Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

My New Book — The American Crisis: Chronicling and Confronting the Trump Shitstorm

November 27, 2022

The American Crisis: Chronicling and Confronting the Trump Shitstorm, by Frank S. Robinson; Verity Press International; 247 pages; $12.95 (+ $4 shipping in USA). Payment by credit card; Paypal or Zelle to; or check to me at Box 8600, Albany, NY 12208. 

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis, in 1776. I’ve always been an idealist, not a cynic, a realist but an optimist — writing The Case for Rational Optimism, and blogging as the “Rational Optimist.”

But since 2016 I, like Paine did, have seen America in crisis. This book is a chronological selection of my relevant blog essays. I’ve tried to grapple with what’s happening, to understand and analyze it.

Long politically engaged (I was a conservative Republican), I published my first book about politics in 1973. This volume may be somewhat unique in tracing one observer’s perspectives on events as they were unfolding, when they were fresh and raw, echoing the notion of journalism as “the first draft of history.”

I have mercilessly edited the entries to minimize repetition, and for brevity, cutting out much verbiage; but have refrained from using hindsight to look smarter or more prescient.

In every civilization people have always groused that it’s going to the dogs. Sustaining our American project requires us to hold fast to our fundamental values. I’m not ready to give up on it, being still an idealist and optimist. That’s why I’m publishing this.

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.”

The Election — Not the End of Civilization — Yet

November 10, 2022

Well, the worst was averted. Hailed as a victory by Democrats and President Biden, now suddenly politically rejuvenated. Sanity prevailed — in a lot of places at least — but even there just by the skin of its teeth. That’s still terrifying. Forty-eight percent of Georgians voted for Herschel Walker. Wisconsin re-elected Ron Johnson. Arizona’s Kari Lake could still win.

And even if they wind up losing the Senate, Republicans controlling the House of Representatives is still a national catastrophe. (I may have been right back in May, that New York’s redistricting screw-up could make the difference.)

The House GOP margin’s smallness actually makes things worse, because now Speaker-to-be McCarthy’s balls (has he any?) will be gripped by the GOP’s crazy caucus — the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, Louie Gohmerts, Paul Gosars. (At least one, Lauren Boebert, is trailing.)

While in normal times it can make sense to put Congress in opposition hands as a check on the administration, this is an extremist anti-democratic opposition. They will exploit their power with the chief aim of making the Biden administration look bad. They will block support for Ukraine, cancel the January 6 investigation, and refuse to raise the debt limit (which economist Paul Krugman has said will “blow up the world economy”). There’ll be a government shutdown, hard to resolve. A blizzard of phony “investigations.” And surely an impeachment. On what grounds? They’ll concoct some. So the next two years will be a real shit-show.

Handing Congressional power to these people is nuts. Why is this happening? Most Americans, once upon a time, whatever the unschooled ignorance and primitivist bigotries, believed in certain aspirational ideas, of what this country means. But those ideas have melted into muddled goo. They cannot be sustained if so few people, for all the flag waving, still understand them:

• Democracy is not just elections, but a pluralist ethos, with everyone’s participation accepted.

• Freedom to live the best lives possible, aided by a society’s web of interconnections.

• Compassion for the less blessed.

• A welcoming society, enriched by a diversity of people arriving to contribute.

• Rule of law, and equality before the law.

• Globally, our great power confers great obligations.

• Church-state separation, no one able to impose their faith on others.

• A society that progresses through truth and reason, fundamental honesty, civility, human decency.

• A society that vaunts virtue and shuns wickedness — and can tell the difference.

We’re retreating on all of it, especially the last. Government is failing, because in frustration we elect too many bad people who actually want to exploit the failure rather than actually fix anything. And the cascading failure just makes us crazier, so in the next cycle we lash out and go for even more irresponsible “outsiders” (opportunists). Or too many voters do (“the worst are full of passionate intensity”).

And those ideals are not merely forgotten. They’re why Democrats — who still do represent them, to a degree at least — are hated by those with a different mindset. Of macho white Christian nationalism, with “Christian” as a cultural signifier supplanting religious belief. Worshipping, indeed (despite all the “freedom” rhetoric), strength and power, the thwack of the cudgel, against the “others.” This is fascism. Which actually has psychological appeal, a sickness humanity still can’t get over.

You’d think news reporting would help Americans see things clearly. But “the news” as we once knew it is dying out. Fox is not “news.” What people now mostly absorb instead is a witch’s brew giving them only a foggy distorted impression of what’s going on.

So, impatient with an administration at least honestly trying to deal with our problems, we’re handing congressional control to a party flouting every one of the enumerated American ideals. A party steeped in lies, that tried to overthrow the previous election and keep in power a monster of depravity. While some Republican election deniers were defeated, at least 200 did win congressional and statewide posts. Setting the stage to mess with 2024 vote certification and create a chaotic constitutional crisis.

Trump was a big loser, with many of his whacko candidate picks doing poorly; a big winner was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. That won’t dissuade Trump from running in 2024, while energizing a DeSantis run. He’d actually be a much more dangerous candidate — the long-feared slicker version of Trump, without all his nasty baggage (though DeSantis has his own sort of nastiness). But could DeSantis beat Trump for the nomination? Trump can out-nasty DeSantis. And most Trump supporters are cultists not into rational political calculation. Nominating him in 2024 ought to incur massive defeat — in a rational world. Of course, we thought that in 2016.

America’s Appointment in Samarra

November 6, 2022

An old Arab parable: In Baghdad’s marketplace, a man’s servant finds himself eyed ominously by a figure he recognizes as Death. To escape his fate, he’ll ride immediately away, to Samarra, he tells his employer. Who goes to the marketplace and sees the dark figure. “Why did you frighten my servant?” he asks. “Oh, I was merely surprised to see him here in Baghdad,” Death answers, “because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

In John O’Hara’s 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra, Julian English is an upper crust businessman, believing the world owes him his status. Then he does one stupidly impulsive thing. It sets him on a dark path, which he treads implacably, refusing to make a course correction. Ultimately wrecking his entire life. Was it fate, like in the parable?

I don’t believe in fate; we have choices. Julian, unlike that servant — or perhaps like him? — could have avoided what befell him. O’Hara’s book is discussed, together with Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, in one by Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club. In the Banks book, Schwalbe writes, “one bad decision starts to unravel everything. As with O’Hara, it’s not just the bad decision; weakness and stubbornness also contribute.”

Reading this I realized that’s exactly what’s happening to America. We made one bad decision in 2016; in 2020 it briefly looked as though, unlike those novels’ protagonists, we were course correcting; but now it seems we’re veering back toward a disaster we’re incapable of averting. About to put in power a bunch of bad people, and lock in a fatal 2024 election blow-up. Inflation and crime won’t wreck America; the Trump cult’s assault on democracy, truth, and reason will.

This is insane. I have tried to sound the alarm, but most Americans’ heads are elsewhere. I feel like a Jeremiah, the Biblical prophet whose warnings were ignored.

America is racing toward an appointment in Samarra.

Iran: Theocracy Hypocrisy

November 4, 2022

Decrying Iran’s tyranny, and rooting for the women protesters, is facile. But two points:

One, Iran is seemingly a special case among the world’s dictatorships — a theocracy, rule in the name of religion. However, that’s just the regime’s cover story for what is in reality plain old autocracy, its guys (and they’re all male) ruling not to serve God but themselves; not by grace of God but guns.

Part of their pretend-piety is enforcing a stringent female dress code, putatively to protect against otherwise uncontrolled male libidos. (Western men aren’t unhinged by seeing gals’ hair, but never mind.)

Women are protesting after one was killed for a headscarf lapse. Note that the Koran merely speaks of dressing modestly, with all the extreme rules a later invention, to keep women down. Which goes way beyond clothing. Women are subject to suffocating restrictions in all aspects of life — even sometimes including who they marry.

Iran’s theocrats exploiting religion for self-aggrandizing power is hypocrisy enough. But the hypocrisy goes ballistic when women are brutalized with torture and rape to enforce a dress code supposedly to protect them. Yes, many are being raped by their captors. Rape in the name of protecting their sacralized virginity. Isn’t rape against the koran? Will anyone be punished — like those women are?

Some religious believers are sincere, even virtuous. But those many who exploit religion for self-serving ends never are. Religion is all too apt, as in Iran, to empower bad people to act badly. Religion and hypocrisy are blood brothers.

Which leads me to Point Two. America must guard against this. We are full of people who actually want us to be not a democracy but a theocracy. A majority would never accede; but the majority be damned (literally) in their eyes. Willing to use undemocratic means to get their way. That’s how they’ve already gotten a Supreme Court that’s smashing down our wall of separation between church and state.

Iran’s theocracy came in through violent revolution. I once thought The Handmaid’s Tale could never actually happen in America. But in a sequel, author Margaret Atwood explains how her fictional theocracy arose simply by a violent coup. Today I’m less sure it can’t happen here.

Chinese Exceptionalism: the Mandate of Heaven, and Political Legitimacy

October 23, 2022

Xi Jinping has started a third term as China’s ruler.

Not “elected.” While democracy has achieved such moral cachet that even the worst dictators (like Putin) pretend to hold “elections,” China remains a notable exception. And, as Francis Fukuyama stresses in his book The Origins of Political Order, although rule of law generally circumscribed even Europe’s most powerful past monarchs, that was never true in China, whose Emperors reigned with no constraint.

Mao too ruled as an essentially unrestrained autocrat. The bloody “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) was his final effort to crush all opposition. After Mao’s excesses, Deng Xiaoping did establish at least an orderly system, with leaders emerging from the Communist party’s highest echelon, accountable to it, and limited to two five-year terms. This held until Xi Jinping came along. And the third term decision was not collective; no Chinese functionary can oppose Xi without the direst consequences. He too now rules without constraint. (Also contrary to post-Mao practice, no next-in-line has even been named.)

China does have a written constitution, which means nothing. The Communist party actually rejects “constitutionalism” as a wicked Western idea, and conceives itself as the supreme authority. (And today, for “party,” read “Xi.”)

And what confers such authority? Western monarchs invoked “the divine right of kings,” claiming their power came from God. (In truth, it was one guy muscling out rivals.) China’s similar concept, from BC times, has always been “the mandate of Heaven.” Another mystical source for political legitimacy. But note that China never had traditional religions akin to ours with supernatural powers. So “Heaven” does not equate to God. Fukuyama translates “the mandate of Heaven” as invoking “the grand order of things.” Thus, a ruler’s ruling by that mandate means it’s just the way things ought to be. Confirmed by the very fact of rulership. Once you’ve got it.

A tautological post-hoc rationalization for power, not a legitimate source for it. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

Mao more candidly theorized that “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Most Chinese emperors inherited the “mandate of Heaven” from their fathers; but periodically a dynasty was overthrown, typically by violence and upheaval, the next ruler fighting his way to the throne. Another route to the mandate. Xi got there by political infighting, but it wasn’t exactly nonviolent — numerous rivals wound up in prison.

It may seem odd that China never developed in a rule-of-law direction, or with governmental accountability, since as Fukuyama also details, China was actually the first country to build an otherwise recognizably modern state, with a rational, functionally organized administrative system, not kinship-based, thousands of years ago. But Fukuyama suggests that the lateness of Western state building, compared to China’s, actually explains the subsequent political liberty: “precocious state building [like China’s] in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannize their populations more effectively. Every advance in material well-being and technology implies, in the hands of an unchecked state, a greater ability to control society and to use it for the state’s own purposes.” Thus China’s history of extreme repression.

Another key concept in Fukuyama’s book is that democracy and accountability took hold only where major power loci in a society were roughly in balance, none able to dominate, forcing them to accommodate each other. So perhaps one reason for democracy’s recent retreat is the ability of one power — generally, a strongman and his gang getting control of state apparatus — to dominate after all, trumping the claims of rival groups. (Republicans aim for this.) China has never had a coherently organized societal power locus outside of the state (like, for example, the Church in the West), to challenge its pre-emptive control.*

This may explain Xi’s recent assault on the tech sector, and titans like Jack Ma, knocking them down a few notches. It seemed like economic self-harm for China. But it forestalls any challenge to Xi’s power from that quarter.

One thing I’ve learned from history is that nothing is ever inevitable. Always dependent upon the decisions and choices humans make. Many millions who work as cogs in China’s crushing party machine do it with zeal, believing it a Very Good Thing. Some may realize it’s not, but support it to survive and feather their own nests. The world is full of such.

In fairness, the “mandate” actually claimed by China’s Communist party is this deal with the populace: you let us rule, and we give you stability and prosperity. Maybe understandable given China’s ghastly history in those regards.

And the party has delivered. It’s also true that rulership accountable to no one but itself can often get things done more efficiently (ruthlessly) than “messy” democracy.** Yet “Man does not live by bread alone;” freedom and democracy are valued by people too, as integral to quality of life. And the Chinese are paying, for what the regime gives them, a very high price in freedom.

Just how high a price received a bone-chilling look in a July essay in The Economist about Hong Kong repression (“Anatomy of an Erasure”). And is it a price Chinese must necessarily pay for their stability and prosperity? Those are provided abundantly in most Western societies without sacrificing freedom and democracy. Indeed, the latter have a high correlation with stability and economic strength.

Surely the Western model offers citizens a far better deal. But China’s people are not given the choice.

* Note too that European kings would sometimes side with an emerging bourgeoisie against aristocrats, seeing the latter as greater threats to their power; thus too promoting rule of law development.

** Though Xi’s extreme “zero Covid” policy (like his tech bashing) is a huge economic detriment, with widespread lockdowns. China could get out of that box with a big vaccination push, but Xi refuses.

Max Boot on Trump Derangement Syndrome

October 19, 2022

“Trump derangement syndrome” is invoked by his fans gleeful at his driving opponents nuts. Of course, those opponents are entirely rational; it’s Trumpers themselves who are deranged.

Max Boot is a writer and pundit, a public intellectual. His 2018 book — The Corrosion of Conservatism — Why I Left the Right — mirrors my own trajectory.

Like me, Boot saw the Trumpification of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, of which he’d been part, as a perversion and betrayal. He cancelled his GOP voter enrollment the day after the 2016 election. I took a few months longer.

Boot thinks what happened to conservatism has pre-Trump roots, and that people like him (and me) bear some responsibility for failing to see it. I’d put it this way: conservatism long had a principled, idealistic, intellectual strain, but also a primitivist “blood and soil” white nationalist strain of cultural revolt. The former was exploiting the latter, but was riding a tiger, and wound up eaten.

It may not be so surprising that primitivism won out. But what Boot (and I) found so shocking is how people who seemed to be principled conservatives capitulated so completely. Not so much eaten by the tiger as changing their own stripes.

What exactly is (or was) the principled conservatism Boot is talking about? His prologue sets it out: prudent and incremental policymaking based on empirical study; support for American global leadership and allies; willingness to oppose the enemies of freedom; respect for character, community, personal virtue, and family; limited government and fiscal prudence; freedom of opportunity rather than equality of outcome; a social safety net to help the neediest without stifling initiative and social mobility; individual liberty to the greatest extent possible consistent with public safety; freedom of speech; embracing immigration. The Declaration of Independence defining us by a shared belief that all people are created equal, with a right to pursue happiness. The Constitution advancing this by limiting government power and ensuring rule of law.

Trumpism repudiates all this. Trump exploited pre-existing primitivist tendencies on America’s right to a depth no previous Republican ever had; but also catalyzed them, turbocharged them.

The resulting transmogrification might be almost comprehensible if led by some charismatic leader, a white knight. But here we have, in Boot’s words, “a moral abomination.” It makes one’s head explode. And of course this doesn’t travesty just conservatism, but America itself.

A key point for Boot is the attitude toward immigrants. He was one himself — at age six, from the Soviet Union. Though he feels totally American, he’s very mindful of the welcome his family experienced, and considers that aspect of America’s culture one of its crowning glories. So do I — seeing someone evidently born elsewhere gives me a jolt of satisfaction to be part of a society so attractive to so many, and with such generosity of spirit to welcome them.” Or rather,” as Boot remarks, “I felt that way before the rise of Trump and his demonization of immigrants.”

Irving Kristol said a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality. Boot writes something similar from the other side, telling how greater understandings of realities made him revise some of his cookie-cutter conservative precepts. For example, opposing any gun control, which took him decades to realise is insupportable. More broadly, he says he hadn’t just drunk the Kool-Aid of conservatism but bathed in it; a kind of self-brainwashing. Being part of the tribe felt good, and leaving it felt horrible. Boot notes that when a conservative intellectual pal went whole hog Trumpy, the guy justified it by saying politics is tribal, and he had to stick with the tribe.

That helps explain what made Boot different. He was not free of tribal feeling, but his rationalism was strong enough to supersede it. Unlike most conservatives, even the most seemingly intellectual.

My experience is again similar. Since I became a conservative in the 1960s, the world has changed vastly, and one must adjust one’s viewpoint accordingly. (I’ve written about my “ideology of reality.”*) Furthermore, there can be contradictions between positions taken by most adherents of a movement and its underlying principles, properly understood. Illustrated by the left’s tortured relationship with freedom of thought and expression.

Boot says he used to dismiss liberals calling Republicans racist. Now he thinks they were actually right, and white nationalism was long at the core of what actuated most rank-and-file Republicans. And Boot candidly faults his slowness to understand the rotten treatment Blacks, women, and other disadvantaged groups continue (despite progress) to suffer in American society.

Most of the book chronicles the 2016 campaign and the start of Trump’s presidency, all the while lamenting the awfulness and conservatism’s concomitant defenestration of principle. This incisive, comprehensive indictment, showing how much America’s been damaged, would be hugely shocking were it not already so familiar.

What still is really shocking is how we’ve accepted, even normalized, this litany of evil. Well, Republicans have. Boot has plenty to say about their disgusting justification of Trump’s every atrocity. And Boot was writing before Trump was even halfway through his term. Before the pandemic, before January 6, the attempted coup, the Big Lie.

An epilogue recaps again the policies Boot now embraces: social liberalism (pro-LGBTQ rights and pro-choice); fiscal conservatism; free markets; helping the needy; free trade; environmentalism; gun control; pro-immigration; free speech; strong defense; internationalism. Stances generally favored by most Americans, but no party embraces them all. Thus Boot found himself a man without a party. Unwilling to plump for Democrats, whom he saw as going too far left, in the Sanders-Warren direction. He did not say he’d vote for either against Trump (having voted for Clinton). This was 2018, remember. The name Biden doesn’t appear in this context. I myself did join the Democratic party, precisely to use my vote against the left. In this regard, Boot may have been too pessimistic. While I was too optimistic in hoping a Biden presidency might restore some normality to our politics. I kept saying of Trumpism, “it will get worse,” but didn’t foresee how much worse.

So: what does, after all, explain Trump derangement syndrome? For seven years I’ve busted my head over this; have written much about it. Most Trumpers are — apart from politics — good, sensible, reasonable people. Who, when it comes to politics, go completely off the rails. In the final analysis, I can’t really make sense of it, except to say that human beings and their mental processes are complicated.


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.

Faulkner on Race

September 10, 2022

I’ve written about William Faulkner (1897-1962) as my favorite novelist. A Mississippian, his books were all set there, between Civil War times and the early 20th century. The characters and their stories ain’t pretty. Yet the books exuded a love for humanity. I chose a Faulkner quote as the epigraph for my Optimism book.

Though the novels did include Black characters, they never really get into the race issue. Indeed, all the nasty stuff was white-on-white. The situation of Southern Blacks was a background fact, but so unremarked there seemingly might have been no such situation. So much a “given” of Faulkner’s milieu that it required no acknowledgement. Or maybe it just wasn’t what he wanted to write about.

I recently read a Modern Library volume titled William Faulkner – Essays, Speeches & Public Letters. One fairly long piece discusses the American dream, where the individual is “free of that mass into which the hierarchies of church and state had compressed and held him.” But in our sleep “it abandoned us . . . what we hear now is a cacophony . . . babbling only the mouthsounds; the loud and empty words which we have emasculated of all meaning whatever — freedom, democracy, patriotism.” A sickness that “goes back to that moment in our history when we decided that the old simple moral verities over which taste and responsibility were the arbiters and controls, were obsolete and to be discarded.” And “Truth — that long clean clear line . . . has now become an angle, a point of view having nothing to do with truth nor even with fact, but depending solely on where you are standing.”

All cogent about today’s Republicans, I thought. Though written in 1955. And what got Faulkner’s bile boiling? Some magazine had the temerity to run an article about this Nobel laureate against his wishes!

But some of these pieces do address race matters Faulkner sidestepped in his novels. For a Mississippian of his era, he was on the enlightened end of the spectrum. But that’s not saying much.

Faulkner truly loved the place, and not just the scenery. He expressed love for its people, culture, and traditions. Now, I believe most people are mostly good. But unfortunately susceptible to shaping by the culture embedding them. I’m sure Faulkner could have expatiated on the virtues in Mississippi’s culture and traditions. But that would omit key realities.

He actually had nothing to say about slavery. Yet did imbibe the South’s “Lost Cause” mythology, that there was something noble in their fight, though what, exactly, is never very clear. He definitely considered the Northerners the bad guys, unjustified invaders. That too elides much historical reality.

Faulkner actually endorsed racial equality. But not right away. Urging the civil rights movement — then just starting — to go slow. He was “strongly against compulsory integration.” Seemingly, he didn’t want Southern racists to gain the sympathy that underdogs accrue. Saying they’d come around eventually. (But after a century . . . )

In 1931, a Memphis newspaper published a Black man’s letter endorsing a Mississippi anti-lynching organization. Noting that there’d never been a lynching before Reconstruction. Faulkner found it needful to reply.

He explained, “there was no need for lynching until after reconstruction days.” (He suggests the influx of Northerners then was responsible for lynchings.) And asserted that “Blacks who get lynched are not representative of the black race, just as the people who lynch them are not representative of the white race.” Indeed, he believed anyone lynched must have done something wrong, to provoke it.

Faulkner did state, “I hold no brief for lynching.” But (my paraphrase) — it’s just one of those things. He said a lynching “requires a certain amount of sentimentality, an escaping from the monotonous facts of day by day.” And if a few Blacks suffer thusly from “white folks’ sentimentality,” he adduced a convoluted scenario of such sentimentality indulging a Black debt cheat. Also mentioning a Black man supposedly living for fifteen years on public charity, impossible in any other country — which he said is why they have no lynchings. Then he made fun of foreign press accounts of U.S. lynchings.

His final paragraph conceded “that mob violence serves nothing.” Yet ended saying, “Some [people] will die rich, and some will die on cross-ties soaked with gasoline, to make a holiday. But there is one curious thing about mobs. Like our juries, they have a way of being right.”

Now, I had to consider the possibility that this ostensibly execrable piece was actually a wicked satire of people who excuse lynchings, to expose their bad thinking.* But no, this was 1931 Mississippi. With its distinctive people, culture, and traditions to which Faulkner was so attached.

What the post-Civil War Reconstruction period introduced was the idea of Black people having rights. Lynchings were one way whites fought that. The point was not to punish Black crimes, but to terrorize any Blacks trying to assert any rights. To keep them “in their place.” Accusations were mere pretexts. A high proportion of lynching victims were completely innocent. There were thousands; more in Mississippi than in any other state.

Yes, lynchings did become festive “holidays.” Revealing they had nothing to do with justice, they were celebrations of white supremacy. And — mostly accompanied by hideous torture — revealing the inhuman cruelty of the perpetrators’ “culture and traditions.”

Mobs “have a way of being right?” How about the one that lynched Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, in Georgia on May 19, 1918. Her husband had been lynched the day before — one of seven innocent Blacks lynched for supposed complicity in the death of a white farm owner who had abused them. Mary Turner’s transgression was to protest against her husband’s murder. For that — to teach a lesson — a mob bound Mary’s feet, hanged her upside down from a tree, threw gasoline on her, and burned her clothes off. Then took a butcher knife to cut her baby from her body; one man crushed the crying baby’s head with his foot. Finally Mary was killed by a fusillade of bullets. No one was ever charged with a crime.

“Sentimentality?” Culture and tradition, Mr. Faulkner?

I can’t say I’ll never read Faulkner again. But it will be with lessened pleasure.

* To be sure here, I did some googling, and turned up a master’s thesis discussing Faulkner’s 1931 letter in depth. There’s no basis for thinking it wasn’t straightforward.

The Metaphysical Club: Religion and Democracy

September 6, 2022

When single, I jumped on a personal ad saying “interested in ideas.” But on our date, the gal seemed no intellectual. I asked what she’d meant by “interested in ideas.” She replied, “Oh, like new ways to cook spaghetti.”

Then married Therese. At a used book sale, she pointed out one I’d ignored: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. About American philosophy from before the Civil War to about a century later. She proposed we read it together.

We’d started with Proust’s seven-volume opus; took us over two decades, though in the early years our readings were intermittent. Then we moved on to The Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and others. Mostly it’s me reading aloud to her. I enjoy the challenge of putting the emphasis on the right words, without necessarily knowing where a sentence is going. It’s an immersive exercise empowering comprehension.

And I love Therese’s astute listenership, engaging with the ideas. If a line is nonsense, Therese is right on it. How delicious having such a partner (who can also cook spaghetti).

William James

The Metaphysical Club’s title nods to a group of intellectuals who’d meet to discuss philosophy in mid-1800s Cambridge, MA. It focuses particularly on William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce. The last name less famous, though I’d known it did loom large in American philosophy, without actually knowing anything about Peirce or his thought. The book left me baffled that he’s remembered at all. His life was a mess; didn’t publish much. But William James championed Peirce’s importance, making it so.

Menand devotes much time to pragmatism, a philosophical stance associated most prominently with James and Dewey. Pragmatism valorizes an idea less on its correspondence to factual reality than on how well it works for the believer. This was mainly an effort to justify religious faith.

Which indeed was a dominating factor in 19th century American thought. James in particular, though a penetrating analyst in so many respects, was hung up on his profound yearning to validate the unseen. A similar case, also prominent in the book, was the naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose scientific work was deeply compromised by his insistence on centralizing God.


Of course people like Agassiz and James also desperately wanted to believe death is not final. But the book makes plain how such supernaturalism pervasively mucked up American thought all the way to modern times.

We’ve hosted a Muslim student from Somaliland. She was bugged by the evident irrationalities of her faith, and eager to discuss them.

Our bull sessions on this finally led her to realize that once she stopped trying to hammer the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality, all her conundrums dissolved, and everything made a lot more sense.

Another thread in the book concerned the nature of American society, especially its pluralism and democracy. Like with religion, pragmatism emphasized outcomes — whether or not something is good for the society as a whole — de-emphasizing what’s good for its individual members. But as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society.” That was widely decried; however, what she really meant (I think) was that society is made up of individuals, and at the end of the day, it’s how those individuals fare that really matters.

It’s the difference between viewing humans as akin to members of an ant colony or beehive, where only the society matters, not individuals — and honoring each person’s human dignity as worthy in itself. Recognizing that what’s “good” for society cannot be purchased at the expense of what’s good for the individuals comprising it. A mistake made by various collectivist ideologies.

This doesn’t mean people living (like anti-maskers) in disregard of the societies in which they’re embedded. That embedment gives life much of its meaning. We do have duties to others (mainly avoiding harm). We honor them because that enables individuals, all of us, to thrive best.

John Dewey’s “pragmatism,” in particular, held that democracy is the best system because it optimizes the society’s contours. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse. China’s regime today is battling Dewey, arguing that its regimented top-down dictatorship (which it yet insists is somehow truly democratic!) is best for society’s flourishing.

Both are wrong. Democracy’s virtue is its serving the universal human thirst to matter individually. Not as another faceless ant in the ant-hill. Thus “Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end,” as Menand says on his final page, “it is the end.”

He also quotes Holmes that there’s no point in reading anything over twenty years old. And acknowledges that the thinkers he discusses were operating in a landscape very different from what came later; and while their ideas nevertheless “can seem familiar to us in rather uncanny ways,” they and their world also seem “almost unimaginably strange.”

Therese and I noted that the book was published in 2001 — it’s over twenty years old. And today’s America is a very different country again from the one Menand was writing in. One wonders what it will be like in another two decades.

One of the sad things about finite lives is that I don’t get to know how history comes out.