Archive for the ‘life’ Category

UFO Abductions and America’s Reality Crisis

January 23, 2023

People on America’s right are in thorough reality denial. Headlined of course by the 2020 “stolen election” lie. False beliefs about Covid and vaccines cost many lives, perhaps hundreds of thousands. There’s much more. And the left is not immune.

How do we know what’s true? (This is called epistemology.)

At a recent social gathering of humanist friends — ordinarily a respite from all the craziness out there — one very intelligent guy, author of numerous published books (and a man of the left), brought up a UFO abduction story. In 1989, a woman was wafted out of a 12th floor New York apartment window, escorted by aliens — witnessed by a whole motorcade in the street below, including a UN Secretary-General.

The woman returned to tell her tale. She was abducted multiple times; other family members were abducted too. Leading my friend to suggest the aliens must be keeping tabs on them. He displayed a book, Witnessed, by Budd Hopkins, documenting all this.

Wow. How could a skeptic like me respond to these seemingly verified facts?

Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor, also known as the principle of parsimony, says that to explain any phenomenon, the simplest, least complex answer is most likely.

Here, there are two basic possibilities:

1) The book’s story is true, however mind-blowing and confounding of one’s prior understandings; or

2) It’s simply untrue.

Number 2 is overwhelmingly more probable. People make stuff up all the time; lie; get things wrong; or experience delusions. That amply explains all alien abduction reports; none has ever been proven true.

Later, quick googling produced a lengthy point-by-point debunking of Hopkins’s narrative, indicating that it too never happened. Including the supposed UN chief’s testimony.

My friend, unfazed, disparaged my “methodology” with talk about primary versus secondary sources. Well, “primary sources” can lie. It’s vastly more plausible that this abduction story was a product of human confabulation. Tellingly, people in our group were puzzled that they’d never before heard about this event. Which would have shaken the world — if real.

Religious folks deem the Bible an authoritative primary source — with the ultimate credible author. “Budd Hopkins said it; I believe it; that settles it??” I noticed that most reviewers on Amazon gave Hopkins’s book high marks — yet most were unpersuaded by its tall tale.

And which is more plausible? (1) That the 2020 election was stolen, despite Biden’s margin being 7 million; Republicans participated everywhere in overseeing elections; voters had ample reasons to reject Trump; his 60 lawsuits all went nowhere; not a single Biden ballot was proven fraudulent; indeed, the Republican-orchestrated Arizona audit raised Biden’s vote total —

OR (2) That Trump, the biggest liar in political history, simply lied because his sick psyche could not face the humiliation of losing.

Most Republicans go with #1.

And which is more plausible? (1) Most other people are nuts, or (2) I am.

Evolutionarily, the human brain was our “killer app” enabling our species to survive and prosper. Essential to that app is the ability to perceive reality. An early human who could perceive a lion lurking in the bushes had a survival advantage, and got to pass along his genes.

Moreover, to think there’s a lion and be wrong was better than the reverse. The former mistake carried a small penalty; the latter, a huge one. So humans grew very good at seeing lions even where there are none. This explains a lot of our epistemological problems. Why we are so prone to believe election lies, UFO abduction tales, conspiracy theories, and other ridiculous things. Those are lions that aren’t there.

But our evolution-derived brain software still actually serves us extremely well. We’re still very good at seeing real lions — that is, facts about reality that affect our lives. Without that, we could not even function on a day-to-day basis (especially given modern life’s complexities compared to what our distant forebears faced). We certainly could not, for example, drive cars; without a very firm grasp of realities on the roads, you’d quickly be dead.

But matters like election lies and UFOs are different. False beliefs about them seem to carry no real-life consequences. They are perceptual freebies — we can relax our guard, indulge ourselves, and believe the wildest conspiracy theories, seemingly with no cost.

Though there was a cost for many Covid conspiracy believers. That’s one indicator that our indulgence for seeming belief freebies has gotten way out of hand. And even where such false beliefs ostensibly carry no penalty for the individual holding them, for society at large they do. We are, intellectually and cognitively, drowning in a flood of nonsense. How can we be responsible citizens, members of communities, under such conditions? True understanding of the world, of reality, is essential. Furthermore, Trump’s stolen election lie, and others, have very grave consequences for our democracy, undermining trust in our institutions, setting us against each other, tearing apart our social fabric itself.

That’s a lion in the bushes too few see.

Blacks Go Back to Africa

January 3, 2023

“Go Back to Africa!” the marchers chanted, shaking their torches. “Go Back to Africa!” their signs declared.

One small detail they overlooked. Black Americans’ ancestors hadn’t exactly come on tourist visas. It was not a “choice” (contrary to what Kanye said). Yet nevertheless, “Go Back to Africa!” the marchers intoned.

The next morning they awoke to find their wish granted! Black Americans had overnight all decamped to Africa.

It wasn’t reported in the newspaper. In fact, the first sign of something amiss was the paper not found on people’s porches that morning. Then they noticed the trash hadn’t been collected. To find out what the heck was going on, they turned on their smartphones, TVs, and radios, but none of those were functioning as normal either. So they went over to the local diner hoping their neighbors might have some information. But the diner wasn’t open. Nor was mail delivered that day.

All of it of course because the Blacks had gone back to Africa. All those who used to work to produce the daily paper, now gone. And the ones who’d worked on the garbage trucks. All those internet workers too; the TV and radio folks; the staff at the diner; the postal system personnel. And so many more, in every part of society. All those Black people who toil every day to make it function. All gone.

It quickly got worse. Much worse. Some bright bulbs thought they’d better head right over to the supermarket, to stock up on groceries and other necessities. Well, guess what.

Mad Max time.

Very soon another march was organized. This time without torches, and the chants were desperate: “PLEASE come back from Africa!”

But the Blacks couldn’t hear them from so far away.

Ai Weiwei and Bono on Art and Capitalism

December 13, 2022

No word triggers more nonsense thinking than “capitalism.” For centuries, when Christianity reigned, the ubiquitous bogeyman was Satan. As that superstition wanes, now it’s capitalism. (At least capitalism exists.)

China’s economy is in some ways the world’s most free-market capitalist — while its political system is an Orwellian dictatorship. China’s most famous artist is Ai Weiwei, who often pushes a thumb in that regime’s eye. But not his essay in a recent publication of The Economist he titled “Reclaiming art from capitalism.” Which is the bogeyman here.

A Martian reading the essay would never guess at the global confrontation between tyrannies like China’s and open democratic societies. Not mentioned as something art should be concerned with. No — it’s capitalism!

Ai complains that today’s global culture, very much including art, forms a “complete system” which “reflects the values and aesthetic tendencies of capitalism in every respect.” Characterized “by capitalism’s fervent advocacy of individual freedom, its encouragement of so-called ‘creativity’ and the idealisation of unfettered personal development . . . observed in the overwhelming tendency to consider art from a purely commercial perspective, neglecting spiritual concerns in favor of wealth accumulation.” While “societal injustices, regional inequalities, exploitation of the weak and unsustainable use of natural resources are ignored. By dodging these questions, contemporary art has become just a form of entertainment, detached from spiritual life. Art’s power . . . has been compromised. The outlook is dim.”

In other words, artists are selling out, sacrificing social concerns for filthy capitalist lucre.

What planet is he talking about? Is he on Mars? It sure doesn’t sound like he’s been to any modern contemporary art shows. Ones I’ve attended have been chock full of work concerned with exactly the kinds of “socially relevant” subjects Ai deems ignored. If anything, overbearingly so, in-your-face.

Unsurprisingly, Ai asserts that his own art fills the void he claims to identify: “concerned with life and death, the bigger sociopolitical context . . . all connected with the human condition and human dignity.” Well, bully for him. But to cast himself as some unique hero in that regard smacks of “mankind’s exaggerated self-esteem, extreme arrogance” which he later decries.

Rarely do voices flaying “capitalism” ever seriously offer an alternative. Meantime, a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial discussed an interview with pop icon Bono, known for his anti-poverty crusading. It “may give progressives vertigo.” Quoting Bono: “I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. Now I know that’s not true.” Rather, “the off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce; it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.”

Because it enables people to keep the fruits of their efforts — an incentive to work harder, producing more goods and services. Businesses make profits by providing things other people want.

Adam Smith nailed the point: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

What we call capitalism (or a market economy) is not some concocted system, but simply the normal default mode for human interactions. A has something B wants or needs; B has something A wants; an object, or labor, or an intangible, etc. When A and B agree on its terms an exchange occurs. True, they don’t always have equal power. B may consent to work for A for pittance wages. But wouldn’t do so unless better off than not. Life is unfair; a market economy is how such unfairness is negotiated to maximize people’s aggregate welfare.

“Globalization has brought more people out of poverty than any other ism,” Bono said. “If somebody comes to me with a better idea, I’ll sign up.”

Epicurianism for Today: Freedom and Happiness

December 1, 2022

At a humanist meeting there was some pamphlet including a list of worthy thinkers. My friend Peter Delivorias remarked upon the omission of Epicurus. A strange omission indeed; Peter’s noting it impressed upon me his intellectual discernment.

Epicurus (341-271 BC) was the best of ancient philosophers. He operated when Greek civilization was still fairly new, and thinkers were feeling their way through virgin territory. Like Plato, oft seen as the very father of philosophy. He was Epicurus’s bête noire, his own work a total rejection of Plato’s. To me Plato’s writings are full of pernicious nonsense; Epicurus’s are full of wisdom.

Human beings have always striven to understand existence, but reading a book about Epicurus* illuminates how far the ancients still had to go, handicapped by fundamental knowledge gaps. Thus might Plato’s errors be forgiven, though I think he was just a nasty character. Again in contrast to Epicurus, who speaks to the human heart — and who, despite the epistemological deficiencies of his time, got a lot right.

My favorite Epicurus story (possibly apocryphal) concerns his viewing a display of portraits of sailors who in storms prayed to the gods, and survived. “But where,” said he, “are the pictures of those who prayed and drowned?”

Thus the rationalist. However, Epicurus did not actually put human reason on a pedestal, subordinating it to nature. But he did liken reason to a judge, weighing evidence, the testimony of the senses. And of course we use our reason to understand nature. Thus Epicurus differed greatly from Plato, with the latter’s notion of perfect “forms” existing somewhere ethereally while what we see on Earth are just imperfect corrupted shadows. For Epicurus, what we see is what we get, that’s all there is.

So his two feet were planted in reality. Yet he did profess belief in the gods, even urging performing all the attendant rituals, as being right and proper from a social standpoint. Deeming faith a principal virtue. However, he was somewhat unique in holding that the gods could not be messing about with earthly matters (too much work, incompatible with their perfect happiness) — hence no one should fear the gods.

Consistent with putting nature above reason, Epicurus held that knowledge of the gods was instilled in people by nature as a “given” of existence. And he spun quite elaborate theories justifying this (as full of absurdities as any religious apologia). “The gods” were not some abstract picture, but highly specific, with names and backstories and everything. Yet even if nature told us about gods, could anyone know such concrete details? It all seems contrary to Epicurus otherwise being such a clear-eyed materialist. Perhaps god belief was so deeply embedded in his society that not even an Epicurus could break free of it. Or — given that so much of his philosophy already contravened contemporary sensibilities — he didn’t dare so complete a breach as atheism would entail. Epicurus, before founding his school in Athens, had already experienced being run out of town (from Mytilene).**

Epicurus deemed pleasure the purpose of life — widely misunderstood as shallow hedonism. His actual stance accords with my own oft-repeated bedrock idea that the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. Those feelings can be divided, most fundamentally, between pleasure and pain. The more pleasure there is in the world, and the less pain, the better. That’s the essence of Epicurianism.

Here again Epicurus took issue with Plato, who deemed some pleasures good and others bad. Such censoriousness has persisted into modern times. (Certainly true in Christianity.)

Epicurus did not tell us to go out and load up on sensual “hedonic” pleasures. Rather, his concern was happiness. That’s something experienced over time; ideally, a lifetime. Whereas a pleasure (like food or sex) is durationally restricted. Experiencing such pleasures (and, I would add, anticipating them) do not constitute happiness but do contribute to it.

Epicurus actually preached a simple diet, rather than indulgence in rich foods, as more conducive to health, which is a key ingredient in happiness. Yet at his Athens school, there was a monthly lavish feast. Epicurus said this conferred more pleasure in the foods than if they were everyday experiences.

Also rejected were quests for wealth, power, and glory. Thus he urged against a political career. He did recognize the value of wealth, particularly as enabling one to help out friends when needed — and Epicurus considered friendship absolutely central to a happy life. The problem with power and glory (or fame), however, is their dependency on how other people see you, making you beholden to their fickleness.

Thus conflicting with what Epicurus considered the real key to happiness: freedom. That is, the ability to control your own life, by controlling, to the degree possible, its circumstances. In this he was going against the prevailing ethos regarding fate or fortune or luck, of which most people thought we are playthings. The Romans had a goddess, Fortuna, appearing on many coins, holding a rudder, meaning that she steers us. Epicurus recognized no such force; instead dividing circumstances between those beyond our control and those we can control. With happiness built upon expanding one’s ambit of control — defying fate.

Note that this also argues against unbridled hedonism — that is, letting your appetites and passions control you rather than you controlling them. Not a recipe for true happiness.

The watchword here too was safety. The main aim of controlling your circumstances was to make you safer. That might seem a timorous, cramped idea of happiness; however, life in those times was a lot more perilous and contingent than it is for modern Americans. So the safer you could feel, the happier you’d be.

Hand in hand with safety is the idea of peace, which Epicurus also advocated for the sake of promoting human happiness. And he was also arguing here against Plato’s prescription for an authoritarian state. Plato’s ideal polity would be North Korea. Epicurus in contrast believed the state that governs best is the one that governs least. That is, protecting the safety of its citizens, not threatening it.

His physics was grounded in there being only stuff (made of atoms) and void — so the gods had to be corporeal. This also left no room for an incorporeal soul (two millennia before Descartes!) — so Epicurus ruled out any life after death. This was integral to his identifying pleasure as the purpose (telos) of life — since life’s purpose could only play out between birth and death. Actually then, life itself was what mattered most (indeed, solely); the supreme good.

Verified for Epicurus by one’s greatest fear being death, and greatest joy being an escape from it. Both being embedded by nature — thus again exemplifying his putting nature above reason.

Epicurus wasn’t happy about mortality, but he was, well, philosophical about it. It falls within the realm of things we cannot ultimately control. But we can control how we think about it. Epicurus seems to have been of the “where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not” school. I’ve never found that logic very comforting. The idea of nonexistence is terrifying. But the Epicurean control I exercise is to avoid focusing on it. I’m a believer in worrying about things only when I must. So I’ll deal with nonexistence when I get there.

* DeWitt, Epicurus and His Philosophy, written in 1954 by an academic, and unfortunately reading like it.

** DeWitt does not explore what might really have been going on with Epicurus and religion. He defends him against ancient critics, writing as though endorsing Epicurus’s theology. I infer DeWitt was a Christian; he sees Epicurus as prefiguring much of Christian thinking.

How to Play With Your Food

November 25, 2022

Who could resist that book title found at a yard sale? More, the authors were Penn & Teller — renowned magicians and outspoken advocates for reason against superstition.

We’ve all been scolded, “Don’t play with your food.” Well, food is good to eat, but also fun to play with. Where’s the problem? As the saying goes, you can have your cake (to play with) and eat it too. No?

The book is a how-to guide for tricks involving food. Like pretending to stab your eye with a fork, making a flood of white gunk spew out. Shock your dinner companions.

Most are fairly simple tricks involving sleight of hand and misdirection — or, as the authors put it, “lying.” Lying is wrong as a general moral principle, but only if you owe the lyee the truth. You don’t owe the Gestapo the truth about Jews in your attic. Penn and Teller would have excelled at that game.

And they do have moral scruples. One chapter is “How to Get Your Ethical-Vegetarian Friends to Eat Veal.” The “trick” is simple and obvious. But then they say don’t do it — it would be wrong.

Not everything in the book involves magic, exactly. Penn relates an encounter with non-aesthete truckers at a Nebraska eatery, menacingly picking a fight with him. He lifted his milkshake and poured it over his own head. That so confuzzled the truckers that they backed off and skedaddled. A food trick, I guess. Handy to know.

While magic is mostly fun and entertainment, the authors take a dim view of frauds who actually purport to be on the level. Like with spoon bending and other paranormal nonsense. They observe that if any such were really possible, then it wouldn’t be “paranormal.” So too with “supernatural;” anything real is natural.

There’s a nod to James (“the Amazing”) Randi who tirelessly exposed frauds like spoon bender Uri Geller. And Penn and Teller make this killer point: if someone actually had the kind of mental powers that could bend spoons — why waste them bending spoons?! Likewise regarding “psychics” — why are they hustling suckers for chump change when their abilities (if real) should easily make them rich?

I was reminded of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy. One character, “The Mule,” was a rare mutant who really and truly could read minds. So he wound up ruling the galaxy.

Penn and Teller are merciless against all irrational beliefs. One chapter is headed “Salt in the Wounds of Credulous Fools.” A side box highlights “How many times can we say ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’ ‘you can’t prove a negative,'” and several other truisms of rationality.

The food trick here involves using what’s actually mere table salt to “cure” a fake blister, calling it a “homeopathic” remedy, conning homeopathic suckers to buy some. (Salt couldn’t actually qualify as “homeopathic” which, the authors do correctly note, means there’s nothing in it except plain water; but never mind.) They end here with “make sure you tell them it cures herpes.” Adding, “we are the lowest of the low.”

Climate: We’re Cooked

November 13, 2022

Like the proverbial frog in the pot whose temperature slowly rises.

Yes (sigh) this is about climate change. But please read it anyway, it may provide some clarity.

There’s another big global climate talk-fest going on now in Egypt. The 2015 Paris agreement set an ambitious goal of limiting Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That was a big victory for poorer nations, which stood to be harmed most by warming (being less equipped to cope with it). However, Paris included no commitments for specific action to achieve the goal.

Since then, the 1.5 degree goal has become a totemic gospel, dominating climate discussion. But — as argued in a recent analysis in The Economist, aptly titled “An Inconvenient Truth” — the chances of achieving 1.5 are zero (and have been for quite some time). It would have required massive reductions in carbon emissions, that simply are not happening. Rather than biting the bullet, we’ve barely been licking it. Consequently, at this point, 1.5 would require, going forward, reductions even more draconian. Which won’t happen either.

Because there’s no way to develop and deploy, fast enough, the technological fixes that would be required to reduce emissions enough without huge dislocations to our way of life, for which there is no public or political will. We’re talking here about the burning of fossil fuels, as in power generation, industrial processes, car and air travel; and there are many further ways we put carbon into the atmosphere, another big one being agriculture. Cow farts are actually a significant factor.

The 1.5 target was adopted even though 1.5 would entail pretty severe climate effects — but that seemed the outer limit for both what might be achievable and what might be more or less tolerable. Now it looks like 2 degrees is about the best we can hope for. And the difference between 1.5 and 2 is the difference between bad and very bad. While blowing past 2 looks increasingly likely.

What are the bad effects? A lot of ice will melt, dumping more water into the oceans, raising sea levels, and flooding low lying coastal cities (and some island countries). More and worse heat waves, obviously; a lot of places becoming simply uninhabitable. More and worse weather events, like hurricanes. More floods, droughts, forest fires. Big disruptions to agriculture and food production. All of which will send vast numbers of people on the move.

Part of the problem is feedback effects: warming creating conditions that cause more warming. For example, ice reflects a lot of sunlight back into space; less ice means less of that. And permafrost melting would release a lot more carbon-rich methane into the atmosphere. There’s danger of a tipping point, causing runaway warming. That’s apparently what happened to Venus, whose temperature now averages a toasty 867 degrees Fahrenheit.

I have argued forever that the zealots were misguided to insist on emissions reductions exclusively, because reducing them enough was a pipe dream. And even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures would still be baked in, due to the carbon already in the atmosphere.

We have three main other options. One is carbon capture and storage — sucking it out of the atmosphere. The technology exists. So far, the amount being done is piddling. However, scaling this up to where it would make a difference would be a colossal and colossally costly undertaking.

Second, there’s geoengineering — action to actually lower temperatures. The best known method would mimic the effect of volcanoes — which do periodically reduce temperatures (remember 1816, the “year without a summer”) by throwing a lot of particles into the upper atmosphere that deflect sunlight. This would be problematical and controversial for a host of reasons, and it too would be a gargantuan undertaking.

Both carbon removal and geoengineering would take many years, if not decades, to be deployed at anything near the scale needed.

That leaves the third course — adaptation. Measures to anticipate and cope with higher temperatures. Like building sea walls to protect cities against rising waters. Some places (Venice, for example; the Netherlands, historically) already do this. I’m skeptical that makes sense in the long term; but there are many other things we can do. The Economist article shows how much is actually being done already, although much more is needed.

The idea that humanity is suicidally wrecking the planet is over-the-top. What we have done is what we had to do, utilizing the planet’s resources in order to make ever better lives for generations of people. Of course it was no free lunch, and now we must pay the price. We will pay it.

We will not go extinct. We are the most adaptable of species. Coming out of steamy Africa, humans accommodated to living in the Arctic, and a vast array of other different climates. And that was without the benefit of all the scientific knowledge and technology we’ve acquired since. We will cope with a warmer planet.

As long as it’s not another Venus.

Seeing “Hamilton” in London

October 16, 2022

Calling London an international city is inadequate. It’s like a city with no nationality at all; no native tongue, everyone speaking their own.

“Does anyone speak English in this town?” I said to my wife as we made our way through dense throngs at the Portobello street market. Searching for our daughter Elizabeth, now settled down in London, after getting a Masters Degree at University College London, and then a good job in her chosen field. This one week trip was mainly to see her and, for the first time, Sam Brown, her French-English partner of two plus years.

We’d agreed to meet at Portobello at 11:00. But our wakeup call didn’t come and we’d overslept till ten, then found our overnight phone recharge had failed too, so we couldn’t get Elizabeth’s message specifying a meeting point. We decided we’d best head out, not realizing how huge Portobello had grown in the three decades since our last visit. Now an amazing endless array of vendors selling anything and everything. But with our eyes peeled for Elizabeth, we didn’t take in much merch.

Finally got the phone recharged during lunch at a Thai eatery (delicious!) and soon did meet up with our offspring. Meantime we had already met, Sam, who passed inspection with flying colors. They seem well-matched, a great couple.

We’d timed our trip to coincide with one by Harry Lee, the new Executive Director of the Somaliland school project we’ve been involved with, and Board chair Andra Ehrenkranz. Soft-spoken Harry’s been with it from the start and is just terrific.

We had two dinners, one with some past teachers, the other with some student alums. In between, a meeting with Mo (for Mohammad) Ali, a young member of parliament from Wales, born in Somaliland, and still much engaged with that country. He’s a very personable fellow.

We met at the Conservative Party’s campaign HQ, greeted by a bust of Margaret Thatcher; then passed through a boiler room operation with a few dozen desks with screens and staffers; into the Thatcher Conference Room, sporting busts of Churchill and David Cameron, overseen by a giant modernist portrait of a very fierce looking Maggie.

A big quote from her on the wall: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” Ha ha. I thought: is that your best shot? No wonder the party is headed for an historic defeat. (At Westminster we saw huge loud anti-Tory demonstrations.)*

We didn’t discuss any of that with Ali; instead, Somaliland economic and political developments, and their import for the schools project, particularly for raising its profile, and of course funding. Afterward that discussion continued with Harry and Andra at lunch. I had fish-and-chips — but oh what a plate, the fish a foot long, really scrumptious.

I came away with a renewed feeling that Therese and I are actually doing something making a difference for people, and for Somaliland’s future.

London’s Underground system is excellent. Trains long and frequent, thus never overstuffed. On one trip I sat across from a thirtyish gal whose face I studied because it looked so quintessentially British, and I was puzzling over what made it so. She (like most riders) was looking at her phone, with mild pleasure. Then suddenly she displayed intense anguish and started crying, wiping away tears. As we exited, I leaned over and said, “Whatever it was, I feel very sorry for you.” And she gave me a huge smile.

We also walked for miles and miles, with the help of a wonderful map app that guided us like GPS (and Elizabeth who was a terrific tour guide). Saw some great, mind-bending art at the Tate Modern; had an afternoon tea river cruise; toured the Churchill war room and museum; John Keats’s house; Regents Park, including four hours at its zoo; Hampstead Heath with a tour of old master paintings in Kenwood House; Westminster Abbey; and the British Museum, seeing once again some old friends, the colossal pair of Assyrian human-headed winged lions, excavated by Layard, that guarded King Ashurbanipal’s throne room at Nimrud in the Ninth Century BCE, which still take my breath away.

Our last night we had dinner with Elizabeth and Sam at a Japanese restaurant before we all saw “Hamilton.” Probably the last Americans who hadn’t seen it, and doing so in Britain added piquancy. It lived up to the hype. After the opening sequence I asked myself, can that energy level be sustained? It pretty much was. I enjoyed it greatly with the benefit of being deeply versed in the history; but wondered how many American viewers, let alone Brits, could fully follow it.

As usual, what I enjoyed most on this trip was relishing what a terrific wife I’ve got.

* But I’m actually a Thatcher fan: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/margaret-thatcher-the-ladys-not-for-turning/

Bad Parents and Politics

October 14, 2022

Bad parent memoirs are a big literary genre. Recently I read a very different kind of book, about guided psychedelic experiences. Many who undergo them have problems to work through. Most commonly issues relating to their childhoods. So this book too was full of bad parent stories.

Parenting can be hard. You’re thrown into it with no training, normally with a ton of other stuff on your plate. Many are also compromised by the bad parenting they themselves received — often replicating it in their own parenting. Maybe it’s a wonder we don’t raise more monsters.

Yet can so many parents really be so bad? Mine weren’t, and I don’t personally know of any such situations. But then, I have no exposure to Middle American Christian families. Not to say those are necessarily problematic. But it’s easy to understand why many might be. Certainly often repressive. And as that book suggested, harboring childhood resentments does seem disturbingly widespread. This includes familial sex abuse.

Could this be at least a partial factor in America’s toxic politics? People’s childhood traumas and resentments bleeding into their politics? Wouldn’t that seem inevitable?

Of course we’re really talking here about the Trump cult. A study of correlation between it and lingering childhood psychic damage would be interesting. One can readily see how that would manifest in so many aspects of Trump support — the deep distrust and even antagonism toward the conventional institutions of society, drawing tribalistic lines of us-against-them, hating and fearing the “them,” as opposed to communitarian solidarity, empathy, and compassion.

And there is certainly a very great degree of correlation between Trump support and having been parented by Middle American Christians. Especially Evangelicals, 80% of whom idolize Trump. Theirs is the highest octane Christianity, all full of the most repressive moralism — or, at least, what they convince themselves is moral. Making, in turn, for the kinds of repressed childhoods we’ve been talking about. No wonder so many of these people are so screwed up in how they relate to civic culture.

On the other hand, bad parenting certainly existed in all past eras, during which politics was nevertheless normal. If anything, parenting has improved, with more enlightened ideas proliferating. So how can Trumpism be blamed on bad childhoods? Maybe it’s that he opened a Pandora’s box, giving people a newfound opportunity to act out their worst impulses. Trump providing them an outlet that never existed before. Enabling a lot of previously buttoned up social pathologies to surface.

Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, posited that civilization keeps in check the base impulses rooted in our unconscious. Trump has loosed the dogs of Hell.

How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

October 6, 2022

What does it really mean to be morally good? Michael Schur actually created a TV show exploring this question — a comedy in fact! His personal quest for answers also produced this book.

We watched some episodes of the show, The Good Place. That is, Heaven. Very few people get in. The vast majority go to The Bad Place. Its ambience is hinted by only two seconds of audio — of horrible screaming. Such a concept of the nature of things is kind of disturbing — for a comedy.

Eleanor got into The Good Place only by a bureaucratic screw-up. It is indeed a paradise, and she fears being found out and kicked out. So she sets about trying to change herself to earn her slot.

This immediately introduces one of the Big Three key moral philosophy concepts which the book explores — “virtue ethics” originating with Aristotle. The idea that moral actions are rooted in moral character. Eleanor illustrates this — her bad character shapes her behavior, and overlaying good intentions can’t seem to work. However, she is a nice bad person. And Aristotle also posited that moral character can be developed with practice. Eleanor is trying. (Gradually it does seem to work.)

The other two biggies are utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill) and deontology (Kant). The former, also called consequentialism, holds that it’s the consequences of actions that matter, with the aim being “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Kant’s deontology instead posits that it’s all about following rules — and the criterion for a proper rule (his “categorical imperative”) is that it would work out well if everyone did follow it.

How do we navigate among these three seemingly very divergent paradigms? Start by asking: why be “moral” or “good?” What do those words actually mean? What is the objective to be served? Schur actually addresses that only in a brief footnote, saying that while utilitarianism targets “happiness,” one might also choose “kindness” or “income equality” or “roasted beet consumption.”

The religious would frame the objective in terms of serving God or the like. Forget that, because there is no God. In fact, the cosmos simply is what it is, with no “objective” because there is nothing to impart one. That leaves it entirely up to us to figure out what, despite the cosmic bleakness, works for us.

And the answer is actually clear. You can talk about desiderata like wealth or kindness or roasted beet consumption, but those are proximate rather than ultimate objectives. The only reason to want them is because they lead to something else — happiness. That has to be the ultimate objective.*

Of course “happiness” is itself a tricky, fraught concept. But we needn’t get into that here. The way I always frame it is in terms of the feelings of beings capable of feeling — the only thing that, in an otherwise meaningless cosmos, can matter.

The problem of “virtue ethics” is that problem of what ultimately does matter — why are virtues virtues? Why should we want to have them? The problem with utilitarianism is illustrated by the “runaway trolley” conundrum and its permutations — sacrificing one to save five — or, say, taking organs from one healthy person to save five sick ones. The problem with deontology is illustrated by the Nazis at your door asking about hidden Jews; is it okay to break the rule against lying?

What all of that shows is that while each of the three approaches supplies a method for evaluating moral problems, none is complete in itself. All three come into play on any real moral problem. But to me utilitarianism is closest to the ultimate theory, being clearest about what the true objective is.

Schur suggests the book’s most important point is what he calls moral exhaustion. Introduced by a store’s free sample tray saying “one per customer.” But it’s something very appetizing. If he’s a very moral person who’s done oodles of good deeds, does that entitle him to take three? Schur says that all day long we’re actually confronted with what are micro ethical choices (like in our consumer decisions). Amid a welter of other stuff to deal with (like spouses, work, and kids). Being alive is hard work. Can we cut ourselves some slack? Schur argues that being a moral saint all the time actually violates Aristotle’s “golden mean” idea, that too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.

But he’d allow “moral jaywalking” only with two provisos: one, no one is harmed, and two, we acknowledge to ourselves it’s not ideal. And he invokes too the slippery slope . . . leading to a belief that anything you want to do is okay.

This introduces his condemnation of Ayn Rand as the advocate for selfishness, quoting her that when a beggar approaches you, you owe them nothing. Contrasting with Peter Singer who advocated giving to the poor until you’re equally poor. Neither seems right.

I’ll quote Garrison Keillor saying that if one’s purpose in life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? It’s not a silly question. Can the ultimate goal of human happiness be served if everyone is sacrificing themselves for others? Your first duty is to your own happiness — after all, you’re the one best positioned to understand and serve that — and to the happiness of those dear to you. Any charity to others cannot be an obligation; if it were, Singer would be right. And if you’re somehow obligated to help Stranger A, then what about Strangers B, C, D . . . ? And a billion others. This shows such altruism must be a choice, not a duty.

Recall Schur’s justification for “moral jaywalking” stipulating that no one is harmed. That shows a fundamental confusion. If there is actually no harm, then the act is not wrong. (“No harm, no foul.”) But his example of taking extra free samples does harm the store owner, as well as people who’ll miss out altogether. And this indeed points up again the basic utilitarian, consequentialist insight. The morality of anything depends on balancing its pluses and minuses for happiness.

Taking three samples is a plus for his own happiness. But an objective unbiased evaluator cannot privilege his own interests over those of others when weighing utilitarian pluses and minuses. All people standing equally is another fundamental moral principle.

However: human beings cannot be moral calculating machines. The soldier who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades did refuse to value his life higher than theirs. But valuing one’s own life (and well-being) is integral to our very nature. Evolution programmed a powerful survival instinct into us, for obvious reasons.

I believe people do have a fundamental human right to seek their own good. Harming others is to be avoided to the greatest extent feasible. That’s the best morality we can rationally envision.

Schur adverts to another standpoint from which to view this — what do we owe each other? Singer says “everything.” But excuse me. Where does such an obligation come from? Duties don’t arise from nothing, but from relationships. Ayn Rand was actually correct to say you don’t owe beggars any of your money, which you worked to obtain (and they did not). They have no right to it. What they do, however, have a right to is not being harmed by you.

That might seem a minimalist sort of ethics. But if we have a world in which that prevailed, and nobody did any more or less, that would be a vast improvement.

* Schur quotes Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh that some things we seek — wealth, fame, possessions — are often actually obstacles to our happiness. That can certainly be true of the quest for them, but can even be true of getting them.

Crime and Policing

October 3, 2022

Crime is rising! People always think this. But in fact crime rates hit a peak in the early ’90s (though nowhere near earlier epochs), and then fell inexorably and dramatically. But in the last couple of years have rebounded (though nowhere near early ’90s levels).

Whites, hearing the word “crime,” typically picture a Black criminal and white victim. But in fact crime is concentrated in Black communities; while they’re around 13% of the population, nearly half of all homicide victims are Black.

Why? Some whites think Blacks are by nature more crime prone. That’s nonsense. The answer is that they more likely live in poorer, disadvantaged neighborhoods, with paltry job prospects; perpetuated and aggravated by crappy schools. And where policing is much less effective.

A recent analysis in The Economist, by Daniel Knowles, spotlights this. Noting that, even after the big three-decade drop, America’s violent crime rate was still many times higher than in all other advanced countries. This has a host of diverse harmful effects on society, calculated to be costing us around $10 million per murder, totaling hundreds of billions annually. Against which police spending is a pittance.

Democrats never wanted to “defund the police” — that was just a dumb label for proposing to shift resources from armed officers to other kinds of interventions to curtail violence, like deploying mental health specialists. And anyway, the recent crime spike has put paid to the “defund” trope; President Biden aims for a big rise in police staffing and funding.

Knowles looks carefully at what drives violent crime. The reality bears little resemblance to TV crime dramas. It’s very disproportionately a scourge of the most economically blighted urban areas, where a culture of violence has taken hold among a segment of young Black males. Without other ways to assert manhood and command respect, they feel compelled to act as tough as possible. And with most guys carrying a gun, you’d better have one too. Thus any little argument can easily escalate to bullets. In fact, stupid little quarrels are the number one cause of U.S. homicides.

And they occur almost with impunity. Seemingly aggressive law enforcement actually undermines police effectiveness in these kinds of neighborhoods. What aggressive policing there usually means is stopping a lot of young men, on small pretexts, to search them for guns or drugs. Such police hassling has scant correlation to serious criminality; thus “police are seen as a malign and arbitrary power in people’s lives, not as enforcers of just laws.” Compounded by criminal justice bureaucracies being often dysfunctional, opaque, and callous. All making citizens unwilling to cooperate with authorities when it comes to actual shootings. And so “the vast majority of violent crimes go unpunished, even as trivial offenses are treated harshly.” A big vicious spiral.

The poster city for this has been Baltimore., where the 2015 Freddie Gray death from rough police treatment sparked riots. Knowles observes that even before, Baltimore police pursued a particularly assertive brute force approach. That did suppress violence in the short term, but with a cost of destroying relations between residents and law enforcement. Which in turn led to soaring violent crime.

To explain the recent nationwide crime spike, Knowles suggests the pandemic may have pushed more young men onto the street, as social services shut down, and their lives became more stressed, leading to more arguments. While the number of guns in circulation continues to rise. And the spotlight on police abuses, following the 2020 George Floyd murder, seems to have inhibited some cops.

So what’s the remedy? Knowles does talk about alternatives to conventional policing, like those “defunders” were seeking. Particularly “violence interruption” initiatives, often deploying streetwise reformed miscreants to defuse conflicts and help the next generation calm down and wise up.

He also says “America’s poorest people need more investment in their neighborhoods, better education and greater access to jobs.” And more motherhood and apple pie.

Knowles adds that “hostile police unions also need to be defanged, and the worst cops fired and prosecuted. Only greater accountability can rebuild shattered trust.” While most police officers serve nobly, it’s an ugly reality that that career too often attracts the wrong sort, macho guys who fancy swaggering with weapons and beating on people.

And overly powerful police unions do invariably protect them, battling against accountability. Data shows that in a typical police force, the bulk of abuses are committed, over and over, by the same few officers.

But one thing Knowles does not mention at all is ending the insane drug war. The pointless illegality of drugs lies at the heart of much that’s wrong with policing, and indeed, much of what we call crime. Any benefits from this policy are overwhelmed by its negative societal impacts. Ending this would free cops to really go after truly harmful crimes. It would be, all in all, a stupendous improvement in all our lives.