Archive for October, 2018

Make America America Again

October 29, 2018

When I wrote recently about the coming elections, I didn’t mention “health care.” Which Democrats pitch as their main issue. (Republicans respond by lying about their record.)

Columnist David Brooks thinks Democrats are missing the boat. In the remote past (pre-2016), health care might have been a great issue for them. They continue to think in materialist, transactional terms, trying to offer voters good policy. But Democrats could never fathom why many people voted against (what Dems saw as) their economic interests. And today, more than ever, many are voting not their wallets but their values, their souls.

This election is indeed not about material issues like health care. It’s about America’s soul.

In two ways. First, Trump offers a story: that America has been screwed by foreigners, both immigrants and other nations, and by corrupt elites. He offers an appeal to cultural identity; a raw nationalism, both economic (however misguided) and ethnic. Not all Trump supporters are racists; but all racists are Trump supporters. And now, gender chauvinism is added to the stew, as Trump bangs the Kavanaugh drum.

All this, as Brooks notes, reflects how today’s core ideological divide is no longer between traditional left and right, but between open and closed societal visions. Thus, on the international stage, Trump says he rejects “the ideology of globalism.” This has profound implications; a go-it-alone policy will produce a world America will find much less comfortable to live in. China’s outlook, notably, is the opposite, in terms of global engagement.

Secondly, as Brooks puts it, Trump has “overturned the traditional moral standards for how leaders are supposed to behave. He’s challenged basic norms of honesty, decency, compassion and moral conduct. He unabashedly exploits rifts in American society.”

Many Republicans say they don’t like Trump’s behavior but like his policies. Never mind how wrong they are about much of the policy picture. What they fail to grasp is how Trump’s conduct is of the essence. Especially the war on truth. He is methodically degrading our civic society, not just morally, but really destroying its whole underpinnings. We can’t have a democracy with debate unmoored from factual reality, and refusal to accept each other’s political legitimacy. This matters more than any particular policies.

All of this is why America’s soul really is on the line. As Brooks says, Trump and the Republicans have “thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet.”

And Democrats respond with: better health insurance?

That’s not entirely fair. Many Democrats do push back against everything Trumpism represents. But not in a coherent, focused way, that really meets and answers the Trumpist threat with an alternative big-picture story. Part of the problem, according to Brooks, is that Democrats’ moral vision is of the “social justice warrior” sort, targeting how societal structures marginalize certain segments (the poor, women, blacks, gays). But “if your basic logic is that distinct identity groups are under threat from an oppressive society, it’s very hard to then turn around and defend that society from an authoritarian attack, or to articulate any notion of what even unites that society.”

It doesn’t help that Democrats don’t speak with a single voice, but a gaggle of them, that cannot really get heard in answering the huge Trump shout-a-thon. In 2016, the news media (far from working against him as Trump claims) gave him billions in free air time to blast his message. And they’re still doing it, having failed to learn their lesson, continuing to broadcast his every rally and tweet, becoming his enabler in spreading his poison. Indeed, by presenting it as news, they even give it a patina of legitimacy.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate must focus on articulating an American cultural identity different and better than what Trump appeals to. One that re-embraces the principles, ideals, and values that made America great. A vision of this nation as an open, confident and optimistic society, where all people are accorded equal dignity. A nation strengthened by its diversity. A nation that engages in the world to make it a better place, for our own benefit as well as others. In sum, an appeal (like Abraham Lincoln’s) to the better angels of our nature.

And at their convention let them reprise proudly the song they played in 1988 — what a different country it seems! — Neil Diamond’s They’re Coming to America.

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Love, sex, and the internet

October 27, 2018

The Economist recently ran a great report on how the internet has changed dating and mating. Mostly for the better.

It has brought much efficiency and rationality to what was a haphazard process of seeking a partner. I know. First single in the early ’70s, I had to get out and beat the bushes. It was hard work. Joining every poetry group in sight. Even spelunking — one of the worst experiences of my life (and no girls showed up).

The internet vastly expands the pool of potential mates, making it easier to find someone. And not just anyone. As The Economist points out, we all have our criteria. Religious compatibility is a big one. People do hook up in church, but online it’s actually easier to zero in on good targets. This is especially true for gays, for whom only a small percentage of the overall population are possible prospects. Now 70% of gays find their partners online. Even for straights, it’s fast becoming the commonest way couples meet.

Some might consider the idea of getting dates online icky. Surely no more so than in bars. (A nondrinker, girl-hunting in bars was not for me. I couldn’t imagine being interested in a girl who’d hang out in bars.) In fact, the internet gives one a better opportunity to vet prospects before meeting in person.

The bottom line is that because this does enable people to hone in on potential partners based on compatibility factors, those who pair up that way have longer and happier marriages, studies have shown.

The article reports some fascinating data about how people rate potential dates. Female desirability starts high at age 18, then descends sharply in an almost straight line. Men, in contrast, start off lower (no sensible gal wants a guy under thirty, my wife remarked), with desirability ratings rising gradually, peaking at 45-50, and falling only gently thereafter.

Ethnically, the highest desirability ratings are garnered by white men and Asian women, whereas Asian men rank in the basement, above only black women, and markedly lower than black men. Why rate Asian females so highly? Methinks a whole lot of stereotyping going on. (Men who imagine Asian women as docile haven’t read the Tiger Mother book.)

On average, both men and women concentrate on prospects who are rated (by others) 25% more attractive than themselves.

On China’s leading dating app, Tantan, men tend to like 60% of all female profiles they see, whereas women like just 6% of the male ones. Thus the least attractive women do as well as the most desirable men; while the men rated least attractive are lost causes. (Realize that Chinese gals are in a seller’s market, due to the past one-child policy, and sex-selective abortion, resulting in an excess of men.)

*   *   *

There’s one big facet of the internet The Economist didn’t mention, with huge implications for male-female relations, that are not good: pornography. I am no censorious prude; my libertarianism is okay with folks getting jollies from porn if they like. And it’s not the case that people are growing raunchier — rather, it’s that we have far wider opportunities now to gratify our proclivities, which by itself is a positive for human happiness.

But pornography has to skew how men see and relate to women. In past times social constraints made women terra incognita to men; closed books they had no way to read. Most marriage partners being thusly aliens to each other didn’t serve connubial bliss. Opening the book is a good thing, but there can be too much of a good thing. Putting it differently: women (and their bodies) used to be mysterious to men; but no longer. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was something shocking” — now naked women are everywhere.

Often more attractive than the one in your bedroom. And they don’t talk back or nag, too. Some men today find they’d rather relate to available fantasy women than real ones. (Especially in Japan, where many men shy away from flesh-and-blood women, while women don’t see this as much of a loss.)*

The lure of screens draws men away not only from wives and lovers, but also from work. The phenomenon of young males dropping out of the workforce to hole up in their parents’ basements playing video games has become a real thing. I haven’t seen any actual studies, but suspect gaming isn’t the sole attraction. This cannot be good for economic productivity.

Heaven help us when online porn gets to the next level, jazzed up with virtual reality and beyond. Who’s going to be doing any work? Well, actually, women, who tend to be much less susceptible to such stuff than men. Here’s a nice sci-fi concept: our future society with all the men whacked out with porn, leaving women to run everything.

A program on The New Yorker Radio Hour cued me to another point I hadn’t considered. As a longtime political observer, I’d felt sure “grab them by the pussy” would kill Trump’s candidacy. That it didn’t shocked me, and I’ve struggled to understand the societal change this signals. New Yorker suggested porn as an explanatory factor. Porn has a long history of course but until lately it lurked in the shadows, not visible in our everyday cultural landscape. That has changed. It’s not the whole explanation, but perhaps a significant part of it. In a society where sexuality in the crude form of porn is now ubiquitous and taken for granted, “grab them by the pussy” mightn’t seem nearly as big a violation of norms as it once would have. And, alas, this coarsening effect is larger — Trump has pornographized our whole civic culture.

* At dinner, I blew my nose; and while I had the tissue in my hand, I unthinkingly used it to wipe off a spot of sauce that had dripped on the table. “Did you just wipe snot on the table?” my wife asked. “Men!”

The Midterms: Exterminate Republicans

October 21, 2018

I was a devoted conservative Republican for 53 years. Today’s Republican party must be exterminated (electorally). It’s in thrall to a cruel monster of depravity, making war on truth, rule of law, human decency, and every principle and value America used to stand for.

The country is ruinously divided. Our president should try, at least, to unify us. Trump does the opposite. Cynically, evilly, intentionally stoking division. I just listened to a Massachusetts senate debate where the Republican banged on about “poisonous politics.” I thought, how dare you? This from a Trump lover and constant defender.

Fools will always be suckers for demagogues and con artists. Those cheering the poison Trump spews at his rallies are a disgusting spectacle. He’s encouraged them to beat up protesters — and flattered Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, where one of them killed a woman — yet he calls Democrats an “angry mob.” And “divisive.” Perhaps fortunately, caring not a fig for the rest of us, he makes no effort to gain broader support.

This is not “conservatism.” Conservatism is not blowing up the budget deficit and national debt. Not trade wars and protectionism that screw the many to benefit a few. Not betraying America to a Russian dictator. Not abandoning our hard-won global leadership. Not abandoning human rights and democracy. Not breaking up families. Not enflaming divisiveness. Not tolerating corruption. Conservatism is not denying reality (like about climate change). Dishonesty is not conservative. It’s not tearing down our law enforcement agencies with lies. Not degrading the nation with swinish behavior. Conservatism is not xenophobia and racism. It’s not misogyny. Conservatives don’t call Nazis “very fine people.”

The Republicans are the party backed by Russia, our enemy, which subverted our 2016 election to put them in power — because Putin knew how bad Trump would be for America.

Are Democrats perfect and without sin? Tell me about it, I opposed Democrats for half a century. And if I see things through a partisan lens, it’s still really one shaped by my decades of Republicanism. But it’s the lens of an open eye, not blinded by partisanship. Now, eyes open, I see no comparison between the parties.

And worse is yet to come, when Trump’s criminality is fully exposed by the Mueller investigation, sending into overdrive the Republican war on America’s civic soul.

So decent, responsible Americans must vote, everywhere, against Republicans (with few exceptions, like for New York governor). I used to think highly of local GOP Congress members Stefanik and Faso; I endorsed Faso in 2016. But Republican control of Congress must end.

With all the attention on that battle, the importance of the other 35 governors’ races may be overlooked. But they are indeed critical, because those governors will be in office during the next redistricting after the 2020 census. Last time around, in 2010, Republicans specially targeted state legislatures, and got control of most, enabling them to gerrymander the bejesus out of the electoral maps to perpetuate their power. Democrats have since been getting more votes than Republicans, yet Republicans snare more seats thanks to gerrymandering.

Republicans have also become masters of vote suppression, imposing ID requirements, reducing early voting, closing polling stations, and purging voter rolls, all cunningly targeted against non-white, elderly, and poorer voters likely to back Democrats. Stopping them from voting. For example, North Dakota has passed a law requiring a street address for voting. Indian reservations — guess what? — don’t have street addresses. This will probably mean defeat for Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Meantime, such vile voter disenfranchisement tactics may well have made the difference in three key states Trump narrowly won in 2016, giving him the presidency. (And they have the chutzpah to talk about “election fraud.”)

Democratic governors can veto Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression schemes. One noteworthy governor’s race is Georgia’s where Stacy Abrams, a black woman with a tremendous background of accomplishment, faces a cringeworthy Trump sycophant flaunting his almost sexual love for guns. He’s also the Georgia secretary of state overseeing the election (refusing to recuse himself) and trying to keep as many blacks from voting as possible. He’s canceled more than a million voter registrations, including 50,000 new ones — mostly by blacks. To steal the election.

“Disenfranchisement” was an overused buzzword some years back. But now it’s a huge reality, with the Supreme Court having eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act; it even upheld North Dakota’s atrocity.

There’s yet another card Republicans are playing from the bottom of the deck. Exploiting their control of the federal government, they’re gaming the 2020 census, by underfunding it and adding a citizenship question to scare off Hispanic respondents (and lying about it), with the aim of undercounting areas where Democrats tend to concentrate. So there will be fewer legislative seats for those areas; and fewer electoral votes for those states.

And as election day nears, watch out for a blitzkrieg of disinformation, dirty tricks, lies, and smears, targeted against Democrats wherever they have a chance of winning, not only from Russia, but financed by tens or hundreds of millions in Republican dark money. There’s a great film detailing how it was done in one state, Montana.

In all these ways Republicans are destroying our democracy, destroying everything that made America great. They must be stopped and never allowed to have power again. That will probably be assured by demographic trends, should they lose in 2020. And if the country remains divided — with Republicans a permanent disgruntled minority — so be it. They’ve forefeited all legitimacy.

This blog post might sound hyperbolic. At one time, not long ago, I would have strongly condemned such extreme rhetoric. But so far has this country fallen that now I consider it accurate and necessary. I never imagined politics could become so black and white. I am heartsick.

I know I won’t persuade any Republicans. Tribal partisanship blinds them. My intent instead is to impress upon others what the stakes are.

If younger citizens vote in equal proportion to oldsters, Republicans would be annihilated. And the election’s results will affect younger people for a longer time. Yet most don’t vote. Why? Like everything about politics, it’s cultural. Young people are not being acculturated to voting. It’s so Twentieth Century; something their dowdy parents do, not their buddies. The effect is to drop out of our collective civic life. As though politics has nothing to do with them. They will find out too late how wrong that is.

Vote. Vote as if our future depends on it. Because it does.

 

Our coming immortality

October 19, 2018

Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to live on in my films. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Humanity has always battled nature’s limitations — including bodily frailty. For most of our history lifespans averaged around thirty. Now in the developed world they’re above eighty. This reflects elimination of many causes of premature death, especially rampant child deaths. Modern medicine enables many more of us to realize the biological natural maximum lifespan (around 100+ years).

But raising that natural limit is next. That too is a medical problem, and there’s no law of nature barring its solution. Indeed, the same is true of death itself.

telomeres (in red)

You probably won’t turn on the radio and hear, “Scientists today announced a cure for death.” Though lifelong shortening of telomeres (a part of our chromosomes) seems somehow critical — when you’re out of telomeres, you’re out. And there actually is a pill to halt their shortening. Unfortunately it gives you cancer. But maybe, if that can be solved . . . .

But conquering death will likely be more gradual. And not all medical. We fret about intelligent machines supplanting us, but as suggested in my seminal 2013 Humanist magazine essay, “The Human Future — Upgrade or Replacement?I foresee instead a convergence between biological humans and artificial systems. Humanity version 2.0 will benefit from a host of technological advancements and improvements. Anyhow, one way or another, we’ll stop dying.

And nothing could more dramatically change the human condition. Knowledge of mortality has always shaped how we live our lives, so integral to our psychology it’s actually hard to imagine its absence.

Take risk. In many of our activities, risk of death is not zero. While it’s not as though we don’t highly value our lives, knowing we’ll die in the end makes such risks psychologically tolerable. Lack of a clear “term limit” will surely change that. Will people cocoon themselves in fetishing safety?

But immortality may not be for everyone — actually unaffordable to many. Talk about inequality! I recall one of those dystopian-future sci-fi flicks where the monetary unit (registered and transferrable on personal devices) is time — time left to live, that is. The rich of course have plenty and keep getting more. The poor struggle just to “make ends meet” — i.e., not to meet their ends.

Remember Methuselah living 969 years? His kids and grandkids lived to similar ages. The Bible doesn’t mention this, but all those generations would have been hanging around together (at least until finally wiped out by the flood). What will our families be like when you have hundreds of living forebears and descendants? (Maybe invest in Hallmark stock.) Or perhaps — able to achieve immortality through other means — will we stop having children?

Meantime, people who basically don’t age or die probably wouldn’t “retire.” Their continuing economic productivity will sustain and extend global prosperity. Maybe sufficient to obviate the mentioned inequality issue.

And what about religion? Evolution seems to have somehow made our minds susceptible to mystical religious ideas. Rationality enables us to move past them, as science progressively answers the world’s mysteries. Yet still, many people fend off science (evolution for example) in order to hold onto religion’s promise of an afterlife, its “killer app.” Even while having their doubts. What people think they believe may differ from what they truly believe. Those professing belief in Heaven struggle hard to postpone going. Because the promise is inherently unbelievable (and deep down we know it).

But what if fear of death ends? When, as against religion’s dubious promise of eternal life, science offers one that’s pretty darn real? Will that finally be science’s “killer app” against religion? Will all those who’d held science at arm’s length, because it threatened religion, now discard the faith that stands against immortality-giving science?

Well — I’m 71, and immortality probably won’t come soon enough to save me. But my daughter is 25, and I tell her that if she makes it to 100 — highly likely — by then she’ll be home free.

Jamal Khashoggi, and murderers we love

October 16, 2018

The rule used to be that you could murder all the people you liked within your own borders, but doing it elsewhere was a no-no.

Or was it?

Trotsky

In 1940, Stalin’s arch-nemesis Trotsky, having been thrown out of Russia, lived in exile in Mexico. But Stalin still wanted him dead, and an agent of the Soviet secret police killed him with an ice axe. Exiled Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed in 1978 in London with a poison-tipped umbrella. Alexander Litvinienko, a defector from Russian Intelligence, was murdered in London in 2006 with radioactive poison. More recently a similar defector, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter survived a nerve agent attack that wound up killing a British woman. Iran’s regime has perpetrated the overseas murder of many opponents including a former prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar, killed near Paris. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had his half-brother murdered in a foreign airport. Israel has done an overseas job on a Hamas terrorist. China has grabbed an inconvenient person in Thailand to whisk him back.

Khashoggi and fiancee

The latest, of course, is journalist Jamal Khashoggi, critic of the Saudi Arabian regime, who had left the country in 2017, relocating to America and writing for the Washington Post. On October 2, he went to a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey for some routine paperwork relating to his upcoming marriage, while his fiancee waited outside. Apparently knowing of Khashoggi’s plans, the Saudis had flown in 15 operatives, on two private planes, arriving and leaving the same day. Inside the consulate, they tortured Khashoggi to death, chopped up his body, and somehow disposed of it. These facts are pretty much beyond dispute.

Saudi Arabia’s nominal king is Salman (the last of the numerous sons from the harem of the founding King Saud), but the real ruler is Salman’s 33-year-old son and crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”).

MBS

This family’s rule has never been exactly benevolent. But MBS, under the guise of modernizing and reforming the Saudi state, is actually taking it to the next level of viciousness. (Women are now allowed to drive — while advocates for their driving are being locked up.) Apparently MBS’s model for a modern state is Putin’s Russia.

And apparently this young genius MBS either imagined nobody would notice 15 guys flown in and out and Khashoggi missing, or else imagined that the world would simply yawn and move on. As to the latter, he might yet turn out to be right.

With the fact of the murder no longer plausibly deniable — facts do actually still have a toehold in this world, imagine that! So retro!! — now the Plan B is the “rogue elements” line. That is, MBS had no knowledge of those 15 guys and two planes, of course he would never have countenanced such a horrible crime. Of course not. Or maybe they never intended to kill Khashoggi, just a little good-natured horseplay, and it got out of hand. Something like that.

Trump, with his usual eloquence, said what the Saudis did was “not good.” He said there would be “severe punishment” if it were proven true. Of course, in Trumpland, words don’t necessarily mean what you or I might think they mean. Especially the word “true.” But anyhow, the “severe punishment” would not include canceling our arms deal with the Saudi regime, because that might cost us money. So now we know exactly how much, in dollars, America’s morality, principles and ideals are worth. (And never mind that the Saudis use our weapons to commit horrendous atrocities in Yemen.)

But now Trump is himself mouthing the slimy “rogue elements” lie to get MBS off the hook. Trump is not going to smack MBS, because he loves dictators, bad guys, ruthless villains, and killers. Because looking at them is like looking in the mirror. At least he fancies himself in their tough guy image.

This is in fact the Trump who recently stated that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love. (“No, really!” Trump added; “He wrote me beautiful letters.”) Yes, our president has fallen in love with the blood-soaked North Korean dictator who had his uncle killed with anti-aircraft guns and his half-brother poisoned in a Malaysian airport. Melania, asked recently about Trump’s affairs with porn stars, said that doesn’t faze her. But what about this thing with Kim Jong-un? This is different; Trump never said he’d fallen in love with any porn stars.

Is there a new “first lady” in our future?

(Note to readers: nothing in this blog post, unfortunately, is satire.)

Now it really begins: the end of our democracy

October 14, 2018

The National Park Service is proposing to charge protesters for demonstrating in the nation’s capital.

You read that right: a fee, levied by the government, upon free speech. In the nation formerly known as America.

Recently, here in Albany, there was a demonstration by The Poor People’s Campaign. Which was then handed a $1400+ bill, by the city, for the cost of police keeping order at the event.

I wrote to Mayor Kathy Sheehan, expressing outrage. I am not a supporter of the The Poor People’s Campaign. But the idea of government charging anybody for exercising freedom of speech is an insult to the First Amendment. Free speech is not free if there’s a charge for it! I pointed out that keeping order at public demonstrations is a normal police function, that’s part of why we pay taxes to have a police force.

Sadly, I got no reply.

Now the Trump administration aims to apply the same idea to protests in the capital (for starters). Perhaps predictably, with Trump calling the opposition party an “angry mob.” Demonstrators will now have to pay the cost of police keeping order. The bills will be sizable; the obvious intent is fewer protests. (Maybe people should be charged too for 911 calls, to keep down their numbers also.) And how nice it would be if the regime, I mean the government, could go about its work without pesky citizens getting in the way with annoying protests. How nice if newspapers and screens were not filled with images of “angry mobs” making their opinions known. Criticizing the president and everything.

This is how democracy is snuffed out.

Click here to sign an ACLU petition against the Park Service proposal. And click here to submit a comment directly to the Park Service, until the close of business Monday.

There is no charge for such public comments. Yet.

What is the basis for morality?

October 12, 2018

This question has vexed philosophers through the ages. My humanist book group is reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass a Global History of Ethics. Wherein of course this question is central.

For some the answer is simple: God’s word. But this merely begs another question, which Socrates expressed: is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is holy? In other words, is stoning to death a disobedient child right because God says so (in Deuteronomy), or does God say so because it is right? And in either case, how does God know? If he’s just making it up, we can do better by applying our reason rather than his arbitrary rules. If he arrived at rules by using his own reason, so can we, with no need for him.

And passing the buck to God doesn’t change the reality that responsibility for morality remains ours alone. To follow his laws is a choice we ourselves make. Indeed, even believers who say God decrees morality still pick and choose among his decrees. Few kill disobedient children.

David Hume said you can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” That is, no facts, including about what people do, can tell us what we should do. Nor can moral truths be “self evident.” Female genital mutilation seems self evidently wrong to me, but not to millions of others.

Thus later philosophers, notably A.J. Ayer, have posited that moral ideas are only expressions of personal taste, not objective facts. As Malik puts it, “the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ express not information but feelings.” So the statement “murder is wrong” stands no differently from “I like beer.”

But what would Ayer think of the statement “murdering A.J. Ayer is wrong?”

Malik notes that physicists used to believe the Universe was filled with an invisible substrate they called ether. But ether doesn’t exist, so any assertion about its nature is meaningless. Malik quotes philosopher J.J. Mackie that for morality to be objective it would have to be an “intrinsic part of the fabric of reality” — like ether supposedly was. But no such “moral ether” exists either, hence any statements about it are likewise meaningless.

MacIntyre

Malik goes on to discuss Alasdair MacIntyre’s “brilliant, bleak, frustrating, and . . . provocative” 1981 book After Virtue. It says moral thought is in “grave disorder.” How so? Thanks to that old culprit, The Enlightenment which, we’re told, destroyed Aristotelian notions of humans as embedded in roles, in favor of (horrors!) seeing us as autonomous agents creating our own roles. Morality, MacIntyre says, can only have meaning if there’s a distinction between “man-as-he-happens-to-be” and “man-as-he-could-be.” Otherwise, there’s no roadmap. MacIntyre, Malik notes, was a Marxist who ultimately became a Roman Catholic.

And, says Malik, that book owes much to Elizabeth Anscombe’s “seminal” 1958 paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which said it’s all foundationless. How so? Because any “law” requires a legislator. That used to be God. But we’ve fired him; so whatever moral rules or laws any human posits, there is no legislator behind them.

Excuse me? “Seminal” my ass. No, this is literally an insult to intelligence. As I explained at the start, God’s role as legislator is nonsense; there’s no alternative to choosing our own moral rules.

Likewise absurd are MacIntyre’s burblings about the blight of The Enlightenment. They’re the product of a mind whose Marxism-cum-Catholicism bespeaks profound intellectual confusion. His “man-as-he-could-be” implies aspiration to some imagined higher state; yet “man-as-he-happens-to-be” has always been abundantly capable of morality. And indeed MacIntyre’s conception is not aspirational but the opposite. His “Aristotelian” view of the human role might be descriptive for bees in a beehive. But we are rational creatures, not automata, and the entire meaning of our lives comes from how we ourselves choose to use our rationality to shape our living of them.

The Enlightenment did not destroy the basis for morality. To the contrary, it freed us from false conceptions about it — conceptions rooted in a nonexistent god (like MacIntyre’s Catholicism).

I will tell you the true basis for morality.

The cosmos is indifferent, but we are not. My “murdering A.J. Ayer” line was not a joke, it goes to the heart of the issue. There is only one thing in the cosmos that matters, only one thing that can matter. That is the feelings of beings that experience them. Nothing can matter unless it matters to someone — to such a being. Like A.J. Ayer. That’s why murdering A.J. Ayer would be wrong.

Now, in some circumstances, it might not be. Murdering Hitler, for example, would not have been wrong. You have to consider the effect on the feelings of all sentient beings. Killing Hitler would have inconvenienced him, while benefiting a vast number of others.

This sounds like utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). Utilitarianism has been critiqued for violating Kant’s dictum that people should only be ends, not means. For example, if you’re a doctor with a patient needing a heart transplant, and another needing a liver, why not grab a bystander and take his organs, sacrificing one life to save two? Kant would say this violates a moral absolute. But there is a better answer that actually accords with utilitarianism: nobody would want to live in a society allowing such organ confiscation. So we see the utilitarian calculus may not be so simple. And moral dilemmas may indeed be more complex than that example. But the point is that utilitarianism gives us not a blunt tool, but a touchstone, a baseline, a measuring tool, for analyzing them.

That is all the basis for morality we need. Our reasoning minds can take it from there.

Secular Rescue – saving lives, freedom, and open debate

October 10, 2018

Religion can inspire good deeds. Or killing people with machetes.

This is happening today, notably in Bangladesh, where organized vigilantes target and murder dissenters from Muslim religious orthodoxy, particularly secularist and atheist writers, bloggers, and activists. While the government hardly pretends to disapprove.

The West has its own history, of course, of religious intolerance, persecution, and violence. The Inquisition tortured people for God. Untold numbers were burned at the stake (including philosopher Giordano Bruno who, unlike Galileo, refused to recant his ideas contrary to church dogma). The Thirty Years War, a conflict over theology, killed a third of Europe’s population. Even in America, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston Common for holding the wrong faith.

But in the West, religion finally calmed down, became domesticated, and nobody here any longer imagines burning people alive for God. My local humanist society meets openly, unmolested, even advertising its nonreligious orientation.

That would not be possible in most Muslim countries today. This actually represents retrogression, because in past epochs Muslims were much more tolerant of religious heterodoxy; but they’ve gone in the opposite direction from the Christian West. There’s no church/state separation. In many Muslim nations, “apostasy” carries a death sentence. (In Pakistan “blasphemy” does. Pakistan has not actually executed anyone for blasphemy, but over 60 people accused of it have been murdered.)

If you read the Koran (here’s my review), its number one theme is nonbelievers will be punished. Repeated on almost every page. But some Muslims today can’t wait for God to do the punishing. They think they’re doing his work for him. A small minority of Muslims, actually; but it doesn’t take many to perpetrate an awful lot of violence.

I am a fearless blogger. Not courageous — but literally fearless because I have nothing to fear in America’s paradise of free expression. I wouldn’t have the courage to do this in a place like Bangladesh, risking machetes.

Some show bravery in battle, for their country or comrades; some in defending their families. But the courage we’re talking about here — for an idea — is of a very special sort. I’m in awe of these noble heroes.

And I’m proud to support them, with money at least, by funding Secular Rescue, a program run by the Center for Inquiry (a leading organization promoting secular humanist values). The program assists, defends, and protects writers under threat for expressing viewpoints that challenge local religious orthodoxies, mainly in Muslim countries. It provides tangible help, such as legal services, and even relocating them to safer places — a kind of “underground railroad.” Secular Rescue works very hard to evaluate and verify cases, to make sure the people helped are truly in danger. All that work, and the help itself, costs money.

I will match contributions to Secular Rescue by any of my blog readers (click here).

This is not just a matter of freedom of expression — increasingly important though that is in today’s world. Open debate is crucial for moving any society forward. But it’s especially urgent for the nations in question because they do harbor the kinds of pernicious beliefs that bring forth the sort of violence described. These Muslim societies are in need of an Enlightenment, like the one in the West that ultimately tamed religious persecution, and opened the path for human progress in so many other manifold ways. That sort of progress requires people with the vision and courage to challenge reigning orthodoxies. That sort of progress cannot happen if such people are silenced, intimidated by violence, squelching free debate. Not only the lives of these brave individuals, but these societies’ futures, are at stake. That is the importance of Secular Rescue.

One nonbeliever in a Muslim country was not killed but was actually diagnosed as insane by its medical establishment, forcibly hospitalized and “treated” for his “affliction.” I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode where a gal undergoes surgery for her ugly facial deformity. But when, in the hospital, the bandages come off, it’s a failure — she’s still (in our eyes) beautiful, in contrast to all the “normal” people around, only now revealed as (to us) grotesque.

Atheism is the sane, rational understanding of a cosmos whose observable reality is wholly at odds with religious ideas. Those ideas would be called insane, delusional, if held only by a few; but when held by the many, they are normal. But that nonbeliever may have been the only truly sane person in that Muslim nut house.

Religion, politics, and abortion

October 7, 2018

A piece by “writer and consultant” Jacob Lupfer on my local paper’s “Faith & Values” page talked mainly about political independents. But this got my attention:

“For decades, scholars and practitioners agreed that religion was the causal factor that shaped political behavior. New research upends that assumption: Partisanship affects religiosity. It is a foundational social identity, driving rather than flowing from values and attitudes . . . people bring their religious beliefs in line with their party . . . Instead of assuming that Christianity is their primary loyalty, we should see evangelicals as Republicans first who toss religious values aside to accommodate their Trump support.”

I have previously written of polling research showing that political tribalism has become the salient one in shaping felt personal identity in today’s America, even more powerful than religious tribalism. But that doesn’t mean the former drives the latter. As though being a Republican Trumpeter causes you to be an evangelical Christian. I still think the causation runs the other way, even if the resulting political identity does turn out to be the more powerful.

But that’s not to say, either, that their Republicanism mirrors their religious values. That might have been more true in past times, when what the Republican party represented did align better with what Christianity supposedly stands for. However, Trump has shattered that correspondence, representing, really, the antithesis of traditional Christian values. Yet he retains their allegiance; indeed more strongly than any previous Republican leader.

Why? Because today, again, it’s the political tribal identity that rules as never before. Even superseding the actual content of the beliefs. What Trump and Trumpism actually represent do not, in the final analysis, matter that much. It transcends that sort of rationality. It’s more simply us-against-them.

So how does one get sucked into such a tribe in the first place? I increasingly think it’s more psychological than political or ideological, having a lot to do with self-image. How guys see themselves. In a word, macho. There’s a notion that Democrats are the party of weakness, Republicans the strong party. Democrats the party of snowflakes and pussies; Trump’s the party of pussy grabbing. Even some women voters are susceptible to such attitudes. This partly explains why “grab them by the pussy” didn’t destroy Trump’s candidacy. The macho factor outweighed the ewww factor.

Hillary’s gender didn’t help; it fed into the idea of Democrats as the girlie party. And the Kavanaugh drama was in part about men pushing back against what some of them see as an emasculating war upon them.

And, of course, there’s also the white tribe against the browns.

But religious affiliation does play a big role too. Fundamentalist Christians, by and large, were fundamentalist Christians before they were Republicans; and certainly before they were Trumpers. And if you are deeply embedded in a social milieu full of fellow fundamentalists, most of whom are also Republican tribalists, that will naturally be your tribe too.

In this way, the religious and political tribal identities reinforce each other. They meld together into one overall outlook upon the world. Never mind any internal contradictions (don’t ask WWJD about separating immigrant children from parents). Rationality is again dispensable. It’s the tribe uber alles.

And there is this consistency: the ability to seal oneself off from reality and inhabit instead a make-believe world. One created 6,000 years ago, ruled by a benevolent God, wherein evolution didn’t happen but Noah’s flood did (don’t ask why so many innocent people and animals were drowned), with final justice administered in Heaven and Hell. If you believe all that, it’s but a small further step into the world of Fox News, where Trump is a truth-telling champion of Christian values, making America great again in the face of a deep state conspiracy witch hunt.

Yet the political behavior of fundamentalists might seem rational in relation to one big issue: abortion. Their final line in the sand, after having irretrievably lost on a wide range of social issues, like gay marriage. And on abortion they might actually now be close to a big victory, rolling back Roe v. Wade. But what shall it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his soul?

They see abortion as a key moral issue. But it’s become such an obsession, fogging their minds, that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Even if they were right about abortion (and they do have a point, albeit carried too far) — with everything else going on in today’s huge complex fraught world — is abortion really the number one issue? Many seem more concerned for the potential human life in a fertilized egg than the lives of actual living human beings (like the 30,000+ Americans killed annually by guns). As if “right to life” is only for the unborn.

And there really is a much bigger moral issue than abortion. Is winning on abortion worth the price of damaging the Supreme Court as a pillar of our civic life, our bastion of impartial justice, sullying it with a stink of political and religious partiality (not to mention of beer and attempted rape)? Worth handing the leadership of the nation to a monster of depravity? Worth complicity in his assault upon truth, decency, and everything good and great about America? Worth blinding yourself to it all? Worth losing your soul?

(Cartoon by Matson. Pillars labeled “Gorsuch” & “Kavanaugh”

Thomas Friedman’s latest column warns that scorched earth politics is heading us toward literal civil war. He says a Rubicon was crossed when Republicans trashed norms of democratic governance by stealing a Supreme Court seat. Yet that didn’t stop their shamelessly vilifying Democrats for holding up the Kavanaugh nomination. Our tribe’s always right; the other evil.

They vaunt the “right to bear arms,” as supposed protection against tyrannical government. What will unfold in 2020 if they lose power — and believe that somehow illegitimate?

The Anti-Trump Albany Book Festival

October 4, 2018

This event, put on by the wonderful New York State Writers Institute, was not really political. But nobody would read this if I just titled it “Albany Book Festival.” And in fact it says a lot about our times how politics did inevitably color these proceedings. There’s no escaping America’s current crisis of the soul.

The kickoff was a reception installing Colson Whitehead as the New York State Author and Alicia Ostriker as State Poet. Both were introduced by former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who did an admirable job talking about their work.

Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, drolly previewed his plans for his first hundred days as State Author. Ostriker read some of her poems which didn’t seem very poetic to me. But she also read from a great one: Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That choice was obviously timely, with the golden door being slammed shut.

As is customary for Writers Institute events, the munchies were superb: little cakes, a chocolate fudge & whipped cream confection, cookies, fruit, etc. (A thankyou to Paul Grondahl, the Institute’s dynamic leader.)

Broderick

A legion of local authors manned individual tables showcasing their work. Noteworthy among them was poet Therese L. Broderick, author of the acclaimed Breath Debt. (My wife.)

And a legion of other great literary luminaries spoke to packed audiences. Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our leading historians, and talked about her new book, Leadership in Troubled Times. It focuses on the lessons from four presidencies: Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.

Goodwin

Goodwin’s theme was that character, above all, is what matters. She ticked off a list of key traits: humility, empathy, valuing diverse opinions, ability to connect with all manner of people, controlling negative impulses, and keeping one’s word. In sum, emotional intelligence. Goodwin’s rundown here elicited loud laughter from the audience, for the obvious reason that our current “leader” is so glaringly devoid of all these virtues.

Hegel

I next listened to a panel of four other historians. One noteworthy discussion reminded me of Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis cycling to synthesis. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legalized racial segregation, produced a big backlash among white southerners, resisting it, sometimes violently. But that in turn energized its own backlash, in the civil rights movement, eventual civil rights and voting rights legislation, and, one might say, the eventual election of an African-American as president. Which in turn generated another big backlash culminating in the election of a very different sort of president. Which in turn has energized civic engagement against what that represents (very much in evidence in the responses of attendees at this book festival).

SPOS

I don’t know that we’re near Hegel’s final synthesis. I’m hopeful that Trumpism is a doomed last gasp, and that America will flush its toilet for good in 2020. But experience with my own bathroom suggests a different outcome is possible.

Next I went to Marion Roach Smith’s talk on memoir writing. The room was not ideal; her husband, Times-Union editor Rex Smith, had to kneel by her side manning the computer with her power-point presentation, advancing the slides every time she signaled.

Smith

Though sometimes he misinterpreted her gesturing. But it was an excellent talk applicable not just to memoirists, but to writing in general. Her key theme: focus on what the piece of writing is really about; what its argument is. A memoir’s reader is not interested in the details of what may have occurred but, rather, in gaining some insight on a human issue.

William Kennedy is Albany’s leading literary light, who founded the Writers Institute, and recently turned 90. He’s a literary energizer bunny who just keeps going, premiering a new book at the festival.

Kennedy

His talk was a meditation on writing and the writing life. I particularly relished his discussion of Faulkner, probably my own favorite. He adverted to the idea that Faulkner’s work is uplifting. “This uplift business baffled me,” Kennedy said. Faulkner certainly depicts the worst human behavior. Yet Kennedy said he was uplifted after all, “exalted,” by writing that reaches into a person’s heart. (I have written about Faulkner on this blog, with a somewhat similar take. In fact, it was a Faulkner quote I used as the epigraph for my Rational Optimism book.)

The final event was a panel titled “The New Americans” — a group of authors born elsewhere. Again, a theme with particular resonance in today’s political environment.

Iftin

One panelist was Abdi Nor Iftin, who I got to meet and chat with at the previous night’s reception. He was the Somali guy whose tribulations getting to America were told on NPR’s This American Life. Hearing that story so moved me that I wrote a poem (previously posted here), and sent him something. He now has a book out, Call Me American. What a thrill it was for me to connect with Abdi in person.

Khan

Another panelist was Khizr Khan, whom I’ve also written about (here, and here). It was likewise a thrill to shake his hand and tell him what a privilege that was. Khan continues to remind us how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution enshrine human dignity. He said no other country’s constitution rivals ours in that regard — and that he’s actually read them all! He also said that in over 200 appearances, in connection with his book, he has everywhere found Americans wanting to hold onto these values, and hopeful not only for America but for America as “a source of light” for the rest of the world.

We must not allow that light to go out.