Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Idiocracy: The Death of Expertise

January 9, 2018

Our pockets hold a device to access all the information in the world. We use it to view cat videos. And while the sum of human knowledge grows hyperbolically, and we’re getting more education than ever, the average American’s ignorance is rising.

This is the nub of Tom Nichols’s 2017 book, The Death of Expertise. (Nichols is a professor and foreign affairs wonk.) Expertise itself isn’t dying — it’s being rejected.

Take vaccination. Expert, knowledgeable, responsible opinion is clear about its benefits, and the baselessness of fears about it. They began with a fraudulent “study” by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, that was authoritatively debunked. Wakefield’s medical license was even revoked. That hasn’t stopped the nonsense, still spewed by irresponsible people like former Playboy pin-up Jenny McCarthy. Too many listen to her rather than the medical establishment, and refuse vaccination. Result: children dying of illnesses previously almost eliminated. (See my commentary on a previous book, Denialism; it also discusses the similarly misguided (and likewise deadly) campaign against GM foods.)

Civilization is grounded upon division of labor and specialization of function. We have doctors who doctor and plumbers who plumb, with arcane expertise not possessed by the mass of others. This is how airplanes are engineered and flown. We trust such experts to do these things. Nobody would imagine they could build and fly a plane equally well. Yet plenty do somehow imagine they know better about vaccination than the experts.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That old saw is weaponized by the internet, spreading what might appear to be “knowledge” but actually isn’t. While previously, discourse about matters like science or public policy was largely confined within intellectual ghettoes, those walls have been blown down.

Anti-intellectualism and magical thinking have long afflicted American culture. Worse now, many people, fortified by a college degree, deem themselves their own intellectual experts. But Nichols, who delves deeply into the subject, says going to college is not the same as getting a college education. Students arrive there already spoiled by the coddling of helicopter parents, giving them an arrogant attitude of entitlement. (I can’t count how often I’ve heard that word, “entitlement,” spoken by professionals discussing interactions with young people.)

Schools find themselves forced to surrender to this ethos, with fluff courses, “safe spaces” against intellectual challenge, feelings allowed to trump facts, and gradeflation to flatter fragile egos. “When college is a business, you can’t flunk the customers,” Nichols says. Critical thinking? Rational discourse? Forget it.

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Thusly stepping back to see oneself objectively is metacognition. Such humility is fading from America’s narcissistic culture, where college makes people imagine they’re smart without giving them the tools to recognize their own deficiencies (or deficiencies in the “information” they imbibe). Anti-vaccine madness is more rampant among the college-educated than the uneducated.

Social science actually has a name for this phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people think they are (like all Lake Wobegone children) above average. Those who don’t understand logic don’t recognize their own illogicality. They don’t actually understand the concepts of knowledge and expertise.

It’s an irony that in the past, with far fewer people “educated,” there was more respect for education, expertise, seriousness, and indeed facts. A less educated past America would never have tolerated the lies and vulgarities of a Trump.

But there’s also the cynical feeling that experts and elites have their own self-serving agendas and have led us astray. Look at the Vietnam War; the 2008 financial crisis. Nichols addresses at length the problem of expert error. But he invokes the old conundrum of a plane crash getting headlines while thousands of daily safe flights are just taken for granted. In fact, everything about modernity and its benefits — medical science, air travel, and so much else — is the work of experts. If they weren’t generally very good at it, planes wouldn’t fly. You would not board one staffed by a bunch of Joe Sixpacks. Experts can be wrong, but is it likelier that Jenny McCarthy is right about vaccines?

“Rocket science” is used as a metaphor for extreme expertise. I recently saw a TV documentary about the Hubble Space Telescope* — which, after launch, didn’t work, a huge bungle by experts. But even more striking was how, against all odds, NASA people managed to figure out, and execute, a fix. Expertise more than redeemed itself.

Another factor in the shunning of expertise is a rising ethos of individualism and egalitarianism. It’s the idea that you — and your opinions (however derived) — are as good as anyone else and their opinions (expertise be damned). Nichols thinks Americans misunderstand democracy, confusing the concept of equality of rights with actual equality, and equal validity of all opinions. Yet at the same time there’s a refusal to engage in a serious way with the public sphere — “a collapse of functional citizenship.” Democracy is corrupted if voting isn’t based on a grasp of facts that are actually facts.

I keep mentioning confirmation bias because it’s such a big factor. We welcome information that seemingly validates our pre-existing beliefs, and insulate ourselves against anything contrary. Smarter, educated people are actually better at constructing such rationalizations. And modern media facilitates this cherry-picking; we embed ourselves in comfortable cocoons of confirmation.

Declining trust in experts is part of a larger trend of declining social trust generally. Polls show a belief that other people are getting less trustworthy (for which there’s no evidence). Mainstream news has been a victim of this. Many Americans don’t know who to believe. Or, worse, their cynical lapse of confidence, in conventional repositories of trust, paradoxically leads them to swallow what should be trusted least. Like all that garbage from the internet — and the White House.

So rejecting input from real experts opens a field day for phony ones. The Jenny McCarthys, conspiracy freaks like Alex Jones, not to mention legions of religious and spiritualist frauds. Nichols cites Sturgeon’s law (Theodore Sturgeon was a sci-fi writer): 90% of everything is crap.

The ironies multiply. Trump’s election, and the Brexit vote too, were revolts against experts and elites, seen as lording over common folk. Yet those voters have delivered themselves, gift-wrapped, to the not-so-tender mercies of a different gang that exploits their ignorance and credulity for its own bad ends.

Americans are losing their grasp of the nation’s founding ideals and values (no longer taught in schools). Without such understanding, those principles cannot be sustained. Nichols sees a “toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like [a] full suit of armor against . . . experts and professionals.” This, he says, puts democracy in a “death spiral” as disregard for informed expert viewpoints (and, one might add, just plain reality) produces ever worse results in the public sphere. This embitters citizens even more.

I’ve always seen a dichotomy between the smartest people, who really understand and know things, and the rest of humanity. And it’s only the former — maybe 1% of the species — at the far end of the bell curve of cognitive ability — who actually run things. Who are indeed responsible for all we’ve achieved. Literally all. Without that 1%, we’d still be in caves.

* A picture in that documentary included someone who was at my last birthday party!

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Paul Auster: Travels in the Scriptorium, The Prisoner of Time, and a bar joke

January 6, 2018

I first read a book by Paul Auster mainly because I’d met his ex-wife (Lydia Davis). But that book, The New York Trilogy, which I’ve reviewed, was great. So then I picked up his Travels in the Scriptorium.

I didn’t even look first to see what it was about. But it turns out to uncannily evoke a novel I once wrote myself. I wrote quite a few; I was mentored by a wonderful literary agent, Virginia Kidd, and I still feel bad that my work never repaid her efforts to develop me. She did get one of my novels published, but the others were, well, pretty much awful.

One was The Prisoner of Time. It was really a title in search of a story. A prisoner is held under mysterious, enigmatic circumstances. A woman he’d loved looms in the picture. (Had he murdered her? Or is she still out there?) The gimmick was that he’s in some kind of time loop (hence the title) and the ending loops back to the beginning, so that his situation is eternal. Or something like that. It didn’t really make much sense. You can see why I failed as a novelist.

That was all over forty years ago. I no longer have a copy of Prisoner, I must have tossed it. But Paul Auster seems to have channeled it, because his 2006 novel is that book, more or less, though of course done far better. Not that his makes complete sense in the end either (another similarity).

Scriptorium all takes place in one room, wherein elderly “Mr. Blank” (is this name a metaphor?) is (apparently) confined under mysterious, enigmatic circumstances. He’s being treated with powerful pills; struggles with elusive memory; interacts with various visitors. One is possibly a former lover, now a sort of nurse to him. He’s apparently done great harm, to her and others, though its exact nature is never clear to him (or the reader).

Much of the novel is taken up with his reading an incomplete fictional manuscript (hence the title). It’s the purported memoir of another prisoner, in some alternate world, with some convoluted conspiracy enmeshing him. Then Mr. Blank imagines, in great detail, that story’s continuation.

All this was pure Prisoner of Time. And then: at the end, Mr. Blank finds a different manuscript in his room. He starts reading, and it describes this room he’s in, and the start of this day he himself is still living. In fact it’s a verbatim repeat of the first pages of Scriptorium itself. Talk about looping back!

Auster includes a joke Mr. Blank recalls hearing: A man walks into a Chicago bar at 5 PM, asks for three scotches all lined up, drinks them, pays, and leaves. When this recurs for several days in succession, curiosity impels the bartender to ask what’s up. The man explains that his two brothers live on opposite coasts, and to honor their bond, they each perform this 5 PM ritual, as though all three were together.

It continues for several months, until one day when the man comes in as usual but orders and knocks back only two scotches. The implications are not lost on the bartender. “I don’t want to pry,” he says, “but is anything wrong in your family?”

“Oh no,” the man answers, “nothing’s wrong.”

“Why only two scotches then?”

“The answer is simple,” comes the reply. “I’ve stopped drinking.”

What is populism?

December 28, 2017

“Populism” is the political word du jour. America has its first president so labeled, and “populist” parties are thriving throughout Europe. What exactly does “populism” mean?

It (like the word “popular”) comes from the Latin “populus,” meaning “people.” During the Roman Republic, politics was divided between “Populares” and “Optimates;” not organized parties as we know them, but factions. The Optimates (“best ones”) represented the elites and the status quo; the Populares, as the name implies, aimed to represent the interests of the common folk.

“Populism” connotes the people ruling and getting what they want. Of course, all democratic politics is supposed to entail the people (a majority) having their way, that’s what voting is all about. But today’s populism reflects a notion that somehow “the people” have not been getting what they want, because the system is rigged against them by elites, who have to be pulled down. A theme of both the right and left.

America had a “People’s Party” in the late 1800s, also called “Populist,” whence we get the modern usage. Those Populists too stood against the elites, representing mainly farmers. One of their key policies was free silver coinage, championed by William Jennings Bryan (“you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”). This might seem an arcane issue, but it was really about “easy money” and favoring debtors (mostly farmers) against creditors. It was at least a coherent and basically rational program which, if enacted, would have achieved its stated aims.

Sigmund Freud divided the mind among the super-ego, the rational moral cogitator; the id, the primal instinctual unconscious; and the ego which pragmatically mediates between them. Modern populism is id-based politics — the politics of the gut, not the brain. Emotion does have a legitimate role, of course, indeed it’s an inextricable part of our functioning. But it has to be moderated by our higher executive intellect. Otherwise the result is policies which are not coherent and rational, often actually running counter to the ostensible objectives.

This is epitomized by modern populism’s xenophobia, racialism, and economic nationalism. They manifest in hostility toward immigrants, toward ethnic and cultural diversity, and toward free trade. And in favor of misguided and counterproductive policies that will not “make America great again,” but worse. Likewise Britain’s vote to leave the European Union — quintessential populism. This is the id, not reason, in charge.

“Optimates” versus “populares” type class conflict is actually an eternal political phenomenon. But in America, until recently at least, the elites were seen to have a certain moral authority, were accorded a certain deference, were looked to for guidance. The nation had a sense of common purpose. However, all that has been eroded by a populist ethos of egalitarianism and individualism, with Joe Sixpack deeming himself equal, and maybe even in a down-to-earth way superior, to the “optimates.” And woe betide any “leader” who tells him nay. Politicians are cowed from making the case for anti-populist policies like liberal immigration and free trade.

But true leaders like Lincoln, FDR, and JFK summoned Americans to their highest values, ideals, and aspirations. “The better angels of our nature.” In contrast, today’s populism — Trump’s populism — panders to and enflames our baser nature. Appealing to the id, our primal engine of raw instinct, rather than our rational moral minds. Trump’s America is not a shining city on a hill, but a squalid slum in a swamp.

Morality without God

December 19, 2017

Believers say that without God we can’t know right from wrong. The problem is: how does God know right from wrong? As Socrates put it, is something good because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is good? If the former, it’s just arbitrary, like a parent ending an argument with “because I said so.” But if God has reasons for his moral rules, then we should be able to figure them out ourselves, and don’t need him.

This raises the question of whether moral rules can be objectively determined. Objectivity means being based on facts, not mere (subjective) opinion. Are there moral facts? Out there, for us to ascertain? Philosopher David Hume famously said we can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” That is, we can’t judge how things should be from how things are.

Some conclude this leaves any supposed moral precept on the shaky quicksand of subjective personal opinion. But let’s step back and ask: why should we have morality altogether? What purpose does it serve? “So we can do what’s right,” you might reply. But why does that matter?

Here’s why. Because it makes life better. Leave aside whether you, personally, do what’s right instead of wrong. A world where nobody does would make for rotten lives — “nasty, brutish, and short,” as Hobbes wrote. Quite simply, morality enables us to get along together maximizing happiness and pleasure and minimizing pain and suffering.

And why does that matter? Well, there’s nothing else that can. Nothing in the cosmos can matter except the feelings of beings capable of feelings. There has to be someone to whom something matters.

So there we have the essence of a morality that’s as close to being objective fact as is possible. Morality means doing what (all else equal) increases happiness and pleasure and reduces pain and suffering. Everything else is corollaries.

Notice that the resulting moral rules are not arbitrary. It’s not as though any old set of moral norms would serve the function just as well as any other. A code that says lying and killing are okay won’t work for us as well as one saying they’re not. Such notions, again, might not quite qualify as objective facts, but nor are they mere personal tastes, and it doesn’t take a philosophy professor to figure them out.

This refutes the idea that atheists have no reason to be moral. A command from on-high (be it God, a king, or president) by itself is not a good reason for obedience, absent some independent reason for it. Again, if we understand that other reason, we don’t need the command. Atheists follow morality, just like most people (even before gods were invented), because doing so enables us all to live together in the best way possible. Indeed, that was bred into us by evolution, because tribes that practiced it survived better than others.

So nor do we need hope of Heaven or fear of Hell to enforce morality either. Query whether toeing the line for such self-serving ends is really “moral.” And if God’s idea of morality is punishing a sin (or mere unbelief) with eternal torture, that’s repellent. Civilized nations having banned torture shows we’ve progressed beyond such Biblical morality. There’s no mention of human rights altogether in the Bible.

Some might object that all this leaves morality a mere human construct; and there must be something higher. Well, there isn’t. Our humanity is all we’ve got. And it’s enough.*

Preachers rant about supposed American moral decline. But much of what’s lamented, like tolerance for homosexuality, is actually moral advancement. Yet today we do see a sharp downward lurch in America’s moral condition, with tolerance and even enthusiasm, especially among professed religious believers, for a president who’s a flagrant moral creep. Those Ten Commandments fans seem to forget the one about lying. They’re walking evidence against the idea that God imparts morality.

(For some ideas in this essay I credit one by Ronald Lindsay, “How Morality has the Objectivity that Matters — Without God,” in Free Inquiry magazine, Aug/Sep 2014.)

* This thirst for something outside of our moral systems to give them validity recalls those who consider money illusory without a gold standard. As if gold gives money real value. But what gives gold its value? That too is a human construct. Money has value because of the role we give it in human affairs. The same concept applies to morality.

My chicken poem

December 3, 2017

The latest issue of the local poetry anthology, Up the River, includes one of mine. Click here to see it. (And note my bio!)

Magical thinking in America

November 7, 2017

Mass shootings keep us revisiting the gun issue. Many Americans want guns for self-protection in the home. But guns in homes overwhelmingly shoot family members. They kill or maim about 7,000 children every year. Intruders stopped: practically none.

Another fantasy is guns protecting our liberties against the government. If the constitution and courts fail, will these gun-toting clowns do the trick? As if the Feds’ firepower wouldn’t obliterate them!

These gun ideas constitute magical thinking. Believing something because you wish to, even if actually — even if manifestly — untrue. We obsess over “keeping us safe” from terrorism, while shrugging off the firearm death toll, 30,000 Americans annually — a hundred times greater. “Right-to-life” is for the unborn, not for gun victims.

Now, it happens that many of these same magical thinkers about guns also believe evolution and climate change (and the human role in it) are lies; that mainstream media disseminate fake news; while Trump tells it like it is. That immigrants are bad for the economy. That corporate tax cuts will create jobs. That the Bible is the inerrant word of a benevolent god watching over us, good people go to Heaven, and bad ones to Hell. Some of these same people also believe whites are a superior race (and victims of discrimination); that confederate statues honor history, not racism; and millions vote illegally.

Is there a pattern here?

The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist recently examined this, citing a forthcoming book by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, Enchanted America. The Trump phenomenon may be rooted not so much in conservative ideology as superstition. (Indeed, traditional conservative ideology has been turned on its head.) People holding some or all of the beliefs I mentioned are called “intuitionists,” understanding the world on the basis of feelings and gut instincts, not principles, values, or empirical facts (to which they’re impervious).

Fear plays a role, tending to warp rational thought. Oliver quotes his five-year-old son: “If there’s no monster in the closet, then why am I scared?” Clinging to guns for supposed safety is similar thinking.

“How,” asks Lexington, “has such a rich, well-governed place come to this?” He invokes Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” — a tendency which may be triggered by being on the losing side of cultural conflicts. This applies to religious fundamentalists and rural and rustbelt whites. Their gravitating toward the political right makes the right particularly “the domain of unreason.” (Though there’s plenty of irrationality on the left too.)

Kurt Anderson’s recent book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, finds magical thinking pervades our history. After all, the country began with religious fanatics (the Puritans). Anderson cites, inter alia, Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, quack medicines, Esalen, and P. T. Barnum (“the first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment”) as well as, of course, the long-running story of protestant fundamentalism. Today, magical thinking is pitched into yet higher gear by economic insecurity, racial resentment, demonization of immigrants, and the psychic discombobulation of social and cultural change. All this turned the GOP into “the Fantasy Party,” imagining they’ll “make America great again” with a creep who’s actually making America rancid.

People with a grip on reality no longer even have a place in the Republican party. Truth-telling Senators Corker and Flake concluded they could not win renomination. Party loyalty is now defined as believing the naked emperor is resplendently clothed. (I quit in May.)

Of course Americans are not alone in magical thinking. It’s common everywhere. Yet today’s America is striking for the broad range of delusions many people hold. The book I recently reviewed about conspiracy theories shows those who swallow one are likelier to swallow others. It’s the way they see the world.

When it comes to religion, I’ve always thought beliefs that would be deemed insane if held by only a few have to be considered normal when held by the many. People compartmentalize, and can be perfectly rational on the whole while their minds harbor ghettoes wherein reason’s writ does not run.

Yet what is insanity if not divorcement from reality? Religious faith may get a pass; but when the magical thinking extends to many additional realms, the compartmentalization concept breaks down, and the inmates have taken over the asylum.

America’s partisan divide trumps all other tribalisms

October 17, 2017

“Humans are extremely loyal to members of their own group. They are even prepared to give up their own lives in defense of those with whom they identify. In sharp contrast, they can behave with lethal aggressiveness toward those who are unfamiliar to them.”

I read that in a book of science essays,* just as I was drafting this piece about about America’s partisan divide. I’ve addressed this before, because it’s hugely portentous.

Humanity as a whole has been gradually overcoming the instinctive tribalism of the quote. Over time our “tribes” have become more inclusive; some people now consider all humankind their tribe. That’s an important factor reducing conflict and violence (as Steven Pinker explained in The Better Angels of Our Nature.) Yet American tribalism still remains strong.

Standard tribalistic divisions entail race/ethnicity; religion; educational level; socio-economic status; language; gender; and age. All these continue to operate in American culture. But another one now trumps them all: political party.

That’s the key takeaway from a recent Pew survey, as well as a Stanford study. It’s not exactly news that partisan divisions have increased, with a vanishing moderate middle (or one that’s out-shouted). Further, like-minded people have tended to cluster together, making red areas more red and blue areas more blue. That’s exacerbated by peer pressure and conformism, as well as partisan gerrymandering. But what’s really striking now is that for a lot of people, political tribalism has become the most important one in shaping felt personal identity.

This may seem strange when percentages supporting either party have fallen. Yet, on the other hand, for those still loyal to a party, it’s become more intense.

Look at Pew’s graph, below. In 1994, party affiliation was already the top factor governing attitudes, though neck-and-neck with all the other tribalisms. Since then, party has gained a runaway lead, becoming totally pre-eminent.

In a sense, it’s a logical development. We sacralize the concept of individualism. And as Stanford researcher Iyengar points out, political opinion is deeply personal, seemingly a conscious voluntary choice — unlike those other tribal markers.** Thus people would tend to see their political stance as more reflective of “who they really are.”

Also, politics is a much better outlet for tribal instincts, in today’s culture, where hostility toward others on the basis of ethnicity or religion, etc., is very much frowned upon. In contrast, flaming someone over politics seems acceptable.

And while messages encouraging tribal solidarity based on race or faith or the like are muted, we’re bombarded with messages from numerous sources (not only Russian) aiming to enflame partisan passions. The internet/smartphone/social media revolution is a big factor.

The Stanford researchers found similar trends in other democracies. However, Americans are distinctive in our outward display of partisan identities — bumper stickers, lawn signs, etc. Those aren’t seen in Europe, with less citizen political engagement. (Their campaigns are much shorter too, whereas America’s political season is year-round.)

Interestingly (in light of my opening quote), Stanford also found that while Americans’ in-group favoritism toward fellow partisans is strong, their animosity toward folks in the opposing party is stronger. The two sides inhabit different worlds — they’re strangers to each other, a recipe for hostility.

I used to find Democrats and the left more guilty of demonizing opponents and their motives; but Republicans have leapfrogged over them. I was no fan of Obama or Hillary, but the intensity of their demonization by Republicans and the right exceeds the bounds of sanity.

Party actually even trumps ideology. You’d think the two go together. But the meaning of “conservatism” has changed radically, while most Republican “conservatives” seem not to have noticed the bait-and-switch. They stick with their label regardless of its altered content. For some time, Republicanism in the South has really stood for guns, God, and whiteness (look at Alabama’s senate race), but now that has spread to the entire national party, submerging its traditional ideology and values. Religious “conservatives” no longer even care about lying, cheating, or pussy-grabbing. Sticking with the team, the tribe, is the guiding principle.

Is all this just a phase, that will pass? I doubt it. Our body politic is thoroughly poisoned. We no longer have political debates, we have shouting matches, with neither side interested in considering what the other has to say. And partisan tribalism really does seem to trump everything else, including truth and reason — again, especially among my former Republican comrades.

Political partisans also seem to embody the Vince Lombardi ethos: “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” Yet while battles can be won, the war is unwinnable. Neither tribe can convince their opponents, nor bludgeon them into surrender. With a political cycle where one party or the other holds power only thanks to the thinnest of electoral margins, its legitimacy always under assault, neither can accomplish much in our system of checks-and-balances.

Rational optimism? I continue to believe our species has a bright future. Our country, not so much.

* “Subverting Biology” by Patrick Bateson, in This Explains Everything, John Brockman, ed.

** Religion should similarly be a choice, but in practice it’s less so.

The curse of Ham

September 26, 2017

I have written about Kentucky’s Creation Museum. Should be called the Museum of Ignorance, since its exhibits contradict incontestable scientific facts. Like the dinosaurs dying out 65 million years ago. The museum is off by 64.99+ million years. It shows humans living beside them. This might be fine as entertainment, but not for an institution purporting to be educational.

Earth to Creationists: I’m more than 6,000 years old. Around a million times older.

The museum was built by an outfit called Answers in Genesis. Not content with this slap in the face to intelligence, Answers is now building a replica Noah’s Ark. The project has received an $18 million tax break from the State of Kentucky (specifically, a sales tax abatement). How does this not flagrantly flout constitutional separation of church and state?

Ken Ham

The head of Answers in Genesis is a man named Ken Ham. Please linger upon this name.

For one thing, ham is just about the most un-kosher thing in Judaism. Kentucky’s public support for a Ham-centric project is plainly a gross insult to its citizens of the Jewish faith.

But there’s a much bigger issue. The name of Noah’s third son was Ham. Coincidence? Not very likely. This Mister Ken Ham must, beyond any doubt, be a direct descendant of Noah’s third son. He has never denied it; and it certainly explains his ark fetish.

Now, the Bible is very clear about this fact: Ham was cursed, for a grave insult to his father. Scholars differ in their exact interpretations. Some say Ham castrated Noah; others that he buggered Noah. Either way, it wasn’t nice, and so Ham was cursed by God. Ham’s own son Canaan was the progenitor of the Canaanite people, who of course were later wiped out by a God-ordered genocide; and also of all Africans, which is why they’re all cursed too.

But here is the point. In this Kentucky Ark project, Mister Ken Ham must sneakily be aiming to whitewash the above family history, employing lies to mislead the public and undo the curse that God, in his infinite wisdom and justice, laid upon all of his line. This is out-and-out blasphemy.

Some will say it should be left to the Lord to visit his divine justice upon this doubly accursed latter-day Ham. But of course God-fearing people have rarely been content to defer to that ultimate justice, and have instead so often taken matters into their own hands, with fire and sword.

I’d go with the latter.

Norman Dorsen, Colin Bruce, and mortality

September 24, 2017

One thing that happens as you get old is that the world is increasingly populated by ghosts.

I graduated NYU Law School in 1970. It puts out a yearly magazine, that’s gotten glitzier over the years as the school has grown in stature. Mainly I’ve enjoyed seeing in it news and photos of people I’d known, sometimes classmates, mostly professors. But gradually they have faded away (presaging my own future); the magazine became full of strangers. Yet one face I could always still count on seeing was the eternal, ubiquitous Norman Dorsen.

He was my constitutional law professor. When I opened the latest magazine, I found a full page photo of Norman Dorsen. Because he had died.

My NYU professors were not faceless anodynes; they included some powerful, dynamic personalities I still remember vividly. But even among them Dorsen was a monumental figure. Though never its actual dean, Dorsen came to be the school’s embodiment, and central to its mentioned escalation in stature over the decades.

Fonda as inmate Gideon, preparing to mail his petition to the Supreme Court

He had co-written the Army’s legal brief relating to the Army-McCarthy hearings. He also wrote a brief in Gideon v. Wainwright (Henry Fonda played Gideon in the movie; it still gooses my emotions); in the Nixon tapes case; and helped write one in Roe v. Wade. He was president of the ACLU; and director of NYU’s Civil Liberties Program for 56 years.

Under Dorsen’s leadership, in 1977, the ACLU took one of its most controversial stances: backing the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Dorsen considered this a civil liberties litmus test. (I too am an absolutist on freedom of expression.)

Norman Dorsen

Norman Dorsen was a man of rigor and seriousness. One episode sticks strangely in my memory. Law school classes were mainly socratic dialogs analyzing past actual cases. But with grades based solely on the final exam, students were often lax about class discussion. One day Dorsen began the session and quizzed a student, who couldn’t answer. After one or two others weren’t prepared either, Dorsen, visibly pissed off, simply closed his book and walked out.

The only such instance in my law school career. Gosh, almost half a century ago.

The same magazine also has a smaller obit for George Zeitlin, my tax law professor.

Colin Bruce

And the same day’s mail brought World Coin News with Colin Bruce’s. I don’t recall meeting in person but we corresponded over decades. Colin too was a living landmark. He’d been responsible for creating The Standard Catalog of World Coins in 1972. Non-collectors can’t appreciate this. But previously, evaluating foreign coins was mostly guesswork. What a blessing to have listings for every country in one (large!) book. Thank you, Colin Bruce.

Pricing accuracy was still always problematical. And sadly, after Colin retired, the catalog went downhill, accumulating errors and stupidities that never were corrected. Finally I published a broadside detailing the problems — with no response — and resolved to boycott further annual editions. This will make my coin dealing harder. The only consolation is that it won’t be that much longer.

Time was, my life stretching ahead felt so long it might as well have been forever. Now the end feels so near it might as well be tomorrow.

Political extremism and moderation

September 15, 2017

This is a time of extremism. Marchers with torches and swastikas chant “Jews will not replace us,” and the president sees there some “very fine people.” Maybe my own condemnatory blog posts seem extreme. Where today is the space for moderation?

The ancient Greeks deemed moderation in all things a virtue. Yet they valorized some pretty extreme doings — like the Trojan War — perhaps a wee overreaction, that?

American political extremism came to the fore in 1964, with Barry Goldwater labeled an extremist (or extremist-backed) candidate. He pushed back by declaring that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and . . . moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

He had a point; yet this sidestepped the real issue. As an old song said, “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way how you do it.” It’s not whether one’s views on issues are consonant with liberty and justice (and who doesn’t think so?) or are closer to the political center or the fringes. Either can equally inspire zealotry. The moderation to be sought is not moderation of ideas but of approach. It’s the mentality you bring to the political arena.

David Brooks

A recent David Brooks column is illuminating. “Moderates do not see politics as warfare,” he writes. “Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Moderation is a way of coping with the complexity of the world.” Here, with my own take, are the aspects of moderation Brooks identifies:

“The truth is plural.” When it comes to big public questions, there usually isn’t a single simple answer. Competing viewpoints may each be at least partially right. Hence “creativity is syncretistic” — combining pieces from varied viewpoints to produce a way forward which, while imperfect from the standpoint of any one of them, is pragmatically workable, given all the political and situational constraints. Again — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Examples included Simpson-Bowles and, yes, Obamacare.)

“In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high.” The potential for doing harm, particularly by government, exceeds the potential for doing good. Especially given the law of unintended consequences. This suggests restraint when looking to address any problem through politics.

“Truth before justice.” No cause is well served by rejecting or suppressing inconvenient facts. And “partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins.” It’s the “what about” syndrome, as when any derogation of Trump is answered with “what about Hillary this” and “what about Hillary that.” Another refusal to confront truth. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

“Humility is the fundamental virtue.” The world’s complexities defy our understanding. And for all the certainty I feel about some beliefs — evolution, for example — I recognize that people hold opposite beliefs with equal moral certainty. If I think they’re nuts, they think I am, and there’s no intellectual Supreme Court to resolve it. I recall Cromwell saying, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken;” and apply it to myself.

Voltaire

I’d like to add here, “So respect others and their views.” However, I cannot; not when marchers with swastikas chant about Jews. But what I will do yet again is to quote Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is indeed a key principle that is succumbing as American politics polarizes into extremism. There are many reasons why that’s happening. Brooks has elsewhere suggested one: in an age of so much moral uncertainty, some embrace absolutism in an effort to find solid ground. Thus we get the Savonarolas who want to punish and stamp out anyone not embracing their version of truth — as in the recent case of the engineer fired from Google for writing what some read as a politically incorrect memo.

Well, you do not have to respect those you disagree with — like those marching neo-Nazis. You can call them what they are, and condemn their ideas. But what you do have to do is accept their humanity and their right to be who they are. Not fire them from their jobs or jail them — or plow your car into them.

Wage war, if you must, against ideas — not against people. That is the moderation I advocate.

Never forget that if those neo-Nazis can be fired, punished, or repressed, the same principle can be turned around one day and applied to you.

“First they came for the Jews . . . . “