Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Richard Wolff in sheep’s clothing, on capitalism versus socialism

September 14, 2018

I heard Richard Wolff again on “Alternative [left-wing] Radio.” He’s the “Marxist” economics professor whose LOL take on first class airplane seats I wrote about. Wolf saw them as though created by God but unfairly handed out by dastardly airlines to rich folks, forcing plebeians to suffer in coach. In actuality, the rich subsidize the rest. That’s how airlines make their money. Without milking richies via vastly overpriced premium seats, they’d have to charge coach travelers far more, which wouldn’t fly — literally.

Wolff couldn’t see that reality. But he is a glib talker. His latest was on capitalism versus socialism. He thinks capitalism’s badness will cause socialism to triumph.

A chief theme was “socialism” getting a bum rap because people don’t understand it. This is part of the effort to sugar-coat socialism, making it seem innocuous — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (We saw this with the Bernie campaign.) It’s the trope that if you like public roads and libraries and fire departments, etc., anything government does, why, that’s socialism!

Except that it isn’t. Providing necessary services that a free market cannot (at least not well) is just any government’s job. Socialism instead is government substituting for (and disallowing) a capable free market.

Now, if you think that’s a good idea, fine, try to persuade us. But socialists must doubt its persuasiveness, else why do they constantly hide what they really advocate, under false camouflage about roads and fire service?

Richard Wolff-in-sheep’s-clothing epitomizes this, again saying people misunderstand “socialism.” He repeatedly mocked the idea of any association with Stalin’s crimes. He stressed that “socialism” is not limited to any single categorical definition. But did he ever actually say what it does mean?

Nope.

But, talking about “capitalism,” Wolff did exactly what he criticized — painting it as one limited thing — which, typically, was a gross caricature.

I was struck by the contrast with a book I happened to be reading, Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by historian Joyce Appleby.* Indeed, its key theme is that “capitalism” has been not one discrete concept but endlessly flexible, adaptive, and evolving, with vastly varying iterations — its great strength.

This is clear from the first great book on the subject — titled Capital — by Karl Marx. I will not deride Marx as a fool. He was in fact a brilliant thinker, observer, and analyst, who had some important insights. But he was fundamentally wrong in predicting capitalism’s future. Marx saw an “iron law of wages” always pushing them down to bare subsistence, just enabling workers to stay alive to produce the golden eggs for the capitalists, until they’d revolt. Marx did not imagine the mass affluence capitalism (and the associated industrial/technological revolutions) would bring forth. Even amid all today’s lamentations about inequality, and capitalism’s supposed injustice, the fact is that workers in industrialized societies were able to gain a large enough share of the economic pie to give them living standards unimaginably cushier than the bare subsistence Marx posited.

That’s because the pie has grown so spectacularly. And because of democracy. “Democratic socialism” is really a contradiction in terms because the two ideas have proven in practice to be fundamentally incompatible. That’s due to socialist systems concentrating so much power in government, whereas free market societies distribute power widely. Socialism is not the antithesis of fascism or communism. All three have the central idea of valorizing the collective over the individual, thus being inherently coercive and repressive.

No type of society or system will deliver justice and equality free from the depredations of people who will always try to exploit it for their own advantage. That’s certainly been true in all socialist or communist systems, wherein some individuals always amassed great power over others — using the machineries of the state and its monopoly on violence (legitimate in free societies, but not in others). A free enterprise system at least does not allow that. Instead, there you gain advantage by (in the main) creating value others voluntarily pay you for, making society as a whole wealthier. That’s how Steve Jobs, for example, got so rich. It’s how the whole industrialized world — including its workers — got so much richer than Marx foresaw.

Richard Wolff (Yes, socialism IS for dummies)

Such prosperity has never been produced by socialism. China is a very instructive case. It has two economic systems functioning side-by-side: a socialist one of state-owned firms, and another of very free enterprise. The latter runs rings around the former. It is the source of China’s phenomenal economic advancement, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last few decades.

* She’s no right-wing free marketeer; plenty critical of capitalism’s negative aspects, especially environmental. Appleby is often a trenchant observer, but I can’t let pass how many annoying bloopers I noticed. Like, “Ingenuous people found a new way to exploit electromagnetism.” Really? I thought that was disingenuous.

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Trump is the Antichrist

August 31, 2018

Fundamentalist Christians have long been obsessed with the Antichrist. He figured prominently in the “Left Behind” books. Not an abstraction, the Antichrist would be a real person, come among us, the avatar of Satan himself, working to destroy God’s kingdom.

Turns out it’s true. The Antichrist is here. It’s Trump.

Isn’t it obvious, explaining everything? Firstly, the Antichrist could not be some two-bit player on the world stage. He’d have to be a huge figure, cutting a wide swath, as befitting his Satanic role. No one has ever filled that bill like Trump. No public character has ever so dominated the landscape.

And the Antichrist would, of course, be literally the anti-Christ. The antithesis of Christ and everything he represented. That’s Trump to a “T.”

Christ would never lie. Or “grab them by the pussy.”

Love thy neighbor? Canada and Mexico are our neighbors. (Not Russia.) And how about our more immediate neighbors, living among us? All those non-white people, all those immigrants? (And Democrats.) Trump is all hate-thy-neighbor.

Turn the other cheek? Trump tries to make the opposite seem a virtue — “fighting back.” That is, viciously smearing every critic or opponent. Calling them names. And now abusing his power to punish them (like yanking honest John Brennan’s security clearance).

Chase money changers from the temple? Trump welcomes them in. Having promised to “drain the swamp,” he deepens it. Flynn, Price, Pruitt, Carson, Manafort, Cohen, Bannon, Wilbur Ross. Trump’s own corruptly milking the presidency for personal profit. A total swamp of sleaze.

Suffer the little children to come unto me? Even little children he makes suffer, ripping them from parental arms.

Loyalty? Christ was loyal to Peter even after Peter denied him; loyal to God even on the cross. Trump (who demands loyalty from others) is loyal to nothing and no one but himself. Least of all his country, which he’s betrayed to its worst enemy, Russia. (I didn’t write “sold out” because he actually got nothing in return.)

And did I mention the lying? “Lying” is an inadequate word here. Trump wars against the very concept of truth, to create a world in which reality and truth are meaningless.

But these are details. The big picture is indeed wholly at odds with the heart of Christ’s teaching. Trump is a moral black hole sucking in everything and everyone around him. A vortex of evil.

Now, realize that the Antichrist doesn’t wear a costume with horns and tail, proclaiming his identity. Of course not — the whole point, the real danger, is his deviously disguising it. To fool people, so the Satanic agenda can be achieved. Admittedly, Trump’s disguise is ridiculously thin, transparent to anyone with eyes to see. But Satan has thrown black magic dust in the eyes of Christians.

They say never mind his personal peccadillos, they like what he’s doing. That’s the snare, the dust thrown in their eyes. And what is he doing that’s so wonderful it could possibly justify the poisoning of America’s whole civic culture, everything it stands for — everything Christ stands for?

So these fools fall right into Satan’s trap, blind to their plunge into the vortex of evil — dragging down with them their precious religion itself, demonstrating its falsity.

In the fantasies of uber-Christians, like in those “Left Behind” books, the Antichrist is always ultimately defeated by the legions of the godly. But what if those legions are bamboozled into fighting for the wrong side?

They’re marching in Satan’s army — straight into Hell — where they will all burn forever.

Robert Ingersoll — the greatest man you never heard of

August 28, 2018

We went to a Syracuse shindig celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Run by the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization, its first day featured presentations, the second a bus tour to Ingersoll’s and other freethought landmarks. About ninety attended.

Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was known as “The Great Agnostic.” A lawyer, he was America’s foremost public speaker in the late 19th century, traveling the country giving lectures, mostly anti-religious. People flocked to hear him. In those times, other kinds of public entertainments were almost nonexistent. And Ingersoll was such an engaging speaker that he always got a respectful hearing.

How different America is today. People were ignorant then, but knew they were. Now Americans are a little less ignorant but a lot more sure they know everything (regardless of empirical truth).

Ingersoll was a great humanist in every sense of the word — refuting the canard that “atheists believe in nothing.” Ingersoll believed in the power of human rationality to give us progress and good lives. That the happiness of sentient beings is the ultimate source of meaning. That the time to be happy is now, and the place is here, on Earth. That one’s happiness is entwined with that of others. And Ingersoll lived these principles, earning the love and admiration of everyone he touched.

His birthplace museum is in Dresden, NY, a tiny town. We were shown a screenshot from “Tripadvisor” labeling the Ingersoll site “#1 of 1 things to do in Dresden.”

Flynn

Tom Flynn (editor of CFI’s Free Inquiry magazine) placed Ingersoll in the context of what he called “the Braid of Reform” in 19th Century America. The two great causes were abolition and women’s rights (including suffrage). Not all these movements’ adherents were religious freethinkers, but many were; and most freethinkers were abolitionists and suffragists. “Freethought” means thinking outside the box of traditional religious dogmas.

Blumner

Robyn Blumner heads the CFI. She noted that its $5 million budget is the largest for any U.S. secular organization, but is dwarfed by funding for the Christian right. “Campus Crusade for Christ” has a budget a hundred times larger. Blumner said, however, that we have reason, science, and truth on our side. Though truth used to have a bigger constituency.

One CFI program she discussed had particular resonance for me: “Secular Rescue.” I am a fearless blogger — not courageous, but literally fearless because in America there’s nothing to fear over what one writes. Not so in other countries, especially Muslim ones, where “blasphemy” is a crime, sometimes punishable by death; a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes (to be administered in installments). In Bangladesh there’s a vigilante crusade murdering “blaspheming” bloggers. “Secular Rescue” is engaged in protecting such people and even relocating them to safer places.

Smith

Norman Dann spoke about Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), another great figure you never heard of. Extremely rich, all Smith wanted to do with his money was to advance human rights, especially abolition. He freed a lot of slaves by simply buying them. Initially he felt “moral suasion” could end slavery. Then political activism. Finally, a fellow came to him with a different approach: violence and war. That was John Brown, and Smith funded him.

Sue Boland talked about Matilda Joslyn Gage — the third woman’s suffrage triumvir, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though much less famous now.

Gage

Gage was a freethinker whose battle for women’s rights targeted religion, with all its patriarchal ideas. Indeed, Christianity was the most powerful force opposing female suffrage.

Gage’s son-in-law was L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz — which Boland called a freethought fairy tale, telling us that everything we need is already inside us. (No need for that fraud behind the curtain!)

The bus tour included Gage’s house in Fayetteville, as well as, in Peterboro, the Gerrit Smith site and the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Another program centered on D.M. Bennett, publisher of a freethought periodical, The Truth Seeker, who in 1879 fell victim to “anti-vice” pervert Anthony Comstock, being imprisoned for mailing obscenity — a book of conjugal advice. Whose author President Hayes pardoned. But, bowing to church pressure, he wouldn’t pardon Bennett.

Grube as Stanton

We also had two costumed dramatic impersonations. Melinda Grube channeled Stanton (Gerrit Smith’s cousin). A focus was how her life was shaped by her brother’s death in youth and her father’s inability to take equal pride in her, being the wrong gender. “She couldn’t change her father, or herself, so she’d have to change the world.” Like Gage, Stanton saw women’s oppression rooted in Christianity and the Bible; she authored The Woman’s Bible with plain English explanations of its pernicious passages relating to women.

Margaret Downey gave us Eva Parker Ingersoll, Robert’s wife, focusing on their love story. She quoted from a letter he wrote to Eva: “The world is getting free. I thank God every day that he does not exist.”

After dinner, the keynote speech was by Susan Jacoby, Ingersoll biographer and author of several other books (one of which I recently wrote about). Her theme: what would Ingersoll think of today’s America?

Jacoby

Jacoby stressed Ingersoll’s linking religion’s rejection of reason with the whole spectrum of social issues like women’s rights and immigration. Yes, he was enlightened even on that, battling against the onset of immigration restrictions with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As ever, his argument was moral: Chinese are human beings who should be treated the same as any other. “A great nation,” he said, “should be bound by the highest conception of honor and justice.” (Funny how believers insist morality comes from religion, when so often religious dogmas make them morally blind.)

Jacoby sees increasingly successful efforts by today’s religionists to undermine church-state separation, using protection of religious freedom as a wedge, twisting it into a right to impose their beliefs on others. She said Ingersoll may have been too optimistic about science’s ability to overcome all this.

The word “tribal” has been invoked a lot in analyzing Trump support. Jacoby sees that tribalism as being animated more by religion than anything else (such as economic concerns). It’s a fact that the 40% of Americans who back Trump are largely the same people who are Christian fundamentalists. And just as religious faith works to seal people off from reality checks, the same seems true in the political realm, with Trumpism more like a faith cult than a mere political viewpoint.

This too shall pass

Is there hope? Yes. One writer recently called the religious right’s ascendancy “a cultural stab from the grave,” demographically speaking. Throughout the rest of the developed world, Christian religion is in sharp retreat, with belief and churchgoing collapsing. In America, the younger you are, the less religious you are apt to be. The religious right’s flame will ultimately burn out. In the long run, reason will defeat unreason.

Manafort, Cohen, and the Prevaricator of the United States

August 24, 2018

Manafort

Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign chief. Bad enough that he worked for foreign villains like Yanukovych, whom even Ukraine couldn’t stomach (which is saying something). But Manafort compounded his crime by ducking income tax on his ill-gotten lucre. He’s been convicted on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud. One of the many caught by Mueller’s witch hunt. Manafort faces years in prison and a further trial for failure to register as a foreign agent and so forth.

Manafort even literally wears clothing made from snakes. Yet this reptile Trump still insists is a fine human being. And that his prosecution was “unfair,” a favorite Trump word (applicable only to him, or his lackeys). A jury convicted Manafort of eight serious crimes. Where was the “unfairness?” As WAMC radio’s Alan Chartock incessantly warned, a single Trumpy juror could have stonewalled to get Manafort off the hook. But not one did. The verdict was unanimous.

Calling the whole thing unfair is an insult to the public servants who properly did their jobs in bringing a criminal to justice, and to the citizen jurors who conscientiously fulfilled their civic responsibility. Of course, civic responsibility is a concept wholly alien to Trump.

Capone

He tweeted comparing Manafort’s treatment with Al Capone’s (misspelling his name). Capone, after a long crime extravaganza full of murders, was finally imprisoned for tax evasion. Just like Manafort. Interesting comparison, O Great Genius.

Then Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer” pled guilty to a bunch of felony campaign finance violations, in arranging hush money for sluts with whom Trump committed adultery.*

Cohen

Cohen’s testimony that Trump directed these payments makes Trump’s previous denials his 2,768th outright lie. (Trump also still laughably denies the affairs.) More important, Cohen’s evidence implicates Trump in serious actual crimes.

Trump, despite (of course) calling Cohen a liar, apparently no longer denies his role in the payments. His new lie is that they weren’t a crime anyway — because the money came from his pocket, not his campaign.

He said this on his favorite TV show, Fox & Fiends. Why did none of the little foxes there challenge his statement? And say, “Excuse me, Lord and Master, but I’m afraid you’re mistaken. That actually makes it a worse crime.”

Because even were it arguable whether campaign funds can be used for hush money, if the money (indisputably benefiting the campaign) circumvented the whole system of campaign finance regulation and reporting, that’s incontestably a clear and bigger no-no.

Lawyer Cohen himself seemed pretty clear on the doings being criminal, and indeed unarguably so. Why else plead guilty to charges that will send him up for years?

Hey, Christians still stuck in Trumpland’s alternate reality — as an atheist I don’t have your morality. I rape and murder whenever I want.

* “Slut” is not a nice word, but fits any female who’d do it with such a creep.

Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

We’re often told that it was. The aim is to cast secularism as somehow un-American, and override the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But it’s the latter idea that’s un-American; and it’s historical nonsense. Just one more way in which the religious right is steeped in lies (forgetting the Ninth Commandment).

Jacoby

They assault what is in fact one of the greatest things about America’s birth. It’s made clear in Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Firstly, it tortures historical truth to paint the founding fathers as devout Christians. They were not; instead men of the Enlightenment. While “atheism” wasn’t even a thing at the time, most of them were as close to it as an Eighteenth Century person could be. Franklin was surely one of the century’s most irreverent. Washington never in his life penned the name “Christ.” Jefferson cut-and-pasted his own New Testament, leaving out everything supernatural and Christ’s divinity. In one letter he called Christian doctrine “metaphysical insanity.”

The secularism issue was arguably joined in 1784 (before the Constitution) when Patrick Henry introduced a bill in Virginia’s legislature to tax all citizens to fund “teachers of the Christian religion.” Most states still routinely had quasi-official established churches. But James Madison and others mobilized public opinion onto an opposite path. The upshot was Virginia passing not Henry’s bill but, instead, one Jefferson had proposed years earlier: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

It was one of three achievements Jefferson had engraved on his tombstone.

The law promulgated total separation of church and state. Nobody could be required to support any religion, nor be penalized or disadvantaged because of religious beliefs or opinions. In the world of the Eighteenth Century, this was revolutionary. News of it spread overseas and created an international sensation. After all, this was a world still bathed in blood from religious believers persecuting other religious believers. It was not so long since people were burned at the stake over religion, and since a third of Europe’s population perished in wars of faith. Enough, cried Virginia, slashing this Gordian knot of embroiling governmental power with religion.

Soon thereafter delegates met in Philadelphia to create our Constitution. It too was revolutionary; in part for what it did not say. The word “God” nowhere appears, let alone the word “Christian.” Instead of starting with a nod to the deity, which would have seemed almost obligatory, the Constitution begins “We the people of the United States . . . .” We people did this, ourselves, with no god in the picture.

This feature did not pass unnoticed at the time; to the contrary, it was widely denounced, as an important argument against ratifying the Constitution. But those views were outvoted, and every state ratified.

It gets better. Article 6, Section 3 says “no religious test shall ever be required” for holding any public office or trust. This too was highly controversial, contradicting what was still the practice in most states, and with opponents warning that it could allow a Muslim (!) president. But the “no religious test” provision shows the Constitution’s framers were rejecting all that, and totally embracing, instead, the religious freedom stance of Virginia’s then-recent enactment. And that too was ratified.

Indeed, it still wasn’t even good enough. In the debates over ratification, many felt the Constitution didn’t sufficiently safeguard freedoms, including religious freedom, and they insisted on amendments, which were duly adopted in 1791. That was the Bill of Rights. And the very first amendment guaranteed freedom of both speech and religion — which go hand-in-hand. This made clear that all Americans have a right to their opinions, and to voice those opinions, including ideas about religion, and that government could not interfere. Thus would Jefferson later write of “the wall of separation” between church and state.

All this was, again, revolutionary. The founders, people of great knowledge and wisdom, understood exactly what they were doing, having well in mind all the harm that had historically been done by government entanglement with religion. What they created was something new in the world, and something very good indeed.

Interestingly, as Jacoby’s book explains, much early U.S. anti-Catholic prejudice stemmed from Protestants’ fear that Catholics, if they got the chance, would undermine our hard-won church-state separation, repeating the horrors Europe had endured.

A final point by Jacoby: the religious attack on science (mainly, evolution science) does not show religion and science are necessarily incompatible. Rather, it shows that a religion claiming “the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life” is “incompatible not only with science but with democracy.” Because such a religion really says that issues like abortion, capital punishment, or biomedical research can never be resolved by imperfect human opinion, but only by God’s word. This echoes the view of Islamic fundamentalists that democracy itself, with humans presuming to govern themselves, is offensive to God. What that means in practice, of course, is not rule by (a nonexistent) God but by pious frauds who pretend to speak for him.

I’m proud to be a citizen of a nation founded as a free one* — not a Christian one.

* What about slaves? What about women? Sorry, I have no truck with those who blacken America’s founding because it was not a perfect utopia from Day One. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The degree of democracy and freedom we did establish were virtually without precedent in the world of the time. And the founders were believers in human progress, who created a system open to positive change; and in the centuries since, we have indeed achieved much progress.

Pascal’s wager

July 30, 2018

Assume 50-50 odds of God existing or not. Which way should you bet? With your afterlife, that is. This is “Pascal’s wager.”

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematical genius responsible for great advances in probability theory. He answered his question this way: if you go “yes” and are wrong, you lose nothing. But if you wrongly bet “no,” you can wind up in Hell. Therefore believing in God is the logical choice.

Childish though this little game might seem, it actually was a step toward a proper theory of decision-making and risk management. Pascal was propounding a method for analysis when weighing uncertain future possibilities, based on mapping out their consequences. It may seem obvious today, but in his time it wasn’t.

Yet Pascal’s analysis of the God problem was faulty (even assuming the odds really are 50-50). Betting “yes” is not actually cost-free. Far from it — as well illustrated by Pascal’s own life. At an early age he put all his chips on that bet, and devoted himself entirely to religion. He gave up mathematics completely. What a waste of genius!

However, there’s something very strange here. If Pascal was so deeply religious, how could he even have hypothesized God’s nonexistence? And then fail to foresee his loss if he were wrong? No true believer would think that way. But perhaps I’m making here the common mistake of imputing some sort of rationality to religious thinking. The true cost of faith is sacrificing your rational engagement with reality.

Anyhow, Pascal’s wager is as ridiculous as all so-called logical proofs of God’s existence that religious apologist philosophers indefatigably concoct. The simplest answer is to ask why Pascal’s same wager should not equally apply to every other religion in the world. Why bet on Christianity as opposed to Hinduism? Pascal would have to choose. Now the bet doesn’t look so easy.

Well, hello, there is no God, no Heaven or Hell; no religion is true. You can bet on it. The odds are 100%.

What is happiness?

July 23, 2018

There is no bigger question. After all, what is the point of life? I’ve authored a book titled Life, Liberty, and Happiness, arguing that ultimately the only thing in the cosmos that matters is the feelings of beings capable of feelings. Nothing can matter unless it matters to someone.

Weighing in on this is Yuval Noah Harari’s 2017 book, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow. He posits that human happiness will increasingly occupy our attention. It didn’t always. “Pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary idea when most people were too preoccupied with just surviving to think about whether they were happy.

Epicurus

Yet unpacking the concept of happiness has always vexed philosophers. Epicurus (341-270 BC) fingered the centrality of pleasure versus pain, but what he advocated wasn’t hedonism; his idea of pleasure was almost Spartan. Harari meantime says all pleasures really resolve down to just internal bodily sensations, which he denigrates as mere “vibrations” (evoking the “good vibes” of the ’60s). And when he says all, he means all. Applying not just to sensations like orgasms but to pleasures we might call mental or psychic. If you feel good about a job promotion, Harari says what’s really happening is a set of bodily sensations. That’s all.

And the problem, Harari insists, is that such sensations are always fleeting. Hardly is one experienced before it’s gone. So if your life is about happiness qua sensations, you’re condemned to forever chasing them without being able to hold onto them. A recipe for frustration and thus, indeed, unhappiness.

This perspective is basically Buddhist, as Harari acknowledges. Buddhism teaches that the quest for pleasure — to fulfill our desires — is actually the root of suffering. We can stop suffering only by letting go of the desires.

We might as well stop living. I find all this a reductio ad absurdum view of happiness, pleasure, and suffering. That it’s all just bodily sensations or “vibrations” is simply wrong, contrary to neuroscience. In fact we don’t experience anything directly. Instead, all one’s sensations are mediated by the mind, a gatekeeper that tells you how to feel about them.

That’s why it’s said our most important sex organ is the brain. And I recently reviewed a book by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio elucidating how pain is “felt” not by signals from the body but by how the mind/brain responds to those signals. He wrote of a patient enduring severe pain who then had surgery to snip a tiny brain section. Afterward he reported, “the pain is the same; but I feel fine now!” The mental phenomenon, not the physical one, was what mattered; and they were not the same thing.

Admittedly, emotions do entail physical sensations. I remember one episode of real bodily pain after an argument with a girlfriend; and I feel tingles hearing the national anthem. But it’s still wrong to assert that such bodily sensations are all there is. Clearly, what the mind thinks in such episodes is the main event.

Philosopher Robert Nozick posed this thought experiment: imagine a machine that simulates, in your brain, pleasurable experiences. For example, giving you all the exact feelings you’d get from winning the New York Marathon (if that’s your wish). Would you spend your life hooked up to that machine? Most people say no. Because we understand that life and reality are more complicated.

I often do reflect on Harari’s point about the evanescence of sensations. Considering myself a sensualist who does deeply savor pleasures, I am acutely conscious of their impermanence. When eating a cookie I try to do it mindfully, to experience it fully while I can. Trying to grasp hold of its reality. But what it really means to taste a cookie, as a mind/brain phenomenon, is extremely hard to wrap one’s mind/brain around; it seems to disappear in the effort. And meantime, given the fleetingness of sensations themselves, I find that anticipation and recollection are more important. Again, it’s complicated.

Harari weirdly omits any discussion of the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia. It casts happiness not as rooted in transitory sensations but rather in a “life well lived.” What does that mean? Clearly not a life full of caviar and sex but, for example, a life of nourishing connections to others, family love, civic engagement, worthwhile accomplishment, intellectual growth, and so forth. It is the antithesis of focusing just on sensations, looking instead upon one’s life as a whole. That provides a baseline sense of well-being that supersedes not just the momentary impacts of “vibrations” but even of life’s more consequential vicissitudes.

Thus — although as noted all sensations are ultimately mental constructs — eudaimonia (in contrast to Harari’s fleeting “vibrations”) is a mental construct with continuity over time.

Buddhist this is not. At one time my greatest desire was to find a partner; relinquishing that desire would not have brought me to nirvana. Instead I pursued it and succeeded. My marriage does entail some momentary (ahem) bodily sensations — but its impact on my overall mental state continues over time, ever present in my consciousness. A foundation of my eudaimonia.

John Stuart Mill famously queried whether it’s better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied. Whatever pleasures the pig experiences, it cannot have eudaimonia, not being capable of sustaining such a complex mental construct. Socrates could and (presumably) did.

Would and wouldn’t

July 19, 2018

Back in my PSC days, a telephone company witness filed prepared testimony containing a huge blunder. On the stand, he said to delete the entire paragraph. Cross-examining, I asked why.

“It was a typo,” he answered, with a straight face.

I was reminded of this by Trump’s Tuesday claim that he’d merely mis-spoken Monday. Faced with a firestorm of condemnation, he did what he always does: he lied.

His Helsinki performance was a disgrace from beginning to end. What he meant was perfectly clear. And he imagines changing one word fixes everything? (Meantime, on Wednesday, he was unable to stick to the Tuesday script; and we still don’t know what he told Putin in private.)

Even before Tuesday’s “typo correction,” Hannity said those who criticize Trump regarding Helsinki are traitors to conservatism. Is this what “conservatism” now has come to? Getting in bed with a murdering Russian dictator who subverted our democracy? To think I once called myself a conservative.

Yes, good relations with Russia are desirable. But not at the cost of trashing everything America used to represent.

My daughter pointed me to a July 8 article by Jonathan Chait about Trump-and-Russia. I started reading, thinking, “yada yada yada;” however, this proved to be a devastating exposition (pulling together information already public) of just how thoroughly dirty Trump is. Read it.

Yet if Putin does “have something” on Trump, it seems a moot point. After “grab them by the pussy,” Stormy Daniels, Trump University, the constant lying, and so much else. Shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. Trump’s mind-slaves have sealed their deal with the Devil.

And whether Putin has him by the balls, or it’s Trump’s own psychopolitical pathology, doesn’t much matter because the result is the same. He is selling out America’s fundamental values and ideals, and tearing down the structure of alliances and the rules-based global order we so painstakingly built, that for seven decades served us and the free world so well, a bulwark of prosperity and peace.

It’s not simply “America First” or even “America Alone;” not merely a cynical transactional view of the world, nor even just a might-makes-right view. All of them myopically self-destructive. It’s worse yet: it’s realigning America, from the free world and the Enlightenment, to the dark side.

A monumental historical tragedy.

How to become a Nazi

July 9, 2018

You’re a nurse, and a doctor instructs you, by phone, to give his patient 20 Mg of a certain drug. The bottle clearly says 10 Mg is the maximum allowable daily dose. Would you administer the 20 Mg? Asked this hypothetical question, nearly all nurses say no. But when the experiment was actually run, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the doctor’s orders, despite knowing it was wrong.

Then there was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were directed to administer escalating electric shocks to other test subjects for incorrect answers. Most people did as instructed, even when the shocks elicited screams of pain; even when the victims apparently lost consciousness. (They were actors and not actually shocked.)

These experiments are noted in Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc, in a chapter about the Nazis. Shermer argues that in the big picture we are morally progressing. But here he examines how it can go wrong, trying to understand how people became Nazis.

Normal people have strong, deeply embedded moral scruples. But they are very situation-oriented. Look at the famous “runaway trolley” hypothetical. Most people express willingness to pull a switch to detour the trolley to kill one person to prevent its killing five. But if you have to physically push the one to his death — even though the moral calculus would seem equivalent — most people balk.

So it always depends on the circumstances. In the nurse experiment, when it came down to it, the nurses were unwilling to go against the doctor. Likewise in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority of the white-coated supervisor that made people obey his order to give shocks, even while most felt very queasy about it.

Nazis too often explained themselves saying, “I was only following orders.” And, to be fair, the penalty for disobeying was often severe. But that was hardly the whole story. In fact, the main thing was the societal normalization of Nazism. When your entire community, from top to bottom, is besotted with an idea, it’s very hard not to be sucked in.

Even if it is, well, crazy. Nazi swaggering might actually not have been delusional if confined to the European theatre. They overran a lot of countries. But then unbridled megalomania led them to take on, as well, Russia — and America. This doomed insanity they pursued to the bitter end.

Yet they didn’t see it that way. The power of groupthink.

And what about the idea of exterminating Jews? They didn’t come to it all at once, but in incremental steps. They actually started with killing “substandard” Germans — mentally or physically handicapped, the blind, the deaf — tens of thousands. With the Jews they began with social ostracizing and increasing curtailment of rights.

This was accompanied by dehumanization and demonization. Jews were not just called inferior, genetically and morally, but blamed for a host of ills, including causing WWI, and causing Germany’s defeat. Thusly Germans convinced themselves the Jews deserved whatever they got, had “brought it on themselves.” These ideas were in the very air Germans breathed.

Part of this was what Shermer calls “pluralistic ignorance” — taking on false beliefs because you imagine everyone holds them. Like college students who’ve been shown to have very exaggerated ideas of their peers’ sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse, causing them to conform to those supposed norms. Germans similarly believed negative stereotypes about Jews because they thought most fellow Germans held such views. Actually many did not, but kept that hidden, for obvious reasons. There was no debate about it.

Of course it was all factually nonsense. An insult to intelligence, to anyone who knew anything about anything. Yet Germany — seemingly the most culturally advanced society on Earth, the epicenter of learning, philosophy, the arts — fell completely for this nonsense and wound up murdering six million in its name.*

Which brings me to Trumpism. (You knew it would.) Am I equating it with Nazism? No. Not yet. But the pathology has disturbing parallels. The tribalism, the groupthink, the us-versus-them, nationalism, racism, and contempt for other peoples. The demonization of immigrants, falsely blaming them for all sorts of ills, to justify horrible mistreatment like taking children from parents — even saying, “they brought it on themselves.” And especially the suspension of critical faculties to follow blindly a very bad leader and swallow bushels of lies.

I might once have said “it can’t happen here” because of our strong democratic culture. Today I’m not so sure. Culture can change. That within the Republican party certainly has. Not so long ago the prevailing national attitude toward politicians was “I’m from Missouri,” and “they’re all crooks and liars.” Too cynical perhaps but the skepticism was healthy, and it meant that being caught in a lie (or even flip-flopping) was devastating for a politician. Contrast Republicans’ attitude toward Trump (a politician after all). Not only a real crook and constant flip-flopper, but a Brobdingnagian liar. That 40% of Americans line up in lockstep behind this is frightening. And as for our democratic culture, the sad truth is that too few still understand its principles and values. Germans in their time were the apogee of civilization, and then they became Nazis.

Shermer quotes Hitler saying, “Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany again.” Fortunately Trump will have only four — let’s hope. But America is already becoming unrecognizable.

* My grandfather was a good patriotic German who’d even taken a bullet for his country in WWI. But that didn’t matter; he was Jewish. Fortunately he, with wife and daughter, got out alive. His mother did not.

(Part II) Conservative or Republican?

July 4, 2018

Mill

The political philosophy called “liberal” originated in 19th century Britain, with thinkers like John Stuart Mill; it stood for individual human flourishing free from undue constraints — especially imposed by the state. Then the word “liberal” got hijacked, in America, to mean virtually the opposite — social engineering by big government.

Conservatives opposed this; that’s what the Republican party basically represented. (Indeed, its philosophy was classical liberalism.) But now, just like the word “liberal” got perverted, so too “conservative.” David Brooks says that “Today, you can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both.”

Brooks

In a recent column, he approaches the matter from first principles. Thomas Hobbes posited the idea of the social contract. Free people get together and agree to exchange some of their liberty — basically, the liberty to prey upon others — for freedom from predation. It’s not a literal contract, but an implicit one; it’s why we have governments and obey their laws.

But, says Brooks, individuals do not come to this self-formed. Instead we are shaped by family, religion, local community, local culture, arts, schools, literature, manners, etc. All of which he calls collectively a “sacred space,”  which traditional conservatism venerated (to promote the kind of human flourishing Mill sought). In contrast, ideologies like communism, fascism, socialism, and (American) liberalism all, to a greater or lesser degree, sought to supplant those “sacred space” societal structures with the state.

But today, says Brooks, “the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism.” It’s the “evil twin” of community feeling. Grounded not in the positive, cooperative, humanistic vibe that community feeling should ideally propagate but, rather, in “hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust.”

This ain’t your daddy’s conservatism (that I identified with for 50+ years). Brooks calls it “an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear — the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.”

A previous Brooks column spotlighted just what this means in practice. Conservatives always used to argue that statism tended “to become brutalist and inhumane . . . caus[ing] horrific suffering because in the mind of the statists, the abstract rule is more important than the human in front of them. The person must be crushed for the sake of the abstraction.”

That’s a good description of a communist system. Likewise Trump administration immigration policies. This so-called “conservative” regime has “become exactly the kind of monster that conservatism has always warned against,” writes Brooks.

Separating children from asylum-seeking parents is an inhuman moral obscenity.* Mocking the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty and in the Declaration of Independence. These latter-day “conservatives” have lost the thread of what America means; of what conservatism means; what it’s all about; what it is for.

It goes beyond even what Brooks talked about. It’s across the board — from fiscal irresponsibility to trade war to undermining our institutions of rule of law, cozying up to dictators, excusing personal vileness, and abetting racism. And all of it shot through with pervasive lying. Trumpism is a grotesque perversion of what conservatism used to be.

But in truth philosophy or principles have nothing to do with this. It’s tribal behavior run amok. These Republican so-called “conservatives” back their tribe; nothing else matters. Not truth, not principle, not basic human decency. It’s Lord of the Flies time. “Conservative” is just a word, a label, a tribal signifier like a team name emblazoned on their jerseys.

Or their red hats, displaying just as big a lie.

* Ordered by a court to reunite those families, the administration is charging them for the airfare to do so.