Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

William Kennedy and magical realism

July 9, 2019

William Kennedy (now 91) is the great Albany author. Others (like Melville) have had Albany connections, but in Kennedy’s oeuvre, Albany itself holds center stage; it’s called his “Albany cycle.”

In 2018 Paul Grondahl and Suzanne Lance of the New York State Writers Institute published Bootlegger of the Soul: The Literary Legacy of William Kennedy, which includes several critical essays.

I’ve read it, and many of the novels, but have nothing profound to add. I just want to comment on a recurring theme applying the “magical realism” label.

In great part that’s because ghosts appear in Kennedy’s books; notably a veritable convocation of them in Ironweed’s opening. In Legs, the title character has much to say after being shot dead. Maybe this is pedantic, but I don’t consider this “magical” because I don’t think the reader is expected to suspend disbelief and imagine those ghosts are real and speaking. A world in which they did would be an alternate reality (as in Garcia Marquez’s magical realism), but Kennedy is writing about our actual world. And it’s peopled by many ghosts, in the sense that the dead are still with us, haunting us not as cartoon spooks but as personages whose relationships with us we continue to process after they’re dead. That’s certainly what’s happening in a novel like Ironweed. To me it’s a form of realism because it’s really getting into a character’s head. The ghosts are a literary device for doing that.

In fact Ironweed in particular I consider the realest realism. The protagonist is a homeless bum in 1938’s Albany, and the lives of such people are shown to us in full intimate grittiness, with no romanticizing. And in full humanity. Francis is not “just” a bum. He is a man haunted by ghosts, wrestling with them. That’s the reality shaping his life.

By the way, I always thought Ironweed a great title. While the plant of that name actually has little resonance for the book’s content, the name’s two components are redolent with connotations that do.

I myself wrote a book about Albany, in 1973, but oddly never crossed paths with Kennedy until 2011, when he had a signing for a new novel. When I handed him my copy and identified myself, he started writing . . . and wrote quite a lot. The recognition was very gratifying. Kennedy is not only a great writer but a gracious human being.

He has also been an inspiration to me, quite literally. At a 90th birthday celebration there was a film about his using his MacArthur grant money to create the Writers Institute. That was a great thing. It made me want to do something great too, with the money I’m fortunate to have. And one of the resulting grants likewise involves writers — Secular Rescue, protecting them from harm in intolerant societies.

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Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

July 3, 2019

(A condensed version of my June 18 book review talk)

In this 2017 book Kurt Andersen is very retro; believes in truth, reason, science, and facts. But he sees today’s Americans losing their grip on those. Andersen traces things back to the Protestant Reformation, preaching that each person decides what to believe.

Religious zealotry has repeatedly afflicted America. But in the early Twentieth Century that, Andersen says, seemed to be fizzling out. Christian fundamentalism was seen as something of a joke, culminating with the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. But evangelicals have made a roaring comeback. In fact, American Christians today are more likely than ever to be fundamentalist, and fundamentalism has become more extreme. Fewer Christians now accept evolution, and more insist on biblical literalism.

Other fantasy beliefs have also proliferated. Why? Andersen discusses several factors.

First he casts religion itself as a gateway drug. Such a suspension of critical faculties warps one’s entire relationship with reality. So it’s no coincidence that the strongly religious are often the same people who indulge in a host of other magical beliefs. The correlation is not perfect. Some religious Americans have sensible views about evolution, climate change, even Trump — and some atheists are wacky about vaccination and GM foods. Nevertheless, there’s a basic synergy between religious and other delusions.

Andersen doesn’t really address tribalism, the us-against-them mentality. Partisan beliefs are shaped by one’s chosen team. Climate change denial didn’t become prevalent on the right until Al Gore made climate a left-wing cause. Some on the left imagine Venezuela’s Maduro regime gets a bum rap.

Andersen meantime also says popular culture blurs the line between reality and fantasy, with pervasive entertainment habituating us to a suspension of disbelief. I actually think this point is somewhat overdone. People understand the concept of fiction. The problem is with the concept of reality.

Then there’s conspiracy thinking. Rob Brotherton’s book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories says we’re innately primed for them, because in our evolution, pattern recognition was a key survival skill. That means connecting dots. We tend to do that, even if the connections aren’t real.

Another big factor, Andersen thinks, was the “anything goes” 1960s counterculture, partly a revolt against the confines of rationality. Then there’s post-modernist relativism, considering truth itself an invalid concept. Some even insist that hewing to verifiable facts, the laws of physics, biological science, and rationality in general, is for chumps. Is in fact an impoverished way of thinking, keeping us from seeing some sort of deeper truth. As if these crackpots are the ones who see it.

Then along came the internet. “Before,” writes Andersen, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail.” Now people slurp up wacky stuff from websites, talk radio, and Facebook’s so-called “News Feed” — really a garbage feed.

Andersen considers “New Age” spirituality a new form of American religion. He calls Oprah its Pope, spreading the screwball messages of a parade of hucksters, like Eckhart Tolle, and the “alternative medicine” promoter Doctor Oz. Among these so-called therapies are homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, reiki, etc. Read Wikipedia’s scathing article about such dangerous foolishness. But many other other mainstream gatekeepers have capitulated. News media report anti-scientific nonsense with a tone of neutrality if not acceptance. Even the U.S. government now has an agency promoting what’s euphemized as “Complementary and Integrative Health;” in other words, quackery.

Guns are a particular focus of fantasy belief. Like the “good guy with a gun.” Who’s actually less a threat to the bad guy than to himself, the police, and innocent bystanders. Guns kept to protect people’s families mostly wind up shooting family members. Then there’s the fantasy of guns to resist government tyranny. As if they’d defeat the U.S. military.

Of course Andersen addresses UFO belief. A surprising number of Americans report being abducted by aliens, taken up into a spaceship to undergo a proctology exam. Considering the nearest star being literally 24 trillion miles away, would aliens travel that far just to study human assholes?

A particularly disturbing chapter concerns the 1980s Satanic panic. It began with so-called “recovered memory syndrome.” Therapists pushing patients to dredge up supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. (Should have been called false memory syndrome.) Meantime child abductions became a vastly overblown fear. Then it all got linked to Satanic cults, with children allegedly subjected to bizarre and gruesome sexual rituals. This new witch hunt culminated with the McMartin Preschool trial. Before the madness passed, scores of innocent people got long prison terms.

A book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise, showed how increasing formal education doesn’t actually translate into more knowledge (let alone wisdom or critical thinking). Education often leads people to overrate their knowledge, freeing them to reject conventional understandings, like evolution and medical science. Thus the anti-vaccine insanity.

Another book, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, focuses on our culture’s anti-intellectual strain. Too much education, some people think, makes you an egghead. And undermines religious faith. Yet Jacoby also notes how 19th Century Americans would travel long distances to hear lecturers like Robert Ingersoll, the great atheist, and Huxley the evolutionist. Jacoby also vaunts 20th century “Middlebrow” American culture, with “an affinity for books; the desire to understand science; a strong dose of rationalism; above all, a regard for facts.”

Today in contrast there’s an epidemic of confirmation bias: people embracing stuff that supports pre-existing beliefs, and shutting out contrary information. Smarter folks are actually better at confabulating rationalizations for that. And how does one make sense of the world and of new information? Ideally by integrating it with, and testing it against, your body of prior knowledge and understanding. But many Americans come short there — blank slates upon which rubbish sticks equally well as truth.

I also think reality used to be more harsh and unforgiving. To get through life you needed a firm grip on reality. That has loosened. The secure, cushy lives given us by modernity — by, indeed, the deployment of supreme rationality in the age of science — free people to turn their backs on that sort of rationality and indulge in fantasy.

Anderson’s subtitle is How America Went Haywire. As if that applies to America as a whole. But we are an increasingly divided nation. Riven between those whose faith has become more extreme and those moving in the opposite direction; which also drives political polarization. So it’s not all Americans we’re talking about.

Still, the haywire folks are big shapers of our culture. And there are real costs. Anti-vaccine hysteria undermines public health. The 1980s child threat panic ruined lives. Gun madness kills many thousands. And of course they’ve given us a haywire president.

Yet is it the end of the world? Most Americans go about their daily lives, do their jobs, in a largely rational pragmatic way (utilizing all the technology the Enlightenment has given). Obeying laws, being good neighbors, good members of society. Kind, generous, sincere, ethical people. America is still, in the grand sweep of human history, an oasis of order and reasonableness.

Meantime religious faith is collapsing throughout the advanced world, and even in America religion, for all its seeming ascendancy, is becoming more hysterical because it is losing. The younger you are, the less religious you are likely to be. And there are signs that evangelical Christianity is being hurt by its politicization, especially its support for a major moral monster.

I continue to believe in human progress. That people are capable of rationality, that in the big picture rationality has been advancing, and it must ultimately prevail. That finally we will, in the words of the Bible itself, put childish things away.

Fantasyland — My talk Tuesday, June 18

June 10, 2019

Next Tuesday, June 18, at noon, I will give a talk at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue, focused on Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. It’s about the whole phenomenon of false and wacky beliefs. This will be fun, I promise!

I’ve been told the free cookies and brownies should be better than usual this time too.

Hate, love, humanism, and (of course) Trump

June 4, 2019

I’ve been called a hater, in blog comments. My extensive political analyses written off as simply hate. As though Trump hate is somehow built into me; a pathology; a cause rather than an effect.

It’s an easy way to dismiss someone’s opinion you don’t like. But do I actually have some blind irrational hatred for Trump?

“Nonjudgmentalism” has been a big cultural trope, like it’s wrong to judge anybody for anything. Yet we evolved as judgment making machines. Because survival depended on judgments about threats. This was the context of our social evolution — harmful behavior threatened the group. So we evolved a powerful detector for that — our sense of justice — with a proclivity to make the judgments that go with it. Thus hate for wrongness is deeply embedded in human nature, it’s integral to our social makeup, and it is mostly a good thing.

Except we’re not always right about what’s wrong. “Better safe than sorry” causes too many false positives. There’s a difference between hating something truly wrong, and hating something (or someone) for the wrong reasons.

Furthermore, psychology comes into it. Obviously people vary between sunnier and darker dispositions. The latter predisposes one more toward hate. And the more that’s the case, the less likely the hate will be rational, the more likely to be directed at wrong targets. Certainly true when it comes to ethnic hatreds (aggravated by another evolutionary trait, suspicion toward people unlike us).

I myself am far at the sunnier end of the spectrum. Indeed, I literally wrote the book on optimism. When I started work on what became that book, it forced me to examine and think through my beliefs, more deeply than I’d never done before. I am a humanist. This valorizes, first and foremost, human life, and what I call the human project, to achieve the best possible quality of life for us all.

Thinking trough this humanism heightened my love for humans, both collectively and individually. I’ve spoken of making judgments. But absent full knowledge of any given person, the likelihood, the default assumption, is that they’re a good person. It’s usually true.

I think I’m a good person, but it’s easy for me as I’ve had an extremely fortunate life. Most others have not; for them it’s much harder. Yet most are nonetheless good. Struggling with life’s challenges, trying very hard to live good lives. For this I love them.

Of course nobody is a saint, and some do bad things. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is often wisdom. However, there are people deserving harsh judgment. And while I do look upon most others with love, it’s also the case that my own judgment module, my injustice detector, is set on “high.”

Partly this is a further consequence of how fully, by now, I have built the ideas and principles I apply to the world. And the objectivity I’ve also cultivated, striving to see things as they really are. I also try to stay extremely well informed (with genuine news, not Facebook garbage). All this makes me confident in my judgments, grounded in a sound rational outlook. So when I see something as wrong, I am very clear on how and why it’s wrong.

Like most human beings, most Trump supporters are not bad people. I don’t hate them. They too struggle with life’s challenges. They’re very misguided, led astray by an unscrupulous con man who plays their vulnerabilities and anxieties like a violin. They’re short on the knowledge and intellectual equipment to see through the blizzard of lies. They have misdirected hatreds. They’re human; all these are very human failings. Overcoming them is part of the great human project. And, in the big sweep of history, we’re making much progress.

A beacon of that progress has been the United States of America. Playing a huge role in leading the rest of the world into a better place. On my wall is a picture of our postage stamp proclaiming “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” Dimming that light is tragic.

For this Trump bears grave responsibility. A rare person whose own flame burns pure with wickedness. Hate the sin but love the sinner? Is he, indeed, a pitiable victim of a twisted character he cannot control? Maybe some truth in that; yet we have enough free will to be responsible for who we are. Still I might merely pity him were he not doing such vast harm. If there’s anything properly to be hated in this world, it is such consequential wickedness.

The hatred not a cause, but an effect.

What Love Becomes

June 1, 2019

Love triumphs. They marry and live happily ever after. The End.

But not always. In Jan Marin Tramontano’s new novel, What Love Becomes, we meet two fortyish couples two decades later, and it’s not happily ever after. None of these people got what they’d envisioned. Both wives are tortured by regret.

One connects with the other’s husband, they fall in love, and plan for a new life together. But on the very night it was to start, a terrible car crash intervenes.

That’s just the prologue. I was expecting the narrative to proceed from there. But the author instead, interestingly, now goes to backstory, more fully and intimately chronicling the two marriages, and what went wrong. That’s the meat of the book. Only near the end does the tale pick up again from the crash.

Obviously, this is the antithesis of a standard romance novel. No bodice-ripper. In fact, one sex scene is given in all its yucky disappointment. This is a book about real life, and Tramontano does a great job drawing the reader in to the characters and the troubles they grapple with.

People are complicated, and when the complications of one are multiplied by those of another, it’s meta-complexity. That was true in my own history, with which this novel had considerable resonance. Its bust-up was sudden in comparison to mine — a messy, protracted process, consuming years. But a lot of the feelings depicted in the book are ones I’ve felt. And ones my ex felt.

In the novel, Blake has his bags packed, planning to lower the boom on his unsuspecting wife and decamp to rendezvous with the other. I had such a night myself. Blake’s plan is up-ended by the car crash. Mine by the woman’s rejection. Eventually the boom did get lowered — on me. Though by then I saw it coming.

The novel has a contrapunto, a third couple, not married but finally heading there (slowly). And the two spurned spouses, though marooned, are finally making progress against their respective demons. So a happy ending of sorts, after all.

Tramontano’s final passage is lovely. She’d opened with parasailing as a metaphor for marriage, saying the day may come “when we cut our own towline.” The ending returns to that metaphor: “Believe that the wind helping you glide through the air will push you in any direction you wish to go.”

It may not. But “believe” is key. One has to believe that, despite all the buffeting winds, one isn’t powerless to set a path. That’s what the book’s characters do. It’s no fairy tale, but in the end their lives are in their own hands.

For twelve years I tried with that gal. I failed but maybe that was necessary for me. So next time was better — far better. That’s how human life works. Ideally.

Humans becoming gods — or chips in a cosmic computer?

May 23, 2019

Yuval Noah Harari is a thinker of Big Ideas, with a capital B and a capital I. An Israeli historian, he wrote Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, about how we got where we are. Where we’re going is addressed in the sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

The title implies man becoming God. But there’s a catch.

Harari sees us having experienced, in the last few centuries, a humanist revolution. With the ideas of the Enlightenment triumphant — science trumping superstition, and the liberal values of the Declaration of Independence — freedom in both the political and economic spheres — trumping autocracy and feudalism. As the word “humanist” implies, these values exalt the human, the individual human, as the ultimate source of meaning. We find meaning not in some deity or cosmic plan but in ourselves and our efforts to make our lives better. We do that through deploying our will, using our rationality to make choices and decisions — both in politics, through democratic voting, and in economics, through consumer choice.

But Harari plays the skunk at this picnic he’s described. The whole thing, he posits, rests upon the assumption that we do make choices and decisions. But what if we actually don’t? This is the age-old argument about free will. Harari recognizes its long antecedents, but asserts that the question has really, finally, been settled by science, something he discusses at length. The more science probes into our mental processes, there’s no “there” there. That is, the idea that inside you there’s a master controller, a captain at the helm, is a metaphor with no actual reality. We don’t “make” decisions and choices. It’s more like they happen to us.

As Schopenhauer said (Harari strangely fails to quote him), “a man can do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

And if we humans are not, in any genuine sense, making choices and decisions through a conscious thinking process — but rather are actuated by deterministic factors we can neither see nor control — in politics, economics, and even in how we live our lives — what does that mean for the humanist construct of valorizing those choices above all else?

There’s a second stink-bomb Harari throws into the humanist picnic. He says humanism valued the individual human because he or she was, in a very tangible way, valuable. Indeed, indispensable. Everything important in society rested on human participation. The economy required people engaged in production. Human agents were required to disseminate the information requisite for progress to occur and spread. A society even needed individual humans to constitute the armies they found so needful.

But what if all that ceases being true? Economic production is increasingly achieved through robots and artificial intelligences. They are also taking care of information dissemination. Even human soldiers are becoming obsolete (as will become true too of the need for them). Thus Harari sees humans becoming useless irrelevancies.

Or at least most of us. Here’s another stink-bomb. Liberal humanist Enlightenment values also rested fundamentally on the idea of human equality. Not literal equality, of course, in the sense of everyone being the same, or even having the same conditions of life. Rather it was equality in the ineffable sense of value and dignity. Spiritual equality, if you will.

And indeed, the Enlightenment/humanist revolution did go a long way toward that ideal, as a philosophical concept that was increasingly powerful, but also as a practical reality. Despite very real wealth inequality, there has (especially in the advanced nations) actually been a great narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest in terms of quality of life. Earlier times were in contrast generally characterized by a tiny elite living poshly while the great mass of peasants were immured in squalor.

Harari thinks we’re headed back to that, when most people become useless. We may continue to feed them, but the gap between them and the very few superior beings will become a chasm. I’ve previously written about prospects for virtual immortality, which will probably not be available to the mass underclass.

What will that do to the putative ideal of human equality?

Having rejected the notion of human beings as autonomous choice-makers, Harari doesn’t seem to think we do possess any genuine ultimate value along the lines that humanism posits. Instead, we are just biological algorithms. To what purpose?

Evolutionary biology (as made clear in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene) tells us that, at least as far as Nature is concerned, life’s only purpose is the replication of genes. But that’s a tricky concept. It isn’t a purpose in any conscious, intentional sense, of course. Rather, it’s simply a consequence of the brute mathematical fact that if a gene (a set of molecules) is better at replicating than some other gene, the former will proliferate more, and the world will be filled with its progeny. No “meaning” to be seen there.

But Harari takes it one step further back. The whole thing is just a system for processing information (or “data”). As I understand it, that’s his take on what “selfish gene” biology really imports. And he applies the same concept to human societies. The most successful are the ones that are best at information processing. Democracy beats tyranny because democracy is better at information processing. Ditto for free market capitalism versus other economic models. At least till now; Harari thinks these things may well cease being true in the future.

This leads him to postulate what the religion of the future will be: “Dataism.” He sees signs of it emerging already. This religion would recognize that the ultimate cosmic value is not some imagined deity’s imagined agenda, but information processing. Which Harari thinks has the virtue of being true.

So the role of human beings would be to serve that ultimate cosmic value. Chips in the great computer that is existence. Hallelujah! But wait — artificial systems will do that far better than we can. Where will that leave us?

Here’s what I think.

Enlightenment humanist values have had a tremendous positive effect on the human condition. But Harari writes as though this triumph is complete. Maybe so on New York’s Upper East Side, but in the wider world, not so much. Far from being ready to progress from Harari’s Phase II to Phase III (embracing Dataism), much of humanity is still trying to get from Phase I to Phase II. The Enlightenment does not reign everywhere. Anti-scientific, religious, and superstitious beliefs remain powerful. Democracy is under assault in many places, and responsible citizenship is crumbling. Look at the creeps elected in Italy (and America).

Maybe this is indeed a reaction to what Harari is talking about, with humans becoming less valuable, and they feel it, striking out in elections like Italy’s and America’s and the Brexit vote, while autocrats and demagogues like Erdogan and Trump exploit such insecurities. In this respect Harari’s book complements Tom Friedman’s which I’ve reviewed, arguing that the world is now changing faster than people, institutions, and cultures can keep up with and adapt to.

Free will I’ve discussed before too. I fully acknowledge the neuroscience saying the “captain at the helm” self is an illusion, and Schopenhauer was right that our desires are beyond our control. But our actions aren’t. As legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has observed, we may not have free will, exactly, but we do have free won’t. The capability to countermand impulses and control our behavior. Thus, while the behavior of lighting up is, for a smoker, determinism par excellence, smokers can and do quit.

You might reply that quitting too is driven by deterministic factors, but I think this denies the reality of human life. The truth is that our thought and behavior is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic Skinnerian determinism.

The limits of a deterministic view are spotlighted by an example Harari himself cites: the two Koreas. Their deterministic antecedents were extremely similar, yet today the two societies could not be more different. Accidents of history — perhaps a sort of butterfly effect — made all the difference. Such effects also come into play when one looks at an individual human from the standpoint of determinism.

Harari’s arguments about humans losing value, and that anyway we’re nothing but souped-up information processors, I will take together. Both ideas overlook that the only thing in the cosmos that can matter and have meaning is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. (I keep coming back to that because it’s really so central.) The true essence of humanist philosophy is that individual people matter not because of what we produce but because of what we are: beings capable of feeling. Nothing else matters, or can matter.

The idea of existence as some vast computer-like data processor may be a useful metaphor for understanding its clockwork. But it’s so abstract a concept I’m not really sure. And in any case it isn’t really relevant to human life as it’s actually lived. We most certainly do not live it as akin to chips in a cosmic computer. Instead we live it through feelings experienced individually which, whatever one can say about how the brain works, are very real when felt. Once again, nothing can matter except insofar as it affects such feelings.

I cannot conceive of a future wherein that ceases being true.

Follow-up — Tony Milillo — The pathology of the hard left

May 21, 2019

My last post concerned abortion. I also put it on the Capital District Humanist Society’s Facebook page, where one Tony Milillo entered two comments — highly revealing and instructive. Here they are, in their entirety:

1. Well there you have it, according to Frank S. Robinson anyone who has an abortion from the end of the second trimester forward is killing a human being. And Frank “the expert on everything” also declares Roe v. Wade “a bad decision”. How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long? From what I can see, the best that can be said about this guy is he has far too much time on his hands and far too high an opinion of himself.

2. From bad to worse from Mr. Robinson: “Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.”

First notice that my essay’s mainly criticizing Republican pro-lifers isn’t good enough for Mr. Milillo; I’m as bad as they are because I’m not an absolutist pro-choice zealot. 

Then notice that, to fit me into his box, Mr. Milillo’s very first sentence grossly misrepresents what I wrote; imputes to me a view my essay explicitly contradicted. 

It set forth the reasons behind my thinking. But notice also that Mr. Milillo’s two comments contain not a single word of actual argument. As though his own rightness and my wrongness is a given. Indeed, his second comment simply quotes me. Case closed! Res ipsa loquitur! It’s self-evident I’m wrong, no need to explain why. 

And what we do get, in place of any reasoned argument, is a lot of insults.

Notice particularly this line: “How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long?” So he’s saying I should be blackballed. For failing a test of political correctness as decreed (though not actually explained) by Mr. Tony Milillo — who, incidentally, has never been seen at a meeting of said organization (in which I happen to fulfill three separate roles). I think the organization, which actually does adhere to the principles of humanism, including reasoned discourse, will not follow Mr. Milillo’s recommendation. 

This is why the left gets a rep for intolerance toward diversity of viewpoints. Believing in freedom of thought and expression, but only for themselves, all others be damned. Almost literally. 

Elsewhere, this same Mr. Milillo calls Joe Biden (another notorious deviant from Mr. Milillo’s catechism) “a fucking liar.” And what is the alleged lie? Biden’s comments to the effect that Republicans are human beings who can be reasoned with and who need to be kept in the fold of American society. Mr. Milillo goes on at great length disagreeing, explaining why Republicans are irredeemable. (Well, at least there’s some actual argument here.) But I’m not sure what Mr. Milillo’s solution is. Shooting them?

I’m a former lifelong Republican who hates what the party has become. But I agree with Biden that we must search for common ground. 

If guys like Mr. Milillo succeed in tearing down every voice that doesn’t gibe with their extremist hard left view, they will get Trump re-elected. Mr. Milillo’s kind of scorched-earth politics is tearing this country apart and will end in its destruction.

The cruel Republican abortion extremists

May 20, 2019

I’m not “pro-abortion.” My humanism valorizes the dignity of human life; and advancing it through reason (rather than religious dogma). My pre-med studies showed me that a one-month embryo is not a human being while a six-month fetus surely is. In between, it’s not clear-cut.

I don’t feel a liberal abortion regime strikes quite the right balance. There should be more recognition that a life growing inside a woman (however conceived) entails a responsibility toward that life, and at some point during gestation society may say it can’t be terminated. However, there can be many circumstances in which abortion is justified, occasionally even a late term abortion, and where prohibiting it wrongs a woman.

Roe v. Wade was a bad decision. The Supreme Court was stretching to make a legal issue of what was really a social one. Far better to have let social forces play out. A consensus was already growing in favor of liberalizing abortion laws. By short-circuiting that process, the Court created a monster, turning abortion into a horribly divisive issue. European nations more wisely resolved it through democratic means, avoiding the acrimony that has afflicted the U.S.

So should Roe be reversed? No, it’s far too late to put that toothpaste back in the tube. Indeed, reversing Roe would redouble the issue’s baneful political divisiveness. Vocal as its opponents are, there’s actually a pretty broad consensus in the country for reasonably permitting abortions in certain circumstances. The Court’s defying that public opinion would be seen as an affront to democratic legitimacy, a political minority abusing its power, shredding the Court’s aura of impartiality. Of course it could not actually outlaw abortions; only allow states to do so; many states would not. Nevertheless, such a ruling would be seen as blowing up something that had come to be an integral part of our societal culture.

In the culture wars, pro-lifers bash their opponents as endorsing the killing of fully developed babies. And pro-choice absolutists play into their hands by refusing to agree that late-term abortion shouldn’t generally be permitted. Some even sanction what could indeed amount to baby killing.

Now some Republican controlled states, notably Alabama and Missouri, have gone to the other extreme, virtually banning all abortions. Including even cases of rape or incest. Alabama slates a 99-year prison sentence for doctors!

Note that the party of “law and order,” supposedly worshipping the Constitution, is passing blatantly unconstitutional enactments. Unconstitutional, according to the currently prevailing law of the land, as declared by the Supreme Court. Of course, they’re hoping this will end in the Court changing that prevailing law, reversing Roe. It’s been their political obsession for decades.

To protect the sanctity of life, and unborn children? These Republicans care little for actual, born children. The states passing these laws have the nation’s most dreadful stats on child health, welfare, and poverty. While thousands of children are killed or injured annually thanks to these Republicans’ insane fetishizing of guns. Sanctity of life and protecting children?

They do profess that God inserts a soul into an embryo at conception. Put aside for a moment that God and souls don’t exist. But where in fact does the Bible say embryos are ensouled at conception? Noplace! Its prescientific authors knew nothing of embryology, eggs, sperm, or conception.

So even if you believe in God, this soul-at-conception doctrine is strictly a modern add-on to traditional religion — added just to fit the culture-war abortion issue. If they wanted to, the religious could equally well posit that the soul arises at birth.

Republicans also supposedly believe in freedom — but not the freedom to depart from that weird religious idea of theirs. Abortion differs from other political issues, like immigration, tax or trade policy, etc., which affect everyone. A stranger having an abortion does not. You’re entitled to your own idiosyncratic interpretation of religious doctrine, but what gives you a right to impose it on all women?

So why is this happening? Why, after all, do Republicans so obsess over abortion? I think the true, deep-down, unacknowledged motivator here is hatred for the idea of female autonomy.

Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.

That’s what it’s truly about. Not “sanctity of life” but sanctity of patriarchy. Women as second class human beings who ought to be under male control. And that control is to be imposed with unflinching cruelty. The extremist idea, in the Alabama and Missouri laws, of making abortions virtually unavailable, virtually regardless of circumstances, evinces a vindictive cruelty toward women uppity enough to think they should have some say about their own lives. Bring on The Handmaid’s Tale.

But I believe these Republican extremists, intoxicated with their power, knowing no bounds, overplay their hands. And it will wind up burning their own house down.

What are we saying when we talk?

May 18, 2019

That was the subject for a fascinating entry by “Johnson” (after Samuel), The Economist’s language columnist.

We typically say language is for communicating and conveying information. But the two are not the same. A study cited in the column found only 36% of utterances purport to be factual statements. The rest instead have social purposes; either as social lubricants or to convey something about the speaker.

Johnson cited for example Christians who might say, “I believe in the resurrection of Jesus.” Maybe not an everyday conversational gambit. Anyhow, I’ve pointed out that what we think we believe and what we truly believe can differ. Johnson posits that a lot of Christians don’t really truly believe in the resurrection; rather they are saying, “I am a Christian and it is important that I say this.” The latter is what they aim to convey — not that the resurrection was real. I’d put it in terms of delineating one’s personal identity.

Then there’s Trump. Johnson notes his telling fans that the Obamas built a wall around their house. Turns out they didn’t. But for Trump and his audience that was irrelevant. He wasn’t actually telling them, “this is a fact.” Instead he was communicating something about himself. Something like, “I share your loathing for Obama, that n_____.”

Yet, with all due respect for Johnson, there’s really more going on with Trump, he’s a special case. Normal people have a filter to vet utterances before they come out. Trump doesn’t. Recently he said his father was born in Germany. Actually it was the Bronx. Why misstate such a thing? He denied having any role concerning Jared Kushner’s security clearance; it turns out he had a very big role. This is not just ordinary lying, but pathological lying. A disturbed relationship with reality. What comes out of his mouth at any given moment is what his brain thinks fits with his narrative of the moment — reality being irrelevant. One very sick puppy here.

And here’s another point Johnson didn’t make. We understand pretty well what the story is when buddies banter in a bar; and it’s fine. However, it’s different when the president of the United States speaks in public. His office invests him with an awesome trust and responsibility, his utterances are highly consequential. Furthermore, people have long believed “all politicians lie,” a vast overstatement, but this basic reflexive distrust makes it all the more incumbent upon a president to use the greatest care when speaking, doing everything possible to avoid misstatements. Trump’s doing the very opposite is corrosive to the relationship between citizens and their government; devastating to our civic discourse and our whole civic culture.

Those are factual statements.

Steven Pinker: rational optimist

May 6, 2019

Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Probably the closest to my own thinking. His new book is among the finest I’ve ever read.

In 2012 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedSome thought this premise was nuts. Now he’s doubled down with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Those four are indeed touchstones of the Enlightenment, a revolution in human thought beginning in the 1700s, immensely improving our quality of life. You might think this needs no defense. But howling fools today dance around bonfires of Enlightenment ideals. And as Pinker points out, intellectuals often actually hate the idea of progress (especially those calling themselves “progressive”). He explains how his optimistic message rankles both ends of the political spectrum.*

Some lefties say the Enlightenment gave us slavery, colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, and so forth; its misguided hyper-rationalism led straight to Auschwitz. Pinker says this has it backwards. All sorts of modes for exploitation and repression long predated the Enlightenment; its humanism led us to overcome them. Nazism was the antithesis of Enlightenment values.

There’s also cultural pessimism, “our sick society” a favorite phrase; a rat race of “consumerism” (which, Pinker trenchantly says, “often means consumption by the other guy”).

Meantime, the right sees the Enlightenment as vaunting individualism, unmooring people from past certainties, time-tested values, and close-knit communities. The result is supposedly a fragmented, dissolute culture, with epidemics of anomie, depression, and suicide. We were better off with reverence for thrones and altars.

But Pinker counters all this by documenting increased well-being and happiness levels for the great mass of humanity. He has no time for Nietzschean philosophy extolling the “great man” who stomps on peons. The Enlightenment also puts individuals above the tribe, race, nation, or faith; it’s average ordinary people (after all, that’s most of us) whose flourishing should be the focus. That’s humanism.

Militating against optimism and perceptions of progress are some human cognitive biases. A pessimistic cynic might seem more morally serious than a naive “Pollyanna” wearing “rose colored glasses.”

In fact, evolution hard-wired us to look on the dark side, attuned to threats. If that might be a lion lurking, best assume the worst and run. The optimist could get eaten (and wouldn’t pass on his genes). Modern life plays to this, inundating us with bad news — which tends to be more newsworthy than good news. A plane crash makes headlines; 100,000 daily safe landings are ignored. The news is full of crime too. And another cognitive bias is the “availability heuristic” — something seems prevalent if examples readily come to mind. So most people always believe crime is increasing, when in fact it’s dramatically fallen over decades. Similarly, pessimism’s putative moral seriousness makes them always say world poverty is rising. Again, it’s actually been plunging.

Enlightenment Now clobbers the reader with facts about these and other positive trends. I tried in my own book, The Case for Rational OptimismPinker’s is better. He does, in it, call mine “beautifully written” (thank you), and I’ll return the compliment. Pinker takes the writing craft seriously, working to make his points as cogently as possible, a pleasure to read. Enhanced by a droll wit. (He quotes Dorothy Parker, supposedly challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

The book is chock full of thought-provoking insightful analyses and good sense. But here’s the big picture. “The good old days” look good only thanks to amnesia. I’ve mentioned falling crime; it’s not just recent, but a huge fall over the centuries. In fact every kind of violence, including war, has plummeted. We are much safer, better fed, and healthier than our forbears, hence live much longer. We suffer less pain, work less hard and enjoy more leisure; and earn far more to enjoy it with. Globally, incomes are way up and poverty, as noted, is on the run. There is more democracy, freedom, and human rights, less oppression and discrimination. All these improvements — unsurprisingly — translate into more people feeling more happiness and fulfillment.

But are the benefits going disproportionately to the rich? Pinker calls inequality the left’s “theory of everything.” His clear-eyed perspective on this topic alone is worth the price of the book. Upper incomes have indeed skyrocketed, but it’s a basic fallacy that that’s achieved by picking the pockets of the poor. Steve Jobs got rich by providing products millions are thrilled to buy, improving their lives. An economic environment that doesn’t create such opportunities would keep everyone poor. And globally, the gap between the rich and the rest is actually narrowing, especially inasmuch as most people (including those lowest on America’s income scale) now enjoy amenities of life that used to be the exclusive province of the wealthiest (if available at all; many were not).

But is all our progress ruining the planet? Well, there is an unavoidable trade-off, and no free lunch. We could never have risen from the stone age without exploiting environmental resources. Pinker makes a good case that the benefits are well worth the cost. And it’s proven that we can have economic growth while actually improving the environment; prosperity gives us both the means and the desire. This applies to climate change (though we’re impeded not just by denialists and the fossil fuel industry, but also hostility among greens toward nuclear power and geo-engineering).

Progress does create losers as well as winners, and some resentments (especially ethnic). Pinker acknowledges the threat from anti-Enlightenment populist politics, of both right and left. Too many issues get viewed through a distorting lens of political tribalism. In particular Pinker details how Trump endangers what’s been achieved (quite a list). But he thinks those achievements happened for strong reasons which will not disappear. Indeed, what will disappear is older people hostile to Enlightenment humanism. Rising generations are increasingly on board with it.

So what does make progress happen? Not some mystical force. Rather, it’s using our brains to solve problems. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and science gives us the needed knowledge. Pinker defends the concept of reason. It’s not a matter of “believing” in it; we just use it. Any argument to the contrary defeats itself, because it is an argument — and what is any argument if not an exercise of reason? Of course humans aren’t always rational. But we’re capable of rationality, and its greater use underlies all our advancements.

He also defends science too, against the sneering so unfortunately prevalent among humanities scholars. They condemn so-called “scientism” that holds science should dictate everything, including morality. Nobody believes that. But Pinker insists science does give us the understanding of reality that enables us to approach such issues rationally. In contrast, religion-based moralizing rests on underlying assumptions about reality that are fundamentally false.

One of modernity’s advancements is more widespread education — which creates a virtuous circle. Giving more of us more problem-solving ability. People have literally, on average, grown smarter. Pinker explains what education does: you’re less superstitious, less in thrall to leaders, more understanding of differences among people, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Studies confirm, he says, “that educated people really are more enlightened.” Less racist and authoritarian. More imaginative and independent, but more community minded too. And more likely to trust other people — a crucial ingredient in creating the social capital that makes us work together.

This is why education is the main focus of my own philanthropic efforts.**

* I’ve experienced this myself; in one talk to a group of Jewish seniors, I hardly spoke ten words before the cynical brickbats started flying.

** Through the Frank S. Robinson Enlightenment Fund (Steven Pinker, honorary chairman).