Monthly Archives: July 2015

Ares Targets Iran

GodOfWarIn Wonder Woman comics, the Amazon Princess often does battle with Ares. The God of War ceaselessly and eternally dedicates himself to instigating violence and fomenting war. He is especially difficult to combat since he doesn’t usually act directly. Most of the time he works covertly, behind the scenes, pulling strings and pushing buttons to ensure that greedy, ideological, or even well-meaning humans are tricked or prodded and driven to war. Two of Ares most powerful lies are convincing people that war is inevitable and that war is necessary to ensure peace.

Ares would have been proud of our 1990 Gulf War which was based on “a pack of lies” (see here). In the comics, he often takes the form of humans to influence events. He certainly might have taken the form of Bush Senior in snookering Saddam into attacking Kuwait. Then, he no doubt might have inhabited Dick Cheney to lie us into the second Gulf War and subvert Colin Powell into supporting him.

We really need Wonder Woman right now because Ares has long set his gaze upon Iran as the next great senseless battleground and he is hard at work to sabotage any possible deal with them that might delay his carefully laid plans.

Of course I refer specifically to the battle over approval of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the “Iran Deal.” The opposition to this agreement is much more than merely an honest policy debate between well-meaning people of good-will. This really is a clash between those who align with war-imperative of Ares versus the peace-making ethic of Wonder Woman. For Ares, this Iran deal threatens to delay his plans to ensure uninterrupted and perpetual war.

While Ares and Wonder Woman may be only metaphors, these figures nonetheless personify our real, iconic struggle against those who are dedicated to the ideology of war and crave the plunder that wars yield. And the rest of us are not merely spectators of this struggle, we are participants in it whether we accept it or not.

But we cannot win this war against war if we do not understand our enemy. If we naively refuse to consider that anyone would actually WANT war, we cannot hope to defeat those who do. And make no mistake. There are many people with tremendous amounts of power and influence over the political process in America who greatly desire a steady stream of war and will do anything to ensure the uninterrupted flow of the war pipeline.

In 2011, the 100 largest contractors sold $410 billion in arms and military services with some of the highest profit margins of any industry. Is that a lot you ask? Well consider that the entire world-wide cell phone market is expected to reach $341 billion in 2015. So yes, the military industry is indeed humongous by any comparative measure with far higher profit margins to boot.

But the mobile phone industry has something the war industry does not. Cell phones wear out, get lost, and need to be upgraded constantly. The viability of their market, their prospect for sustainable revenue, has no inherent limit barring some completely unforeseen new technology to replace it. The war industry however has a fundamental sustainability and growth problem. Without a constant stream of new wars to consume all those bombs they produce, without a constant stream of existential crises to convince people to pay for wars rather than for the betterment of the human condition, their entire industry collapses. Their gravy-train of war hits a brick wall.

Simply put, the war industry withers and dies without perpetual wars, and the war-profiteers understand that uncomfortable reality even if you do not. And the most foolish thing is to imagine that there just happen to be enough legitimate “organic” wars to keep the war profiteers in business and satisfy their lust for profit. There are not. On the contrary, without Ares-grade machinations, the war industry would dry up very quickly. In fact, we have innumerable quotes that reveal the determination of the war industry to ensure a permanent war economy by any means. Immediately after WWII, corporate war-moguls terrified at the prospect of peace set about ensuring that America would never return to a peace-time economy. I still recall just one memo that was circulated decades ago. It was written by a former President of General Electric and it said something close to the following:

“We can anticipate in the foreseeable future a time when aversion to war might become an insurmountable obstacle to our corporate interests. We must therefore take every action to assure a permanent war economy in the United States.”

This is not an anecdotal wacky comment. This general sentiment has been repeated by corporate leaders over and over again, often proudly. And “every action” includes searching for enemies and creating new ones to ensure wars. It includes destabilizing other countries to make them ripe for war. It includes making sure the “defense” industry is too big to fail so that any cuts can be linked to losing jobs. It includes ensuring that we remain in a perpetual state of fear. And of course it includes blocking any initiatives like the Iran Deal that might result in peace.

Some of these warmongers may truly be motivated by ideology rather than profit. But it’s hard to separate motivation from rationalization. It’s difficult to know when ideology is just a rationalization for profiteering or when ideology is the pawn of profiteers. In any case, it kind of doesn’t matter. Either way, the result is reprehensibly glib calls to “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.”

The bottom line is that we must recognize that Ares is not a nice, well-meaning guy who may simply be misguided or uninformed. We must acknowledge that he and real people with financial and political power actually DO want war, even cataclysmic war. They have worked a long time to set Iran up as the next bad guy in their domino chain and they don’t want see those war profits slip away.

If we keep assuming, as we typically do, that our opponents don’t really want war, or that they don’t understand that their obstructions could lead to war, we cannot hope to combat them. As unthinkable as it may be, many opponents of the Iran Deal do understand it would likely lead to war and that is exactly what they want.

If we don’t understand that reality, the real nature of our opponent, we cannot hope to help Wonder Woman to defeat Ares. And she cannot fight him without your help.

Sociopath’s Elevator Guide

If you do not happen to live in a 3D city like Manhattan, you probably don’t spend a good portion of your day getting hoisted up and lowered down again in elevators. We New Yorkers tolerate them in order to conserve the calories we need to hit the stair-master at the gym. But elevators aren’t as exciting as one might think. If these people-crates were made of glass they would be more fun, but for the most part we have to find ways to amuse ourselves during these awkward and boring rides. The good news is that there are a whole lot of shenanigans and hijinks one can play with elevators. Following is a helpful Sociopath’s Guide to Elevators.

Beat the Crowd
Here’s your first scenario. You arrive at the elevator bank to find 15 people waiting for the next elevator with a maximum occupancy rating of 12 persons. What I do in this situation is to nonchalantly meander to the middle of the crowd so that I can rush quickly ahead of the pack into the first door that opens. Admittedly I could probably get to my floor faster by waiting a moment for the next elevator which will likely be empty and make fewer stops, but the satisfaction of beating out those other losers into the first elevator is totally worth it!

Temple of Doom
Every time I see those elevator doors closing, I get a rush of adrenaline like Indiana Jones escaping from the Temple of Doom. It is super fun to lunge for the closing door and halt it in devil-may-care fashion at the last possible moment. The best part is that while the doors will grudgingly reopen, they are usually programmed to punish everyone with a long reset timer. If another Indiana Jones type comes along before they fully reclose, this fun can go on for hours!

The Ninja
While waiting impatiently for the doors to close before any more losers arrive, my best strategy is to play Ninja. The way I do this is to stealthily hide in the corner toward incoming traffic. If I can’t see anyone coming, I cannot be expected to hold the door open for them. But sometimes I cannot conceal myself in a position of plausible deniability. In these cases, I have to perform the Fake Button Reach move. As that pregnant mom is rushing for the elevator, I pretend I’m desperately trying (but failing) to reach the Open button. If you want to become a Ninja Master it pays to practice your “on no I’m too late!” expression in the mirror. Practice makes perfect!

Hold that Door!
When returning to the office with coworkers, they think I’m very chivalrous when I rush ahead and block the elevator door until they finally stroll up. This is great because the irritated people inside cannot complain for at least a minute or so without looking like jerks themselves. Also, if you’re married like me, your wife will reward you if you agree to run ahead and hold the door while she takes care of those 27 last minute urgent matters back in your apartment. Your ability to endure the hate-filled glares of everyone waiting in the elevator will prove to her how much you really do love her.

The Cigarette Run
I’m not a smoker myself, but one of the most satisfying activities for the veteran elevator sociopath is to run down and out for a quick cigarette fix five minutes before the start of that long, boring 2 o’clock meeting. If you puff frantically on that cigarette for 2 minutes you are guaranteed to reek. I mean gut-wrenching, rotting-corpse, dive-bar, up-chucking reek. Even though you can’t smell it on yourself, do not worry because I guarantee every non-smoker in the elevator will. It must be huge fun to watch them grimacing in disgust as they try to hold their breaths until the doors open and they can suck in that sweet air-conditioned oxygen! If you are a non-smoker like me, don’t worry because you accomplish almost the same effect by drenching yourself in a gallon of that “Trancher les Oignons” cologne you got from your secret Santa at last year’s office gala.

Ear Bud Antics
This elevator sociopath tip takes a bit of investment. Get a smart phone. Get crappy ear buds. Get your favorite music. Play said music at max volume on your crappy ear buds. Enter crowded elevator. Remember that while most people do love music, some inexplicably do not actually like your music, and certainly not when all they hear are the tinny frequencies that leak from your crappy ear buds. If it’s horrible music to them it’s doubly horrible coming from your crappy ear buds. Maybe if you play it loud enough through your crappy ear buds they’ll learn to appreciate it. If it’s music that your coworkers already love and treasure, it’ll be a particularly excruciating affront to hear it massacred by your crappy ear buds. No matter how you look at it, cranking music through your crappy ear buds is the best way for the elevator sociopath to make everyone cringe for the entire ride. The only way you can be even more annoying is to sing along at unnaturally high volumes like I do.

Fun with Positioning
For you more cerebral elevator sociopaths, it is great fun to experiment with positioning as the elevator fills and empties. I like to intentionally stand in non-optimal non-equidistant spacing positions and gather data on how much it freaks people out. Also, I like to stand right in front of the buttons so that people have to beg my pardon if they would like the elevator to stop at their floor. It effectively makes me the ruler of the elevator. I’m not especially tall, but if you are you can use that advantage by standing right in front of the video monitor. It’s fun to force everyone to crane their heads to read the latest stock indices or witty elevator wisdom. You can take great satisfaction that when they return to their office they will have no idea what is happening in the world and have no elevator witticisms to relate.

MonsterStrollerBundles of Joy
For more fun, wear a bulky backpack in the elevator. It’s a hoot to act like you are totally oblivious to the fact that your backpack is smooshing into the chest or face of the person behind you. If you don’t have a backpack with you, try dragging around one of those huge suitcases on a stick containing God-knows-what and wait until that 12 person elevator has at least 15 inside before deciding it can still fit you and your pet suitcase of God-knows-what. Finally, if you are a parent, be sure to invest in one of those impressive Hummer mega-strollers that take up the entire elevator. Make sure your child is at the peak of their screeching tantrum before entering the elevator to achieve maximum impact. It’s a joy that parents can only share for far too short a short time, so make the most of it while you can!

Sociopathic Politeness
Even if you don’t have crappy ear buds or a Hummer stroller, you can still be really annoying just by being polite. Try it! Guys, when the elevator opens, stand in the doorway ushering everyone in or out as if the elevator is a ship and you are its captain. Yes, it does make it far more difficult for everyone to squeeze past you and slows everything down, but tell yourself it is necessary so that the ladies will not speak ill of your discourteous behavior.

And ladies, even without being overly eager, doors do close on people. Doors are evil, it’s what they do. But despite the fact that there are virtually no injuries related to doors closing, you can still offer matronly admonishments to be careful every time someone gets caught in a door or uses their foot or hand to stop it from closing on them. The great thing is that while everyone finds this super-annoying, they can’t complain because you’re only being polite! You can practice this skill out on the street as well. Watch for someone to stumble or trip. When they do, loudly caution them to be careful and ask if they’re all right. Everyone “loves” that!

That’s all the tips for now. Watch for the upcoming Sociopath’s Guide to Subways!

Lessons from Birmingham

mlkIn April of 1963, Martin Luther King found himself enduring harsh treatment in the Birmingham jail. He had been incarcerated, along with some fellow non-violent protestors, for disobeying a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” He organized these actions in response to a long history of brutal racism and segregation in Alabama as well as a string of broken promises negotiated through more conventional political action.

While in jail, a Negro trustee slipped King a newspaper and he read an article co-written by a group of eight well-intentioned Alabama clergymen. The clergymen acknowledged that social injustice existed, but criticized King and his activities as “unwise and untimely.” They argued that political action should be restricted to the courts and the ballot box; that the protests violated the law; that the demonstrations caused tension; and that it was not the right time for such action.

In response to these “sensible” admonishments for moderation, King began to write a response in the margins of the newspaper and on continued it scraps of paper smuggled in to him. This became his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (read it here). In it, he eloquently refuted their specific criticisms and also shared his feelings about their calls for “moderation.” Regarding well-intentioned white moderates, he wrote this:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action …” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. “

King’s observations were not only relevant to the Black struggle, but are still universal in their applicability to any social justice movement whether it be in the area of gender, race, choice, environment, or even atheism. All have been held back by these well-intentioned “supporters.” While the atheist movement (to the extent that one actually exists) is certainly not comparable to the Black experience, we can and should listen to what King said about such movements. Some leaders of the atheist movement today might be tempted to express a similar sentiment to that of King:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the moderate Atheist. They continually offer the very reasonable-sounding counsel of moderation. Now is not the time, they say, this is not the right battle. Action will only make us look angry; it is undignified; it will put off our opponents; it will confirm their impression of us; things will get better if only we don’t make waves; it’s not a big deal; we’re the mature ones. The only thing these moderate atheists really seem to be passionate about is complaining within their safe inner circles and stridently urging inaction. The only thing they seem to be truly militant about is doing nothing.

This in no way suggests that we atheists should be or even need to be “angry.” It is a false choice to suggest that the only alternative to complacency is anger. Like King, we also must find the balance between inaction and extremism. In that same letter he wrote “we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.”

In regard to accusations of extremism, King pointed out in his letter that all great persons in history were considered extremists. “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

As in other movements, it is up to us atheists to answer that same question both individually and collectively. Will we be extremists for the preservation of the status quo of belief and superstition, or extremists for the promotion of a society based on objective truths and fact-based thinking?

So this is my message, nay my plea, to our moderate atheist “friends” who incessantly criticize atheist actions with calls for “civility and moderation.” You are not actually part of a movement if you are afraid to make waves. Please stop helping or at least get out of our way. It is not our actions that empower others to portray us as extremists. It is your public pleas for moderation that give our opponents the ammunition to use against us all.

And to you atheist leaders, there are and will always be honest disagreements about what actions are too much or ill-advised. But these discussions should be taken offline, not published in the newspapers. If you leaders do not start to talk together more effectively, compete less, publically support each other more, and perhaps even coordinate and cooperate, you will remain the unwitting allies of our opponents. You will continue to make it far too easy for them to divide and conquer, painting the secular group urging inaction as the “nice reasonable atheists who know their place” and the one conducting the action as those “angry uppity atheists.”

Synonyms and Morality

moralwebThe purpose of a thesaurus is to help us to find synonyms; that is, words that have exactly or nearly the same meaning as another. But in truth, there are very few exact synonyms. The vast majority of synonyms, while generally related, each have very distinct and important nuances of meaning. A thesaurus alone doesn’t help us to appreciate those critical distinctions. In fact, it tends to minimize and obscure those differences by creating the impression that all of the synonyms are interchangeable.

The proper use of a thesaurus is to help us think of the right word, the better word, the exactly perfect word to precisely convey a particular meaning. The harmful and more common use of a thesaurus is to simply pick a different synonym so that we don’t repeat the same word twice in a paragraph. The good use of a thesaurus expands the richness of the language. The bad use of a thesaurus compresses the language, destroying its richness and subtlety of meaning.

So a thesaurus should be used with tremendous caution. For example, when a young author looks up the word “supple” in a thesaurus, they may conclude that they can freely substitute it with agile or limber or lithe or flexible or spry. But each of these words has its own uniquely distinct and important meaning. To ignore these differences and misuse a synonym is frankly a terrible waste and diminishes the language tangibly.

One book that I’ve held on to for decades is “Choose the Right Word” by S.I. Hayakawa (found here). This is an essential reference for anyone who cares about language and writing. In this book the authors compare and contrast groups of synonyms to help you understand how they are different and therefore how and when to best use them. It is one reference book that you really can just pick up and read cover to cover for fun.

In fact, “Choose the Right Word” is not only mandatory for writers, but for readers as well. If the richness of meaning is lost on the reader, it is like listening to music through crappy speakers. The reader misses out on much of the brilliant nuance that makes the writing worth reading.

This morning I was thinking of a possible blog article on morals and ethics. So as soon as I got out of the shower I naturally consulted “Choose the Right Word.” According to Hayakawa, the words moral and ethical were once nearly synonymous but have recently diverged in meaning.  Moral is now generally used in a religious context while ethical is usually used in a more secular context. We talk about the morals of a priest or saint but the ethics of a lawyer or legislator. Moreover, morals has come to mean “personal conduct as set by an external code or standard” while ethics refers to “just and fair dealings with other people, not by the application of an external standard but by a pragmatic consideration of all aspects of a situation in light of experience.

Or to put it more succinctly, “moral can often be taken to mean private, codified, rigid and a priori; ethical to mean public, improvisatory, flexible, and a posteriori.” As the authors point out we can “agree despite differing moral values on ethical ways to work together.

The discussion then contrasts some related words. Upright suggests moral conviction while decent suggests an ethical concern for others. Virtuous suggests a personal life free from moral blemish while honorable suggests someone who deals with others in a decent and ethical manner.

These distinctions, like all such distinctions, are critical to gaining a nuanced understanding of the world. Even though these words are often thought of as synonymous, there are good reasons why conservatives and religious people are quite comfortable talking about morals but are wary of ethics. And there are likewise good reasons why liberals and nones are frightened by the word moral but are very happy to talk about ethics. Whether we are talking about morals and ethics or anything else, we must first understand the powerful nuances inherent in the language we employ. That is the only way to ensure that we are speaking to, and not talking past, each other to gain real understanding.

Ideas cannot be simplified into a few generic synonyms compressed down into a convenient thesaurus and a rich language is all we have to express them.

My folks are religious but…

TeenBibleSo, you’re in High School, or maybe still in Grade School, and your parents are religious. The problem is… you’re not so much into it. Maybe you dread having to take part in prayers and other religious activities. Maybe you feel pressured to attend bible study or church services or attend a parochial school. Maybe you are ready to erupt at the next comment praising the glory of god or the next critical remark about someone who does not share your family faith.

It is really a tough situation when you’re struggling with reconciling your doubts about god and religion with your love and respect for your parents and family. If you’re wrestling with the urge to make your feelings known to your parents and others, this article is for you.

Having to “play along” with what you consider to be a whole lot of nonsense is not only hard to do, but it feels insincere, deceitful, and even cowardly. We all naturally want to be respected for our own ideas about things. But at the same time, we don’t want to offend, worry, or hurt those closest to us, especially our parents.

So here’s the first thing to understand: you’re not a bad person if you don’t believe in a god. Faith in something that isn’t real doesn’t make you a good person. What you do and how you treat others is all that really matters. Whether or not you believe in some story you are told by people is unimportant, even if they are convinced it is really essential and important.

Second, you should know that you’re not alone or unusual. While most kids do adopt their parents’ views on religion and other things, some just don’t. For whatever reason, they form their own ideas that may or may not align with those of their parents. Many atheists are born and raised in religious families. I was. Some never really buy into their family religion or any religion for that matter. I didn’t. Others grow to reject faith and religion at some point, usually starting around the age of 13 or so when kids start to form their own conclusions about the world around them.

Here is the hard one. Admit to yourself at least that your parents can be wrong. Yes, they are your parents, and you hopefully love and respect them, but anyone can be wrong about anything. When it comes to assessing the validity of a proposition, especially a highly fanciful one, you should respect evidence not people. And unfortunately when it comes to matters of faith even the smartest and wisest and kindest of people are often simply wrong.

Although this may sound a bit harsh, you don’t have any obligation to adopt the beliefs of your parents. While your parents naturally hope that you’ll embrace their deeply held beliefs, you do not need to do so just to please them. No more than you need to embrace their obsession with 70’s rock music. They frankly need to be mature enough to accept that you are an individual and that you are free to make your own decisions about these things. This can be hard for parents, but if they cannot do so, it is their problem.

But realize that if you make your doubts known, there may be repercussions. You may cause hurt feelings. Those who love you may sincerely fear for your soul and redouble their efforts to show you the light. They may communicate their disappointment and worry in a thousand ways, big and small. With the best of intentions, they may impose real restrictions about who you can see and what you can do in an effort to save you from a life of atheism and possibly eternal damnation.

If your family does some of these things, how can and should you respond? Maybe it would be wisest to not even take the risk and just play along to avoid these repercussions and the difficult emotions that “coming out” might invoke.

That of course has to be your decision and yours alone. And the wise choice will depend on both the depth of your feelings and your particular circumstance. Here are some general kinds of situations. One of these might be similar to your own:

  • I don’t really believe in all the same stuff my parents do, and they will respect and accept my own beliefs. I’ll talk to them about it because it would be far more disrespectful and damaging trying to pretend. In fact, my openness might bring us closer in the end.
  • I don’t really believe in all the same stuff my parents do, but it really doesn’t bother me too much. On the other hand, voicing my lack of belief would really upset them. I’ll be content to just play along because it makes them happy and that makes my life easier.
  • I feel very strongly that it’s wrong to pretend I believe in something when I don’t. I can’t live like that. My parents will never be able to accept my rejection of their beliefs, but even if it makes my life more difficult I’d prefer to bear any repercussions than be untrue to myself.

All of these are perfectly reasonable scenarios. The worst situations are when you feel strongly that you are being untrue to yourself by going along with religion or other “new age” kinds of beliefs, but are too fearful to make your feelings known. Or when you do make them known and your family goes to extremes to force you to come around.

In these cases, all you can do is to do your best. Accept that life will be hard and complicated either way, but trust that letting them know your true feelings is probably the better alternative in the end. Many of us have been “black sheep” and we have survived. I did and you will too. And if you’re true to yourself you’ll come out of the experience a stronger, prouder, and better person rather than a weaker and more resentful one.

If and when you do talk to your parents about your lack of faith, remember to be calm, confident, articulate, and resolute. Don’t let them see any doubt as that will only send the message that they must try harder to help bring you around. Remember that your rejection of their beliefs will implicitly reject them, attack their core values, and make them feel that they have failed. But presentation is everything. Remind them how much you love them and respect them even though you do not share their beliefs. No matter what, communicate with love and kindness and respect and they will hopefully reach an easier peace and acceptance of your atheism.

Confederate Flag Waving

ConfederateFlagIt is about time that most Americans seem to have finally moved past showing undeserved respect and deference toward Confederate culture and symbology. The Confederate flag needs take its rightful place of infamy beside the Nazi Swastika and the Burning Cross. The only legitimate home for it is in museums and in the Hate Symbols Database (found here).

This may sound overly harsh and many in the South would like us to take a more nuanced and balanced perspective. They argue that the flag holds a very benign significance for them. They insist that it is merely a fond memento of their history and an innocent remembrance of all the fine and good people who came before them.

But their protestations are sadly misguided. People who are so invested in this symbol almost invariably demonstrate other clear signs of racism, even if they refuse to acknowledge them as such. But regardless of any racist underpinnings, their attitude displays a stunning incapacity to empathize. They might just as well put on a comedic performance of lazy slaves painted in blackface and insist that they are merely honoring their cultural theatre traditions. No insult intended at all. Sorry if you took offense.

The reality is that Confederate flag-wavers are usually racist and are always incredibly insensitive individuals. But they are also stupidly, willfully uninformed. Their romance of the South conjures up images sun-dappled plantations where gallant Confederate soldiers sip juleps with demurely charming belles. But any figment of reality this may have had is completely overshadowed by the horrendously dark atrocities committed by these same Southerners and their ancestors.

The real legacy of the South is documented in “Without Sanctuary” by James Allen (found here), In this stark and graphic photo-collection Allen reveals just one part the depraved and evil history of the South. Between 1882 and 1950, some 3,436 Blacks were “officially” lynched in towns all across the Confederacy. And this reported number is certainly only a fraction of the actual number of lynchings which will remain forever undocumented. Let’s be clear. These murders were not committed by a few extremists in hoods during the dark of night. They were perpetrated by entire towns of “regular” Southern White folk in the bright light of day for fun and amusement.

What would happen is that a town would hold a “lynching festival” in which the big draw was the torture and hanging of a Black person. They would round one up, often on some trumped up charge, and lynch them to great fanfare for the amusement of the crowds drawn from far and wide. And since this was not enough to entertain these good Southern folk, the festival organizers might pull the body apart with horses and sell tickets to people to take a gun and “fill the body full of lead.” Atrocities that we can hardly imagine let alone believe were not only imagined but put on show by these everyday Southerners. People paid to have their picture taken with the Black corpse as they munched on popcorn and cotton candy. They would send these postcards to friends and families with pride. These postcards, saved away in the memory albums of White folk throughout the South were compiled for the picture book. It is difficult to imagine or cite a more horrific example, a sicker example, of institutionalized, popularized hatred than the lynchings this Southern culture committed for fun and amusement and fund-raising.

And realize that this was not that long ago. This is not far, distant history. This practice continued into mid-century. That means that some of the Southerners who organized or participated in these inhuman atrocities are still alive. Many more alive today were raised by people who participated in these events and shaped their worldview. It is no wonder these same people hold no shame over their sick nostalgia for the Confederate Flag.

So it is not unreasonable for any civilized American, not only Black Americans, to find this symbol extremely hateful and shameful. Abhorrence and revulsion are the only reasonable reactions that the flag deserves. The people who proudly display it deserve neither respect nor deference.

Harris’ Science Fiction

sam-harrisIn his 2011 book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (see here), Sam Harris put forth the assertion that “science can determine human values.” It even says that right in the tagline of the title. He has also explained his thesis in his well-watched Ted Talk (see here) and defended it in various forums.

If Harris had elaborated on how science can inform human values, his might have been an interesting and even provocative enough thesis. But to claim that science can determine human values is a huge overreach that Harris completely fails to justify. And in failing so completely I fear he has done more harm than good.

According to Harris, happiness for the greatest number is the greatest good. Since we can measure happiness, we can use scientific methods to predict the best ways to maximize it. Those then become our ethical and moral goals. Simple right?

But competing desires for happiness cannot usually be fully weighed and resolved analytically. And to the extent they are, they are weighted against very fuzzy and subjective criteria where there are often only bad alternatives. And what about merit? Is everyone’s happiness equally important? Yet according to Harris, all these problems are just technical challenges to be solved by acquiring better happiness data and developing improved optimization algorithms.

More importantly, the very starting premise of happiness maximization is itself an ethical presumption produced not by science but by humans – namely Sam Harris. There are many competing values and there is no agreement that maximizing happiness should be our highest ethical principle. As just one example, it is my sincere opinion that ensuring the long-term habitability of our planet is more important than immediate human happiness.

But I am pretty sure Harris would respond to this by simply claiming that ensuring the habitability of our planet makes us happy and is consistent with his theory.  One need only include future generations in the overall happiness calculus. What Harris consistently attempts to do is to subsume every competing and often exclusive value under an ever-widening definition of happiness. This quickly degrades into absurdity with no help from me.

And this is just one example of how quickly Harris’ thesis breaks down or becomes irrelevant. That Mr. Harris failed utterly to make his case is not just my conclusion, but the apparent consensus of the academic ethical philosophy community. A number of academic papers and commentaries have stated this in no uncertain terms. Whitley Kaufman from the University of Massachusetts published a 2010 review paper in Neuroethics (see here) that strongly challenged essentially every one of Harris’ key arguments. Below is a synopsis of some of the main criticisms I consolidated from various academic sources. I include them for completeness but feel free to skim to get the gist.

  1. In general his arguments are full of fallacious logic including but not limited to: internal contradictions, false assumptions, straw-men, appeals to emotion (including the Islamophobia which he cannot seem to suppress), promissory arguments, and circular reasoning.
  2. He circumvents many flaws in his reasoning by simply redefining terms. He avoids others by claiming that science and philosophy are really just the same thing. Both of these machinations are quite similar to the techniques that Ken Ham uses to avoid glaring flaws in his creationism case (see here).
  3. Many of his arguments are theoretical and predicated upon some imagined future-state capabilities of science.
  4. He presents extreme positions that pose no real ethical dilemma at all as proofs of his thesis, and then contends that science can similarly answer all the infinitely more nuanced and complex questions in-between.
  5. He begins his logical progression with a moral judgment as a given, then follows with scientific evidence to support it. Thus he avoids science having to actually answer the very fundamental questions or morality he purports that science can address.
  6. His own views are essentially indistinguishable from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism which says that our moral imperative should be the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, just like Mills, Harris fails to recognize that that itself is a non-scientific moral judgment. Even if one grants him that as a moral imperative, he still fails completely, again as did Mill, to explain how science would allow one to choose between a large number of conflicting happinesses, or moreover how to factor in other intangibles like justice.
  7. He fails completely in his effort to address the “is/ought” divide and show how science can answer the “ought” questions. He seems not to even fully understand the dilemma. In fact, he explicitly claims that it is a virtue that he is not familiar with cornerstone principles of ethical philosophy – principles that he claims are incorrect or substantially different from his own. He rather puts forth worn arguments that have been definitively refuted for centuries.
  8. In his desperation to find a science of ethics, he has adopted a simplistic utilitarian starting point that makes a science of ethics possible. And in completely circular logic, he concludes that therefore utilitarianism must be true and sufficient to provide a moral basis for all ethical questions.

Let’s be clear. Harris’ main goal is to take god out of the ethics and morality equation. That’s a good thing, so why bash him for trying?

It is a good goal, but to accomplish it we don’t need to replace the god of Biblical fantasy with a god of science fantasy. I fear that Harris’ overreach (so like the hubris of Icarus) only proves the religious case better than his own. His arguments are so flawed and impractical that they may cause many people to reconsider their trust in science more skeptically than their trust in religion. His arguments may sound so implausible as to cause many to conclude that the clarity of religion is in fact essential to point science in the right direction – which is exactly the same claim the Vatican has long maintained.

And the unfortunate thing is that this is a completely unnecessary overreach. We are already directed by our better natures as guided by evolution and informed by sound objective science. Trying to establish a science of morality is not visionary and before its time. In this attempt at least it is deeply flawed and probably counterproductive.

Bravo Penny!

VanessaWe interrupt our regularly scheduled blog topic to gush over the Season Two finale of Penny Dreadful. Of course gothic horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if not you are missing some of the finest storytelling, acting, and filmmaking ever produced.

Arguably, a story cannot be truly great if it does not shock the audience in some way. And Penny Dreadful does not wield horror gratuitously but rather as a master surgeon’s scalpel to cut deeply into the soul of the viewer.

One might have worried that Season One was just too good; that the exceptional quality could never be maintained; that the novelty would have worn off; that all the possible shock value had been expended; that Season Two could never hope to thrill the audience like it was their first time.

But Season Two somehow continued to amaze, astound, and even surprise. It works well that the seasons are short, so much like Penny Dreadful novels themselves. If you have not seen the series, stop reading now and go watch it you fool.

The penultimate episode of Season Two opened with an exquisitely brutal confrontation during which Ethan and Vanessa dispatch Pinkerton Agent Warren Roper in a manner that is absolutely mesmerizing in its raw unapologetic brutality. That one could continue to view Vanessa as a relatable and sympathetic victim / heroine after her demonic murder of sadistic Lord Cromwell and then continue to do so after her repeated stabbing of Warren Roper is a testimony to the depth of these characters.

Then in the final episode she walks knowingly into the deadly trap long arranged for her by the devil himself, alone, unprotected, with naked vulnerability. She listens defiantly to his seductive manipulations and eventually draws her lips near his, a faint breath away from a final kiss of surrender, only to snatch it from him with scorn. “Beloved, know your master” she spits at him as she banishes him in spectacular verbal combat.

Is she a sympathetic victim, a mere damsel in distress? Yes, but so much more. And so it is with the entire ensemble cast. They all have tremendous depth and duality of character; all are flawed to the brink of evil yet redeemed all the more profoundly by their nobler qualities.

As Vanessa confronts the devil himself, Victor and Sir Malcom confront their own demons. In a brilliantly parallel sequence, they each battle the horrors and failures of their respective tragic families, each tormented by the very monsters they created.

But since even all that is not near enough drama for Penny Dreadful, Ethan simultaneously confronts the monster within him, and chooses to stop fighting against it and to abandon his chance for love.

We are even treated to another (see here) intimate and powerful conversation between Vanessa and John (paraphrased and abbreviated):

Vanessa: All my life I have fled the darkness only to find myself in deeper darkness still.
John: No matter how far you run from God he is still just ahead waiting for you.
Vanessa: You don’t believe in God.
John: But you do.

Perhaps most surprising is where the writers left the show. It seems to have ended well only for Ferdinand Lyle who has redeemed himself from his duplicity and cowardice. Sembene is dead. As is Miss Poole. Ethan has been shipped off to America shackled in a cage like the animal he is. Victor has taken what refuge he can find in drugs. Sir Malcom is finally aboard ship bound for Africa, taking the body of his son to final rest. John has apparently fled normal society and we see him standing on a boat in the arctic, immune to the cold of death. And Vanessa is left alone, abandoned and purposeless, even forsaken by or at least forsaking her own faith in god.

With the cast so utterly crushed and dispersed, where can the show possibly go from here?

I for one cannot wait to find out. The future will undoubtedly follow the unholy romance between Dorian and Brona, and Hecate will certainly tie in somehow. Hopefully we’ll learn the significance of the scorpion that merged with Vanessa. Beyond that, I am quite happy that I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I will only be surprised if I am not completely surprised by Season Three.

Love It or Leave It!

happy birthday americaHappy Birthday America! It’s another July 4th and you’re another year older. Let’s reflect a bit on the ways that you are another year wiser as well.

One way we’ve matured dramatically just during my lifetime is in our worldview of other nations. Back in the late 70’s I went to India where I lived and taught for a couple years. It was part of a college program and one of my mandates was to share my experience of India with my fellow Americans upon my return. And I did try, but it felt futile and sometimes even threatening. Literally every time I tried to share any sort of balanced view of India with my fellow Americans, I was immediately shut down. All they wanted to hear was how absurdly stupid Indians were and how incredibly grateful I was to be back home in the good old U.S. of A. Any attempt at balance, nuance, or context was immediately met with almost outright belligerence.

But since that time this extreme provincialism has mostly eroded away. With increasing world travel, virtual exposure through the media, and a tremendous influx of foreign born citizens, Americans no longer have such a myopic view of the world. You can now talk about other countries in a far more balanced and realistic manner. Many Americans respect and even envy our fellow nations. To me, this is a very encouraging and little recognized sign of an older and wiser America.

More evidence of growing maturity is that we have mostly gotten past knee-jerk “Love it or Leave It” reactions to any criticism or even any modicum of self-reflection.  The phrase emerged as the mindless retort to Vietnam anti-war protesters during the 70’s. In 1973 Ray Manzarak of Doors fame recorded a song called “Bicentennial Blues (Love It or Leave It).” By the way, the album on which it appeared, The Golden Scarab (see here), has always been one of my most memorable concept albums. The funky-jazz lyrics went:

  • love-it-or-leave-itWell love it or leave it.
  • I really don’t believe it.
  • I don’t understand now.
  • What you’re talkin’ about.
  • I kind of have to wonder.
  • Well if you really mean it.
  • Cause if you really mean it.
  • I better move out.
  • You say my country right or wrong.
  • If you don’t believe it you don’t belong.

That childish Love It or Leave It mentality expanded way beyond just the anti-war protesters. For a long time it was invoked by many Americans as the immediate response to any overt or even implied criticism of America. You want to save the whales? Love It or Leave It! You don’t like Merle Haggard? Go live in Russia you damn Commie-lover!

Thankfully, we’ve mostly grown out of that kind of ridiculously unintrospective thinking. Today we are largely able to discuss our failings and challenges in a much more realistic and mature manner.

Certainly, this mentality has not yet died out completely. Amongst extreme Conservatives it is still alive and well. They still cling to it like their Bibles and their guns and their Confederate flag. But even they don’t shout this sentiment with quite as much conviction as they used to.

I’ve often been tempted to throw it back in their faces. You don’t like gay marriage? Love it or Leave It my friend. You are against abortion rights? Why don’t you go live in Russia then!

Fortunately more sensible folk dissuade me from this approach. As the Public Professor urges us (see here).

It would be fun.  It would be funny.  But I say, don’t. Because America, Love it or Leave it! is just as a horrible sentiment now as it was then. It’s caustic, it’s provincial, it’s xenophobic, and it’s anti-intellectual.

I suppose he’s right. Answering childishness childishly is SO tempting, but not really the mature or productive thing to do. Still, it would feel really, really good, wouldn’t it???

So Happy Birthday America! You are indeed not only older but wiser as well!