came, then three, and four, and the next one. I could have called her but somehow got it in my head that she should call me. So instead I chose to wait and nurture a grievance, feeling disrespected. This grew to prodigious proportions by the time she arrived at 5:20.

Turned out she’d had a very rough day, chauffeuring people through terrible traffic. Oh, and by the way – the previous day had been her mother’s funeral. But none of that trumped my sense of grievance. Unknown-1I expected my wife to fall on her knees in contrition. When instead she pointed out what I should have done, my umbrage multiplied.

I think of myself as cool, rational, reasonable. And while I fumed, I did carefully analyze whether my intense feelings were truly justified. Yup, they were, I concluded.

But my truculence was making my beloved wife very upset, and finally, remorse for that overcame my sense of grievance, fortunately before it could ruin Christmas. And once the boil was thusly lanced, in the cold light of reason I could see how unreasonable and petty I had been. images-1Indeed, I was kind of shocked at how such a demon of fierce feeling had seized control of my brain. While in its grip, no mitigating factor mattered.

It made me think of Muslims and Palestinians and the sense of grievance. And of the late Edward Said, whose all-encompassing “blame the West” perspective on the Middle East remains influential. I could grasp in a new, personal way just how powerful such emotions can be – how impervious to reason – and to any other considerations, least of all consideration for the other side. Without dismissing Muslim and Palestinian grievances, there is indeed a lot to be said on the other side; and the grievance mindset can betray one’s own best interests. But when that demon gets hold of you – as it did me, briefly at least – it won’t listen to reason. This is how you get suicide bombers.

Unknown-2Well, my wife likes to chide my supposed belief in rationality, and this episode certainly scored one for her. But of course I don’t believe humans are always rational. Rather, it’s that we are capable of rationality (as I was, in the end). And (go ahead, cynics, have fun scoffing) I believe we are getting better at being rational — and thusly making a better world.

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New evidence on religion and morality

December 26, 2015

images-3Without God, everything is permitted, said Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s novel. Atheists are hit with this constantly: that people are basically bad and need religion to be good. That despite all the undeniable evil religion has inspired, still we’d be even worse off without it.

At a public event a preacher came up to my humanist group’s table, loudly making the Karamazov argument. “If there were no God,” he was asked, “would you steal, rape, and murder?” He said yes. I know many atheists, but no rapists or murderers.

images-2That’s because morality was actually bred in the bone by evolution, long before religion: because tribes whose people treated each other right survived and reproduced better than dog-eat-dog groups. Further, our power of reason tells us which is the better way to live.

But comes now a scientific experiment testing Karamazov’s thesis – performed by University of Chicago neuroscientist Jean Decety, published in Current Biology. Children aged 5-12 were shown a collection of 30 attractive stickers and allowed to choose and keep ten. images-4Afterwards, each was told the other children wouldn’t be getting any – so would they share with a random classmate?

Guess what? Children from non-believing families were no less generous than from religious ones. In fact, they were more generous: giving away an average of 4.1 stickers, compared to 3.3 for Christian children and 3.2 for Muslims.

Case closed? One might quibble whether this was a true morality test; there was no moral obligation to share stickers. Yet clearly the nonbeliever children acted more, well, Christian than the Christians.

images-5The study also found that rich kids were more generous than poor ones; and it wasn’t down to immaturity, as the generosity rose with children’s ages. Meantime, the religious parents rated their children as more sensitive to injustice than did the nonbelieving parents. One might conclude that when it comes to altruism, (on average) the religious talk the talk while nonbelievers walk the walk.

In reporting on this, The Economist wondered what it is about religious teachings that actually makes things worse. images-6Maybe it’s a kind of moral smugness or hubris: if convinced of your god-given righteousness, then your conduct (whatever it actually is) must be okay. It’s an automatic pass. Whereas nonbelievers have more cause to doubt and question themselves. A believer with a selfish impulse may convince himself it’s God’s will; a nonbeliever can’t fob it off on God.

Religionists also say fear of God keeps them in line. Atheists consider that an ignoble basis for virtue; better to do right because it is right than out of fear. That’s a more positive way to live.

There’s also a fundamental incoherence in the idea that morality comes from God. If so, where does he get it from? As Socrates asked, is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it’s holy? imagesIn other words, is something moral because God says so, or does he say so because it is moral? If the former, it’s just arbitrary; and if the latter, then God is merely telling us what our reasoning minds should be able to figure out for ourselves.

 

What do Trump supporters and ISIS recruits have in common?

December 19, 2015

UnknownNo, it’s not a joke question. Both actually do reflect a similar dynamic: a wave of disaffection and psychological alienation. Trump supporters and ISIS recruits both feel the world isn’t working for them or respecting them. They’re rebelling against the system and its elites which they see as soft and rotten. Standing against that imparts meaning to their lives.

imagesRadical Islamists portray the West as dissolute; its freedom a lack of discipline; bereft of moral seriousness. Putinist Russian chauvinism similarly puffs its chest as morally strong as against an insipid West. And Trump (now endorsed by Putin) casts himself as a no-nonsense tough guy while our government is run by squishy fools and knaves. Comparable tropes boost similar populist movements in Europe, like France’s National Front.

images-1All this is really a rejection of fundamental rationalist Enlightenment values – the classical liberalism (not big government “liberalism”) of democracy, personal autonomy, openness, tolerance, free commerce, free inquiry and expression, and the worth and dignity of every person. Liberalism, in that classical meaning, is under assault from both left and right, having become a dirty word even among lefties who inveigh against “neoliberalism” (as though some kind of Trojan horse for a rapacious capitalism). The word has particular opprobrium in Europe (Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban pugnaciously vaunts an “illiberal state”).

Such belittling of Enlightenment values is a well-worn theme of cynical disaffected intellectuals, making all kinds of ridiculous arguments – that those values somehow fail to embody more romanticist human proclivities, or that they’ve failed altogether, that misguided rationalism even “led us straight to Auschwitz.” What rubbish.

images-2It’s all a myopic refusal to see how much those liberal Enlightenment values have changed the world, and the lives of human beings, for the better. All those disaffected fools would not have enjoyed feudal times. Nor would the Eighth Century “utopia” ISIS yearns to restore be good for Muslims; the Arab world’s problem is not modernity, but insufficient modernity with its Enlightenment values. And Trump supporters should think twice about the illiberal paranoid state their champion would introduce.

Both Trumpism and Islamic radicalism need to be opposed not just with name-calling (and, in the case of the latter, air strikes and a domestic gestapo), but with full-throated advocacy for the fundamental humanistic values those movements trash. We have to explain them, and promote them, and make them attractive, to show people why they are better than the opposing poisonous farrago of mean-eyed garbage. Humanist ideals are not mere lofty piffle. They are better, not just morally as premised on enabling as many people as possible to thrive – they are better pragmatically because they do in fact promote that goal. In the past couple of centuries, it is precisely the advance of those humanist, rationalist, liberal Enlightenment values that has made a far better world.

Is it a perfect one? Of course not. But, again, if you don’t think it’s better, get thee back to feudal times to see what a really crappy world is like. And the different world today’s anti-liberal movements seek would go in that direction.

Unknown-2This is the case that must be vigorously made. But, in particular, we have woefully failed to meet the propaganda of Islamic radicalism with an alternative narrative. Remember Radio Free Europe, during the cold war? Actively and eloquently spreading free world values, in answer to the other side’s lies. What a success that was in helping to win that war of ideas. Where, on our side, is today’s equivalent? In today’s new war of ideas, where are our verbal boots on the ground?

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

December 15, 2015
Then . . .

Then . . .

You author a lone book that’s a huge cultural icon, then never write another word and basically submerge for over 50 years. That’s Harper Lee’s tale. And so it was a bombshell when another book finally surfaced.

To Kill a Mockingbird was a heck of a good story, with great characters, and of course a powerful message.

. . . now

. . . now

Published at the civil rights movement’s nascence, it was, for its time, remarkably open and compelling about southern race relations. Hence its impact.

Go Set a Watchman is a sequel of sorts, though it was actually written first. Lee’s putting it aside at the time, to write a different book instead (though still a “race” book), was inspired. Mockingbird is a great book. Watchman is not.

In it, Scout has grown into 26-year-old Jean Louise, living in New York, returning to Alabama around 1955, to visit her ailing father Atticus, now 72.

Then . . .

Then . . .

The bombshell was not just the book’s existence, but that Atticus Finch – Mockingbird’s great moral hero – was a racist. (Though we must remember he’s fictional, and not necessarily the same character in both books. He was given a reversed evolution, from the man of Watchman to the earlier and better man of Mockingbird.)*

. . . now

. . . now

His racism isn’t just incidental to Watchman, it’s the book’s hub. It’s a bombshell to Jean Louise herself, when she witnesses Atticus participating in a “citizens council”** meeting and abetting the vilest racist talk. To a New Yorker now, this is culture shock, she freaks out, and curses out her dad. But helped by emollience (and a literal slap in the face) from his eccentric but lovable and wise brother, she winds up (spoiler alert) reconciled, more or less. And that’s the book.

Its set-piece racist ranting, and Jean Louise’s set-piece reactions thereto, seemed canned and didactic – violating (unlike Mockingbird) the cardinal writing rule, don’t tell, show.

And the efforts of Atticus and his brother, to make Jean Louise see things from their point of view, just aren’t very convincing. We get the old trope that the civil war was not really about slavery, so much as states’ rights and people fighting for their tribe, their personal identity. (There’s a grain of truth in the latter, inasmuch as few southern whites owned slaves. Yet still, no slavery, no war.) And of course whites hating outsiders, who don’t know their situation, telling them what to do. And the customary denigrations of blacks’ readiness for full citizenship – but whose fault was that?

I thought Jean Louise’s riposte that the South should have a “Be kind to the niggers week” was a killer, spotlighting that for all the excuses and rationalizations, southern whites acted just plain horrible to blacks. Yet Atticus and his brother are still sympathetically portrayed; and, perhaps trying to make more plausible her eventual stand-down, the author has Jean Louise herself berate the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, as violating the Tenth Amendment*** – which I found simply bizarre.

In the end, it was hard to tell what exactly Lee was trying to say. Maybe merely that southern whites, though dead wrong, were understandable human beings. Or maybe she just couldn’t let Jean Louise turn her back on her father.

images-3The 1954 Brown ruling was, as the book does illuminate, a watershed. Until then, a stasis persisted; now it was like a frozen river suddenly thawing. One can in fact see things from Atticus’s point of view, and understand how southern whites felt, to have their whole world, in which they’d been comfortable, all their eternal verities, being changed on them. I’d like to think I would have had an enlightened outlook. But if you grow up immersed in a culture, you internalize its fundamental assumptions, and questioning them is hard and unusual. It took a few years in New York for Jean Louise’s enlightenment.

Unknown-2Even before the change could unfold, the mere threat of it made people change their behavior. The change among blacks was already becoming visible, and disturbing, to whites. They responded not by trying to meet change half way, but rather with a heightened belligerence to stave it off. Whereas before, they didn’t even need to think about race matters, now they did. images-4It was like a fault line in the Earth with two tectonic plates pushed up against each other, immobilized by constrained tension for eons, until finally it bursts with an earthquake.

That was the moment in time whose beginning Watchman captures. Had it been published when written, in the mid-50s, this would have been a very brave and provocative book, since nobody else was then confronting the race issue quite so squarely in literature. Indeed, what seems didactic now would have been a shock then.

The moment passed. The tide could not be held back, perhaps because most Southerners were in fact – as most human beings are – basically reasonable people. The cultural change, over what was really a relatively short time, was immense. Remember this when someone tells you people can’t change.

True, we still have racial issues today; but not like then. Today’s are the relatively feeble aftershocks of an earthquake; the reverberations of a Big Bang.

Mockingbird’s narrative is hardly present in Watchman even as backstory. The rape case is barely mentioned – with Robinson acquitted, unlike in Mockingbird.

** Often called white citizens councils, these organizations sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education to defend segregation.

*** “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

 

Climate change: what they don’t tell you

December 11, 2015

UnknownWorld bigwigs meet in Paris and solemnly pledge carbon emission cuts to combat climate change. Columnist David Brooks likens this to a Weight Watchers meeting, with earnest promises to slim down. It means little without enforcement mechanisms. Remember America criticized for not ratifying the Kyoto agreement? Well, what’s rarely mentioned is that ratifying countries never fulfilled their Kyoto obligations.

While, in fact, the U.S. has reduced its emissions more than any other major nation. Playing a big role in that is fracking. Yet most climate change zealots oppose fracking. Such “progressives” really hate progress, calling it a blight upon the planet. Bill McKibben says technological and economic advancement should stop. Indonesia_Farmer-on-a-bicycle-01James Howard Kunstler literally wants everyone living on small farms and riding bicycles instead of cars.

That won’t happen; indeed, such massive emission cuts are simply unrealistic. And what they also don’t tell you is that they wouldn’t anyway stop global warming. Yes, it would help; but rising temperatures and climate change are already baked in, and even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, warming would still continue for a very long time. That’s scientific fact.

Of course we should do everything reasonably possible to minimize emissions and develop alternative technologies (that make economic sense). But since that won’t nearly solve the problem, much more emphasis is needed on measures for coping with a warmer world. thumb_cartoon_gw_religionClimate warriors don’t want to hear this, lest it detract from their anti-industrial jihad, to put humanity in a hair shirt of penance for our putative environmental sins.

And what they definitely don’t want to hear about is geo-engineering – ways to reduce existing atmospheric carbon, or to otherwise counteract warming with global cooling. For example, the sulfur dioxide we already emit might be diverted from the lower to the upper atmosphere, thereby replicating the planetary cooling effects of major volcanic eruptions (like 1816’s “year without a summer”). Admittedly such efforts, if bungled, could do more harm than good. This is why intensive research is needed. Yet climate advocate Naomi Klein says such research should be banned! Because it would detract from the true agenda of cutting carbon emissions as a blow against the industries producing them.

images-3Those industries may not be pretty, yet are in fact responsible for our modern quality of life, so vastly better than in the pre-industrial past of almost universal poverty. The “good old days” actually sucked. Our use of fossil fuels has not been reckless, heedless, or criminal. It’s been indispensable to raising billions from squalor, and underpins almost everything about modern life. The concomitant climate change must be dealt with, but that doesn’t mean we should never have extracted and utilized those fuels, reaping their gigantic human welfare benefits. Stopping, or big cutbacks, would plunge billions back into poverty – just when we’ll need more economic resources to meet the costs of coping with climate change.

And when, in a world where a billion people still survive on under $1 a day, Bill McKibben says economic growth should end – that’s reckless, heedless, and criminal.

Finally, it’s also wrong to cast climate change as humanity’s biggest problem. images-2Under a worst-case scenario, the amount of worldwide human suffering caused by climate change will still be dwarfed by suffering from our age-old, unsexy nemeses of disease, malnutrition, poor sanitation, bad water, poverty, ignorance, violent conflict, and so forth. A dollar spent tackling those problems buys far more human betterment than if spent to hold down temperatures.*

* Fifty times as much, according to studies by the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

How to defeat terrorism: by ignoring it

December 7, 2015

images-3With every terrorist atrocity, like San Bernardino, I ask myself – what the f— do these people think they’re accomplishing?

The objective in war is to subdue the enemy by destroying his capacity to fight. ISIS and other Islamic radicals can do nothing of the kind. So instead they do terrorism. To what end? To hurt us? Yes. To subdue us? Seriously?

If they’re deluded enough to actually believe in the God they purport to worship – a God who bizarrely approves such horror – then maybe they’re deluded enough to imagine this is a path to . . . something.

But these outrages won’t bring down our society. A San Bernardino every day would get no closer toward that end. Fourteen dead? Why, we Americans murder an average of almost 100 a day, just being our normal selves; in fact, there’s already a daily mass shooting, on average. ISIS would have to up its game by orders of magnitude to have much true impact.

images-4Oh, but they do have impact – only because we behave as though they do. Notwithstanding 100 daily murders, and San Bernardino being a drop in the bucket, we behave like it’s an apocalypse. The President gives a rare oval office address. We get our knickers all in twist, and talk about extreme actions (like Trump now proposing to ban all Muslims from America).  images-6As if that would protect us from terrorism. (While we eschew common sense measures that would curb the vastly greater death toll from gun culture.)

Such irrational craziness can only make terrorists think they’re actually accomplishing something.

Well, it’s called terrorism because it’s aimed at terrifying us. And we obligingly act all terrified. What if, instead, we just shrugged it off and went about our business, treating terrorism as the mere minor nuisance which, in the big scheme of things, it actually is? images-7Making clear that it achieves nothing. That’s how to defeat it.

Happy Hanukkah – a (snake) oil story

December 5, 2015

images-4Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday until modern times, when it was puffed up mainly so Jewish children wouldn’t feel bad while their goy friends celebrate Christmas (and get gifts).

images-6Hanukkah centers upon the Maccabees, a bunch of religious fanatics who won what was at least partly a civil war against more moderate Jews backed by the Seleukid Empire. The victorious Maccabees imposed their fierce religion on the country, including forced conversions. Not a story I personally find inspiring.

Nor do I believe in miracles. To my mind, every event has a naturalistic explanation; if it doesn’t, it presumably didn’t happen. The supposed Hanukkah miracle was that when the Maccabees seized the temple, they found only one night’s oil supply for the sacred lamp, but it burned for eight nights.

images-7This you call a miracle? I say lame-o. Somebody was pulling our legs here. Maybe they simply misjudged the amount of oil. Or were ahead of their time with energy conservation. And besides, you’re telling me those Maccabees, controlling the country, couldn’t scrounge up a little more oil for one measly lamp?

Reminds me of the story of the guy whose neighbor boasts insufferably about his gas mileage. So to mess with him, the guy sneaks gas into the neighbor’s tank at night, and now he’s bragging of truly unbelievable mileage. Until the guy reverses the process and starts siphoning gas out at night!

Maybe some prankster was similarly messing with the temple lamp’s oil, to make fools of the Maccabees.

images-3Nevertheless — I sincerely wish all my readers a happy and healthy Hanukkah. L’chaim!

China versus America: the candid truth

December 3, 2015

I was recently on panel, with two Chinese natives, comparing our respective countries’ cultures. Here (a bit condensed) is my presentation:

UnknownChina is a great civilization with many accomplishments, a rich history and culture, and much to admire. I’m saying this because the rest of my comments won’t be so complimentary.

When I got the phone call to do this, I happened to be reading David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character. And I asked myself, would such a book be written in China? Because its approach is very humanistic, a book written for a society of individuals. Then I recalled the phrase “Asian Values” popularized by the late leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew: an attempt to dress up authoritarianism and paternalism as reflecting deep cultural traditions, as an alternative to Western values that emphasize democracy, human rights, the worth of the individual, and so forth.

Unknown-1We hear a lot of nonsense that America is not really a democracy. But there’s really no voting at all in China, certainly no political competition, no opposition allowed, no freedom of speech and press. And this does reflect a cultural difference. We Americans do value people as individuals, whereas in China what’s most important is one’s role as a part of a group – the family, and, more broadly, the whole society. Compared to America, Chinese society is more like an ant colony or beehive, which biologist E.O. Wilson has likened to “superorganisms,” with the role of the individual ant or bee equivalent to that of a cell in a human body.images-1

One important element of human rights is the rule of law. President, Xi Jinping talks a lot about this, but it means something different to him than to us. It’s not a restraint on government, it’s a tool for government to restrain citizens. The government and the Communist party (pretty much the same thing) are still above the law.

China does have a constitution, full of worthy platitudes, yet the word “constitutionalism” is seen as a subversive Western idea. People have been jailed simply for voicing the radical concept that the constitution should be obeyed.

images-2I was one of those optimists believing that as China grew richer it would evolve toward democracy. For a while that seemed to be happening, albeit at a glacial pace. But now it’s gone into reverse. President Xi is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, cracking down on anyone and anything seen as remotely challenging to the party’s control. Recently all the country’s human rights lawyers were arrested.

Speaking of control, you probably know about China’s one-child policy, which just became a two-child policy. A long overdue change, but it’s still an unjustifiably cruel, coercive approach. It’s given China a big labor shortage, with not enough working age people to support a growing population of elderly pensioners. And because of a strong cultural preference for male children, people often made sure their one child would be a boy. So males outnumber females, and many of those pampered little princes won’t be able to find princesses to marry. This is a societal time-bomb.

Unknown-2Then there’s the hukou system. A hukou is a sort of internal passport and residence permit. It’s a very big deal. You can go from the countryside to the city to get a factory job, but you cannot get a city hukou. Without it you’re you’re barred from local public services, like health care, and your children can’t even go to school. One consequence is that an estimated 70 million children are left behind with other relatives, growing up with all kinds of psychological and adjustment problems. Another societal time-bomb.

Now, Americans are very patriotic, we love our country. Chinese love theirs, but with a difference. It’s perhaps explainable in light of China’s past history of depredation by other powers. Chinese are highly nationalistic and obsess about their global standing, with a chip on their shoulders. This is seen in China’s aggressive claims to vast ocean regions.

But here’s some good news: since Mao and his mad policies were buried, China has experienced phenomenal economic growth. In 35 years its average income has increased by 3000% — thirty-fold. Some would say this shows authoritarianism works. That would be wrong.

China is really two economies: the communist sector of state-owned businesses, and the private sector, which is in fact the closest thing ever to that mythical beast, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” And virtually all of China’s economic growth has come from that sector. The lesson is not that authoritarianism works, it’s that free market capitalism works.

My final point: compared to America, China is a profoundly corrupt society.

images-3We’re often told the U.S. Senate is a millionaire’s club. Well, China’s legislature – with much less real power – is packed with billionaires. And whereas our Senatorial millionaires in general earned their money outside of politics, most in China got theirs by abusing their official positions. American political corruption is mostly politicians catering to private interests to get campaign money, not personal wealth. In China it’s the latter. Being a high official is a license to steal.

Now, President Xi is crusading against corruption, and some big fish have been caught, like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. But this is really less a clean-up than a political purge, aimed mainly at tightening Xi’s control. China’s apologists like to point out that Western democracies are not immune to abuses of power, citing Watergate as a prime example. But Nixon fell because of checks and balances within the American political system – notably a strong opposition party and a free press. Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang fell to the power of an even bigger fish. And what will constrain that bigger fish’s power?

China’s culture of corruption goes beyond politics. Ironically, for a country that actually invented civil service examinations centuries ago, today it’s based not on what you know but who you know; the greasing of palms and disingenuousness. Yale University had a bad experience trying to set up branches in China. Of course there’s cheating in American schools, but Chinese students took it to a new level. Yale gave up and left. A New York Times essay quoted Chinese author Wang Xiaofang: “The habit of falsehood is fatal to a culture. But to us, falsehood is the essence.”

Unknown-3Recently we learned about China’s cyber-hacking, stealing corporate secrets. Here again, of course such things happen in the West. But for the government to set up a whole bureaucracy to carry it out? David Brooks has commented that this shows China sees world economic competition as equivalent to war, with all weapons allowed. But this destroys the trust that lubricates free exchange and international commerce. This is not how you become a global economic leader.

I recognize that, compared to China, American government has become dysfunctional and paralyzed. It’s mainly down to our partisan political polarization. But Francis Fukuyama wrote a book in 1992, titled The End of History, arguing that the classically liberal Western model of democratic government under rule of law, accountable to the governed, is bound to prevail because it satisfies a basic human hunger for personal dignity and self worth. America may be in decline relative to a rising China; but I’d rather live in a declining democracy than in a rising authoritarian state.