Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.

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Our coming immortality

October 19, 2018

Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to live on in my films. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Humanity has always battled nature’s limitations — including bodily frailty. For most of our history lifespans averaged around thirty. Now in the developed world they’re above eighty. This reflects elimination of many causes of premature death, especially rampant child deaths. Modern medicine enables many more of us to realize the biological natural maximum lifespan (around 100+ years).

But raising that natural limit is next. That too is a medical problem, and there’s no law of nature barring its solution. Indeed, the same is true of death itself.

telomeres (in red)

You probably won’t turn on the radio and hear, “Scientists today announced a cure for death.” Though lifelong shortening of telomeres (a part of our chromosomes) seems somehow critical — when you’re out of telomeres, you’re out. And there actually is a pill to halt their shortening. Unfortunately it gives you cancer. But maybe, if that can be solved . . . .

But conquering death will likely be more gradual. And not all medical. We fret about intelligent machines supplanting us, but as suggested in my seminal 2013 Humanist magazine essay, “The Human Future — Upgrade or Replacement?I foresee instead a convergence between biological humans and artificial systems. Humanity version 2.0 will benefit from a host of technological advancements and improvements. Anyhow, one way or another, we’ll stop dying.

And nothing could more dramatically change the human condition. Knowledge of mortality has always shaped how we live our lives, so integral to our psychology it’s actually hard to imagine its absence.

Take risk. In many of our activities, risk of death is not zero. While it’s not as though we don’t highly value our lives, knowing we’ll die in the end makes such risks psychologically tolerable. Lack of a clear “term limit” will surely change that. Will people cocoon themselves in fetishing safety?

But immortality may not be for everyone — actually unaffordable to many. Talk about inequality! I recall one of those dystopian-future sci-fi flicks where the monetary unit (registered and transferrable on personal devices) is time — time left to live, that is. The rich of course have plenty and keep getting more. The poor struggle just to “make ends meet” — i.e., not to meet their ends.

Remember Methuselah living 969 years? His kids and grandkids lived to similar ages. The Bible doesn’t mention this, but all those generations would have been hanging around together (at least until finally wiped out by the flood). What will our families be like when you have hundreds of living forebears and descendants? (Maybe invest in Hallmark stock.) Or perhaps — able to achieve immortality through other means — will we stop having children?

Meantime, people who basically don’t age or die probably wouldn’t “retire.” Their continuing economic productivity will sustain and extend global prosperity. Maybe sufficient to obviate the mentioned inequality issue.

And what about religion? Evolution seems to have somehow made our minds susceptible to mystical religious ideas. Rationality enables us to move past them, as science progressively answers the world’s mysteries. Yet still, many people fend off science (evolution for example) in order to hold onto religion’s promise of an afterlife, its “killer app.” Even while having their doubts. What people think they believe may differ from what they truly believe. Those professing belief in Heaven struggle hard to postpone going. Because the promise is inherently unbelievable (and deep down we know it).

But what if fear of death ends? When, as against religion’s dubious promise of eternal life, science offers one that’s pretty darn real? Will that finally be science’s “killer app” against religion? Will all those who’d held science at arm’s length, because it threatened religion, now discard the faith that stands against immortality-giving science?

Well — I’m 71, and immortality probably won’t come soon enough to save me. But my daughter is 25, and I tell her that if she makes it to 100 — highly likely — by then she’ll be home free.

What is the basis for morality?

October 12, 2018

This question has vexed philosophers through the ages. My humanist book group is reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass a Global History of Ethics. Wherein of course this question is central.

For some the answer is simple: God’s word. But this merely begs another question, which Socrates expressed: is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is holy? In other words, is stoning to death a disobedient child right because God says so (in Deuteronomy), or does God say so because it is right? And in either case, how does God know? If he’s just making it up, we can do better by applying our reason rather than his arbitrary rules. If he arrived at rules by using his own reason, so can we, with no need for him.

And passing the buck to God doesn’t change the reality that responsibility for morality remains ours alone. To follow his laws is a choice we ourselves make. Indeed, even believers who say God decrees morality still pick and choose among his decrees. Few kill disobedient children.

David Hume said you can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” That is, no facts, including about what people do, can tell us what we should do. Nor can moral truths be “self evident.” Female genital mutilation seems self evidently wrong to me, but not to millions of others.

Thus later philosophers, notably A.J. Ayer, have posited that moral ideas are only expressions of personal taste, not objective facts. As Malik puts it, “the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ express not information but feelings.” So the statement “murder is wrong” stands no differently from “I like beer.”

But what would Ayer think of the statement “murdering A.J. Ayer is wrong?”

Malik notes that physicists used to believe the Universe was filled with an invisible substrate they called ether. But ether doesn’t exist, so any assertion about its nature is meaningless. Malik quotes philosopher J.J. Mackie that for morality to be objective it would have to be an “intrinsic part of the fabric of reality” — like ether supposedly was. But no such “moral ether” exists either, hence any statements about it are likewise meaningless.

MacIntyre

Malik goes on to discuss Alasdair MacIntyre’s “brilliant, bleak, frustrating, and . . . provocative” 1981 book After Virtue. It says moral thought is in “grave disorder.” How so? Thanks to that old culprit, The Enlightenment which, we’re told, destroyed Aristotelian notions of humans as embedded in roles, in favor of (horrors!) seeing us as autonomous agents creating our own roles. Morality, MacIntyre says, can only have meaning if there’s a distinction between “man-as-he-happens-to-be” and “man-as-he-could-be.” Otherwise, there’s no roadmap. MacIntyre, Malik notes, was a Marxist who ultimately became a Roman Catholic.

And, says Malik, that book owes much to Elizabeth Anscombe’s “seminal” 1958 paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which said it’s all foundationless. How so? Because any “law” requires a legislator. That used to be God. But we’ve fired him; so whatever moral rules or laws any human posits, there is no legislator behind them.

Excuse me? “Seminal” my ass. No, this is literally an insult to intelligence. As I explained at the start, God’s role as legislator is nonsense; there’s no alternative to choosing our own moral rules.

Likewise absurd are MacIntyre’s burblings about the blight of The Enlightenment. They’re the product of a mind whose Marxism-cum-Catholicism bespeaks profound intellectual confusion. His “man-as-he-could-be” implies aspiration to some imagined higher state; yet “man-as-he-happens-to-be” has always been abundantly capable of morality. And indeed MacIntyre’s conception is not aspirational but the opposite. His “Aristotelian” view of the human role might be descriptive for bees in a beehive. But we are rational creatures, not automata, and the entire meaning of our lives comes from how we ourselves choose to use our rationality to shape our living of them.

The Enlightenment did not destroy the basis for morality. To the contrary, it freed us from false conceptions about it — conceptions rooted in a nonexistent god (like MacIntyre’s Catholicism).

I will tell you the true basis for morality.

The cosmos is indifferent, but we are not. My “murdering A.J. Ayer” line was not a joke, it goes to the heart of the issue. There is only one thing in the cosmos that matters, only one thing that can matter. That is the feelings of beings that experience them. Nothing can matter unless it matters to someone — to such a being. Like A.J. Ayer. That’s why murdering A.J. Ayer would be wrong.

Now, in some circumstances, it might not be. Murdering Hitler, for example, would not have been wrong. You have to consider the effect on the feelings of all sentient beings. Killing Hitler would have inconvenienced him, while benefiting a vast number of others.

This sounds like utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). Utilitarianism has been critiqued for violating Kant’s dictum that people should only be ends, not means. For example, if you’re a doctor with a patient needing a heart transplant, and another needing a liver, why not grab a bystander and take his organs, sacrificing one life to save two? Kant would say this violates a moral absolute. But there is a better answer that actually accords with utilitarianism: nobody would want to live in a society allowing such organ confiscation. So we see the utilitarian calculus may not be so simple. And moral dilemmas may indeed be more complex than that example. But the point is that utilitarianism gives us not a blunt tool, but a touchstone, a baseline, a measuring tool, for analyzing them.

That is all the basis for morality we need. Our reasoning minds can take it from there.

Secular Rescue – saving lives, freedom, and open debate

October 10, 2018

Religion can inspire good deeds. Or killing people with machetes.

This is happening today, notably in Bangladesh, where organized vigilantes target and murder dissenters from Muslim religious orthodoxy, particularly secularist and atheist writers, bloggers, and activists. While the government hardly pretends to disapprove.

The West has its own history, of course, of religious intolerance, persecution, and violence. The Inquisition tortured people for God. Untold numbers were burned at the stake (including philosopher Giordano Bruno who, unlike Galileo, refused to recant his ideas contrary to church dogma). The Thirty Years War, a conflict over theology, killed a third of Europe’s population. Even in America, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston Common for holding the wrong faith.

But in the West, religion finally calmed down, became domesticated, and nobody here any longer imagines burning people alive for God. My local humanist society meets openly, unmolested, even advertising its nonreligious orientation.

That would not be possible in most Muslim countries today. This actually represents retrogression, because in past epochs Muslims were much more tolerant of religious heterodoxy; but they’ve gone in the opposite direction from the Christian West. There’s no church/state separation. In many Muslim nations, “apostasy” carries a death sentence. (In Pakistan “blasphemy” does. Pakistan has not actually executed anyone for blasphemy, but over 60 people accused of it have been murdered.)

If you read the Koran (here’s my review), its number one theme is nonbelievers will be punished. Repeated on almost every page. But some Muslims today can’t wait for God to do the punishing. They think they’re doing his work for him. A small minority of Muslims, actually; but it doesn’t take many to perpetrate an awful lot of violence.

I am a fearless blogger. Not courageous — but literally fearless because I have nothing to fear in America’s paradise of free expression. I wouldn’t have the courage to do this in a place like Bangladesh, risking machetes.

Some show bravery in battle, for their country or comrades; some in defending their families. But the courage we’re talking about here — for an idea — is of a very special sort. I’m in awe of these noble heroes.

And I’m proud to support them, with money at least, by funding Secular Rescue, a program run by the Center for Inquiry (a leading organization promoting secular humanist values). The program assists, defends, and protects writers under threat for expressing viewpoints that challenge local religious orthodoxies, mainly in Muslim countries. It provides tangible help, such as legal services, and even relocating them to safer places — a kind of “underground railroad.” Secular Rescue works very hard to evaluate and verify cases, to make sure the people helped are truly in danger. All that work, and the help itself, costs money.

I will match contributions to Secular Rescue by any of my blog readers (click here).

This is not just a matter of freedom of expression — increasingly important though that is in today’s world. Open debate is crucial for moving any society forward. But it’s especially urgent for the nations in question because they do harbor the kinds of pernicious beliefs that bring forth the sort of violence described. These Muslim societies are in need of an Enlightenment, like the one in the West that ultimately tamed religious persecution, and opened the path for human progress in so many other manifold ways. That sort of progress requires people with the vision and courage to challenge reigning orthodoxies. That sort of progress cannot happen if such people are silenced, intimidated by violence, squelching free debate. Not only the lives of these brave individuals, but these societies’ futures, are at stake. That is the importance of Secular Rescue.

One nonbeliever in a Muslim country was not killed but was actually diagnosed as insane by its medical establishment, forcibly hospitalized and “treated” for his “affliction.” I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode where a gal undergoes surgery for her ugly facial deformity. But when, in the hospital, the bandages come off, it’s a failure — she’s still (in our eyes) beautiful, in contrast to all the “normal” people around, only now revealed as (to us) grotesque.

Atheism is the sane, rational understanding of a cosmos whose observable reality is wholly at odds with religious ideas. Those ideas would be called insane, delusional, if held only by a few; but when held by the many, they are normal. But that nonbeliever may have been the only truly sane person in that Muslim nut house.

Religion, politics, and abortion

October 7, 2018

A piece by “writer and consultant” Jacob Lupfer on my local paper’s “Faith & Values” page talked mainly about political independents. But this got my attention:

“For decades, scholars and practitioners agreed that religion was the causal factor that shaped political behavior. New research upends that assumption: Partisanship affects religiosity. It is a foundational social identity, driving rather than flowing from values and attitudes . . . people bring their religious beliefs in line with their party . . . Instead of assuming that Christianity is their primary loyalty, we should see evangelicals as Republicans first who toss religious values aside to accommodate their Trump support.”

I have previously written of polling research showing that political tribalism has become the salient one in shaping felt personal identity in today’s America, even more powerful than religious tribalism. But that doesn’t mean the former drives the latter. As though being a Republican Trumpeter causes you to be an evangelical Christian. I still think the causation runs the other way, even if the resulting political identity does turn out to be the more powerful.

But that’s not to say, either, that their Republicanism mirrors their religious values. That might have been more true in past times, when what the Republican party represented did align better with what Christianity supposedly stands for. However, Trump has shattered that correspondence, representing, really, the antithesis of traditional Christian values. Yet he retains their allegiance; indeed more strongly than any previous Republican leader.

Why? Because today, again, it’s the political tribal identity that rules as never before. Even superseding the actual content of the beliefs. What Trump and Trumpism actually represent do not, in the final analysis, matter that much. It transcends that sort of rationality. It’s more simply us-against-them.

So how does one get sucked into such a tribe in the first place? I increasingly think it’s more psychological than political or ideological, having a lot to do with self-image. How guys see themselves. In a word, macho. There’s a notion that Democrats are the party of weakness, Republicans the strong party. Democrats the party of snowflakes and pussies; Trump’s the party of pussy grabbing. Even some women voters are susceptible to such attitudes. This partly explains why “grab them by the pussy” didn’t destroy Trump’s candidacy. The macho factor outweighed the ewww factor.

Hillary’s gender didn’t help; it fed into the idea of Democrats as the girlie party. And the Kavanaugh drama was in part about men pushing back against what some of them see as an emasculating war upon them.

And, of course, there’s also the white tribe against the browns.

But religious affiliation does play a big role too. Fundamentalist Christians, by and large, were fundamentalist Christians before they were Republicans; and certainly before they were Trumpers. And if you are deeply embedded in a social milieu full of fellow fundamentalists, most of whom are also Republican tribalists, that will naturally be your tribe too.

In this way, the religious and political tribal identities reinforce each other. They meld together into one overall outlook upon the world. Never mind any internal contradictions (don’t ask WWJD about separating immigrant children from parents). Rationality is again dispensable. It’s the tribe uber alles.

And there is this consistency: the ability to seal oneself off from reality and inhabit instead a make-believe world. One created 6,000 years ago, ruled by a benevolent God, wherein evolution didn’t happen but Noah’s flood did (don’t ask why so many innocent people and animals were drowned), with final justice administered in Heaven and Hell. If you believe all that, it’s but a small further step into the world of Fox News, where Trump is a truth-telling champion of Christian values, making America great again in the face of a deep state conspiracy witch hunt.

Yet the political behavior of fundamentalists might seem rational in relation to one big issue: abortion. Their final line in the sand, after having irretrievably lost on a wide range of social issues, like gay marriage. And on abortion they might actually now be close to a big victory, rolling back Roe v. Wade. But what shall it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his soul?

They see abortion as a key moral issue. But it’s become such an obsession, fogging their minds, that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Even if they were right about abortion (and they do have a point, albeit carried too far) — with everything else going on in today’s huge complex fraught world — is abortion really the number one issue? Many seem more concerned for the potential human life in a fertilized egg than the lives of actual living human beings (like the 30,000+ Americans killed annually by guns). As if “right to life” is only for the unborn.

And there really is a much bigger moral issue than abortion. Is winning on abortion worth the price of damaging the Supreme Court as a pillar of our civic life, our bastion of impartial justice, sullying it with a stink of political and religious partiality (not to mention of beer and attempted rape)? Worth handing the leadership of the nation to a monster of depravity? Worth complicity in his assault upon truth, decency, and everything good and great about America? Worth blinding yourself to it all? Worth losing your soul?

(Cartoon by Matson. Pillars labeled “Gorsuch” & “Kavanaugh”

Thomas Friedman’s latest column warns that scorched earth politics is heading us toward literal civil war. He says a Rubicon was crossed when Republicans trashed norms of democratic governance by stealing a Supreme Court seat. Yet that didn’t stop their shamelessly vilifying Democrats for holding up the Kavanaugh nomination. Our tribe’s always right; the other evil.

They vaunt the “right to bear arms,” as supposed protection against tyrannical government. What will unfold in 2020 if they lose power — and believe that somehow illegitimate?

The Anti-Trump Albany Book Festival

October 4, 2018

This event, put on by the wonderful New York State Writers Institute, was not really political. But nobody would read this if I just titled it “Albany Book Festival.” And in fact it says a lot about our times how politics did inevitably color these proceedings. There’s no escaping America’s current crisis of the soul.

The kickoff was a reception installing Colson Whitehead as the New York State Author and Alicia Ostriker as State Poet. Both were introduced by former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who did an admirable job talking about their work.

Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, drolly previewed his plans for his first hundred days as State Author. Ostriker read some of her poems which didn’t seem very poetic to me. But she also read from a great one: Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That choice was obviously timely, with the golden door being slammed shut.

As is customary for Writers Institute events, the munchies were superb: little cakes, a chocolate fudge & whipped cream confection, cookies, fruit, etc. (A thankyou to Paul Grondahl, the Institute’s dynamic leader.)

Broderick

A legion of local authors manned individual tables showcasing their work. Noteworthy among them was poet Therese L. Broderick, author of the acclaimed Breath Debt. (My wife.)

And a legion of other great literary luminaries spoke to packed audiences. Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our leading historians, and talked about her new book, Leadership in Troubled Times. It focuses on the lessons from four presidencies: Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.

Goodwin

Goodwin’s theme was that character, above all, is what matters. She ticked off a list of key traits: humility, empathy, valuing diverse opinions, ability to connect with all manner of people, controlling negative impulses, and keeping one’s word. In sum, emotional intelligence. Goodwin’s rundown here elicited loud laughter from the audience, for the obvious reason that our current “leader” is so glaringly devoid of all these virtues.

Hegel

I next listened to a panel of four other historians. One noteworthy discussion reminded me of Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis cycling to synthesis. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legalized racial segregation, produced a big backlash among white southerners, resisting it, sometimes violently. But that in turn energized its own backlash, in the civil rights movement, eventual civil rights and voting rights legislation, and, one might say, the eventual election of an African-American as president. Which in turn generated another big backlash culminating in the election of a very different sort of president. Which in turn has energized civic engagement against what that represents (very much in evidence in the responses of attendees at this book festival).

SPOS

I don’t know that we’re near Hegel’s final synthesis. I’m hopeful that Trumpism is a doomed last gasp, and that America will flush its toilet for good in 2020. But experience with my own bathroom suggests a different outcome is possible.

Next I went to Marion Roach Smith’s talk on memoir writing. The room was not ideal; her husband, Times-Union editor Rex Smith, had to kneel by her side manning the computer with her power-point presentation, advancing the slides every time she signaled.

Smith

Though sometimes he misinterpreted her gesturing. But it was an excellent talk applicable not just to memoirists, but to writing in general. Her key theme: focus on what the piece of writing is really about; what its argument is. A memoir’s reader is not interested in the details of what may have occurred but, rather, in gaining some insight on a human issue.

William Kennedy is Albany’s leading literary light, who founded the Writers Institute, and recently turned 90. He’s a literary energizer bunny who just keeps going, premiering a new book at the festival.

Kennedy

His talk was a meditation on writing and the writing life. I particularly relished his discussion of Faulkner, probably my own favorite. He adverted to the idea that Faulkner’s work is uplifting. “This uplift business baffled me,” Kennedy said. Faulkner certainly depicts the worst human behavior. Yet Kennedy said he was uplifted after all, “exalted,” by writing that reaches into a person’s heart. (I have written about Faulkner on this blog, with a somewhat similar take. In fact, it was a Faulkner quote I used as the epigraph for my Rational Optimism book.)

The final event was a panel titled “The New Americans” — a group of authors born elsewhere. Again, a theme with particular resonance in today’s political environment.

Iftin

One panelist was Abdi Nor Iftin, who I got to meet and chat with at the previous night’s reception. He was the Somali guy whose tribulations getting to America were told on NPR’s This American Life. Hearing that story so moved me that I wrote a poem (previously posted here), and sent him something. He now has a book out, Call Me American. What a thrill it was for me to connect with Abdi in person.

Khan

Another panelist was Khizr Khan, whom I’ve also written about (here, and here). It was likewise a thrill to shake his hand and tell him what a privilege that was. Khan continues to remind us how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution enshrine human dignity. He said no other country’s constitution rivals ours in that regard — and that he’s actually read them all! He also said that in over 200 appearances, in connection with his book, he has everywhere found Americans wanting to hold onto these values, and hopeful not only for America but for America as “a source of light” for the rest of the world.

We must not allow that light to go out.

Statement by the Honorable Brett Kavanaugh

September 25, 2018

Members of the Senate, and fellow citizens:

Telling the truth

Two women — Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and Deborah Ramirez — have described episodes of improper sexual behavior, by me, as a teenager. I wish that I could continue my denial about these things. But, searching my heart and soul, I no longer can.

These things did happen, they were wrong, and I profoundly regret them. To say otherwise now would compound the offense — compound it by lying, and compound the injury I committed against these women by falsely calling them liars; indeed, further, by subjecting them to the kind of disgraceful partisan vilification we have already seen. Instead of that, I wish to extend to Dr. Ford and Ms. Ramirez my heartfelt, though much belated, apologies.

I could say that my past misdeeds in question occurred in an extreme state of inebriation. That is true, but doesn’t excuse the behavior. Getting so drunk was itself irresponsible and wrong. I could also say that such behavior was condoned, indeed encouraged, by the “boys will be boys” frat culture in which I was immersed at the time. That is also true, and also not exculpatory. That culture was rotten; my participation inexcusable.

I come before you now as a reformed, repentant sinner. The long-ago episodes at issue have weighed upon my soul ever since. I have tried to atone for them by living the rest of my life — more than a third of a century — in the opposite way. So that when I stand before my God, for judgement, those three decades of what I hope has been mature right conduct will outweigh the wrongs I so carelessly committed as a foolish, callow youth. And, senators, I put myself before you for the same judgement. Hopeful that you will see me as the man I have been for thirty years; not the boy I was so long ago.

Finally, in the same spirit of honest truthfulness, I wish to add this. I have said that I consider Roe v. Wade settled law. That is true, but not the whole truth. Of course the Supreme Court can change settled law. I believe Roe v. Wade was a wrong decision, and if presented with a case posing that issue, I would vote to reverse it.

(Note to readers: the above is satire.)

Truth, beauty, and goodness

September 20, 2018

Which among the three would you choose?

I read Howard Gardner’s 2011 book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century. (Frankly I’d picked it up because I confused him with Martin Gardner; but never mind.)

Beauty I won’t discuss. But truth and goodness seem more important topics today than ever.

Many people might feel their heads spin as age-old seeming truths fall. “Eternal verities” and folk wisdom have been progressively undermined by science. Falling hardest, of course, is God, previously the explanation for everything we didn’t understand. He clings on as the “God of the gaps,” the gaps in our knowledge that is, but those continue to shrink.

Darwin was a big gap-filler. One might still imagine a god setting in motion the natural processes Darwin elucidated, but that’s a far cry from his (God’s) former omnicompetence.

While for me such scientific advancements illuminate truth, others are disconcerted by them, often refusing to accept them, thus placing themselves in an intellectually fraught position with respect to the whole concept of truth. If one can eschew so obvious a fact as evolution, then everything stands upon quicksand.

Muddying the waters even more is postmodernist relativism. This is the idea that truth itself is a faulty concept; there really is no such thing as truth; and science is just one way of looking at the world, no better than any other. What nonsense. Astronomy and astrology do not stand equally vis-a-vis truth. (And if all truth is relative, that statement applies to itself.)

Though postmodernism did enjoy a vogue in academic circles, as a provocatively puckish stance against common sense by people who fancied themselves more clever, it never much infected the wider culture, and even its allure in academia deservedly faded. And yet postmodernism did not sink without leaving behind a cultural scum. While it failed to topple the concept of truth, postmodernism did inflict some lasting damage on it, opening the door to abuse it in all sorts of other ways.

All this background helped set the stage for what’s happening in today’s American public square. One might have expected a more gradual pathology until Trump greatly accelerated it by testing the limits and finding they’d fallen away. Once, a clear lie would have been pretty much fatal for a politician. Now one who lies continuously and extravagantly encounters almost no consequences.

It’s no coincidence that many climate change deniers and believers in Biblical inerrancy, young Earth creationism, Heaven, and Hell, are similarly vulnerable to Trump’s whoppers. Their mental lie detector fails here because it’s already so compromised by the mind contortions needed to sustain those other counter-factual beliefs.

But of course there’s also simple mental laziness — people believing things with no attempt at critical evaluation.

A long-ago episode in my legal career sticks with me. I was counsel for the staff experts in PSC regulatory proceedings. We had submitted some prepared testimony; the utility filed its rebuttal. I read their document with a horrible sinking feeling. They’d demolished our case! But then we went to work carefully analyzing their submittal, its chains of logic, evidence, and inferences. In the end, we shot it as full of holes as they had initially seemed to do to ours.

The point is that the truth can take work. Mark Twain supposedly said a lie can race around the globe while the truth is putting its shoes on. Anyone reading that utility rebuttal, and stopping there, would likely have fallen for it. And indeed, that’s how things usually do go. Worse yet, polemical assertions are often met with not critical thinking but, on the contrary, receptivity. That’s the “confirmation bias” I keep stressing. People tend to believe things that fit with their preconceived opinions — seeking them out, and saying, “Yeah, that’s right” — while closing eyes and ears to anything at odds with those beliefs.

A further aspect of postmodernism was moral relativism. Rejection of empirical truth as a concept was extended to questions of right and wrong — if there’s no such thing as truth, neither are right and wrong valid concepts. The upshot is nonjudgmentalism.

Here we see a divergence between young and old. Nonjudgmentalism is a modern tendency. Insofar as it engenders an ethos of tolerance toward human differences, that’s a good thing. It has certainly hastened the decline of prejudice toward LGBTQs.

Yet tolerance and nonjudgmentalism are not the same. Tolerance reflects the fundamental idea of libertarianism/classical liberalism — that your right to swing your fist stops at my nose — but otherwise I have no right to stop your swinging it. Nor to stop, for example, sticking your penis in a willing orifice. Nonjudgmentalism is, however, a much broader concept, embodying again the postmodernist rejection of any moral truths. Thus applied in full force it would wipe out even the fist/nose rule.

That is not as absurd a concern as it might seem. Howard Gardner’s book speaks to it. He teaches at Harvard and expresses surprise at the extent to which full-bore nonjudgmentalism reigns among students. They are very reluctant to judge anything wrong. Such as cheating on exams, shoplifting, and other such behaviors all too common among students. A situational ethic of sorts is invoked to excuse and exculpate, and thereby avoid the shibboleth of judgment.

Presumably they’d still recognize the clearest moral lines, such as the one about murder? Not so fast. Gardner reports on conducting “numerous informal ‘reflection’ sessions with young people at various secondary schools and colleges in the United States.” Asked to list people they admire, students tend to demur, or confine themselves only to ones they know personally. And they’re “strangely reluctant” to identify anyone they don’t admire. “Indeed,” Gardner writes, “in one session [he] could not even get students to state that Hitler should be featured on a ‘not-to-be-admired’ list.”

Well, ignorance about history also seems lamentably endemic today. But what Gardner reports is actually stranger than might first appear. As I have argued, we evolved in groups wherein social cooperation was vital to survival, hence we developed a harsh inborn judgmentalism against anything appearing to be anti-social behavior. That (not religion) is the bedrock of human morality. And if that deep biological impulse is being overridden and neutered by a postmodernist ethos of nonjudgmentalism, that is a new day indeed for humankind, with the profoundest implications.

Richard Wolff in sheep’s clothing, on capitalism versus socialism

September 14, 2018

I heard Richard Wolff again on “Alternative [left-wing] Radio.” He’s the “Marxist” economics professor whose LOL take on first class airplane seats I wrote about. Wolf saw them as though created by God but unfairly handed out by dastardly airlines to rich folks, forcing plebeians to suffer in coach. In actuality, the rich subsidize the rest. That’s how airlines make their money. Without milking richies via vastly overpriced premium seats, they’d have to charge coach travelers far more, which wouldn’t fly — literally.

Wolff couldn’t see that reality. But he is a glib talker. His latest was on capitalism versus socialism. He thinks capitalism’s badness will cause socialism to triumph.

A chief theme was “socialism” getting a bum rap because people don’t understand it. This is part of the effort to sugar-coat socialism, making it seem innocuous — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. (We saw this with the Bernie campaign.) It’s the trope that if you like public roads and libraries and fire departments, etc., anything government does, why, that’s socialism!

Except that it isn’t. Providing necessary services that a free market cannot (at least not well) is just any government’s job. Socialism instead is government substituting for (and disallowing) a capable free market.

Now, if you think that’s a good idea, fine, try to persuade us. But socialists must doubt its persuasiveness, else why do they constantly hide what they really advocate, under false camouflage about roads and fire service?

Richard Wolff-in-sheep’s-clothing epitomizes this, again saying people misunderstand “socialism.” He repeatedly mocked the idea of any association with Stalin’s crimes. He stressed that “socialism” is not limited to any single categorical definition. But did he ever actually say what it does mean?

Nope.

But, talking about “capitalism,” Wolff did exactly what he criticized — painting it as one limited thing — which, typically, was a gross caricature.

I was struck by the contrast with a book I happened to be reading, Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by historian Joyce Appleby.* Indeed, its key theme is that “capitalism” has been not one discrete concept but endlessly flexible, adaptive, and evolving, with vastly varying iterations — its great strength.

This is clear from the first great book on the subject — titled Capital — by Karl Marx. I will not deride Marx as a fool. He was in fact a brilliant thinker, observer, and analyst, who had some important insights. But he was fundamentally wrong in predicting capitalism’s future. Marx saw an “iron law of wages” always pushing them down to bare subsistence, just enabling workers to stay alive to produce the golden eggs for the capitalists, until they’d revolt. Marx did not imagine the mass affluence capitalism (and the associated industrial/technological revolutions) would bring forth. Even amid all today’s lamentations about inequality, and capitalism’s supposed injustice, the fact is that workers in industrialized societies were able to gain a large enough share of the economic pie to give them living standards unimaginably cushier than the bare subsistence Marx posited.

That’s because the pie has grown so spectacularly. And because of democracy. “Democratic socialism” is really a contradiction in terms because the two ideas have proven in practice to be fundamentally incompatible. That’s due to socialist systems concentrating so much power in government, whereas free market societies distribute power widely. Socialism is not the antithesis of fascism or communism. All three have the central idea of valorizing the collective over the individual, thus being inherently coercive and repressive.

No type of society or system will deliver justice and equality free from the depredations of people who will always try to exploit it for their own advantage. That’s certainly been true in all socialist or communist systems, wherein some individuals always amassed great power over others — using the machineries of the state and its monopoly on violence (legitimate in free societies, but not in others). A free enterprise system at least does not allow that. Instead, there you gain advantage by (in the main) creating value others voluntarily pay you for, making society as a whole wealthier. That’s how Steve Jobs, for example, got so rich. It’s how the whole industrialized world — including its workers — got so much richer than Marx foresaw.

Richard Wolff (Yes, socialism IS for dummies)

Such prosperity has never been produced by socialism. China is a very instructive case. It has two economic systems functioning side-by-side: a socialist one of state-owned firms, and another of very free enterprise. The latter runs rings around the former. It is the source of China’s phenomenal economic advancement, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last few decades.

* She’s no right-wing free marketeer; plenty critical of capitalism’s negative aspects, especially environmental. Appleby is often a trenchant observer, but I can’t let pass how many annoying bloopers I noticed. Like, “Ingenuous people found a new way to exploit electromagnetism.” Really? I thought that was disingenuous.

Trump is the Antichrist

August 31, 2018

Fundamentalist Christians have long been obsessed with the Antichrist. He figured prominently in the “Left Behind” books. Not an abstraction, the Antichrist would be a real person, come among us, the avatar of Satan himself, working to destroy God’s kingdom.

Turns out it’s true. The Antichrist is here. It’s Trump.

Isn’t it obvious, explaining everything? Firstly, the Antichrist could not be some two-bit player on the world stage. He’d have to be a huge figure, cutting a wide swath, as befitting his Satanic role. No one has ever filled that bill like Trump. No public character has ever so dominated the landscape.

And the Antichrist would, of course, be literally the anti-Christ. The antithesis of Christ and everything he represented. That’s Trump to a “T.”

Christ would never lie. Or “grab them by the pussy.”

Love thy neighbor? Canada and Mexico are our neighbors. (Not Russia.) And how about our more immediate neighbors, living among us? All those non-white people, all those immigrants? (And Democrats.) Trump is all hate-thy-neighbor.

Turn the other cheek? Trump tries to make the opposite seem a virtue — “fighting back.” That is, viciously smearing every critic or opponent. Calling them names. And now abusing his power to punish them (like yanking honest John Brennan’s security clearance).

Chase money changers from the temple? Trump welcomes them in. Having promised to “drain the swamp,” he deepens it. Flynn, Price, Pruitt, Carson, Manafort, Cohen, Bannon, Wilbur Ross. Trump’s own corruptly milking the presidency for personal profit. A total swamp of sleaze.

Suffer the little children to come unto me? Even little children he makes suffer, ripping them from parental arms.

Loyalty? Christ was loyal to Peter even after Peter denied him; loyal to God even on the cross. Trump (who demands loyalty from others) is loyal to nothing and no one but himself. Least of all his country, which he’s betrayed to its worst enemy, Russia. (I didn’t write “sold out” because he actually got nothing in return.)

And did I mention the lying? “Lying” is an inadequate word here. Trump wars against the very concept of truth, to create a world in which reality and truth are meaningless.

But these are details. The big picture is indeed wholly at odds with the heart of Christ’s teaching. Trump is a moral black hole sucking in everything and everyone around him. A vortex of evil.

Now, realize that the Antichrist doesn’t wear a costume with horns and tail, proclaiming his identity. Of course not — the whole point, the real danger, is his deviously disguising it. To fool people, so the Satanic agenda can be achieved. Admittedly, Trump’s disguise is ridiculously thin, transparent to anyone with eyes to see. But Satan has thrown black magic dust in the eyes of Christians.

They say never mind his personal peccadillos, they like what he’s doing. That’s the snare, the dust thrown in their eyes. And what is he doing that’s so wonderful it could possibly justify the poisoning of America’s whole civic culture, everything it stands for — everything Christ stands for?

So these fools fall right into Satan’s trap, blind to their plunge into the vortex of evil — dragging down with them their precious religion itself, demonstrating its falsity.

In the fantasies of uber-Christians, like in those “Left Behind” books, the Antichrist is always ultimately defeated by the legions of the godly. But what if those legions are bamboozled into fighting for the wrong side?

They’re marching in Satan’s army — straight into Hell — where they will all burn forever.