Archive for February, 2023

The Philosophy of Train Derailments: Stuff Happens

February 28, 2023

Firstly regarding the train derailment, it’s a sickening cheap shot for Republicans to fault President Biden for being in Europe, not Ohio. The derailment affects one community; the war in Europe threatens the whole world’s future. Besides, the federal government quickly tackled the derailment. And Republicans nitpicking that are doubly hypocritical because they were the ones who cut back on train regulation, a factor in this disaster.

The derailment spilled toxic chemicals with nasty environmental and human impacts. But a newspaper commentary I read* said it’s something even worse: a national security issue. Saying society’s main task is keeping us safe, and it’s failing. Our infrastructure is not up to snuff. Worse disasters could happen. The piece’s whole tenor was that no such accidents should ever happen.

I disagree.

I recalled a decades old case, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Company’s costly Danskammer outage; a giant installation got badly damaged. The State Public Service Commission ordered an investigation, and I presided as administrative law judge. The facts showed Central Hudson had in place multiple safety backstops that should have prevented the disaster, but in the particular circumstances those safety features unforeseeably thwarted each other. My report posited a concept of normal accidents. In any big complex enterprise, a certain incidence of mishaps must be deemed normal. Part of the cost of doing business. Perfection is an unattainable standard. Stuff happens. And finding no way in which the utility’s management could be held negligent or culpable, I recommended no penalty.

The Commission disagreed and made the company eat the cost. Unwilling to be seen as a toothless watchdog exonerating the utility.

The Ohio derailment, we’re told, was preventable. Maybe so. But the train was below the speed limit; sensors functioned properly and alerted the crew to a dangerous overheating situation; they took action and braked. But that failed to prevent the derailment.

Of course the full picture is more complex. We’re also told the train was under-staffed. Balancing safety versus cost is a constant challenge in any operation. You can always be safer, but that has a cost, which can actually be not a prudent investment but a waste of resources. And it’s easy to second-guess such a judgment after an accident.

Those commentary writers did, again, talk about America’s aging infrastructure as a factor here, and that’s a valid concern. There, as a generalization, we aren’t optimally balancing cost and safety. President Biden’s trillion-plus infrastructure program is a significant rectification step, for which he’s not getting enough credit. Mainly because the results aren’t (so far at least) very visible. Which, in turn, is a consequence of a deeper problem, our sclerotic civic culture, making it hard to get anything big done, with infrastructure projects hobbled by nimbyism and pervasive regulatory quicksand.

Yet the Ohio derailment — like Danskammer — ought to be seen as a normal accident. Imagining that such things should just never happen is fundamentally wrong. Of course we should study such episodes with an eye to preventing recurrence. But we’ll never achieve an accident-free world.

If we didn’t have trains, we’d have no derailments. But if we do have trains, we have to expect occasional derailments (or other sorts of accidents). Having such a complex operation with nothing ever going wrong is a fantasy. Danskammer was a perfect illustration of how, despite all prudent precautions, accidents still happen, it’s in the nature of things.

Planes sometimes crash, but we don’t stop flying. Actually, the rarity of air crashes, in relation to miles traveled, is astounding. Given how inherently dangerous it must be reckoned to send multi-ton contraptions miles high, traveling hundreds of miles an hour, in all sorts of tumultuous weather. Here at least it seems we’ve got the balance of cost and safety pretty much right.

Cars crash too — driving is in fact far more dangerous than flying — but we don’t stop driving either. Darn courageous when you think about it.

These examples characterize the entirety of the human enterprise. We have indeed built a stupendously complex civilization, full of all sorts of inherently risk-laden operations — like airplanes, cars, railroads, power plants, and so much else — all of which works really remarkably well. With accidents, mishaps and failures, in the big picture, acceptably rare. While giving us a rich rewarding quality of life.

I don’t take it for granted. To me it’s all a veritable miracle. I’m thrilled by the world we’ve made.

Yes, stuff does happen. People even die.

But life itself is inherently dangerous, and everyone dies in the end. Before that, we face the dangers and live the best lives we can.


The Trump Shitstorm, my book talk March 7

February 27, 2023

I will talk about my new book —The American Crisis: Chronicling and Confronting the Trump Shitstorm — on Tuesday, March 7, at noon, at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue. 

Please come! I’ll try to make it lively and provocative. The 247-page book is an edited selection of my blog essays from 2015 to 2022, trying to analyze what was happening. It’s $12.95 and can be ordered (+ $4.50 shipping) by credit card, Paypal, or check to me at Box 8600, Albany, NY 12208.  

“A tremendous book, the best ever — believe me! A huuuuge best-seller, not on the failing New York Times bestseller list because the list is rigged, a giant fraud! I’ve been treated very very unfairly, it’s a witch-hunt! People who don’t read my book are dumb losers! And if you buy it, Mexico will pay for it!”

The Masculinity Crisis

February 24, 2023

I’ve written about “lookism”* — discrimination against the less attractive. Graduating law school in 1970, I wasn’t ugly, but short, which didn’t help my career. On the other hand I was white, and, especially — male. My class had a then-unprecedented 12% women, who had a hard time getting jobs. One female classmate sued.

How things have changed. Today, men are widely deemed a disadvantaged group. Senator Josh Hawley wrote a book bemoaning loss of masculinity. (Though after raising his fist for the January 6 rioters, he was caught on film mincing away in fear of them.) David Brooks has also discussed “the crisis of American masculinity,” citing various recent sociological studies.

Males struggle in school, with females racing ahead academically, and thus into the professions. Brooks notes that in 2020 not one of the top 16 law schools had a male law review head. Though we still hear much about the supposed male-female pay gap, in fact, when properly comparing like with like, women now earn virtually the same; and aggregate female earnings have been rising while males’ are falling.

Women have always lived longer on average, but that disparity has grown. Men are more prone to the “deaths of despair” related to opioids, alcohol, etc., and have disproportionately fallen to Covid.

Which might suggest women are smarter, and better at taking care of themselves. Likewise, Brooks notes, they’re better at overcoming the challenges of disadvantaged origins; males are more apt to be trapped by circumstances. It’s telling that “single parent” families are almost always single mother families. Women find today’s men often aren’t good husband material. And Brooks quotes scholar Richard Reeves, reporting what men themselves say: “women are just more motivated, work harder, plan ahead better.”

Something in modern culture, Brooks says, is producing an “aspiration gap.” He thinks men are acculturated to an “obsolete ideal” of the male role, which they often cannot fulfill. “Masculinity,” he concludes, “has gone haywire . . . pseudo-masculine cartoons like Donald Trump and Josh Hawley [don’t] help.”

Writer Jennifer Rubin sees the MAGA Republican masculinity obsession as really “juvenile boorishness,” with nastiness and cruelty (e.g., toward refugees, immigrants, minorities) replacing traditional masculine virtues like “courage, strength and self-discipline.” And while MAGAs venerate Trump’s strongman act, he’s emasculated everyone in his orbit, making them his cowering poodles. “They’ve sacrificed their manliness at the altar of Trump idolatry.” The manliest Republican today is Liz Cheney.

I don’t see myself as part of some male tribe. Rather, the human tribe, with my maleness only a detail. Nor is “masculinity” an issue in my sense of personal identity. I’m totally hetero, very comfortable with who I am; I’ve always preferred hanging out with females. To the extent other men feel differently, that seems part of the problem. I think my not being hung up on trying to fulfill some stereotype masculine role frees me to better flourish as a human being.

The ancient macho masculine role worked well for men for a very long time. Its characteristics put them on top, subordinating women: sheer physical strength, combined with a mentality of aggression and competitiveness. But that works less well in today’s very different world. What does work better now is what females have got — the “soft power” of communication and social cooperation skills. The world of the past was a man’s world; today’s is one made for women.** If men want to thrive in it, conventional ideas of masculinity are not the ticket. They should be more like women.

We haven’t yet reached the point of men being overthrown. But a world run by women would be a better one.


** Russia is an atavistic outlier.

Sam Harris on the Evil of Religion

February 19, 2023

Sam Harris was one of the famous “four horsemen” of “new atheist” writers (along with Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens). He’s actually not materialist enough for me. Reviewing his Waking Up, about meditation, I was repelled by so much mystical moonshine in it.

He published Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006. I wasn’t keen to read it, not expecting to learn anything. But a copy came my way. It’s bracingly straight talk about religion’s malign influence on human life.

So powerful is Harris’s argument that I was struck with the thought that if a religious believer would just read this — really read it, let it sink in, test their beliefs against it — they’d surely be convinced. Yet I know nobody ever does that.

So deeply is the worm of religious belief nested in many brains that it’s not easily extracted. I heard John Compere relate how, as a Baptist preacher, he rehearsed a sermon about all non-Christians burning in Hell. Suddenly he stopped and asked himself, can this possibly be true? That epiphany wound up unraveling the whole thing for him — he related this at a humanist conference. For many people, a little doubt is like a crack in a dam, starting them down a long torturous path before the scales do finally fall from their eyes.

But it can be sped up by reading Harris’s little book. It’s only 91 pages — small ones — with big print and wide margins. It wastes no words and pulls no punches.

One point is glaringly obvious. How can any thoughtful religious believer get past the simple fact that billions of people believe with equal fervor in very different faiths? Like Hindus with their vast pantheon of gods that might seem laughably ridiculous — to non-Hindus. How can you be so certain your faith is true and all the rest are false? It seems intellectual arrogance to an insane degree.

No doubt some will jeer, “Ha ha, you’re just as guilty, believing in atheism against all other faiths.” That common trope is fundamentally wrong. Atheism is not a faith. It’s the absence of any. It doesn’t entail “believing” in anything. (As Steven Pinker has said, “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.”)

Another false notion smashed by Harris is that great evils have been perpetrated by “atheist” regimes: Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, etc. Hitler actually professed Christianity. But all such regimes were really religions in other guises, worshipping state power as their god, with ideologies mirroring religion in all their messianic pretensions and millennial bombast. This certainly characterizes Putin’s regime, folding Russia’s Orthodox Church into what sounds a lot like a religionistic crusade apotheosizing a cult of Russian culture and power — to justify the deranged horror unleashed upon Ukraine.

So much evil in the world has been connected, in one way or another, with religion. Life would be so much nicer without it.

Says Harris: “The problem with religion — as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology — is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.”

At the heart of any debate about religion is morality. This is indeed central to Harris’s book, and he’s crystal clear about it.

A religionist might say morality is embodied in the will of God. But what could that actually mean? Suppose, for sake of argument, that God exists. Why would he create human beings (and other creatures) with capabilities for suffering and other feelings? That would have to imply some meaning to such feelings. And while God may or may not be real, suffering is certainly all too real. Thus suffering is morally consequential regardless of God.

Yet religion divorces morality from realities of suffering and other feelings that sentient beings experience. This is exemplified in the disgraceful Book of Job. His undeserved sufferings are related as though he were an unfeeling object — not to mention the sufferings of his children who were killed, and of people who loved them. God thought he was making it all okay by ultimately compensating Job. What a moral ass.

Religion’s divorcement of morality from realities of human feelings is nowhere more obvious than regarding sex. That divorcement is total. Christianity’s notions about sex are rooted in the Bible, reflecting the preoccupations of an iron-age society where women were literally property, jealously hoarded, for their sole value in procreation. With considerations of their human suffering or joys irrelevant. This so messes up heads about sex that Christians even feel a little dirty doing it in marriage. Harris says you’re “not worried about the suffering caused by sex; you are worried about sex.” (His emphasis.)

Talk about suffering: meantime the Catholic Church is a nest of child molesters, their enablers, and their cover-up masters. Yet congregants nod piously when these frauds preach about “morality.”

In most European nations, belief in God, Heaven and Hell, redemption through Jesus, and all that nonsense, has fallen almost to zero. Simply because people are getting too smart for such fairy tales. And those European societies have not become cesspools of immorality. On most such measures they do a lot better than the God-crazy United States. (Where, moreover, less god-ridden states do better than the Bible belt.)

Harris’s book is too small to cover all the myriad ways religious belief flouts the manifest reality of the cosmos and human existence. But the basic point comes through loud and clear: you cannot live an authentically meaningful and moral life while laboring under fundamental delusions about those realities. We coddle such delusions only because they’re so widespread. If just a few were preaching Christianity’s preposterous doctrines, they’d be considered lunatics.

Ukraine: The Long and the Short of it

February 15, 2023

Long war or short war? That seems to be the question. Putin apparently had fantasized a very short war, Ukraine a pushover — believing it’s not really even a country, its people really Russian.

He portrays the war as provoked by Western threats against Russia’s national security. What crap. NATO was never going to attack Russia. (Actually tried to make Russia a kind of partner in the ’90s.) Nearby nations joined NATO not to threaten Russia but because they felt threatened by Russia. A proven invader of other countries, like Georgia, and now Ukraine. Yet local letters to the editor (one by “peace activist” Tom Ellis) have ignored these realities and pushed Putin’s lie that the West somehow culpably provoked Russia. Its allies and apologists push it too; notably China’s, most of whose people believe it, fitting with demonization of America.

The war is not about Russia’s security. It’s about rebuilding its old empire — to swagger as a great power. As if killing and subjugating people makes for greatness.

Another absurdity is Republicans saying Trump would have prevented this. His cultists do ascribe him godlike powers. In fact, Trump was a total Putin patsy, shown by his treasonous Helsinki performance, endorsing Putin’s lies over the findings of our own intelligence services. That’s why Putin connived to get Trump elected. On the Ukraine aggression Trump would have given him a pass.

In a recent zoom briefing, Ukraine analyst Alexander Vindman (the guy Trump fired for his impeachment testimony) doubted the war would go more than another year and a half, Russia being unable to sustain it longer. I’m skeptical. Rather than admit defeat, Putin can keep it up — inflicting atrocities to terrorize Ukrainians, and throwing away Russian lives (at least 60,000 so far) — for a long time.

They can capture insignificant towns like Bakhmut if cost, human and otherwise, is no object. Showing the war’s pointless insanity. It’s hard to see Russia triumphing, or even consolidating control over the bits it occupies. While if Putin won’t give up, nor will Ukrainians, their resoluteness and morale impressive. The war in fact imparting the national consciousness Putin denies.

It’s said that Putin counts on our tiring of the sacrifices our Ukraine support entails. Thus, a long war. A very bad thing, not only causing horrific human suffering, but it will indeed wear upon Western resolve. So — how can we shorten the war? Not by letting Russia win, an even worse thing, and anyway impossible as long as Ukraine can keep fighting. The only way to get a shorter war — and a good outcome — is to give Ukraine whatever it takes to win, or at least to finally convince Putin he cannot win.

President Biden has done a great job organizing robust Western action. After Obama’s weak response to Putin’s earlier aggressions had convinced him he was pushing on an open door. Biden shut that door. And yet, our squeamish incrementalism — we’ll give Ukraine this kind of tank but not that kind, and not too many, and this kind of missile but not that other kind — seems fundamentally misguided. What’s our real aim? For Ukraine to win, or merely not lose? A long war or a short war?

As Biden kept saying in his State-of-the-Union speech, let’s finish the job.

Of course there’s the fear of escalation. Of getting us into a full-on war with Russia. But Putin’s seen it that way from the start, indeed selling the war to his people as really a war against America and the whole West as Russia’s enemies. And if we give Ukraine everything possible to crush the Russian invasion, what might it provoke Putin to do — that he’s not already doing?

Go nuclear, you say? That’s the big bugaboo. But it’s a bogeyman. It would not mean a “nuclear war” because nobody would respond in kind. And it’s highly doubtful Russia’s military would actually go through with a nuclear strike. Because it would be so crazy and self-harming. Endangering Russian forces as well as Ukrainian. While its battlefield impact would actually be minimal, changing nothing on the ground. And it would make Russia even more of a criminal pariah. Many nations previously unwilling to go against Russia on Ukraine would draw the line at violating the nuclear taboo.

And why are we doing (and spending) so much to help Ukraine? Why is it so important that Russia’s crime doesn’t pay? For thousands of years we lived in a world where nations freely invaded each other, devastating human lives. We thought we’d put that recurring horror finally behind us, for 75 years after WWII. Largely because America stood up to sustain a “rules-based” world order, where Rule Number One was: no invasions. Russia is testing that rule.

“The Jungle Grows Back” as Robert Kagan’s recent book title warns. If we don’t get that evil genie back in the bottle, we’ll have a very different, more violent and hence much less prosperous world. The cost to America would be huge — vastly more than what Ukraine assistance costs us.

And that support for Ukraine, Vindman remarked, has already bought us, on the cheap, massive destruction of Russia’s military capability. Effectively precluding, for years to come, any further invasions. Surely money well spent.

Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain

February 11, 2023

I heard a talk by Dr. Caleb Lack, a clinical psychologist and author. His topic: Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain.

Well, whose brain can you trust? Actually, the brain is an extremely complex organ, with 86 billion neurons (give or take maybe a dozen), and 100 trillion connections. But it’s easily fooled — by itself.

Dr. Lack said “doubting yourself” has negative connotations, but it’s the hallmark of an enlightened mind. Being a critical thinker and skeptic is hard to actually do. The problem is the human brain being “logically illogical.” That is, there are reasons why it does what it does, programmed by evolution.

Two key factors are cognitive biases — predictable patterns of judgment — and mental heuristics — shortcuts or general rules of thumb to decrease effort in decision-making. These tend to oversimplify reality and cause systematic decisional errors. But they are not all bad. We don’t always make bad decisions. In fact, there’s a “less is more” effect — folding too many factors into a decision may impede a positive outcome. And we can never have access to all the information, and must act on what we do have. That means “good enough” decision making. As opposed to investing too much effort in a decision. That’s why we did develop these seeming cognitive quirks — they are actually adaptive in balancing between effort and result.

I myself have come to believe that agonizing over a decision and trying to carefully weigh factors does not tend to improve upon one’s initial gut reaction. Indeed, there’s a lot going on, in the unconscious, to produce that first gut response. (I think I have an excellent gut. A certain president relied entirely on his gut, but the problem was that his gut was a snakepit of pathological bilge.)

Dr. Lack focused on two related metal biases: confirmation bias and belief perseverance. The former is the tendency to welcome information confirming already held beliefs or ideas. Such information sticks in memory, and we discount any problems undermining it. Whereas information at odds with one’s belief is discounted, nitpicked, and soon forgotten. The more emotionally charged a belief is, the more deeply held, the more confirmation bias applies. This is why we developed the scientific method, whose raison d’être is subjecting hypotheses to attempts to disprove them.

Belief perseverance is the related tendency to stick with an initial belief despite disconfirming information. Which actually causes people to “dig in.” That’s why it’s generally useless to argue with persons adhering to a certain political party or personage. Not to mention religious believers.

Dr. Lack spoke about three manifestations of belief perseverance. One concerns self-impressions, beliefs we hold about ourselves. Another he called “social impressions,” beliefs about other groups of people — like, oh, I don’t know, maybe certain ethnicities. The third is “naive theories” about how the world works. As an example he gave the Sun appearing to move around the Earth. Though many of us have gotten wise to this.

He also spoke about illusory correlations — seeing relationships between things not actually connected. The word pareidolia applies to interpreting random stimuli as being something particular. An example was the “face on Mars,” a geographical feature which, photographed in certain light, looked like a human face. We are in fact especially apt to see faces everywhere, a biological adaptation, because interacting with other people is so important for our thriving. More generally, we are subject to patternicity, seeing all sorts of patterns where they don’t exist. Also adaptive: you’re better off wrongly seeing a bunch of pixels as a predator than making the reverse mistake. And agenticity is when you see patterns as having a cause. Like a deity. These cognitive quirks are big reasons why we have religion.

Another example Lack discussed was a ’70s and ’80s idea that Rock music had “backmasking” — Satanic messages when played backwards. Lack played an example. He deemed it pretty far fetched to imagine musicians actually managing this trick — or anyone being influenced by messages almost impossible to perceive.

A final phenomenon he spoke about was priming — the influence of “implicit nonconscious memory” — stimuli in one context affecting behavior in another. He displayed a woman’s face. Then an image which could be seen as either a saxophone player or a woman’s face. Having been primed by the first image to see a woman’s face, that’s what we saw in the second.

Dr. Lack concluded by saying we can’t rid ourselves of cognitive biases but can decrease their effects. One must examine one’s own beliefs, and use tools like the scientific method. And humility, he said, is crucial to critical thinking.

Christopher Hitchens’s Pen is Envy Inducing

February 4, 2023

Christopher Hitchens died of cancer in 2011 at 62 — a stupendous loss. He was best known as one of “new atheism’s” “four horsemen” for his book God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything. A powerful indictment.

But Hitchens wrote so much it defies belief. And though I think of myself as well informed, I feel humbled* when reading Hitchens, who knew (and understood) everything about everything, knew everyone, had been everywhere, seen everything, done everything. And while I fancy I write well, I wish I could write like him. (A cup of coffee “tastes as if it were sucked up through a thin and soured tube from a central underground lake of stagnant bile.”)

I met him once, outside a humanist conference where he was to give the keynote address. I warned him it was a hostile audience, because he defended America’s overthrow of a monstrous tyrant, Saddam Hussein. But Hitchens was of course unfazed by the warning. (At the same event I also met, in the men’s room, the actual Schempp of Abington Township v. Schempp. Banning school prayer — is that still good law?)

Recently I read Hitchens’s Love, Poverty, and War, a 2004 compendium of previously published pieces. One critiques Lydia Davis’s translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. I’ve met her too, several times, and read the book (bought from her), which I thought nice enough. Hitchens did not. His review not only showcases his own deep immersion in the Proust oeuvre, but meticulously compares passages in Davis’s translation with previous ones, explaining just how he finds hers inferior. A typically incisive Hitchensian lit crit bout.

Unlike a 500+ page lit crit book, which Hitchens disembowels, by Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Negative reviews are much more fun to read than encomiums. Dylan himself comes in for some knocks — Hitchens disparages his singing ability — but gives plaudits for the words. Ricks though is called a fool. Hitchens also refers to “the sappiness, in both ‘sap’ senses, of adolescence.” That required some work to unpack, but it’s so spot-on. It seems Hitchens could write like that without even getting out of bed.

Another joy to read is his slicing and dicing of Michael Moore and his typically morally blind film Fahrenheit 9/11. Proving beyond peradventure that Moore is totally an asshole. I mean, like, totally, dude.

His essay about his visit to the Gettysburg battlefield is richly and deeply considered — more so than mine. He (unlike me) had the benefit of watching re-enactors. His musings on that whole scene; on Gettysburg’s historical significance; on war itself; and even on maleness all make this a great read.

We also both went, in the weeks after 9/11, to New York’s World Trade Center site. Everyone masked, prefiguring a later affliction; there it was defense against searing acrid air. I’d often conducted hearings in those towers, as well as attending an annual international coin show. But my 2001 pilgrimage was mainly as an American. So too for Hitchens — newly emigrated from Britain. His lines that spoke most to me were about patriotism which, he says, is universalist (denying that “all politics is local”). Hitchens would stand here, with these people, “the only place in history where patriotism can be divorced from its evil twins of chauvinism and xenophobia.” He ends thus: “Shall I take out the papers of citizenship? Wrong question. In every essential way, I already have.”

Yes, the America Hitchens loved is the one I love too. His kind of patriotism the one in my own soul. Something of which, he writes, the 9/11 hijackers had no idea. Nor, alas, do so many Americans today who wave the flag and flaunt their “patriotism” even as they dance around a bonfire of all the good this nation represents.

A related essay is Why Americans are not taught history. Its focus is upon conflict over how and what to teach. Of course there’s no canonical version of history. And always tongue-clucking over boringly teaching “names and dates.” But when a majority of high schoolers can’t say what century the Civil War occurred, we’re in trouble.

Hitchens wrote in 1999. Since then the curriculum battles have intensified while ignorance compounds. He approvingly quotes amateur textbook writer Joy Hakim’s intro that “learning about our country’s history will make you understand what it means to be an American.” Too many today are unencumbered by that; a key reason why what Hakim and Hitchens (and I) thought Americanism meant is in that bonfire.

My libertarian heart loved Hitchens’s account of trying to break as many laws as possible in a day. This was in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. Oddly here, Hitchens never uses the term nanny state, but does call it “petty” when so many piddling “offenses” can be leaped upon by cops with arrest quotas. Like the guy fined $105 for sitting on a milk crate outside his place of employment. “Unauthorized use” of a milk crate being a punishable offense. Ownership of said crate being immaterial. Hitchens apparently eluded capture in his own crime spree, which did include a crate-sitting atrocity. “The essence of tyranny,” he wrote, “is not iron law. It is capricious law.”

Unsurprisingly he takes on religion. Fear of death is the heart of it. Hitchens explains that those who face its reality can better invest their lives (and humanity’s) with meaning — a false fantasy must fail at that. He also argues for atheism’s moral superiority, reasoning one’s way to ethics, as opposed to behaving in fear of Hell — when all is supposed to be controlled by God anyway. With the cognitive dissonance of crediting him for everything good in the world while confounded how to think about all its evils. And, if God does control everything, his followers acting as enforcers seems absurd. Hitchens sees there a connection between the religious mentality and the authoritarian/totalitarian one — partly accounting for the latter’s incorrigible prevalence.

Discussing Mel Gibson’s 2004 slasher film, The Passion of the Christ, Hitchens dwells on the crucifixion as God’s doing — which is indeed the very core of Christianity. Hard to figure then demonizing all Jews as Christ killers (not disavowed by the Vatican until the 1960s). Without Christ’s death there’d be no Christianity. But Hitchens doesn’t note the worst moral absurdity here — that God would snuff his son to expiate all humanity’s guilt for one person’s (Adam’s) supposed sin. What concept of justice could rationalize such collective guilt? And why not simply forgive it? And anyhow, Jesus did not “die for our sins.” He got resurrected. WTF?

Hitchens also had tackled Mother Teresa in The Missionary Position. Actually invited by the church to testify as “devil’s advocate” in her beatification proceedings, he was asked to swear an oath on the Bible. Given the setting, he opted to comply without demur. His indictment is mainly that Mother Teresa, rather than working to relieve poverty and sickness, actually fetishized them as gifts from God. Thus her “clinic” provided scant medical care. Hitchens notes that his Mother Teresa documentary was (against his wishes) titled Hell’s Angel. Prompting a trademark violation complaint from the similarly named motorcycle organization.

Not everything in the book is wonderful. His hit-and-run attack on the Dalai Lama — little more than two pages — mostly discusses crimes by other Buddhists (like Myanmar’s military, and that was before it declared war on the whole society). If this is Hitchens’s best shot, it confirms my view of the Dalai Lama as one of the world’s best people.

* Using the word in its correct literal sense. Most people saying they’re “humbled” actually mean the opposite — they’re bursting with pride.