Archive for June, 2016

The Shakers: happiness in an ant colony?

June 27, 2016
Round barn at Hancock Shaker Village

Round barn at Hancock Shaker Village

My humanist group recently toured Hancock Shaker Village, in Massachusetts. The Shakers were a religious sect that set up communes of a sort, preaching equality and, famously, celibacy. They pretty much died out. No surprise.

Unlike some sects (notably the Amish), the Shakers loved new technology and were often clever in applying it; they were efficiency freaks. They lived dormitory-style, men and women separate. Unknown-1However, during the work day, they inter-mingled, though no touching was allowed. They ate together – but there was no talking either. A family joining the sect would be separated.

The attempt to write sexuality out of human life has many antecedents. At least the Shakers did not go as far as Russia’s Skoptsy, a religious sect whose answer for controlling sexuality was castration. But sex being dirty is a big theme in many religious contexts. imagesIt’s partly down to the abominable story of Adam and Eve, who were “pure,” and didn’t know from sex, until they “sinned” and started doing it – staining not only themselves but all their descendants, until Jesus got himself tortured to death to expiate the “sin.” Yet not even that sanitized sex for future generations.

With the Shakers, it may really have been rooted in their founder Ann Lee’s bad experience with marriage and procreation. She was not the only 18th century woman who felt that way, and that women would be better off free of it all. But that notion was very politically incorrect – better to cloak celibacy in a mantle of religious justification. So the Shakers were told celibacy enabled them to get closer to God. Or something like that.

Anyhow, one can see why women might buy into this. Less so for men. And indeed, over time, more men than women abandoned Shakerdom, which became mostly female.

But not only was celibacy a fundamental denial of human nature; so was the equality fetish. As our tour guide explained, that would be attractive to people who were not being treated equally in the outside world. However, the thirst for status is deeply rooted in the human psyche (by evolution – higher status meant more mating opportunities, so genes for status-seeking proliferated). And Shakerdom was down on the whole idea of self-actualization. Everything you did was supposed to be for the good of the community, and to please God – not yourself.

Unknown-2It all sounded to me like living in an ant colony. So why would people do that voluntarily? Only at gunpoint did people join communes in Soviet Russia or China. And even there sex was allowed.

It helps to remember that the concept of happiness is a modern invention. People in earlier times did not think that way. The point of life was not to be happy, but just to get through it. That was a hard enough challenge. (And entering a Shaker commune freed you of worry over your next meal.)

Of course people always craved pleasure and shunned suffering. Only a robot wouldn’t. But what differed was how they thought about it. Indeed, actually, that they didn’t. Unknown-3Many today seem to obsessively measure their happiness temperature. Doing so would never have occurred to our 18th century forebears. Moreover, like the Shakers, most people were brainwashed into the paradigm that whatever they did was to please not themselves but God. Even the most rapacious would strive to rationalize that he was pleasing God. Fear of Hell was very real.

Hancock Shaker Village was enjoyable to visit. But I was glad to return to modern life.

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How Trump got rich*

June 22, 2016

imagesWhat some never seem to grasp about capitalism, market economics, free enterprise, is that profits come, mostly, not by exploitation or at people’s expense but by making them better off.

Steve Jobs epitomized this. Not a nice person; but he got rich by providing great products, that we buy because they confer more value than the money paid. He didn’t extract wealth, he created it, not just for himself but for us all.

UnknownDonald Trump is a different animal. A predator, not a creator. His billions were made mainly at others’ expense. His casinos, hotels and resorts were basically schemes to get money from investors, which he siphoned off. The businesses were not well run or profitable, partly because Trump looted them, by paying himself exorbitant salaries, consulting fees, rent for use of his helicopter, etc. Thus he walked away with the money and investors lost their shirts. (Now he’s pulling the same scam to make money on his presidential campaign, routing contributors’ cash to himself and his family’s businesses.)

He meanwhile screws his suppliers and contractors on all his construction too, never paying them the amounts owed, forcing them into costly litigation trying to collect. Over three decades Trump was involved in an astonishing 3500 lawsuits.

Unknown-1And, of course, he also used multiple bankruptcies to shirk debts. When a business goes bankrupt, owners are not personally on the hook; so again, Trump walks away with pockets full, leaving others holding the bag. Many were the victims financially ruined. All perfectly legal, he insists. What a disgrace.

Then there was the mis-named Trump University. Supposedly to teach the real estate game. However (unlike Steve Jobs), Trump’s aim was never to provide value for money, but instead to fraudulently extract it from naïve schnooks. He promised lessons from his “hand-picked” experts. A big fat lie. Trump University was staffed by high-pressure salesmen whose real job was to squeeze ever-escalating sums, reaching $35,000, from suckers for the next set of promised higher level seminars.

Unknown-2Trump claims that students’ course evaluations show they were satisfied customers. The evidence reveals they were browbeaten by instructors into signing dishonestly positive evaluations.

He says the judge in the Trump University fraud trial can’t be fair because he’s Mexican. (Actually, Indiana-born; maybe Trump wants a birth certificate.) How racist can you get? And wasn’t Trump also claiming, “Hispanics love me?” Which is it?

images-1Now this so-called “successful businessman” wants to run America with his same methods. Ignorant fools supporting the slimeball creep might be fathomable. Republican bigwigs doing so betray their party and country.

* Besides inheriting a bundle from his dad.

 

Brits: Don’t Brexit!

June 18, 2016

Britain votes June 23 on leaving the European Union (“Brexit”). Don’t do it!

UnknownThis is a big deal. Prime Minister David Cameron called the vote to placate eurosceptic members of his Conservative party, and lance the boil. But more top Tories than expected have plumped for leaving, including London’s clownish ex-Mayor Boris Johnson, angling for Cameron’s job.

The opposition Labour party notionally supports staying. Unknown-1But after decisively losing the last election with a left-wing platform, Labour picked a new leader, the ridiculous Jeremy Corbyn – a veritable caricature of a loony lefty – whose pro-EU stance is lukewarm at best.

So the “remain” campaign is anemic while Brexiteers are energized. It’s easier to enthuse people for change than for the boring status quo. And while older voters back Brexit, younger ones don’t, but they’re less likely to vote. So Brexit could win.

This would be disastrous. Eurosceptics actually have some fair points; the EU has a big democratic deficit, with a penchant for intrusive, nitpicking regulations decreed by Brussels bureaucrats. Nevertheless, Brexit would be economically suicidal. And coming on top of the still simmering Euro crisis, it could contribute to the whole European integration project unraveling. For all its flaws, that integration has been a good thing, making Europe more prosperous and peaceful, with freer trade and freer movement of people. Its failure would be a sad reversion to dismal older paradigms. It would weaken Europe as a U.S. ally and counterweight to a bullying Russia. And even if the EU survives, it would be a worse EU without Britain’s good influence.

Unknown-2Further, Brits would in effect be voting to break up their own country. Only recently Scotland rejected an independence referendum; but the Scottish National Party has since strengthened, and Scotland being very pro-EU, Brexit would prompt calls for a fresh independence vote, which they’d likely win.

Brexitism reflects a baleful phenomenon afflicting much of the West nowadays: bloody-minded voters lashing out against what they see as a rotten status quo. There is indeed much to reform in the status quo, but unfortunately these kinds of populist responses tend to be exactly the wrong medicine, bound to make things worse. Such politics exploit voters’ unsophisticated knee-jerk emotions. We see it with the rise of misguided movements throughout Europe, like Spain’s “Podemos,” the “Alternative for Germany,” France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party; Poland recently elected a really nasty populist government, which many Poles are already rueing.

images-1Of course the biggest manifestation is Donald Trump, exactly that sort of candidate, attracting voters who simply don’t know any better.

Conventional pols do a poor job combating the nonsense. It’s easier to coddle it than to cogently explain why it’s wrong. Like Hillary, who does know better, going populist on trade. It’s Yeats’s old story: the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Yet it’s hard to see quite where all this voter stroppiness is coming from. For all the hand-wringing about middle class angst, Western societies are not actually in bad shape. Most of those voting trumpily live very comfortable lives compared to the not-so-distant past. How easily we forget what “the good old days” were really like.

A big part of happiness is a sense of gratitude for one’s blessings. Too many spoiled people have lost this.

Only the good

June 17, 2016
Jo Cox

Jo Cox

Only the likes of Jo Cox, British member of parliament, human rights worker, advocate for immigrants and refugees.

Never the likes of a Robert Mugabe.

Only 49 people innocently partying at an Orlando night spot.

Never people at a KKK rally.

Only peacemakers like Yitzhak Rabin.

Never monsters like Bashar Assad.

Always the Bhuttos. Never the Musharrafs.

Only the Sadats. Never the al-Sisis.

Always the Boris Nemtsovs. Never the Vladimir Putins.

Only the JFKs, RFKs, MLKs. Never the Erdogans, Maduros, Nkurunzizas.

Why? Hating the bad is characteristic of rationality. Hating the good, of irrationality.

Keep America Great: Gary Johnson for President

June 13, 2016
It tickled me to get this 1964 button to wear, since in '64 I backed Johnson's opponent

It tickled me to get this 1964 button to wear, since in ’64 I backed Johnson’s opponent

Recently an undecided voter, now I’m decided: for Gary Johnson, former New Mexico Governor, the newly nominated Libertarian candidate.

I cannot give Hillary my sacred vote, and hence endorsement. After all her scandals (I haven’t forgotten “Travelgate,” smearing honest civil servants to replace them with her toadies), her latest response on the e-mail stuff is appalling. images5Pity she wouldn’t give “The Speech Hillary Won’t Give,” that I wrote for her. And her recent swerve left is both dishonest and wrong.

Republicans justify rallying behind Trump by casting Hillary as the Devil. But she’s an angel compared to him. I’ve criticized demonizing political foes, but make an exception for Trump. He’s a bad man. Vile. A monster.  Unknown-1With an ego already out of control, giving him the presidency would be disastrous. To thwart the Devil, Republicans would unleash Godzilla. At least Satan has some human characteristics. Thomas Friedman, in a great recent column, rightly says the GOP should declare moral bankruptcy.

But enough negativity. Fortunately there is a third option. Gary Johnson offers a positive vision that I’m proud to support – the vision of America’s founding ideals – personal liberty and responsibility, an economy based not on crony capitalism but free competition, and inclusiveness and openness, to people and to global commerce. imagesThis has made America great. Shutting our borders to people and trade would wreck it.

Johnson’s libertarianism isn’t actually radical; to the contrary, he’s in fact the most centrist candidate, with policies that generally are serious, responsible, and reasonable. I don’t agree with every detail, but it’s a welcome contrast to Hillary’s pandering populism and Trump’s ignorant vileness. Johnson is the thinking person’s candidate. If only people would think enough.Unknown-1

One point I did not discuss in my “undecided” blog post is the Kantian challenge in any moral quandary: what if everyone did the same as you? Well, if everyone voted for Johnson, the outcome would be great. But more realistically, the question is what if a lot of people vote for him?

Conventional wisdom says he’ll take votes from Trump, because libertarianism is closer to traditional Republican principles. But those principles have nothing to do with Trump’s candidacy, so conventional wisdom is out the window. The real divide now is between civic sanity and brainless yahooism. By splitting the sane vote, Johnson could help Trump.

Yet one shouldn’t be swayed by what other voters might do. That’s unpredictable; and the point of voting is not to win, but to register one’s views. Johnson is a great candidate who stands for the right things. And voting for Johnson is being true to myself.

Unknown

With the GOP hopelessly broken, Friedman yearns for the emergence of a “New Republican party,” a responsible and principled center-right party. It would actually represent the electorate’s biggest segment. The institutional obstacles are great. But maybe, just maybe, Trump will manage to finally burn down the old house, in an electoral cataclysm, so something new can rise from the ashes. Gary Johnson’s Libertarian party might be its embryo.

 

Renaming America

June 8, 2016

“America” is the most important name on Earth. It belongs to not just one continent but two, as well as the nation that is the world’s most important geopolitically, economically, and culturally.

And where did this name come from? We all remember learning in grade school that it’s from Amerigo Vespucci – but has it ever struck you how utterly bizarre and ludicrous that is?

imagesVespucci (1454-1512) was an insignificant personage. He made some early trips to the “New World” and published an account of them. Though there’s a question whether he actually wrote it. Anyhow, it misled mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller into thinking Amerigo Vespucci was the discoverer. So in 1507, on the first map showing those realms as actual continents, Waldseemuller used  a version of Amerigo’s name as a label. That map gained wide circulation and the name stuck. Thus did America get its monicker through a blunder.

Not a U.S. coin

Not a U.S. coin

The absurdity is highlighted by the fact that Amerigo Vespucci, our country’s namesake, has never even been honored on one of its coins or stamps. There is no statue of him anywhere in the land bearing his name.

But must we be stuck with this dumb name for all time? We can change it. After all, America is quintessentially the land of reinvention. And countries do change their names. Dahomey became Benin; Upper Volta changed to Burkina Faso; Congo was called Zaire for a while; and now the Czech Republic is turning into Czechia.

Unknown-3Maybe we could do it democratically – with a public naming contest, like the British recently did to christen an important new naval vessel. Though apparently the Brits didn’t approach this with due seriousness – by popular acclaim, the winning name was Boaty McBoatface.

wuxOr perhaps we could hire one of those corporate management consulting outfits to do market research, with focus groups, etc., to devise a really trendy rebranding. These seem to favor meaningless letter sequences – like Philip Morris becoming Altria. America could wind up named something like Wuxibaf.

Speaking of corporate rebranding, our local supermarket chain, after decades promoting the name Price Chopper (carrying an obvious message) is switching to “Market 32.” Because it was founded in 1932. A brilliant move. Maybe America should change to Country 76. Or how about something with a little more attitude: Country #1. Instead of “Americans,” we’d be known as “Onesies.”

Unknown-4Or meantime, a certain presidential candidate has a penchant for putting his own name on everything. We could become the United States of Trump.

Well, maybe the name “America” isn’t so bad after all.

The nanny state meets political correctness: pregnant women in bars

June 4, 2016

As a nanny state critic and libertarian, I believe government shouldn’t tell us what we can or can’t do, without a very good reason (mainly, harm to others).

UnknownSo you might think I welcomed a recent New York City Human Rights Commission ruling that pregnant women can’t be refused service in bars. The Commission said, “Judgments and stereotypes about how pregnant individuals should behave, their physical capabilities and what is or is not healthy for a fetus are pervasive in our society and cannot be used as a pretext for unlawful discriminatory decisions.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Unknown-1“Pervasive in our society,” “pretext,” and, especially, “stereotype,” are dog-whistle words, signaling that we’re enlightened and we’re talking about improperly categorizing people and unjustified prejudice. But in this case, those are all irrelevant red herrings.

Because the idea that alcohol harms fetuses is not a “stereotype.” Unknown-2It’s scientific fact. Indeed, the City also requires bars to post warnings that alcohol can cause birth defects! Yet now it decrees women have a right to thusly endanger their babies. I’m all for freedom – but its first rule is that my right to swing my fist stops at your nose.

Or your fetus’s. Pro-choicers have spent decades trying to deny human status to fetuses. A political correctness the Human Rights Commission may be bending to. But to any reasonable person, in what circumstances a fetus merits protection is a highly fraught moral conundrum. And it’s pretty extreme to deem fetuses unworthy of any societal concern whatsoever.

Unknown-3Here the concern is real and proper: alcohol can damage a fetal brain. Surely the fist-at-nose test is met. Remember, this is not about abortion or the unborn, but about protecting children expected to be born. If you were born with fetal alcohol syndrome, you would rightly feel as though your nose had been punched. Indeed, all our noses are punched considering the loss to society (and expense) when someone is born unable to become a fully functioning and productive citizen. Protecting society and children against that is legitimate.

This might, at least arguably, have justified a nanny-state edict barring pregnant women from bars. But instead, the Wrong Way Corrigan Commission directed its nanny-state impulse in the opposite direction, at bartenders, disallowing them from exercising judgment and responsibility in deciding for themselves whether to serve mothers-to-be. The Commission chose protecting drinkers over protecting children.

images-1This seems especially bizarre and perverse given that bartenders have been held accountable for serving drunks who then drive and injure people. Victims have sued bartenders in such circumstances.

Should a fetal alcohol victim be able to sue the bartender who served his pregnant mother?

Or sue the City Human Rights Commission?