Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Plague

February 17, 2021

It starts with rats, coming out, bloodily dying, all over. Of course it’s the plague. Literally; the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century. In the 20th it hits the French Algerian city of Oran, in the famous Albert Camus 1947 novel, The Plague. Having a new vogue now, and one of my book groups chose it, for obvious reasons.

Camus based his depiction on an actual cholera epidemic striking Oran a century before. Philosophically, Camus has been called an “absurdist,” believing that our lives always ending in death makes them fundamentally absurd; yet it’s up to us to nevertheless make of them what we will. Here, the capriciousness of plague death highlights the absurdity, while the characters do what they can to combat it, imbuing them with a valiant power. 

The main protagonist is a doctor, Bernard Rieux, in the forefront of the struggle, doing his best to cope under terrible strain. As the death toll inexorably rises, the walled city is closed off, no one allowed in or out. Many separated from loved ones. Supplies run short. Naturally it’s hard to maintain a semblance of normal life. (The Covid restrictions we’re enduring seem tame in comparison.)

Rambert is a journalist, caught accidentally in Oran. He deems it unfair, having no real connection to the town but now imprisoned with the rest, aching to get back to his distant beloved. But all his pleas for an exemption fail. Desperation leads him to shady characters to smuggle him out for a price. There follows an opera buffa of missed connections. And when escape at last does seem imminent, so much time has passed that Rambert changes his mind, now feeling he does belong here. He settles in to help fight the plague. 

When it’s finally defeated, Rambert is reunited with his love, embracing on a railway platform. But it’s not so simple a happy ending. Life is a flow, and like a river, is never really the same even from one moment to another. We cannot totally return to what existed before, when it’s interrupted by something like a plague. But even without such a dramatic discontinuity, we never can anyway. Rambert realizes this when hugging his gal. Likewise for us, Covid-19 will prove to have changed everything forever. 

Then there’s old Monsieur Grand. A drone of a clerk in the municipal administration. He’s not good with words, struggling to express himself. That scuppered his long-ago youthful marriage; his wife gave up on his inexpressiveness and left. 

For many years since, Grand’s had a secret pastime. Turns out to be a literary endeavor. Odd for a man short on words. Yet he’s striving for a work that will be greeted by “Hats off!” Eventually he shares with Rieux and others at least the first sentence, on which he’s been obsessing forever, struggling for perfection, each of its words in turn getting agonizing attention. 

Grand falls ill. Seems dying. Shows Rieux the full manuscript — found to contain nothing but that lone sentence in all its endless permutations. Burn it, Grand commands, so forcefully that Rieux complies. 

But then Grand surprisingly recovers. It’s okay, he assures Rieux — he can remember the line. And later, when the plague is over, amid the rejoicing, he relates that he’s now simply eliminated all the adjectives he’d struggled over. And that he’s written to his ex-wife. 

The character I found most compelling, strangely enough, is the old Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. Struggling to reconcile Oran’s travail with his Christian faith. In a big sermon, he calls the plague “the flail of God” whirling over the city, comeuppance for insufficient faith. Oran now learning the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sermon doesn’t go over well. The citizens really don’t feel like bigtime sinners. 

But as the plague continues ramping up, as do efforts to combat it, with Father Paneloux joining in them, he has a rethink. He preaches another, rather different sermon. Instead of saying “you,” he now says “we.” Acknowledging that his previous scourging words lacked charity. Suggesting that the plague actually cannot be understood at all. In this, Paneloux was bitterly mindful of a child’s agonizing death he’d attended. 

What it all comes to, he says, is their arrival at a time of testing. “We must believe everything or deny everything.” Must accept the plague; accept that child’s torture. It’s not mere resignation, but actually embracing humiliation. Paneloux acknowledged preaching now a kind of fatalism, but an active fatalism. We cannot understand God’s will yet must make it ours. Otherwise we’re rejecting God. 

And Paneloux practiced what he preached. Soon falling sick himself, he refuses any sort of intervention that might have helped him. Without struggle, deeming it God’s will, he goes to his death. If he’s consoled by an expectation of Heaven, the book is conspicuously silent about that. 

Was Camus portraying Paneloux as some kind of saint? Certainly not. The plague does present a time of testing — it tests the idea of a God. For Paneloux, failure on that test is impossible. He’d rather die. But fail God does. Paneloux’s renunciation serves to demonstrate the incoherence of the belief system he struggled to make sense of. Our lives may ultimately be absurd, but less so without God.

What is philosophy about?

February 6, 2021

What is the true nature of reality? The meaning of life? How should one live? I read a collection of essays (The Power of Ideas) by philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97). He does not answer such questions. Rather, explores how we are to think about them. Berlin posits four categories of questions.

One is a straight factual (empirical) question. Who killed JFK? That can be answered, exactly and certainly, from observation and evidence (conspiracy theories notwithstanding).

Two: Why did Oswald kill JFK? Also a factual question, it cannot be answered with similar exactitude and certitude, requiring interpretation of evidence. That’s qualitatively different.

Three: what is the square root of nine? To answer, we don’t seek empirical evidence, we use mathematical logic. This raises the ancient conundrum: is mathematics something “out there” as part of existence, that we’ve discovered, or is it a human construct?

I’m of the former view. An isosceles triangle doesn’t exist in nature. The idea of it is a human construct. Yet one embodying the way existence works. That statement is not a matter of observation but, rather, of deducing how existence must work. A universe where that’s not so is inconceivable. Not just by limited human minds, but inconceivable in principle.* Thus our discoveries of mathematical truths are discoveries about the fabric of reality.

So the foregoing question types all concern reality. But “reality” itself can be a slippery concept. Berlin discusses the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley (pronounced Barkley, 1685-1753). “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there, does it make a sound?” That was Berkeley. I answer yes because of course it makes sound waves. Berkeley said no.

Did he really? What he actually said is hard to untangle. Berlin tries, calling Berkeley the ultimate empiricist, holding that what we get from our senses is all there is. If we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, etc., it isn’t there. Yet Berkeley believed in the spiritual (God and all that). How could this be reconciled? He posited (in Berlin’s words) “eternal souls or spirits . . . whose existence does not depend . . . on being sensed, or being otherwise the content of someone’s experience.” In other words, nothing exists outside sensory perception — except when it does. That’s how religion scrambles the brain.

Some modern voices still tell us nothing exists outside our brains — which don’t really exist either. I’ve deconstructed such nonsense here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/is-reality-real/

It’s true that the reality we perceive is, to a great extent, constructed within our minds. A simple example: a rose is not actually “red.” At the level of its molecules, atoms, and quarks, you will find no redness. But those particles’ behavior does cause the resulting photons, when processed in our brains, to tell us something about the rose. Something we visualize as “red,” different from some other characteristic we see as “blue.” It’s not as though seeing something not there — we’re getting information about what is really there.

Our senses do have limitations in perceiving reality. Even science has a tough time modeling it. A bowling ball seems a solid object, but again at the subatomic level there’s nothing solid. Yet if you drop it on your foot, it sure behaves as solid.

Thus there is a lot of reality in our perception of bowling balls and other objects. Otherwise our lives would be impossible. The fact that our senses do guide us pretty successfully through the world’s reality proves both that that reality is real and that our senses are pretty good at registering it.

With that settled (;-)) we can finally move on to the fourth kind of question. While the others do raise philosophical issues (as discussed), the fourth kind are entirely philosophical. Which, Berlin wrote, “cannot be answered by either observation or calculation, by either inductive methods or deductive; and . . . those who ask them . . . do not know where to look for the answers.” Berlin calls the first three types “factual” (or empirical) and the fourth “formal.”

He gives the example, “What is time?” One might add, was it always elapsing or did it have a start? If so, how? Or why is there something and not nothing?

Yet “what is time?” actually has a certain empiricalness. It’s not unanswerable in principle. We actually have a common sense understanding, and physicists have teased out nuances beyond that. Time is an element of the reality of existence.

So I would call all the foregoing descriptive questions, as distinguished from prescriptive questions. The latter to include ones like how we should live, how we relate to others, how we find meaning in life, etc. The methods for seeking answers are very different than with descriptive questions. There is something about existence that would describe how time works, even if we don’t have the words or concepts to embody it. But there’s no such something that could resolve prescriptive puzzles.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution starting around three centuries ago. Its core was rationalism — believing in use of reason to understand existence and enabling us to improve it. And this did coincide with great leaps in human understanding, through science, through mathematics and logic, and rationalist philosophy. In Berlin’s telling, the Enlightenment’s enthusiasts envisioned that continued progress along such lines would ultimately answer all questions, including the fourth kind. This he called an “heroic attempt to make philosophy a natural science.”

But — long story short — Berlin gives Kant the leading credit for seeing that philosophy’s task is not to elucidate what are really empirical questions, properly the domain of hard science, nor to deploy logic as in mathematics, but rather to tackle issues not resolvable by either method. Whereas to “the great empirical philosophers of the eighteenth century . . . everything seemed far clearer than it” would later.

But Berlin is not denigrating Enlightenment thinkers. “A very great deal of good was done,” he says, “suffering mitigated, injustices avoided or prevented, ignorance exposed, by the conscientious attempt to apply scientific methods to the regulation of human affairs.” Their “intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage and disinterested love of the truth . . . remain to this day without parallel.” And if their greatest goal proved “delusive,” Berlin thinks far worse of the nineteenth century reaction, with “implications that were, both intellectually and politically, more sinister and oppressive.” He’s referring to the romanticism that sacralized the “nation” and “state” as some supreme force trumping the Enlightenment’s morality premised on the individual. That romanticist movement was the wellspring of all the millennial and utopian “isms” that would wrack the twentieth century.

We haven’t overcome that. Even today — especially today — howling fools dance around bonfires of Enlightenment values of rationalism, universalism, humanism, and truth. Wielding weapons whose potency the philosophes could never have imagined. The battle continues.

* One can construct non-Euclidean geometries, internally logical. I cannot say whether a non-Euclidean universe could actually work. But if so, that would not contradict what I’ve written. We’d still have a cosmos wherein certain mathematical laws — whatever they may be — are baked in. A cosmos with no such laws baked in would be an impossible chaos.

American democracy and the Big Lie

January 28, 2021

In November 1918, Germany’s military situation had become hopeless. Support for the Kaiser collapsed, he fled, and a new democratic government came in and signed the armistice ending the war. There was no alternative. But those democrats — including liberals, socialists, and especially Jews — were demonized for it. Blamed for supposedly somehow stabbing Germany’s army in the back.

That was a lie, cynically and knowingly cooked up to serve a political agenda. But it was widely believed by Germans unwilling to accept the humiliation of military defeat. The “stab in the back” myth loomed over the democratic Weimar Republic and corroded its perceived legitimacy; was exploited by Hitler in his rise to power.

This history was discussed recently on NPR. Why? Today America has the “stolen election” myth. The parallels are obvious and scary.

The January 6 insurrectionists cast themselves as battling for democracy, against an election steal. In fact they were accessories to an attempted one.

Trump had long made clear he’d falsely claim fraud to avoid accepting election defeat. But I didn’t realize what legs that lie would acquire. With most Republicans, a third of Americans, believing it as gospel. Like post-WWI Germans, rather than face up to defeat, they prefer to believe a lie that they were cheated of victory.*

The nativist right — for all its patriotism sanctimony — harbors a deep disaffection from the America they actually inhabit. As distinguished from their fantasy country, that they wanted to “make great again.” Actually, make white again, a key focus of their disaffection. And that disaffection is broadened and intensified by the “stolen election” lie. Convincing them that our government is illegitimate, the whole system rotten.

Trump’s trying to overthrow an election and inciting insurrection were crimes enough. But his greater crime was introducing into our body politic this toxic poison of the “stolen election” myth. It will plague us for years to come. Making it all the harder to restore some semblance of — well, not even unity, but just some comity, so we can at least manage to live together.

*        *        *

The age-old fear was democracy degenerating into mob rule. We got a taste on January 6. The other pitfall, seen in many countries, is one voting mistake giving you dictatorship, hard to undo. We’ve now had our own close shave with that as well.

As President Biden declared, our democracy did prevail. Our constitutional system a bulwark against both mobocracy and tyranny. But I keep saying — that’s not ordained by God. Democracy is not just a system but a culture. It cannot be sustained absent a citizenry with baked in democratic values. Which requires understanding those values, and too few Americans today really do.

Those who stormed the Capitol, invoking “the people’s will,” actually had their own understanding of that concept. What they really meant was their will. It wasn’t about who truly got the most votes. Only theirs were legitimate, others not. Especially Black ones. As Isabel Wilkerson suggested in Caste, many Americans want not a democratic country now so much as a white one.

* One more time: while Trumpers cite a raft of supposed “irregularities,” there’s zero evidence for anything that could have changed the outcome. None of Trump’s 60 lawsuits provided any. Even his toady Attorney General Barr agreed. Many election officials involved were Republicans. It all came from a man whose record of lies, if each were a mile, would circle the Earth. And why refuse to believe so lousy a candidate actually lost?

January 20: America’s light rekindled

January 20, 2021

The only presidential inauguration I ever got an engraved invitation to was Nixon’s in 1969. I didn’t go. Covid sidelining Biden’s was a big disappointment. I’d considered flying down nevertheless, just to stand witness, but even that was discouraged, for safety’s sake. And then came January 6.

A sea of flags planted on the mall represented the absent crowd. One was mine.

Four years ago the incoming president spoke of forgotten Americans, forgotten no longer. Last night, forgotten no longer were the 400,000 Americans who died on his watch.

The election had palpably lifted my emotional baseline. Though until today I still felt much anxiety, for obvious reasons. Watching the inauguration was a sublime moment of cathartic culmination and deliverance — intensified by mindfulness of my own contribution. This, more than anyone ever, is my president.

Of course, now comes the hard part. President Biden bears a weight of responsibility no human should ever be asked to carry. But we couldn’t have found a better person to lead us. A president we can be proud of, reflecting not America’s worst but its best. Though I don’t expect to approve of everything — after all, I was a conservative Republican for half a century.

So playing defense will be a lot less fun than criticizing. And normalcy and sanity will seem boring after the last four years. I’ll likely, strangely, miss the tumult.

It’s a truism of human psychology that hate can be more powerful than love, indignation stronger than approval, opposition more emotionally satisfying than supportiveness. Trump lovers were defined by their hatreds, which he channels. Writing about politics sure got my juices flowing. But I don’t actually expect that will end.

* * *

Long at the core of my being was belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity, advancing through rationality. With a democratic America standing as the great embodiment of those ideals. We’ve even had a stamp proclaiming, “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” A picture of it adorns my wall.

But for the last four years, it’s been a painful daily reminder of loss. That light seemed to have failed.

Today, at last, it shines once more with truth and reason.

This is a good day. My heart is full.

The cult of the leader: Khomeini, Hitler, Big Brother, Trump

January 19, 2021

The news photo was unnerving. Trump’s January 6 rally — with three big screens looming over the crowd, imaging the center of his face, colored deep red, eyes glowering. Recalling throngs with giant pictures of a scowling Khomeini in 1979 Iran. Presaging it would not end well.

Such leader worship never does. Another example, Hitler, led his nation to destruction. And those Khomeini faces, and Trump’s, also both recalled 1984’s Big Brother. None of them smiling.

The foundation for humans living together in society is what’s called social capital. Preventing a war of all against all. A key element is trust — trust that societal norms and precepts will prevail. We ordinarily take it for granted. Trust that a stranger on the street won’t bash you and grab your stuff. That when you buy a jar of aspirins, those pills will actually be aspirins. That votes in an election will be properly counted.

Trump’s attack on the latter — based on nothing but lies — is only the latest in his long assault upon our social capital, dissolving the very glue that holds society together. Because he’snot served by it, this predator who thrives by shredding it. As with his tearing down the press, to undermine its holding him accountable.

America’s social capital was, pre-Trump, already stressed, polls showing us viewing each other with declining trust. Trump’s been an accelerant for that. So now, when it comes to the public sphere, a big segment of the U.S. population no longer believes or trusts anybody or anything — except Trump. The least trustworthy of men. The biggest liar.

That bizarrely perverse loyalty has all the earmarks of religious fanaticism. We had supposed evangelical Christians had strong faith, but it turns out their Christianity is trumped by Trumpism. On whose altar, David Brooks writes, they sacrifice every other value: “truth, moral character, the Sermon on the Mount, conservative principles, the Constitution.”

Brooks quotes a conservative preacher, Jeremiah Johnson who, after the storming of the Capitol, declared that God had unseated Trump because of his pride and arrogance and to humble those who, like Johnson himself, had fervently supported him. Provoking a firestorm of messages from Christians, cursing him out with vile epithets and multiple death threats. Johnson deemed these coreligionists “far SICKER (sic) than I could have ever dreamed.”

Not only can’t they see they’re worshiping a monster, correspondingly deranged is their demonization of his successor, as a corrupt doddering fool who’ll destroy America with socialism, taking away guns and law and order and freedom of religion and speech.

All totally ridiculous. And it’s this delusional foolishness that really does threaten to destroy America.

As seen on January 6. With almost an entire once-respectable political party careening down that rabbit hole. Longtime Republican operative Stuart Stevens had it right titling his book It Was All a LieWell, since Trump’s advent; now all bad faith and disingenuousness. Like when Elise Stefanik and 146 others in Congress claim, with straight faces, that their votes to overturn the election were responsive to Americans doubting its legitimacy — when those Republicans themselves fanned those baseless doubts by pushing Trump’s lies. And like Kevin McCarthy and 196 others opposing impeachment as “divisive” — after their mob attacked the Capitol screaming “Freedom!” in their bid to make Trump dictator — which most of those Congress members thereupon effectively voted to do. Divisive?

For some at least, like that Jeremiah Johnson, January 6 shook them to their senses. Trump’s approval rating fell from around 40% to around 30%. But that’s still a terrifying figure. And many saw January 6 not as a debacle but a clarion call.

How can we cure this madness? I don’t have a good answer. It’s impervious to reason. Brooks calls it “narcissistic self-idolatry to think you can create your own truth based on what you ‘feel.'” It’s not like Trump cultists are just selective about what facts they choose to believe — their basic conception of reality is a total inversion of what actually obtains. The core of their existence is a lie. And nothing will disabuse them.

Hitler, Khomeini, and Big Brother held power — but fortunately an American voting majority (not God!) has rid us of Trump. For now. A bare 51% majority. Too close for comfort.

The deadliest sin: arrogance

January 10, 2021

One of the traditional “seven deadly sins” is pride. But that’s actually not the right word.

Most of those “sins” have unambiguous meanings — sloth, gluttony, lust. But “pride” is trickier. It can indeed be bad if excessive, and people often take pride in the wrong things. However, pride in the right things is good. To gain that feeling motivates us to do good things. I take pride in those I’ve accomplished. And then we have “gay pride,” “Black pride,” etc., certainly positive feelings. (“White pride” — uh-oh. Maybe not so much.) 

The Greeks had the word hubris, meaning immoderate pride. It has a connotation of self-aggrandizement, which comes closer to the concept we want here. But I think the most appropriate word is arrogance. That’s the sin that makes my blood boil.

It differs from succumbing to sloth, gluttony, or envy, which are understandable and, really, forgivable human frailties. Wrath and lust are also normal feelings. Every human experiences these. And are they indeed wrong? Anger is often justified; in the face of evil, lack of any wrath would be wrong. And of course we are imbued with lust as a natural feeling in order to keep the species going! Anyhow, these kinds of feelings are to a great degree outside our control.

This raises the eternal free will conundrum. I’ll limit myself to simply saying we’re all subject to impulses beyond our control — but we do have the power to countermand them. Lust aroused by an attractive person is not a choice, but rape is.

This brings in another key point. The religious concept of sin as an offense against God fails if there is no god. It’s better to think in purely human terms. Nothing can be a sin unless it harms another person. The “deadly” seven don’t fit well with that — generally not deadly at all, typically harming, if anyone, only the “sinner.” That’s true of pride, insofar as it’s merely an inner feeling. Arrogance, however, operates in relation to other people. Not just a feeling, but a behavior, that does harm them.

And I see arrogance as the fundamental sin, the ur-sin, behind most bad things people do. Consider its opposite: humility. A recognition that other people are entitled to the same rights and respect as you. The sin of stealing, for example, is a rejection of that ethos. The thief believing they’re somehow more entitled to whatever is stolen. That’s arrogant.

This applies to almost anything we call a crime. Arrogantly disregarding the rights of the victim; privileging one’s own wants above theirs.

This is why arrogance is so hateful. Even in mere boastfulness and braggadocio. That’s saying, “I’m better than you,” privileging your ego above those of others and making them feel bad. Contrast again humility, embodying deference to their equal humanity.

Humility is also epistemologically important. Confirmation bias is the tendency to welcome information validating pre-existing beliefs and shun contrary information. We all suffer from this, but humility is a good antidote. As opposed to the arrogance of thinking you know it all. 

The ultimate in arrogance is abuse of power. Privileging oneself totally over others, dictating their very terms of existence. The related word, “arrogate,” as in arrogating power, bespeaks the illegitimacy. A true public servant, in contrast, regards power as a solemn trust, to be used to benefit others, not just their own ego.

It’s said “we’re all equal before God.” Even if there is no god, the essence of the sentiment is true. It leads to another eternal conundrum, between merit and luck. My own success might be ascribed to intelligence and character traits. But those were products of happenstances of genetics and life experiences — i.e., luck. Not some pre-existing aboriginal deservingness in me, compared to others less lucky. My luck does not render me superior.

Understanding this is an antidote to arrogance. It makes me a very humble person. Something I’m quite proud of.

Farewell 2020

January 1, 2021

(We had a zoomed family holiday poetry slam. Here’s my poem.)

2020 Farewell,

A year from Hell;

A year of years,

Of fears and tears.

A sickness spread across the land,

The president without a plan,

A sickness of our national soul,

Fallen into a deep black hole.

Half the country gone insane,

Backing that evil monster’s reign,

Embracing his every lie;

How many had to die?

With children in cages,

Among countless outrages.

The choice was stark,

Between light and dark.

And when finally voted out,

Reality he did flout,

Trying to overturn the vote,

To cut our democracy’s throat.

And so we’ve been tested,

But were not bested;

Up against a wall,

We’ve come through after all.

And in the end,

We’re on the mend.

We did not fail;

We shall prevail.

George Will: What is conservatism?

December 27, 2020

American “conservatism” has become a perverted travesty of its former self. Writer George Will, in his book, The Conservative Sensibility, offers a bracing corrective. Discussed in a terrific interview with the New York State Writers Institute’s Mark Koplik.

Both Will and I came to conservatism in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. And left with Trump. Mainline “conservatism” is no longer a philosophy, it’s a tribal cult.

Will begins by differentiating between two kinds of sociopolitical divisions. One — the healthy sort — involves ideas. Differing interpretations of history and understandings of the world, leading to differing policy perspectives. Those can be argued, and having such arguments is a very positive American thing. If you don’t like arguments, you’re in the wrong country. And you shouldn’t see a disagreement over ideas as an attack on your personhood.

One thing I’ve noticed is that blog comments by Trump supporters almost never actually advance arguments. Rarely grapple substantively with opposing points or facts. Instead they’re mainly bald (and usually irrelevant) assertions and ad hominem disparagement.

This introduces the second, unhealthy kind of division, tribalism. Where it’s all us-against-them, the individual subsumed into a tribal identity. We are all embedded in social, cultural settings, but a person is much more than that, Will said. He does recognize that attachments to subgroups are a normal part of life. But it’s another thing when that becomes the basis of your personal identity, your tribe. Especially pernicious when it incorporates a set of political stances. Will spoke of “furnishing” one’s mind by swallowing such precepts whole, so you never have to think about things for the rest of your life. American “conservatism” has become that kind of tribal cult (in thrall to a very bad guru).

Yet, says Will, the whole point of modernity is the contrary, to rescue individuality from being a passive plaything of circumstances. That is, to rescue human agency. We have the free will to change our destiny. Will called the opposite view “historicism.” That’s a nod to Karl Popper, whose 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies similarly argued that we are not prisoners of some historical inevitability.

So what are the positive ideas constituting George Will’s conservatism (and my own)?

He saw them as actually America’s foundational ideas, the nation “conceived in liberty” as Lincoln put it. Democracy, Will said, is a process; liberty a condition, which comes first. Government does not give us rights, but is our creation as their guardian. Thus it should be inherently limited — strong enough to protect our rights but not so strong as to threaten them. The Bill of Rights was enacted to put certain things beyond the reach of majorities.

Will strongly distinguished American conservatism from its European antecedents, rooted in Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and defense of hierarchies, in opposition to egalitarianism and the dynamics of change. Thus “conserving” the status quo. This has always been a misnomer as concerns the American version, at least since the 1950s, opposing much of the prevailing dispensation. Will says that what it wants to “conserve” is America’s founding principles, while not otherwise being hostile to change. It celebrates the free market precisely because of the spontaneous “churning” it produces, making for progress and upward mobility. Unlike the stagnation when government controls everything (the extreme example being the old Soviet Union).

Thus Will correctly traces American conservatism not to Burke but rather to the classical European liberalism of thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.* The aim is to promote individualism while also having a commodious civic life. The drama of modern politics is people disagreeing about “the good;” the challenge is to accommodate such diversity, so we can pursue differing visions but still coexist.

Asked whether his stance is “libertarian,” Will said he’s “libertarian-ish” (the pure doctrine having untenable implications). Will characterized his moderated libertarianism as a common sense approach that practically everyone actually embraces. The key idea being that if government tells us what to do, it ought to have a strong reason (consistent with its remit of protecting us from each other while maximizing freedom).

But none of this has much to do with what calls itself “conservative” in today’s America: an incoherent conceptual mess. Nor of course does it resonate on the big-government censorious left. The sound structure of classically liberal ideas that Will lays out is a homeless vagabond in the nation’s current political landscape.

Will’s conservatism entails an ethos of carefulness, with respect for facts and reality, also obviously gone out the window under Trump. In favor of “alternative facts” one prefers to believe. Of course that’s not exclusive to the right; Will speaks of a left-wing academic culture with a “high ratio of certainty to information.” But a salient example on the right is the trope of America founded as a “Christian nation.” That’s not just historically false, here again it’s today’s conservatives turning upside down what our founding principles actually were.*

Will in contrast forthrightly calls himself an atheist. And morality, he says, comes from philosophy, not religion. I would add that it’s actually encoded in our biology; and philosophy explicates moral principles we already feel in our bones. We don’t, says Will, need anything from the supernatural (which doesn’t exist anyway).

Indeed, that can only be a source of moral confusion. American conservatives are steeped in religion, and religion’s divorcement from rationality and reality set the stage for their going off the rails morally with Trumpism. That’s how we got children ripped from mothers’ arms and put in cages. 

* “Liberalism” still has that meaning in Europe, different from what Americans call “liberal” politics. In fact, the U.S. left opposes that kind of classical liberalism, labeling it “neo-liberal” as a pejorative.

** I’ve discussed the history here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/was-america-founded-as-a-christian-nation/

Airplane! Don’t call me Shirley

December 23, 2020

Remember when you got a full meal on domestic flights? When you’d board a plane with no security line? When female flight attendants were called “stewardesses” (and they all were female)?

Remember flying?

On Netflix my wife and I stumbled on the 1980 film “Airplane!” Remember when comedies were actually full of laughs?

Of course not all were. But this one sure was. The gags were sometimes lame, yet funny for their very lameness, with puns abounding. This film’s iconic signature piece of dialog:

“Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

“Airplane!” was, again, very much a time capsule. There was political incorrectness you couldn’t get away with now. Like two Black passengers using dialect so thick it needed subtitles. When a stewardess can’t understand them, a white passenger (played by Barbara Billingsley, who my wife remembered as Beaver’s mom) steps up to interpret, saying, “I speak jive.” Hearing her do so was jarring.

Both pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated by sickness, and stewardess Elaine takes one of their seats. Instructed to press the “automatic pilot” button, it inflates a pilot-shaped balloon into the other seat. The sexual aspects of Elaine’s relationship with the automatic pilot are tastefully explored.

Meantime, Elaine’s (other) boyfriend, Striker, couldn’t get past his WWII fighter pilot tragedy. This couple didn’t seem to have aged in the intervening 35 years, but never mind that detail. Anyhow, Elaine, finally having had enough of Striker’s crippling emotional baggage, left him behind when boarding the plane. He determines to overcome his fear of flying and go after her.

“Smoking or non-smoking?” the ticket agent asks him. (Remember smoking on planes?)

“Smoking,” Striker answers, so he’s handed a ticket that’s literally spewing a plume of smoke.

My wife chimed in, “He’s going to save the plane.”

She’s always right; of course he does. And they live happily ever after. (It helps if you never age beyond twenty.)

The autopilot, it seems, also lives happily ever after, with an inflated female counterpart.

We give this film two thumbs up, four stars, and a partridge in a pear tree.

A Christian asks Christian Trumpers: “What in God’s Name are You Doing?”

December 15, 2020

Kathryn Shihadah wrote this piece (11/15/20) on patheos.com, a religion site. My humanist society’s newsletter reprinted it. I found it quite powerful too, and have edited it slightly: 

Trump-supporting Christians have abandoned the call to be Christlike, and turned Christianity into something barely recognizable. It’s time to ask ourselves honestly: what are we doing? I’ve been a lifelong Christian, and I intend to remain faithful to God till I die. But I’m no longer sure about wearing the “Christian” label. Why? Trumpism. 

Here’s a quote I saw recently, trying to belittle atheists: “When people choose not to believe in God, they then become capable of believing in anything.” No, the exact opposite is true: When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.

It’s true. We have been guilty of a massive lack of discernment, and the sooner we admit it, the better. First we paired ourselves with a man who . . . well, you know the long list of strikes already against him even before 2016. In spite of his many indiscretions and deep-seated vices, we Christians excused and embraced him. Every time some new trespass came to light, we found a way to brush it off. 

Everyone is a work in progress; everyone deserves forgiveness and a second chance, but we’re not talking about a friend or coworker here. This is the man we put in charge of our country. He showed us he was a fake Christian. Showed us he was self-centered and arrogant. Showed us he was a racist – even as he told us he was “the least racist person in the room.” The opposite of Christlike. We are guilty. We knew all this and we elected him. We looked at him and his Muslim ban, and his Mexico wall, and we said, “yes, this is the man for us.” We completely ignored Jesus’s straightforward words, “whatever you have done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” 

That’s right, we turned away Jesus at every international airport and deported him at our southern border. We ripped babies from Jesus’s arms and put them in cages. Not Obama. Us. Nearly every day for four long years, the president we elected did something obscene, or lied to us or to the world, or bullied the weak, or cozied up with tyrants. For the last ten months, he has ignored hundreds of thousands of Americans as they died. Now, the majority of Americans are done with him. And we can’t handle it. He is probably the most hated man in the world right now, but we think the only way he could lose an election is through some kind of massive conspiracy. 

What have we become, Christians? Do we still believe we have the moral high ground here? Do we even care about integrity? It seems to me (and hundreds of millions of people around the world) that all Christians care about anymore is winning. 

Are our leaders being Christlike? Christian leaders weaponize Christianity, and use it to demonize and/or ridicule every American who didn’t vote for “our man.” Paula White** talks of a “demonic confederacy against the election, against America, against who you have declared to be in the White House.” Kenneth Copeland: “The media said Joe Biden is president. Hahahahahaha. Hahahahahaha.” Michelle Bachmann: “God, take your rod of iron and smash the delusion of Joe Biden as our president – he is not.” 

When the president tear gassed a peaceful protest so he could walk across the street and hold up a Bible for a photo op, that was distasteful. We can say, “Father, forgive him. He knows not what he does.” But Paula and Kenneth are pastors. They know better. Not only are these people’s words offensive and decidedly un-Christlike, they are using God’s name and the Bible as a weapon. In defense of a man who watches TV and plays golf all day while Americans are dying. 

So I ask again, what have we become? Does this in any way resemble Jesus? Are we being Christlike? We’re pretending like we just want a fair election, but won’t consider it fair unless our candidate wins. We’ve suggested that “liberals” must have tampered with vote counts, and implied that “conservatives” would never do such a thing. We cannot accept the fact that it’s over. We are demanding to keep that person in charge of our country. Oh, and many of us are still selfishly refusing to protect our communities by wearing a mask. 

Yeah, I’m still a Christ-follower. But “Christian?” I’ll have to think about it. When people choose to believe in God, they become capable of believing in anything.  What in God’s name is wrong with us? 

* Here’s a link: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/gracecoloredglasses/2020/11/dear-trump-christians-what-in-gods-name-are-you-doing-christlike/

** Trump’s so-called “spiritual adviser.”