Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The Holier-than-thou syndrome and Biden’s latest “controversy”

June 24, 2019

Joe Biden said that as a senator he’d been able to work with colleagues he’d disagreed with, even segregationists like Mississippi’s James Eastland. For this Biden’s been attacked by rivals Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker.*

Shame on them. Here we go again, with holier-than-thou Democrats trying to tear down the very decent man who is the party’s best hope for saving America from Trump.

Holier-than-thou. Preening as moral avatars by impugning the moral bona fides of others. Drawing a cordon sanitaire to consign others to outer darkness. Casting them as moral lepers (or at least “insensitive”) to validate your own supposed virtue.

This is the face of political correctness. Its bounds of moral acceptability are narrow. Fall afoul of them, and you’re a pariah; with no right to your opinion. Certainly not to be heard. Maybe to be punished. (I recently wrote of a similar attack on Tom Brokaw for allegedly “racist” comments.**)

Between that Scylla of intolerance on the left and the Charybdis of hatefulness on the right, will America be sunk?

Back to Biden’s comment: so now it’s not enough just to disagree with racists, even to condemn their views. You’re not allowed to engage with them at all. To cooperate even on things unconnected to race.

Such moralistic exclusionism has ground our government to a halt. In the past era Biden was referring to, the Senate could still actually function, political adversaries could pragmatically set aside their differences on some issues to collaborate on others. Legislation happened. Problems got addressed. No longer.

The self-congratulatory moral sanctimony of our Bookers, Harrises and Warrens may feel good, to them and their rabid cheering section, but what does it actually achieve? Does it shame the politically incorrect into reconsidering and recanting? Hardly. It does the reverse. They themselves now feel equally morally entitled to damn their own ideological foes. The resulting polarization is tearing America apart.

Biden seems to understand this. When he previously spoke of keeping — oh no! — Republicans in our civic fold — a hard left commenter on my blog predictably flayed him.

We keep talking about “our democracy.” What does democracy really mean? Is it just elections, majority rule? No, what’s more important is democratic culture and attitude; crucially, the concept of pluralism. And it doesn’t mean just ethnic or gender diversity, but mainly diversity of ideas. That there’s space in the public square for more than one viewpoint. That people you disagree with have an equal claim to participation, equal legitimacy; even to win sometimes.

Political correctness rejects that kind of pluralism, seeking the delegitimization of certain viewpoints, their banishment from the public square. Communism had the “dictatorship of the proletariat;” today’s left seeks the dictatorship of, well, the left. Biden’s comment about working even with segregationists, in contrast, epitomizes democratic culture. That’s how democracy works — indeed, how it must work. If it is to work at all.

* Biden noted Eastland didn’t call him “boy.” That in particular irked Booker because Southern racists disrespectfully called black men “boy.” Was Biden’s comment disrespectful? Toward Eastland, maybe. Biden was in fact acknowledging how segregationists did disrespect black men.

** Here’s a link:  https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/witch-hunt-politics-ii-tom-brokaws-racist-comments/

 

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Fat girls and sex

June 18, 2019

NPR’s “This American Life” had a fascinating story featuring Elna Baker, a young fat gal (she used the F word). She tried to convince herself it wouldn’t truly matter, that people would see her for who she really was. Finally, she realized it just wasn’t so. She couldn’t get the kind of work she wanted, nor the love life. So she decided to get control of her life, through control of her body.

Elna before & after

Elna succeeded; lost 30 pounds in a month; 110 in all. But there was a new problem: skin. Its surface area did not shrink with her poundage. Solving that (mostly) was another (not pretty) story.

But anyway, Elna achieved the desired results, careerwise and socialwise. She got a long-term boyfriend.

What I found fascinating was her discussion of how the world changed for her. Like she was entering a whole new one.

Eddie Murphy in white-face

She analogized it to the Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy masquerades as white, and discovers the secret white world. On a bus, when the last black passenger exits, the partying starts, with cocktails being served. Who knew?

So people did see Elna differently, and interacted differently with her. But she was conflicted in her feelings about this; in some ways less happy now, upset at what she saw as previous unfairness. She was tortured pondering that her boyfriend had known her before, but didn’t even seem to realize she was that same person. So, if her weight made all the difference, were his feelings for her a matter of “who she really is” or just her physicality?

I think she was looking at this the wrong way. One can’t know “who she really is” on casual acquaintance. Removing the weight removed a barrier between her and others, like her boyfriend. Only now was the way clear for him to know “who she really is.”

Postulating “shallowness” of people for whom weight is that kind of barrier was a trope in the program. But this asks too much of what are still, after all, biological animals. We are programmed by evolution — very powerfully programmed — to reproduce. Sexual attraction plays a big role there. It’s why sexual attraction is a key element of romantic love. Fine and dandy to talk about “who she really is” inside, but without sexual attraction, forget about it.

And the fact is that we are sexually attracted to who we are sexually attracted to, and for any given person, there’s no changing it. It is simply a fact of one’s existence. And don’t tell me about cultural influences with ads and so forth glamorizing thin women. That gets the causation backwards; thinness is glamorized because that is what most men (most Western men at least) do find most attractive, for reasons going much deeper.

In my own case, women’s sexual attractiveness rises strongly with slenderness (but then drops off sharply at the point of anorexia). Why? I’ve tried to psychoanalyze myself, but really it is just a fact of my existence, as though in my bones rather than brain. Just like for gay men whose sexual attraction to males is intrinsic.

This points up the idiocy of “gay conversion therapy.” Heterosexual men who promote this foolishness should ask themselves if any kind of “therapy” could make them want sex with men rather than women.

But back to fatness. It’s a modern problem because we evolved to cope with environments of food scarcity, and “feast or famine” patterns. Thus programmed to eat as much as possible when food was available, to make up for lean times. Energy-rich foods like fats and sugar were especially rare, so we’re made to crave them especially. But in modern societies food is everywhere, with lots of fats and sugar. We’re not made for this environment.

Of course eating discipline and exercise are important. However, we are increasingly learning how much more complex the story is. Take calories — it turns out not all are the same, it’s a very crude measure. One dish of 200 supposed calories can affect the body very differently from another kind of 200 calorie meal. And, even more importantly, it depends on who’s eating, as people themselves differ greatly, in their genetics and internal biology. In fact, your body contains more bacteria cells than ones having your own DNA, and different bacterial populations affect how food is processed after swallowing. Result: some people are much more prone to fatness than others, and for them dieting can be an extremely frustrating, even futile, endeavor.

Elna was apparently one of the lucky ones for whom that isn’t true. Me too. Gatherings of my local humanist group often feature potlucks, and I indulge freely. People commonly express wonder that I eat like that and stay so slim. I tell them, “I only eat at humanist events.”

Somaliland — “The country that was left for dead” — “A country doing everything right”

June 11, 2019

Those are quotes (From Edna Adan and Michael Rubin) from a June 8 conference we attended, at Marist College, on Somaliland development.

Someone might call it a “shit hole country” — seceded from Somalia, not internationally recognized, devastated by war, and beset by major problems. Yet Somaliland is pulling itself from the ashes.

Most attendees were Somali, a reunion among the many studying in the U.S., graduates of Jonathan Starr’s incredible Abaarso School which I’ve written about— a big part of the country’s rise.

Dr. Samatar

The opening speaker, Dr. Ahmed Samatar, spoke of philanthropy giving meaning to one’s life. This certainly resonated with me; our Somaliland involvement really excites me and my wife.

Samatar called the country’s development a Sisyphean battle against entropy. Citing four dimensions — the environment, economy, culture, and politics — he said all “bite quite hard” for Somalilanders. He quoted Marx that people make their own history, but do not make it as they please, constrained by the weight of the inherited past.

Harry Lee

One conference session was led by Harry Lee, heading up the expansion of the Abaarso project into an archipelago of K-12 schools, to be staffed mainly by home-grown teachers.* (This is our own focus.) The first is nearing completion. Lee said Somaliland’s literacy rate is under 30%. A majority of kids do go to school, but teachers are ill-paid and hence expend little effort if they show up at all (a common third world problem). Students basically can do sports or academics but not both. The new Kaabe schools target such problems, aiming to give kids real support and encouragement for achievement.

Anne Dix

The project is being partly funded by USAID; Anne Dix heads that program (American Schools and Hospitals Abroad). She gave a talk emphasizing the use of aid to enable local people to build institutions, with the aim of ending the need for such assistance.

Michael Rubin is a former Defense Department official currently at the American Enterprise Institute. He said that too often the U.S. focuses resources on “squeaky wheels” (like Somalia proper) while a country like Somaliland that’s “doing everything right” gets short shrift.

Michael Rubin

Rubin also feels there’s too much emphasis on governmental action, whereas real progress is bottom-up. And foreign aid often actually undermines democracy and good governance, substituting for local forces and absolving them of responsibility. But he was upbeat about Somaliland, calling its self-development efforts groundbreaking.

Jonathan Starr

Jonathan Starr led a workshop on economic investment. Opportunities seem ample because the country lacks so much; there should be many “no brainers.” One participant suggested wind turbines. But this actually proved illustrative of the problems. Starr said his own wind turbine project was a fiasco because there was no infrastructure for repairing breakdowns. Well trained, educated people are scarce on the ground. So is investment capital. There’s no good banking system. No good court system or rule of law. All things we take for granted, but these are the challenges in building a nation from the ground up.

Edna Adan

I could hardly believe I was chatting with a hero who’s done what Edna Adan has. Certainly my first encounter with a recipient of France’s Legion d’honneur! Adan built a hospital in Somaliland. Not a ramshackle affair; a big university teaching hospital that could fit in any U.S. city. On the side, she’s served in cabinet posts, including foreign minister.

Now 81, she was a dynamo at the conference. One workshop was on public health. Somaliland has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate; highest TB death rate. A big problem is people exploited because education and literacy levels are so low; thus the blight of counterfeit medicines and other fake treatments. Mental illness is commonly ascribed to demonic possession.

Edna Adan Hospital

A big factor in mental illness is qat. It’s a narcotic leaf, chewed; qat addiction is endemic in the region. Health effects are dire, and it ruins men as useful members of families and society.

Adan’s chief focus was on female genital mutilation (FGM). The idea is to keep girls virginally “pure” and marriageable, preventing promiscuity by making sex difficult and non-pleasurable. It’s a cultural practice, not a religious one; most Muslim societies don’t do it. FGM is particularly rife in the Somali region.

There are three basic versions. One is a mere “nick;” another cuts off the clitoris and labia; the third (“infibulation”) seals off the whole area. Adan reported Somaliland’s FGM rate at little short of 100%, with most victims getting infibulation. It’s not generally done under sterile surgical protocols. The damage often includes lifelong problems with intercourse, menstruation, childbirth, infections, and incontinence, not to mention the mental trauma. (FGM actually also makes sex less fun for men.)

Adan said her own childhood FGM was inflicted by her mother and grandmother while her father was away — very typical. When he returned he was furious, which told her that what had happened was wrong.

Many nations have banned FGM, but it’s hard to enforce — you can’t jail every mother and granny. Adan said this battle must be fought by men and communities.

So, yes, Somaliland has deep problems. But human beings are all about surmounting challenges. It was great to see so many Somalilanders, such wonderful people. We shall overcome.

* Harry also produced a wonderful film, Somaliland, about Abaarso.

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.

“Automating Inequality” — Using technology to screw the poor

June 7, 2019

Automating Inequality is a book by local researcher Virginia Eubanks; I attended a talk she gave. The focus was upon three initiatives ostensibly aimed at using technology to improve delivery of social services to needy people — that in practice do the opposite.

I’ve written about how it’s expensive to be poor in America — the many ways we actually penalize poverty. I discussed the criminal justice system actually preying upon the disadvantaged, extracting money from them. While banks and credit card companies exploit poorer people’s financial precariousness to load them with fees.

“Well, they’re mostly bad people,” remarked a guy sitting beside me at the talk. Referring to the poor. No, they are not mostly bad. They are mostly unlucky people — especially in their choice of parents. It’s easy to be smug if you’ve grown up with all the advantages (like me, and probably him). But if you’re born into lousy circumstances, there are huge obstacles (starting with rotten schools) to rising out of them, even if you are smart and responsible.

The bureaucrats in Eubanks’s reporting are mostly not bad people either. Most are well intentioned in trying to serve the public (somehow or other). Especially the “line workers” in actual contact with the disadvantaged people they’re tasked with helping. But it’s others who design the “advanced” systems she discussed.

One was Indiana’s, for processing applications for public benefits. It moved caseworkers from local facilities into regional ones, putting them in front of computers rather than the human beings they previously dealt with face-to-face. No more single point of contact; applicants would now speak to a different person every time they called. (Ever been in that situation? A recipe for frustration and run-arounds.) Meantime, the whole process was moved online. Fine if you have ready computer access; half of welfare recipients don’t.

The upshot was a million applications denied over three years. Mostly for some error in the process, often not the applicant’s fault. A notice of denial would give them ten days to fix the problem. Would the notice explain the problem? Nope!

Eubanks commented that the system couldn’t have worked better at kicking people off welfare if it had been designed to do exactly that.

Next was Los Angeles County’s “Coordinated Entry” system to evaluate homeless people for their vulnerability and match them with resources. Eubanks mentioned 58,000 LA County homeless people living in “encampments.” Only about a quarter get housing through the new system. A problem is that “higher functioning” homeless people get low vulnerability scores, so they’re de-prioritized. On the other hand, the kinds of things that give you a high score are often considered crimes, so people have to incriminate themselves to get a better chance at housing. And the info going into the system also goes to the police. But meantime, incarceration actually lowers one’s score — being in jail rates as “housing.”

Seems like one giant Catch-22. It’s really a way to ration — however irrationally — available housing resources that can accommodate only a fraction of the homeless.

The third case study was the “Family Screening Tool” used by Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County; here the scoring is to identify children at risk for abuse or neglect, based on information collected by social service agencies, incorporating factors that correlate with such risk. A family’s high score makes an investigation mandatory.

What actually results is a big feedback loop. Even if that investigation shows no problem, the fact that it occurred goes into a family’s score going forward. And the scoring really fails to distinguish poor parenting from parenting-while-poor. Non-poor and, especially, white families don’t even go into the database. And the system has real consequences — it’s all geared toward taking kids away from parents, in the guise of protecting them. Poor and non-white families are at constant risk for this.

And where do those kids go? To foster care. And the reality is that children are, generally, better off with biological parents, however less than ideal that situation may be, than in foster care, which tends to be far worse. The Nanny State on stilts. Here, it’s the Nanny from Hell.

Our entire system of public benefits and social safety nets is a crazy quilt of bureaucratic complexity that costs us way more — supposedly to make sure people are entitled to what they receive — than if we just handed a check to everyone who asks. Likewise, simply giving every homeless person an apartment would cost far less than we actually spend, not only on bureaucracy, but on the costs of people being on the streets, which include police, courts, and constant emergency interventions.

The system reflects our fundamental societal schizophrenia between, on the one hand, recognizing an obligation to help the needy and, on the other, seeing them as unworthy moochers (like that guy sitting next to me did).

This is a very rich country. We could amply afford to take care of every unfortunate person in the country if we would overcome that schizophrenia and decide to do it because it’s just humanely right. We give way more welfare to the well-off. Welfare for all the needy, without all the nonsense, would cost less than the waste in the defense budget. Less than we’ve thrown away in Trump’s tax cuts for the rich.

The crisis of followership

May 30, 2019

Great Britain has a crisis of leadership. One main party now headed by an agit-prop Marxist; the other by a hapless prime minister, who has now quit, leaving the crazies to take over.

This prompted The Economist’s “Bagehot” columnist (covering Britain) to recall a long ago discussion about leadership — where management guru Peter Drucker said we actually need to think more about followership. (Here’s a link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/05/04/britains-followership-problem) If we don’t see great leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, and FDR, maybe it’s because followership has changed.

In America, Democratic party followers are riven between two opposing tendencies. One feels we need radicalism, blowing up the system. The other wants to seize the center ground, to return America to normalcy. Would-be leaders play to one or the other ethos, the gap seemingly unbridgeable. The followers want the leaders to follow them, not the other way around.

The Republicans’ situation is the opposite. They’re totally united, in following one leader — down the road to perdition.

Bagehot says politics works (or should) by politicians gaining authority from voters and using it to do the work of government. Authority had long been gained through followership, with three basic paradigms: voter deference to an elite; class solidarity; and perceived competence.

All three have broken down. The very idea of deference rankles. The idea of competence elicits laughs. And class consciousness has faded. The result is a collapse in legitimacy and a widening gap between leaders and followers.

Which, says Bagehot, “has sent new forces surging through the body politic.” Including know-it-all cynicism on the one hand and, on the other, sudden enthusiasms for radical nostrums. I would add the degeneration of political discourse into what looks more like team rivalry; color war rather than class war. Policies are only a thin veneer on what is really a cultural, tribal divide. Us-against-them, with winning all that matters. Trampling “the better angels of our nature.”

Meantime, Bagehot writes, the most dangerous motivator “is the combination of anger, disappointment and bloody-mindedness” — in a word, resentment. And Bagehot fears this politics of resentment will likely trump the politics of problem-solving for some time.

Speaking of Trump — oddly, the column actually doesn’t. Yet obviously Trump’s election represented exactly what it talks about. A gotterdammerung of resentment and bloody-mindedness, when too many American voters threw responsible citizenship to the winds and plunged for its antithesis.

And of course the great irony: why expect such nihilism to achieve what (inchoately, confusedly) they sought? Surely a leap from the frying pan to the fire.

Indeed, Bagehot quotes the words people most commonly use in condemning politicians: “contemptible, disgraceful, parasitical, sleazy, traitorous.”

Remind you of anyone in particular?

Reparations for slavery?

May 27, 2019

Reparations for slavery is becoming part of the “progressive” full Monty that Democratic presidential candidates must endorse. It’s a terrible idea.

Recently The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah acknowledged the issue’s complications, but waved them away, as mere details that can be worked out. An over-used cliché that I really hate is “the devil is in the detail.” But here it’s unavoidable.

Even if reparations for slavery were an appealing idea, it falls apart the moment you consider seriously the problem of who, exactly, to pay. There’s nobody who’s totally descended from slaves. Slavery ended around six or seven generations ago. For any living black American, the direct ancestors from that era would number dozens to hundreds. Surely not all were enslaved. Many came here later from other countries. Many were white. Okay, maybe you could (arbitrarily) draw a line at 50% slave ancestry. Or some other number. But nobody can document their whole family tree that far back anyway. Any such program would be an implementation nightmare.

Or would you propose to sidestep this morass and simply base payments on skin color? The darker, the bigger the payment? Sounds like a great idea, no?

Slavery was a horrible crime (as I’ve written:http://www.fsrcoin.com/Slavery.htm). But history is full of crimes. Look at Native Americans. And how about women, also seriously oppressed and denied rights in past times? Why not reparations for descendants of all those women?

It’s a fundamental precept of justice that wrongs should be redressed among victims and perpetrators — not others. It’s a principle we fallible humans too often violate. As in collective punishments and vengeance. The sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. If a Xendari has committed an atrocity against your people, then by all means punish him — but do not exact revenge by committing a new crime against other, innocent Xendaris. That’s no justice. So too, taxpayers who did no enslaving shouldn’t be made to pay compensation. Let alone to people who were not themselves enslaved.

It is true that slavery has had lasting impacts, a key factor in black Americans’ lower average socio-economic standing. But can one say that any particular person today would be better off had no ancestors been enslaved? Some surely would be worse off. Many U.S. descendants of slaves are doing very well. But had history been different, they would not exist today at all, making any such considerations quintessentially meaningless.

It is also true that many whites take for granted their “white privilege” — exemption from a lot of crap non-whites experience. For this some feel “white guilt.” However, the concept of guilt should require some causal responsibility. Most whites today have done nothing wrong to feel guilty for. Certainly not to be punished for.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. If we really think slavery’s reverberations still cause disadvantage to some Americans, then the proper answer is to create public policies that remove that disadvantage. Basically, to create a more just society overall. Which indeed we’ve been working at (though far from perfecting). “Affirmative action” is a case in point. Never mind all the issues affirmative action raises; but hasn’t this been reparations, by another name?

A better way to make reparation for the disadvantage suffered by many African-Americans would be to at least stop aggravating it with sub-standard education. Public schools in poor/non-white neighborhoods are often disgraceful. Yet Democrats calling for reparations mostly refuse to face up to this huge issue, in hock to teachers’ unions and ideologically opposing school choice to give those kids at least some chance to escape dysfunctional public schools.

It’s argued that reparations would be a way to give recognition to what blacks have suffered. But their feelings are not the beginning and the end of the matter. Indeed, to the contrary, a big part of the problem is what white people feel toward them. If we want whites to stop being racist, is reparations the right answer? If we really want to heal our nation’s wounds from slavery and racism, wouldn’t reparations enflame those wounds? Many would see reparations as an injustice, and for the reasons I’ve suggested, they’d have a plausible argument. The issue would be disastrously divisive. We already have a big problem of white racial antagonism and resentment. Just wait till reparations are enacted.

Furthermore, if Democrats push this issue it would feed every negative stereotype about them. As coddling some interest groups at the expense of others, and even of the nation as a whole. Defying what many people consider common sense. And it would be a huge distraction from what really should be the issues for 2020 – all the ways Trumpism is degrading America. If Democrats truly want to achieve a better, more just nation, the main thing they can do right now is to ensure getting rid of the racist-in-chief.

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.