Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Million Moron March, and political tribalism

November 13, 2020

There were fears of a violent insurrectionary “March on Washington” by gun nuts to keep Trump in office. Violence may yet occur. But what we’ll mainly see at tomorrow’s march is a sad sick freak show. (Hopefully way less than a million.)

Featuring “Proud Boys” and other white nationalists, the deranged Alex Jones and other conspiracist cuckoos, you get the picture. The worst of the worst, all marching for a loony lie — that Trump actually won the election. The march endorsed by his campaign, and Fox’s national joke Sean Hannity.

Its marquee is “Stop the Steal.” More accurately “Start the Steal,” because the real aim is to somehow steal the election Biden won fair and square, by a pretty strong margin at that.

Calling it stolen from Trump is not just a lie (backed by no substantive facts), it’s an extremely harmful lie, because it tears apart the nation’s fabric, by undermining trust and respect for its key institutions and democracy itself. Exactly what Putin and China want. And these people have the brass to wave the flag and call themselves “patriots.”

Trumpism has always been an edifice of lies. Starting with “birtherism” and building from there. Lie upon lie upon lie, making war on the concept of truth itself. So people won’t know anymore that there’s even such a thing as truth (the ultimate triumph of postmodernism).

Look, I get it that people have political opinions different from mine. That’s fine. But it’s unnerving to see how people’s political views can override what should be normal resistance to being manipulated by a blatantly self-interested fraudster. How blind can you make yourself?

It’s political tribalism carried to its farthest extreme. An ethos of us-against-them, with winning becoming all, no matter the cost. That’s bad enough. But now it’s even sustaining a fiction of winning despite actually losing.

The New York State Writers Institute hosted a talk by Yale Law Professor Amy (“Tiger Mother”) Chua, whose latest book concerns political tribalism.* She sees America as a “supergroup” nation. Nationalism is a kind of group identity. But what sets us apart is the degree to which subgroup identity also thrives. Referring to ethnicities, religions, cultural affinities, and of course politics. She contrasts this with other countries like France, for example, with nationalistic feeling, but limited opportunity for expression of subgroup identities. It’s the interplay between the broad nationalism and the strong subgroup factor that makes America distinctive, Chua argues.

It can be a great thing. My town has had an annual Greek festival, where Greek-Americans celebrate their heritage — with no insularity, but the wider community welcomed to participate; I’ve attended myself. Exemplifying our apt national motto, e pluribus unum. 

But such subgroup identity can be toxic, Chua says, when it infects politics. There’s nothing zero-sum about the Greek festival, but politics always entails winners and losers. Okay when it’s just your candidate losing. But when it’s your tribe, that’s something else.

And worse yet, for too many people, political tribalism has gotten entwined with another sort. Mainly white identity.

As Chua notes, this is a relatively new development. Indeed, white identity didn’t even seem to be a thing so long as whiteness was unassailably dominant as the cultural standard. There was nothing for whites to think about.

Exemplar of white racial superiority

But now there is, for some, seeing that white dominance eroding. “White supremacy” is a quite accurate term — it’s not just the idea of racial superiority, it’s also white cultural and political supremacy.

To be clear, it’s only a minority of whites feeling this way. But it’s a significant minority. And while not all Trump fans buy into it, it’s nevertheless at the heart of Trumpism.

For those people, it’s not just Trump losing. It’s whiteness. That’s what many are really marching about tomorrow.

Chua quoted Nietzsche, that mental illness is rare in individuals, but less so in groups. We sure see it in the Trump world’s willingness to disengage the normal human lie detector. That’s where political commitment transmutes into mental illness. Exemplified by the “Stop the Steal” movement.

But Chua concluded on a positive note, saying that what should be the core of American nationalist identity, holding all our subgroups together, are the values embodied in the Constitution. Thus a nation founded not on blood and soil, but on ideas and ideals.

* Here’s a link to view it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYtlHLlmBp0

My love for Trump supporters

November 7, 2020

We all have multiple allegiances. My central allegiance is to my species. Our great human project, since our dawn, has been to facilitate good rewarding lives, striving for fulfillment, surmounting the challenges of an uncaring cosmos.I’m part of that, thus inspiring a fundamental sense of affinity with everyone else. This is my love for people. Collectively and individually.

This fundamental truth overwhelms our differences, including particulars of what people think and believe. My entire life’s been lived among other people mostly holding profoundly different metaphysical ideas. Ones that, frankly, I might consider insane but for being so widely shared. Yet of course that doesn’t make me see them as bad people or enemies. We all struggle to understand our ineffable reality.

So too for Trump supporters, with beliefs repugnant to me. That doesn’t make them bad people either. Loving their families, supporting their friends, doing their jobs, fulfilling their responsibilities; all of us human beings just living our lives as best we can, taking part in the great human story. Trumpers too come under the umbrella of my love.

America has always been a wonderful place for humans living out that story. We have just been sorely tested; and as a people we passed with flying colors. But the country still now faces powerful challenges. One is how we can live together. We need for Trump supporters to join with us in the great work ahead.

Deliverance — for now — barely

November 4, 2020

My 2008 Rational Optimism book saw a powerful trend of human progress. With America in its vanguard. But progress never runs in a straight line, and democracy in particular has since suffered notable setbacks. Then America itself went off the rails.

Re-raising our flag

I watched Trump go from triumph to triumph. I understood all too well the evil, and its global import. This election feels like the world finally put right. Reprising my elation three decades past when Communism fell.

But this is better. I’d grown up accepting Communism as a given, its fall unanticipated. And while that happened far away, this time it’s my own country. Still further, here I personally played a part.

Biden has won the needed 270 electoral votes. In states where he now leads narrowly, his margin can only grow.

Trump will try to stop the counting and to overturn the election. He will fail. And his place in history as a our worst-ever president will be further secured by his post-election behavior, starting with last night’s 2 AM “Victory Speech.” Who ever imagined a leading newscaster justifiably calling a presidential address “obscene?”

He can still do much other damage too, before January 20, trashing the place before leaving. Repair will be an enormous challenge for President-elect Biden.

My drawing dated 1960

Expectations will be huge, while handicapped by a still-Republican Senate. I am prepared for disappointment, as the normal condition. Of course, mere disappointment is nothing as against the Trumpian nightmare.

When he became president, I actually said to myself, “how many people will die?” Ultimately, the vast human suffering he caused is literally beyond comprehension. It’s also a sobering thought that but for the pandemic horror, Trump would have won re-election. As if those deaths were the terrible price for saving America.

That so many people still voted for Trump — in spite of everything —  is shocking. They’re in two basic categories.

One comprises the real cult devotees, hyped up on conspiracy theories and the other garbage spewed by Trump, Fox News, OANN, and disgraceful right-wing websites and talk radio, stuffing them full of talking points to defend the indefensible. Feeling sure that investigations will soon explosively expose vast crimes by Obama, Biden, and other Democrats. It’s hard to forgive these people who so perversely misuse the brains God gave them.

The other category is ordinary voters not so obsessed with politics. Believing Trump and Fox because they didn’t know better. Oblivious to how cynically they were manipulated. This shows a big part of America is still off the rails.

The word “anger” comes up a lot in discussing Trump voters. I think the word disaffection fits better. A lot of Americans have become alienated from their society. It’s actually strange that it isn’t non-whites, they believe in the American idea; it’s many whites losing that sense of connection to a larger civic enterprise. For all the flag-waving professions of patriotism, the America they love is not one embodying its core values — it’s not the country that actually exists today. Nobody with any true feel for its ideals, principles, and values could have so cavalierly voted for a man who so traduced them. This was civic nihilism.

Yet these are not “deplorable” people. The rational optimist in me still considers most people good. Trump voters made a mistake. Well, okay, two. Nobody’s perfect. Studies of people brainwashed by cults show most return to normal after the episode ends. Hard as it is for me, I forgive them. For the sake of repairing our badly damaged society, we must seek for ways to reconcile, and heal our divisions. In Lincoln’s words, with malice toward none, with charity for all. That’s why I’d supported Biden from the start.

Trump’s defeat helps lance the boil. The question is how many will realize they’ve been conned, versus believing the election a massive fraud. Fueling their already rich sense of grievance, further poisoning our political life, intensifying the deranged hatred for Biden and Democrats. So it may be an impossible challenge, but again, we must do everything we can to somehow enfold these people back into our common American enterprise.

Democrats should eschew the anti-democratic tactics of Republicans, and refrain from exerting power in ways that opponents will see as illegitimate, escalating partisan warfare. No “court packing,” for example. Such restraint is one of the things that sustained our system, and its lack among today’s Republicans is a huge problem. They have been pulling our democracy apart, from one end; Democrats must not be seen pulling from the other end.

Trump’s astounding degree of vileness, his literal insanity, was actually lucky for us. One could easily imagine a smoother more seductive version, without his psychological black holes, who’d have been much slicker at putting across his con. Like, trying to expand his base of support, even a little; and being serious about covid. It’s frightening that Trump, in spite of everything, might actually have won if he’d merely acted sane. But of course he isn’t, so he couldn’t.

Thus he leaves a clear playbook for a future demagogue. Like a virus evolving and adapting. We’ve managed to overcome this particular affliction, this time, barely. But it has weakened us. I’m not sure we have the civic antibodies to defeat the next one.

Trump shredded norms of civic decency that will be hard to restore. Biden behaving impeccably won’t erase what is now a precedent for atrocious conduct. We quickly became inured to it with Trump, enabling a future president to push the envelope even further (if that can be imagined).

The Trump years might be seen as aberrational, a discontinuity in our social fabric. But actually it’s been flying apart for some time. Technology changes our world faster than we can adapt (as Thomas Friedman has argued). Coronavirus aggravates a sense of insecurity that propels sociopolitical disaffection. All discombobulating American minds. Thus the next Trumplike demagogue will be plowing in fertile soil. (And not necessarily from the right. There’s plenty of craziness on the left too.)

But maybe, just maybe, we’ve now had peak crazy. Maybe this election will prove to be the turning of the tide, globally.

For most of human history, tomorrows looked much like yesterdays. Not so now. In another decade or two, 2020 may look as distant as the Stone Age. Perhaps rendering moot much of this essay. As Yogi Berra said, making predictions is hard, especially about the future.

But for now, we have stared into the abyss, and come out. Let us rejoice at our deliverance with dancing in the streets.

Choice 2020: The final word, by The Economist

November 1, 2020

In 2016 we plunged into a political and societal crisis, which I’ve tried to chronicle and analyze. You’ve probably had your fill of it. Me too. But now finally (one hopes) comes the denouement.

The Economist, my favorite publication, is a British-based news magazine of highest reputation. Its editorial stance embodies Enlightenment liberalism (the classical 19th Century kind). It has now published its presidential endorsement, together with in-depth reviews of Trump’s domestic and foreign policy records.

In keeping with their scrupulous fair-mindedness and objectivity, they give Trump credit for some things he’s done. (Much of which I disagree about; as with some of their past presidential endorsements.) Nevertheless, whatever the positives may be, they’re overwhelmed by the negatives. The Economist emphatically endorses Biden.

It’s a lengthy, judicious, compelling editorial. I’ve condensed it, below:*

Why it has to be Joe Biden

Trump has desecrated the values that make America a beacon to the world

THE COUNTRY that elected Trump was unhappy and divided. It now is more unhappy and more divided. With a pandemic that has registered almost 230,000 deaths amid bickering, buck-passing and lies. 

Joe Biden is not a miracle cure for what ails America. But he is a good man who would restore steadiness and civility to the White House. He is equipped to begin the long, difficult task of putting a fractured country back together again.

Trump’s tax cuts were regressive. Some of the deregulation was harmful, especially to the environment. Health-care has been a debacle. He cruelly separated migrant children from parents, and limits on new entrants will drain America’s vitality. On the hard problems— North Korea, Iran, Middle East peace — Trump has fared no better than the Washington establishment he ridicules.

However, our bigger dispute with Trump is more fundamental. He has repeatedly desecrated the values, principles and practices that made America a haven for its own people and a beacon to the world. To breezily dismiss Trump’s bullying and lies as so much tweeting ignores the harm he has wrought.

It starts with America’s democratic culture. Instead of seeing toxic partisanship as bad for America, Trump made it central to his office. Never seeking to represent the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. Faced by an outpouring of peaceful protest after the George Floyd killing, his instinct was not to heal, but to depict it as an orgy of looting and left-wing violence — part of a pattern of stoking racial tension. Today, 40% of the electorate believes the other side is not just misguided, but evil.

The Trump presidency’s most head-spinning feature is his contempt for the truth. Nothing he says can be believed — including calling Biden corrupt. Trump voters like his willingness to offend. But America’s system of checks and balances suffers. This president calls for his opponents to be locked up; uses the Department of Justice to conduct vendettas; commutes the sentences of supporters convicted of serious crimes; gives his family plum jobs; and offers foreign governments protection in exchange for dirt on a rival. When a president casts doubt on the integrity of an election, he undermines the democracy he has sworn to defend.

Partisanship and lying also undermine policy. Look at covid-19. Trump had a chance to unite his country around a well organized response. Instead he saw Democratic governors as rivals or scapegoats; muzzled and belittled America’s world-class institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; sneered at science, including over masks; and has continued to misrepresent the evident truth about the epidemic and its consequences. America has many of the world’s best scientists. It also has one of world’s highest covid-19 fatality rates.

Alliances magnify America’s influence in the world. When countries that have fought alongside America look on his leadership, they struggle to recognize the place they admire.

That matters. American ideals really do serve as an example to other democracies, and to people who live in states that persecute their citizens. Trump thinks ideals are for suckers. The governments of China and Russia have always seen American rhetoric about freedom as cynical cover for the belief that might is right. Tragically, Trump confirms that.

Four more years of a historically bad president would deepen all these harms — and more. In 2016 American voters did not know what they were getting. Now they do. They would be voting for division and lying. Endorsing the trampling of norms and the shrinking of national institutions into personal fiefs. Ushering in destructive climate change. Signaling that the champion of freedom and democracy should be just another big country throwing its weight around. 

Mr Biden is a centrist, an institutionalist, a consensus-builder — an anti-Trump well-suited to repair some of the damage. He could begin to lay down a path toward reconciliation. He is no revolutionary. His tax rises on firms and the wealthy would be significant, but not punitive. He would seek to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, give more to health and education and allow more immigration. His climate-change policy would invest in research and job-boosting technology. He is a competent administrator and a believer in process. He listens to expert advice. He is a multilateralist: less confrontational than Trump, but more purposeful.

Trumpism is morally bankrupt. America faces a fateful choice. At stake is the nature of its democracy. One path leads to a fractious, personalized rule, dominated by a man who scorns decency and truth. The other leads to something better — something truer to the values that originally made America an inspiration around the world.

In his first term, Trump has been a destructive president. He would start his second affirmed in all his worst instincts. Mr Biden is his antithesis. He would enter the White House with the promise of the most precious gift democracies can bestow: renewal.

* Here’s the full text: www.fsrcoin.com/Econ.html

Third Factor: My political journey to radical centrism

October 30, 2020

I was invited to contribute a piece to Third Factor (an interesting magazine with a superb editor) — as a counterpoint to one wherein a Democrat expressed some disillusionment.I spent 53 years as a Republican, even considering myself very conservative. But today’s so-called “conservatism” is the antithesis of my beliefs and values.

Is it me that’s changed? In part. I feel I’ve grown in wisdom, my understanding deepened and broadened. Yet my Republican party changed more. Fell off a moral cliff.

It wasn’t overnight. My article explains my long grappling with ugly tendencies in the party. Mirrored now by grappling with unattractive things among some Democrats. But the latter pale in comparison.

Today I consider myself a radical centrist. Transgressing shibboleths of both left and right. Yet I believe my program should appeal to reasonable, rational people. Which seems radical today.

My political peregrination still feels weird to me. I imagine going back and telling a former self: “You will support a candidate with a passionate intensity like never before. To literally save the country from a monstrous regime. A Republican one. And the savior will be . . . Joe Biden.”

“May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse.

Read my article here: https://www.thirdfactor.org/robinson-radical-centrism/

The election: seeing is believing — or believing is seeing

October 28, 2020

A guy interviewed on NPR hoped his candidate would win in a landslide, fearing a close result would mean turmoil. His man: Trump. He worried about Democrats stealing the election.

With the election machinery in most swing states controlled by Republicans? And all signs showing Trump consistently far behind. Having totally repelled sane people, already voting in record-shattering numbers, which favors Democrats. Trump’s asinine campaign isn’t helping. Conceivably he might still eke out a squeaker. But a landslide??

The local paper recently profiled Edwin Lawson, 21, president of his college Republican club. Saying what he heard from “liberal media” and left-leaning professors didn’t match what he knew from experience or what a “reasonable careful accounting of the facts led him to.” Lawson saw a “mob mentality” on campus shutting down debate and making him “extra cautious when reading the news,” seeking a variety of sources across the political spectrum, being skeptical about bias or slant.

Sounds admirably sensible. I myself have assailed the left’s intolerance of divergent views. And Lawson was critical of Trump’s “unbecoming behavior.” Yet he supports Trump — citing “Biden’s occasional gaffes and misstatements.”

This is where Lawson’s professions of objectivity foundered. Yes, Biden occasionally misspeaks. Who doesn’t? But  Trump is a monster liar. That’s a much bigger deal.

So is the pandemic. Saying Trump did a good job defies reality. It’s hard to imagine worse. With this disaster still unfolding, to re-elect him would be insane. Lawson doesn’t even mention this elephant in the room.

Yet another pachyderm is spotlighted by that clueless NPR interviewee: the danger to democracy. No, it’s not Democrats who will try to blow up the country if they lose. Trump has virtually said he will. This too should be a deal-breaker for Republicans who actually care about America. But this too they choose to ignore.

The syndrome is epidemic in comments on my blog. Eagerness to believe almost anything negative about Democrats, while blind to every Trump horror. It’s not defending the indefensible, they don’t even try. Instead typically deflecting to attacks on Trump’s opponents. (“Whataboutism.”)

This reality disconnect is what’s so disturbing about Trump supporters. Like that guy hoping for a landslide; and actually Lawson too. Especially Lawson — a person who otherwise seems so intelligent and reasonable.

I was struck by a non-political remark the same day on NPR, by a contestant in its weekend puzzle segment, involving anagrams. He explained his difficulty: once you start to see something in a certain way it’s hard to unsee it.” 

Trumpers see things in a certain way and seem incapable of unseeing it. I see things a certain way too. How do I know mine is true and theirs is not?

Many, like Lawson, have a lot of information; often spouting fountains of it. Some is even true. But it’s all in service to their seeing things that certain way, to sustain and bolster it. Confirmation bias: welcoming information that supports a belief (or what you wish to believe), and rejecting discordant information. Most of us do this, and smarter people are actually better at it, better at coming up with rationalizations for how they curate information.

I’ve written (in 2013) of my ideology of realityRather than letting my beliefs shape the facts I see, I shape my beliefs upon the facts I see. That is my core belief; my ideology. It trumped my half a century as a Republican, enabling me to see Trump’s ghastly reality. A reality I’m thus sure is real, while the one inhabited by Trump cult devotees is not.

The big question is what happens after Trump’s defeat. How many of his suckers will finally wake up, their heads exploding, realizing they’ve been conned? How many will burrow deeper into rabbit holes of unreality, believing Trump the victim of some vast conspiracy of fraud? This will determine whether America has a future.

Marriage counselors know that an attitude of contempt between partners dooms a marriage. We Americans are perilously close to that point of no return. I for one, understanding this, am prepared to forgive, and reconcile with, Trump supporters. They’re not evil; just misguided. I believe — based on long experience and observation — thus a belief shaped by reality — that most people are good at heart. But it remains to be seen whether enough Americans share that belief, to overcome our divisions.

The Black Swan

October 19, 2020

You get fed every day. All you can eat. Treated very nicely too. As such days go by, you grow ever more confident they will continue. Then comes Thanksgiving — and you are a turkey.

Or a sucker, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Like that turkey, we are all suckers of a sort in failing to anticipate the possibility of a dramatic discontinuity in our reality. What Taleb calls a “black swan.” We may believe all swans are white, until a black one comes along, blowing up that assumption.

The book is fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking. It was published in 2007, just before a big black swan, the financial crisis. And reading it in 2020 gave it special added force. The Trump presidency makes many of us feel like that turkey. And then of course the pandemic hit.

The book’s watchword is unpredictability. Taleb considers it an inherent characteristic of existence. Yet we go through life seeming to ignore that. Thinking we know what’s going on, when in a deep sense we do not. Taleb is from Lebanon, his perspective shaped by the trauma of its 1975-90 civil war — coming after a thousand years of sectarian comity, this unforeseen black swan utterly changed the country.

Taleb divides things between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In the former, as its name implies, matters cluster around a middle, dictated by averages, conforming to a bell curve. Take height for example. Outliers like three foot dwarves and seven foot basketballers exist but disappear into the average, hardly affecting it because of the vast numbers closer to the middle.

But while in Mediocristan you do get people 50% above average, for something like wealth the outliers are thousands of times higher, with big effects on the overall picture. That’s Extremistan. Taleb sees reality as more like Extremistan; yet again we behave largely as Mediocristanis.

Trump’s election prompted an avalanche of analysis. Seemingly a tectonic cataclysm, but remember it was extremely close. Had it tipped the other way, the after-talk would have been totally different. His 2020 defeat will be, in major part, attributable to the pandemic. But for that, history might be going in a very different direction.

However — those things are not in fact black swans as Taleb defines the term. (He’d actually call them gray swans.) His black swan is something not just unforeseen but unforeseeable (except in hindsight). Taleb says we retrospectively paste our explanations onto past events as though they were (or should, or could, have been) foreseeable. But history just doesn’t work that way.

Reality is complex to an extreme degree. To navigate it, one’s mind creates a representation of it that is perforce vastly oversimplified. I’m reminded here of “LaPlace’s demon,”  hypothetically knowing literally everything about the Universe at a given moment — what every particle is doing — enabling it to predict the next moment (and the next). Of course humans are way short of that. One of Taleb’s key points is insufficiency of information available to us. Especially what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t realize we don’t know.

The book mentions the “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a storm in Kansas. I’m not sure that can ever literally happen, but the point is that a very small cause can trigger a very big effect. A black swan. Which we cannot foresee because we, unlike LaPlace’s demon, cannot assess every small thing happening in the world at a given moment. And, Taleb argues, the black swan’s disproportionately big impact renders what we do know about the world pretty much nugatory.

While most of us did not expect Trump’s presidency, we did at least see it as within the realm of possibility. And many voices had long been warning of a pandemic, someday, much like what we’ve got. It makes sense (though not to Trump) to prepare for such things. Los Angeles has preparations for an earthquake bound to happen someday. But in human psychology, “someday” is not an immediate concern, and for all practical purposes Angelenos live their lives in disregard of the earthquake threat. Just as we all did regarding the possibility of a pandemic. That’s actually not crazy.

Taleb is scathing about hosts of so-called experts, analysts, economists, etc., calling them frauds who are anchored in Mediocristan and oblivious toward Extremistan. Who don’t know what they don’t know. Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s famous study of political and economic “experts,” analyzing their predictions compared against results. Their predictions stunk. And the bigger their reputations the worse they stunk. Taleb comments: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” I recall hearing one forecast Taleb would have applauded: a “psychic” who predicted “unpredictable weather!”

Taleb’s particular bête noir is the Gaussian bell curve, which he deems an artifact of Mediocristan with scant applicability to the real world. I disagree, considering the bell curve a useful conceptual tool for understanding. For example, regarding the mentioned distribution of heights. Though of course one has to know when not to apply a bell curve. A black swan can blow it up, as Taleb insists.

For the stock market, you might expect daily ups and downs to fall along a bell curve — that is, most clustering around the average daily change, with the more extreme moves growing in rarity as they grow in size. That would be Mediocristan. But again Taleb thinks that’s not reality. He presents an analysis showing that if you remove from a fifty year stock market chart the ten most extreme days, the total return falls by half.

Another point is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Taleb cites the story of the ancient philosopher (Epicurus) shown portraits of sailors who prayed to the gods and survived shipwrecks. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Of course those couldn’t testify about their experience. That’s absence of evidence, or what Taleb calls “silent evidence.”

So what should we do? Taleb says (his emphases) “the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that . . . . This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.”

Reading this charitably, Taleb spent most of his life in financial markets, and that’s the context he’s mainly talking about. But as advice for life more generally — it’s insane.

One problem with his above quote is that if something really isunknown, you can’tguess its effect. But even in the realm of the knowable, myriad possibilities for disasters could conceivably strike us. We may not be able to gauge their probabilities with precision, but we can in fact know they are individually very small. A life spent trying to avoid every remote danger would be absurd. If you actually followed Taleb’s advice and focused on the potential (very large) impacts in disregard of their (very small) probabilities — you would never get out of bed in the morning.

No, we cannot know everything, and can be hit hard by things we couldn’t foresee. But we do the best we can. Evolution gave us minds — and psychologies — that, for all their undoubted limitations, are actually pretty darn good at equipping us to navigate through life and avoid pitfalls. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

Mortimer Adler: Ten Philosophical “Mistakes”

October 3, 2020

Mortimer Adler (1902-2001) was an American philosophy impresario. His shtick was promoting philosophy to the masses, at least the intelligent masses. I picked up his 1985 book Ten Philosophical Mistakes at a library sale, because it was there.

Philosophy is important, in two key respects. The first is understanding existence itself; the second is how should we live? Of course one can go through life without such pondering. Many do, untroubled. But it can help.

However, I am not a fan of “philosophy” as practiced by modern “philosophers,” mostly academics who write papers and books, likewise academic. Meaning that instead of tackling big questions, they go down rabbit holes of minutiae, unedifying to non-initiates.

I hoped Adler’s book on philosophical mistakes might aid my own thinking. It didn’t.

His relentless pounding the word “mistake” reminded me of how Stalinists applied it to ostensibly trifling ideological deviations made to seem so criminal the penalty could be death. (See also political correctness in today’s American universities.) You might imagine Adler is identifying real big bloopers. Instead most are subtle points that are at least arguable. Thus his castigating “mistakes” by thinkers like Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill (and others with multisyllabic names) felt overbearing.

He’s often attacking straw men. Example: Adler calls “mistaken” Hobbes’s idea of people in a “state of nature” agreeing to a social contract to resolve their predicament. Never happened, says Adler. Well, of course it didn’t. Hobbes was not writing history. He was instead seeking to elucidate the moral logic underpinning society.

Adler’s writing style doesn’t help. Actually, his book is painstakingly written to ensure every sentence says exactly what he means. But that very carefulness impedes communication. It felt stilted, abstruse, and opaque. Concrete examples would have aided intelligibility, but those are few. He often seems to dance around a point without ever grabbing it by the throat. Frequently it’s just hard to discern what the heck he’s talking about. This was a tedious read.

I will delve into just one of Adler’s disquisitions — one at least sufficiently clear that I feel able to.

This concerned Hume’s famous dictum that you can’t get an ought from an is. Or, how things arecannot tell us how they should be. Moral truths can’t be derived from any factual truths. “The Earth is round” is a provable statement of fact (notwithstanding dissent from latter-day flat earthers). “Murder is wrong,” in contrast, is an unprovable feeling or preference, no different really from a preference for chocolate.

This has vexed thinkers for centuries. We want there to be moral truths. Calling Hume mistaken, Adler seeks to find some premise that can be considered factual that can be parlayed into ethical facts.

He posits that what qualifies as a fact is something for which the contrary cannot be imagined as true. That is, a self-evident truth. His candidate is “right desire.” Which “consists in seeking what we ought to desire or seek.” But that, he says, “cannot simply be the good, for whatever we desire has the aspect of the good whether or not our desires are right or wrong.

That’s the kind of writing I found so maddening. Not to mention that saying we ought to desire that which we ought to desire seems a wee bit tautological.

Nevertheless — Adler goes on to distinguish between “natural desires” (“inherent in our nature” and thus the same in all humans) and “acquired desires” unique to each individual. That is, differentiating between “needs” and “wants.” Adler asserts that “[w]hatever we need is really good for us. There are no wrong needs. We never need anything to an excess that is really bad for us.” It’s only our “wants” that can go to an excess bad for us.

Excuse me? When an addict seeks a fix (concrete example), that may not be a “natural” need in Adler’s sense of human commonality, but for the addict it sure feels a lot like a need. A need “to an excess that is really bad for” him. On the other hand, “need” for sex certainly does meet Adler’s criterion for naturalness, but it’s clearly untrue that no one ever needs it to excess. All rendering problematic Adler’s dichotomy between needs and wants.

Nevertheless, it leads him to “the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire what is really good for us and nothing else (his emphasis).” This, he says, qualifies as self-evident.

And he does offer an example. “All human beings naturally desire or need knowledge (which is tantamount to saying that knowledge is really good for us) . . . we ought to seek or desire knowledge.” Extending this reasoning, he says, “can produce a whole set of of true prescriptive judgments.” And “solve all the problems that modern thought has posed [!]”

It’s not clear to me how this devolves from his dichotomy between “needs” and “wants.” The quotation above actually conflates the two. And it still seems fundamentally tautological — saying we should desire what’s desirable. Providing no guidance for determining what is good for us. Which is kind of central.

Take his own example of knowledge. In fact, saying all people “desire or need knowledge” is patently untrue. Lots of people positively shun knowledge lest it disturb cherished illusions.

Furthermore, Adler has, at best, offered only a partial solution to the is/ought problem. Addressing the aspect of moral philosophy concerning what’s good for oneself. But a big part of what we mean when we talk about “moral philosophy” is how we relate to others. That actually seems excluded by the “and nothing else” part of Adler’s formulation. Telling us to desire what we should desire is fine, albeit perhaps actually meaningless, but offers no help for when our desires conflict with those of others. A pretty large issue.

Hume was not “mistaken.” He was right that moral precepts cannot be facts in the “Earth is round” sense. But they don’t have to be, and I don’t think Hume was saying we’re morally at sea if they’re not. “Murder is wrong” is an opinion, but it is not a mere bald opinion, it is one premised upon a great deal of rational logic about how all people can, collectively, live the best lives possible.

The foundational premise for my own moral philosophy is that the only thing that ultimately matters is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. From this precept a full morality can indeed be derived. And it actually meets Adler’s criterion for a fact, since I cannot conceive of a refutation that makes any sense (correctly assuming there’s no god).

That’s my answer for the is/ought problem. Better, I think, than Adler’s.

Mychal Denzel Smith’s revolution: radical left magical thinking

September 25, 2020

I was shouting at the TV while watching with my wife The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah interview Mychal Denzel Smith (right), author of Stakes is High.

Smith saw little point in voting for Biden, deeming him just the same-old same-old, whose election would make no real difference. He feels America needs a thorough reinvention to right all its wrongs. While Noah suggested Biden would take us in the right direction, Smith was having none of it, saying Biden, once in office, would merely be a tool of the old establishment. Somewhat ironic given Trumpers painting Biden as a tool of radicals — like Smith himself!

Noah also tried to get Smith to acknowledge how bad, for America (and indeed Smith’s own agenda), another Trump term would be. Smith was having none of that either. Seemed to be saying, let the country be wrecked, then we can build our New Jerusalem on the ruins. Finally, Noah asked him what individuals can actually do. Smith’s wordy response didn’t answer that at all — infuriating my wife.

Afterward, we tried to make sense of this Mychal Denzel Smith. She thought maybe he was fine with Trump’s re-election, anticipating an assassination. I didn’t think so, unable to see that as advancing his radical aims. But then how does he imagine their achievement? Given that almost half the country is gaga Trumpist, while on the Democratic side even a moderately radical candidacy got whomped.

There’s something “radical chic” about people like Smith —thinking it cool — hence a kind of one-upmanship in radicalism — “mine more extreme than yours.” Like Smith thinks his politics is more serious. Yet can it be serious without some roadmap for getting there?

Smith seemed to be on a Yellow Brick Road of magical thinking. Simply ignoring that very few Americans actually want his revolution, with many horrified by it. How to win them over did not appear to be of interest to him. Thus he can’t, indeed, envision some sort of political campaign or action movement. Instead, it would have to be magic — America suddenly waking up and saying, en masse, “You’re right! Why didn’t we see it before?”

My wife poked around online and found that Smith, though unwilling to say so in the interview, does actually advocate violent revolution if needed. (Echoing Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary.”)

I said, so does he think they’ll have more guns than the other side?! If violence is to settle our political dispensation, it will be by right-wing gun nuts, not left-wing peaceniks.

Smith reflects a common cynical leftist view of America as irredeemable with racism and social injustice. Epitomized by Noam Chomsky, and by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — chronicling two centuries of efforts to overcome injustices and achieve progress, yet with nary a word acknowledging that anything was achieved at all. As if America was born in sin because it did not, in 1787, immediately free the slaves, give women the vote, empower labor unions, and right all wrongs. And it’s no better today.

Zinn’s litany might have included gay marriage. Except that no one could even imagine it when he wrote in 1980. Really proving how little he understood this nation’s capacity for progress.

America was not birthed in perfect justice. But into a world where there wasn’t even any such thing as self-government. Our starting it came to serve as a guiding light for much of humankind. What we also created was the kind of society that could progress and improve and right wrongs. And so we have. We did end slavery, did extend voting to the propertyless and then women, did give labor unions rights, constructing a host of other economic rights and protections, did end child labor, establish minimum wages and build social safety nets, did act to curb racial discrimination and segregation and to integrate our society. And much more — yes, even gay marriage.

Are we perfect now? No, we are still a work in progress, continuing inch by inch down that long hard road, not chasing some mirage of overnight revolution. That’s my noble conception of America. Which people like Mychal Denzel Smith tragically refuse to embrace.

More tragically, as his own book title says, the stakes right now are high, with that vision of America threatened as never before. Trump has already battered it. With four more years, it will be destroyed.

You want a revolution, Mr. Smith? Trump will show you a revolution.

John Lewis and the “Beloved Community”

September 22, 2020

One of my book groups read John Lewis’s 1998 autobiography, Walking With the Wind. He’s long been a hero to me.

The subtitle is A Memoir of the Movement, referring to the 1960s civil rights crusade. Lewis was there from the start, when he was twenty, in 1960. From 1963 to his 1966 ouster he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a frontline organization. Those few years were a very intense time for him.

I was reminded that in the same age bracket, I too was involved in an intense battle against an entrenched power structure — Albany’s Democratic political machine. And as with Lewis, it ended with a betrayal. My Republican party, which had been its spearhead, basically turned its back on that fight. At my last countywide party meeting, my speech was booed. But I never risked my life as Lewis did, repeatedly.

He never wavered from the basic principles that motivated him from the start. A Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, which for Lewis was a deeply felt moral commitment. With an ideal of equality, all Americans joining together in what Lewis liked to call a “beloved community.”

Perhaps inevitably, such generosity of spirit ultimately could not stand against other impetuses. The degree of violence encountered made some SNCC members want to fight fire with fire. While Lewis’s “beloved community” idea came under assault from those more militantly seeking not integration but separation. Propelled by Malcolm X’s black nationalist radicalism — of which he actually repented before his assassination. Nevertheless, that new “black power” trope made the old SNCC stance seem too tame for some. Stokely Carmichael was in that camp, maneuvering to wrest the group’s chairmanship from Lewis.

In the climactic vote, amid all this dissension, Lewis actually defeated Carmichael by a wide margin. But that was reversed by what amounted to a late night coup, after most meeting attendees had gone to bed. Reading his account, I was surprised Lewis folded to this. But by then perhaps he was no longer up for fighting against what seemed unstoppable.

Two decades later, Lewis returned to prominence, winning a Georgia congressional seat, by defeating his old close friend and movement “golden boy” Julian Bond.

Lewis’s last chapter laments where the country had gotten to, as of the late 1990s when he wrote. His “beloved community” seemed farther away than ever. It felt oddly disturbing to read this in 2020, when the trends Lewis discussed have grown so much worse.

I have no truck with radicals advocating abrupt revolution. America’s great story, instead, has been gradual progress, through hard work, always climbing a steep hill of resistance. That was the story of John Lewis and the civil rights movement. It was a moral battle, and the nation as a whole did come together on the side of what was right and just.

But today it’s a very different country, as Lewis himself already wrote over twenty years ago. In some ways (notably, gay marriage), progress has continued, yet something is very broken. A 2011 book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum was titled That Used To Be Us. Referring to how America used to tackle problems and challenges — which in many ways had stopped. And here again, since that was written, it’s gotten even worse.

American democracy was quintessentially a project of Enlightenment rationalism. That’s what is failing. Under sustained assault by almost half the country. We are now in another great moral battle, for truth against lies, hope against fear, love against hate. For right against wrong. But the nation will not come together on the side of right as it did for John Lewis’s 1960s movement. Our “beloved community” is breaking into two irreconcilable warring ones.