Category Archives: Politics

Game Theory and the End of Democracy

Asian cultures tend to create games and systems that are inherently cooperative, in which everyone wins or loses together as a team. America, by contrast, is an explicitly and proudly antagonistic culture that pits one side against the other in most every aspect of life. Win-lose competitions drive our society starting with our board games, through our sports competitions, our educational system, our legal system, our capitalist financial system, and right up through our highly prized political system of checks and balances.

But in a system where one must lose so the other can win, it’s tough to be a gracious loser and sometimes just as hard to be a gracious winner. Win-lose competitions often do not end well. Yes, once or twice a gracious loser will walk across the field and congratulate a similarly gracious winner. But if the game is imbalanced, that good sportsmanship cannot be maintained. If one side keeps losing and sees no hope of winning, the game quickly goes sour for both sides. That thrilling boxing match suddenly turns into a repulsive beatdown that forces every feeling person turn away in disgust, and neither the winner nor the loser walk away feeling good.

Win-lose competitions are great fun as long as both sides believe they can win. But when one player starts to fall behind, they might try to distract the other player so that they can shift a chess piece, or they might grab some monopoly money from the bank when no one is paying attention. As the game becomes more lopsided, cheating becomes ever more irresistible. Sometimes the cheating becomes so intense that the entire game is corrupted and sometimes, by tacit agreement, both parties just abandon the rules altogether.

If one player finally becomes convinced that they can never win, why should they continue to play at all? When a chess player finally accepts that they cannot compete against world-class masters, or a runner accepts that their knee injuries make them unable to compete and win, why continue to participate? Of course, they lose interest in the game, they decide it’s stupid anyway, they might even angrily claim the other side cheats, upturn the game board, and insist we play some other game.

That is analogous to what has been happening in our real-life competitive game of politics. The Right has long seen that they are losing at this game of democratic elections. They tried cheating, they engaged in the political equivalent of unsportsmanlike misconduct, they exploited and abused the rules of the game, but it is still clear that they will not win another fair electoral match in the foreseeable future. Obviously, their natural inclination is to overturn the board, to declare that Democracy is stupid anyway, to turn it into a WWF version of political performance art, and even to embrace dictatorship.

From the perspective of the side that has no hope of winning in a fair democratic election, a totalitarian dictatorship that is hopefully more aligned to your perspectives is a rationally desirable alternative. Even if that dictatorship does not serve your own self interest, overturning the chess board at least denies your opponent a win.

So the message here is that the Progressives have finally succeeded in their generational effort to convince Conservatives that they can no longer win the game election game in America. It should be perfectly understandable that, once internalizing that stark reality, the Conservatives tried to cheat, tried to change the rules, and are now engaged in overturning the entire game.

This impulse to abandon the game rather than keep losing is aggravated and reinforced by a simultaneously lopsided win-lose economic system in which it is clear that the ultra-wealthy have claimed the winning cup so completely that none of the rest of us, but particularly rank and file Conservatives, can ever hope to do more than pitch in the minor-leagues.

What, did we think that Conservatives would just walk across the Continental divide, shake our hands, congratulate us on a well-earned victory, and accede to the increasingly progressive will of the majority?

Of course not. Of course they prefer to overturn the game, and end Democracy altogether, rather than lose at the competitive win-lose game that we have made it.

Let’s Stop Glorifying Soldiers

Today is Memorial Day. This holiday does make me reflect upon the many soldiers who lost their lives while serving in the military. Without doubt it brings great comfort to many. But for me, those thoughts unavoidably drift far beyond merely acknowledging and appreciating their sacrifice. I’m forced to ask, is this level of glorification justified? Is it a good thing? Does it go too far? And does it cause unanticipated and undesired harm?

How justified really is the extremely high level of recognition we ascribe to soldiers on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, at more routine events, and in the many popular references and acknowledgments that are so pervasive throughout our culture? Many may say it’s far too little and too perfunctory. But many others feel our reverence for and romanticization of the military is borderline pathological.

Yes, some soldiers die during their service. But we have many professions that suffer from similarly high death rates, in fact much higher if you only count combat deaths (see here). And if we look at harm to health and well-being more generally, the terrible cost suffered by other professions is even far more pronounced.

But even while acknowledging the actual numbers, we still like to think that military service is special; that soldiers didn’t merely make the ultimate sacrifice in the course of earning a paycheck. We imagine their sacrifice to be more noble because they were selflessly serving their country to protect our freedom and liberty and our democratic way of life.

In reality, that may at times be the big picture result of military service, but many professions likewise serve those same greater goals. But for individual soldiers, claims of noble motivation are highly exaggerated rationalizations. Many studies have shown that the primary motivation for joining the military is simply money. One such study by RAND (see here) identifies five primary reasons that people join the military:

  • Adventure and Travel
  • Benefits
  • Job Stability and Pay
  • Escaping a Negative Environment
  • Job Training

None of these driving motivations have anything to do with defending freedom and democracy. They are all simply based upon personal gain. Now, that’s not to say that serving a noble cause is not important to many in the military. But for most it’s secondary at best and a rationalization at worst.

That is not as true of many other service professions. Teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and many in legal, medical, or other service professions do often cite helping others as primary motivations for working in difficult, low-paying, and sometimes dangerous careers. Not so with most of the soldiers who are so honored by our culture.

So then we ask, what’s the harm? Certainly we should not fail to honor one group simply because we cannot similarly honor all deserving groups. Recognition is often not fair. It never can be. And maybe the goal of inducing soldiers to join the military is indeed so important to democracy that honoring them is a necessary pragmatic white-lie we maintain for the greater good.

Well, my concern about this kind of pragmatic logic is two-fold. First, it is not at all clear that the good accomplished by our huge military overcomes the bad. But secondly, I am pretty confident that our glorification of the military does real, profound harm to our social fabric by propagating guns, military dress and equipment, and paramilitary behaviors that are incredibly damaging to our country. Beyond mass shootings, our fetishizing over everything military has become inextricably intertwined with the greatest dangers to our democracy emerging from within.

I have to think that our exaggerated romanticizing over soldiers is a significant enabling factor in the marketing of the real dangers and threats we face as a people. Glorifying soldiers, their equipment, and military solutions only models and ennobles this kind of behavior in civil society. We see this distorted and dangerous military mimicry escalating almost daily.

Maybe military behavior, however noble in theory, has become so corrupted in popular society that it is time to reevaluate our long-standing military traditions and their increasingly theoretical and irrelevant positive values.

So what should we do differently?

My suggestion is that we treat Memorial Day more like a remembrance of people who died in natural disasters or mass shootings. We remember these people as victims, not heroes. Rather than creating romanticized narratives of altruism and self-sacrifice, we should mourn the tragic, often needless, loss of friends and family. We should show icons of hope and renewal rather than parading our flags and shooting off rifles in militaristic displays. We should mourn the foreign policies that have put so many in harm’s way, dismantle a military-industrial complex that drives so many into the military, and stop feeding the delusions of so many disturbed, gun-crazy individuals in our society who are driven by the distorted ideas of military honor that they take away from Memorial Day and other military exhibitions.

Atheists Cannot Succeed in Life

Atheists cannot hope to accomplish great success in life.

This is the expressed opinion of someone who has been nominated for the Supreme Court as presumably being one of the wisest and most learned people in America (see here).

At the very top of her nomination speech, immediately after thanking the President and the Vice President, Ketanji Brown Jackson stated:

“I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey. My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.”

There can be no misreading or misunderstanding of her words. Again, she stated clearly that “I do know that one can only come this far by faith.” Only. There is no ambiguity there. There is no modifying context. She thinks this.

Further, this is clearly extremely important and fundamental to her. She chose to put it at the very top of what was certainly the most critical, the most visible, and the most carefully considered speech of her life thus far. She clearly not only thinks this but must think it very, very profoundly.

If this is something she thinks she knows, it must make one wonder what else she thinks she knows.

This revelation must come as a great shock to the many, many highly accomplished and successful atheists to learn that their success cannot be real. They must be imagining it.

More seriously, her considered conclusion must come as a great disillusionment to the many, many children who are not deluded by religion. It is undoubtedly disheartening to hear that they cannot accomplish great success in life unless they find Jesus.

It is disappointing to have a supreme court justice who a) does not appreciate or care about the effect of her words on non-believers and b) doesn’t recognize that her assertion is simply, utterly contradicted by actual facts.

Further, her statement isn’t as much a window into her religious humility and thankfulness as much as it is a window into a self-aggrandizing Prosperity Bible worldview in which god rewards the chosen few with great worldly rewards and success. That kind of self-righteousness does not bode well for a Supreme Court Justice in a secular nation.

Lastly, I’ll point out that I had good feelings about this nominee right up to these statements. When she uttered them, I slammed off the live video and shouted “Fuck!”

Within a minute my phone rang and the first word from my associate, a fellow atheist was, “Fuck!”

I’m sure that this was the response of millions of atheists who are Americans too. That this nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was apparently blind to that response or did not care does not bode well for her ability to act as an empathetic and fair arbiter in decisions that affect ALL Americans.

If, as Justice Brown Jackson, she holds a deep conviction that success is only accessible through faith, and she wishes the best for all Americans, how can she morally do anything other than make decisions promoting religion and diminishing atheist, even simply secular activities?

As a final note, I’ll point out that the most discouraging and aggravating thing about this incident is that Ketanji Brown Jackson is, to a large degree, absolutely right. Atheists cannot reach the highest levels of success in this country. Not because god rewards the faithful, but because our nation is filled with, and critical decisions that affect us all are made by, religiously compromised people like her.

Freedom of Speech Extremism

Why do I still watch Bill Maher?

The guy used to be interesting but now he is just Archie Bunker channeling Andy Rooney. In fact he went out of his way in his 1/28 episode to opine about how he has not changed; it’s the world that has changed. Sorry Bill, but you’re like those guys who lamented that Star Wars was ruined by Jar Jar Binks. But if Jar Jar doesn’t capture your imagination like the Ewoks did when you were a kid, it’s not Star Wars that has changed, it’s you. And you, Bill have become a surly curmudgeon ranting about what a waste space travel is, how stupid superhero movies are, how dangerous Muslims are, and how silly Progressives are.

But that was just my own little rant. What I really want to talk to you about in this installment is Freedom of Speech. In that same episode, Bill Maher spoke with Ira Glasser, former Executive Director of the ACLU about the new policies put in place at that organization. Their outrage was because the ACLU has said that it will no longer defend certain kinds of speech that are offensive.

Bill and Ira insist upon a non-negotiable, absolutist, all or nothing view of free speech. As Bill said:

“you can’t have it [freedom of speech] if there are exceptions.”

And later, Ira stated:

“the only way to do that is to defend speech no matter what the content is.”

Sorry but they are attempting to convince their audience to accept a fallacious false choice proposition regarding Freedom of Speech. According to them, if you impose any limits at all, you can’t have free speech. This is nonesense.

I can understand that Bill Maher, like so many other media talkers, has a personal vested self-interest in preserving their total immunity to say whatever they like without fear of repercussion. Therefore it is not surprising that most media pundits who express and create public opinion about free speech, strongly espouse a similar extremist view.

But no right is all or nothing. None can be. Of course, I would not want to see the ACLU become the champion of snowflakes, but they also should not protect what is clearly dangerous and harmful speech. And yes, speech can be deadly. The Free Speech false choice is what hate-mongers and misinformation-peddlers use to convince others to defend them.

We have to say enough already.

There are clear lines of acceptable societal norms at the extreme. And when speech crosses those clear lines, we can all recognize that and we should not have large, powerful, and influential organizations defending the indefensible. This absolutist, false choice position is the same one presented to protect gun rights. If we ban even one gun, they tell us, our Second Amendment rights are gone. Those who support unfettered Capitalism and wealth accumulation frighten us with the same false choice. If you impose any limit, any restrictions, then Capitalism is dead and you’re own right to make billions has been taken away. If we allow any abortions, then we must allow all abortions. The list of similar examples could go on indefinitely.

When it comes back to Free Speech, we can and must have reasonable limits and the ACLU should not defend hateful, damaging, and dangerous speech that crosses clear lines. To do so makes it complicit and undermines its mission to protect free speech.

Other countries like Canada have far more sane, reasonable limits on free speech and they are hardly a propaganda-controlled state.

We don’t accept false choices when they are used to justify abandoning reasonable limits on other rights, we should not accept them when used to advocate for an anything-goes position on free speech.

Bill, you’re simply wrong yet again. But no, I don’t think you’ve crossed the line and you should be able to continue spouting self-interested false choice arguments. Just as I should continue to have to right to push back. But that doesn’t mean there should be no limits at all nor that setting any limits at all would end freedom of speech.

But if you use your platform to suggest that “someone” should exercise their Second Amendment Rights to “deal with” anyone who disagrees with you, I hope the ACLU will decline to defend you.

With Friends Like MSNBC

Allow me to rant a bit about MSNBC.

MSNBC is supposedly the premier platform for progressive/liberal news and perspectives. But that’s kinda sad. I quit watching MSNBC in disgust during the Trump campaign. It had become painfully obvious to me that they were making a big, big mistake by their incessant coverage of everything Trump. Most days they would only switch to the Hillary campaign rally for 20 seconds before resuming their 5 hour broadcast of anything and everything Donald Trump was doing or saying. Those numbers are not unfair exaggerations.

Their non-stop Trumpathon might have been great for their ratings, but it was tragic for our country. They helped in no small part to get Trump elected and many of their hosts have since admitted as much.

But it’s one thing to recognize a mistake retrospectively and something much different to recognize it while or before repeating it again and again. And MSNBC continues to repeat their pattern of unhelpful coverage.

To highlight the latest example of an ongoing pattern that set me off today, morning host Andrea Mitchell once again asked her guest whether the Democrats made a mistake by focusing so much on the cost of the Build Back Better bill. Excuse me, Andrea, but don’t you set the topic for every appearance? Don’t you decide what to ask about and how to follow up? How much time did you dedicate to asking about the substance of the bill? How do you expect your guests to focus on the substance of the bill when you continually force them to respond to inflammatory questions about the “battle” over the cost?

Oh, sorry, Andrea, you say you’re only just following up on comments they had made earlier? You mean like their responses to the questions that MSNBC Capitol Hill correspondents shouted incessantly to them about the “battle” over the cost of the bill?

Some MSNBC correspondents, not all but some, too often continue to focus on the “horse race” even as they lament over too much focus on the “horse race.” They continue to dedicate their entire segment to inflaming the latest controversy, only finding time at the very end to point out that they would have loved to get into the substance but unfortunately they are out of time. Next time for sure!

And then there are the radical moderates that appear on MSNBC. These radical moderates seem to have an insatiable compulsion to continually attack, belittle, vilify, and scapegoat the Progressive wing of the party. To single out just a few for illustration, you have political analyst Clare McCaskill and nighttime host Brian Williams. While progressive on a wide range of issues, these people attack the Left wing of their party at every opportunity. Their antagonism, for example, toward Bernie Sanders was relentless.

Just last night, Brian Williams yet again had staunch Republican consultant and frequent guest Michael Murphy on to give advise to Democrats. Murphy of course seized upon the opportunity to launch a tirade against Progressives. Williams was perfectly happy to let his “analysis” stand as authoritative.

I’m certainly not saying there is no difference between MSNBC and Fox News. But MSNBC corporate and many of their hosts need to stop crying crocodile tears that they have no time to cover the news in a substantive way. Rachel Maddow largely focuses on substance, does not attack Progressives, and her ratings are generally the highest on the network.

And I’m not even saying that there is no difference between our Conservative opponents and MSNBC “allies” like Mitchell, McCaskill, and Williams. Our tent is big enough to include even radical moderates. But they really need to stop trying to help by gratuitously attacking those Progressives who are not as ready to accept Conservative-Light compromises that only serve to push us slightly less to the Right than the Conservatives might hope.

Trump Exposed Our Stupidity

I have long expressed the speculation that we are probably no smarter than the population of ancient Babylon. Yes, we may have more technology and more knowledge, but brains evolve very slowly and have probably long ago reached intrinsic intellectual limits like the maximum size of an insect with an exoskeleton. Similarly, we are probably no smarter overall than people were way back when.

Given the number of people in our population who believe in any sort of crazy, nonsensical, disproven claim, it’s hard to deny that we have a lot of really stupid people in our population. Despite that, we have long preferred to respect the intelligence of our fellow humans and at worst characterize them as misled, uninformed, uneducated, and so on. Not stupid though. Oh no, we’re not saying that.

When Trump came to power I said that was further proof of how stupid we are. Clearly we are not stupid in all ways, but I was talking about the particular set of “social intelligence” smarts that might allow us to form a just and sustainable social system. As social stupidity exerted itself throughout the Trump era, more and more people found they had no choice but to refer to his supporters as simply stupid.

Still, most continued to resist that harsh point-blank criticism. They hung on to hope that Trump voters were simply misinformed by Fox News.

Then Covid came along. As it became clear that many Trump supporters and some others were continuing to resist vaccines and thereby placing themselves and others at mortal risk, the rest of us have pretty much been forced to admit that, yes, they are just plain stupid. We can no longer continue to pretend that any less critical adjective is sufficient to describe them.

Trump has not made people stupid. Stupid people created Trump. Trump didn’t tell them what to think, he threw out trial balloons at his rallies and he echoed whatever they cheered to most strongly. He led stupid people wherever they told him they wanted to go.

The stupid people don’t worship Trump. They don’t even follow Trump. The moment he tries to take them where they don’t want to go, they rebel. They boo him as they did when he tried to urge them to get vaccinated. As horrible as Trump may be, the real problem is not Trump, the real problem are the stupid people who created and continue to empower Trumpism.

Look, it’s clear we have different kinds of smart and stupid. Some people may be brilliant in lots of ways, but still be quite hopelessly stupid at math. You don’t want them teaching math to your kids. In the same way, we should accept that some people, as smart as they may be in lots of ways, are simply hopelessly stupid when it comes to social policy and they should not be allowed anywhere near making it.

In their excellent book, Hating America, authors Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin document the dire misgivings that many 18th century European intellectuals expressed regarding the formation of a Democracy in America (see here). They warned that a system that empowered uninformed and stupid masses to make critical decisions was doomed to be dysfunctional and destructive. Their concern was elevated by their certainty that America, with all its vast resources, would become very powerful. Putting that much power in the hands of the stupid masses would be disastrous, they warned.

It has taken longer than those European intellectuals feared, but their predictions and warnings are finally coming true. A powerful America, dysfunctional and destructive in its behavior, careening down the road to a calamitous global future with stupid people behind the wheel.

Why now? I mean, the stupid people who support Trumpism – if not Trump himself – have always been here. They spewed nonsense in ancient Babylon, they owned slaves in America, and lynched free Blacks more recently. They have always hated government, believed in nonsense, proudly flew their Confederate flags, denied climate change, and rejected vaccinations. But we have managed pretty well so far. We have made progress despite them. So why worry about them now? What makes them more dangerous today?

I’ll give two reasons why our stupid population is more dangerous today – social media and guns. Social media gives them the critical ability to mutually-reinforce their stupidity, to coordinate, to rise up in online or real-world mobs, and to take over our government through coordinated action or even under threats of violence. Social media promised to empower the masses, and unfortunately it has succeeded.

And guns give these people the real power not only to mobilize, coerce, and threaten, but to exert their will through with profoundly horrifying violence and destruction.

It is long past time that we all accept and acknowledge that we have, and always will have, a socially stupid and dangerous fraction of people in our population. We must further accept that no amount of education, media campaigns, or empathetic outreach – or even fear of death – will dissuade these people from their stupid behavior. We cannot “bring them around.” We rather must find ways to moderate them, disempower them, and achieve a fair and sustainable society despite them.

We need, as George Will has said, sane and rational people in our representative form of government who can moderate our worst, stupidest, passions. But social media, and increasingly guns and threats of violence, are installing stupid people in our government who then gerrymander and create other pathways to bring in even more stupid people.

Eliminating, or strongly controlling, the two major enablers of stupidity, social media and guns, is essential if we are going to survive our socially stupid population and prove those European intellectuals wrong about the unavoidable fate of a Democratic system of government.

I Say Give Them Time

As my readers know I occasionally take exception to comments made by highly respected intellectuals. I hope that when I do so it is not to engage in a gratuitous attack, but to offer an important counterpoint. In that spirit I must take exception to recent comments made by the highly respected thinker and author Malcolm Gladwell (see here).

The comments I refer to were offered by Mr. Gladwell when he appeared on The Beat with Ari Melber last week. The full text can be heard on the Ari Melber podcast dated July 3rd, 2021.

Mr. Melber introduced the segment by pointing out that we live in a period in which Republicans are attempting to revise history and promote lies. He asked Mr. Gladwell for his thoughts about all of that and whether there were any solutions. It should be noted that this question was asked in the context of promoting Mr. Gladwell as an expert on human thinking and behavior.

Here is a slightly polished transcription of the response by Mr. Gladwell:

I think about the role of time. I wonder whether we’re in too much of a hurry to pass judgment on the people who continue to lie about what happened on Jan 6th, there are many forms that denial takes. One of it is that I honestly don’t believe that anything went wrong there. Another form is that I do believe but I’m not ready to admit it yet. A lot of what looks like a kind of malignant denial in the republican party right now is probably just people who aren’t ready to come clean and renounce a lot of what they were saying for the previous four years. I say give them time.

While this admonition for patience may sound superficially learned and wise, I find it naïve, wrong both theoretically and factually, and damagingly counterproductive. While I certainly don’t expect Mr. Gladwell to cite all his supporting evidence in a short interview segment like this, I don’t believe he has any. I suspect this is simply well-meaning but unrealistic platitude, analogous to “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s OK, except that he is putting forth an unsupported platitude as the conclusion of a purported expert in human thinking.

But such an expert on human thinking should understand that neural networks simply do not function in a way that would make “give them time” a reasonable strategy. As long as Republicans continue to hear the same old lies repeated over and over, they are not going to eventually recognize and reject them. Repeated exposure does not reveal lies but rather transforms our brains to accept them more deeply.

Our neural networks are influenced mainly by the quantity and repetition of the training “facts” they are exposed to. They have little capacity to judge the quality of those facts. Any training fact, in this case any idea the neural network is exposed to, is judged as valid by our neural network machinery in proportion to how often it is reinforced. And by the way, I know most of us want to believe that we collectively are not so susceptible to this because we want to believe that we personally are not. But we are.

So, my objection to Gladwell is that he does not truly understand how our neural networks function because if he did he would understand that “I say give them time” is counterproductive advice at this time. Now, yes, it would be good advice if we were confident that Trump voters are being exposed regularly and primarily to truthful information. If that were the case I would agree, yes, give their neural networks more exposure time. However, I don’t believe that there is any reasonable basis to think that giving them more time will serve any purpose except to further reinforce the lies they are continually exposed to from Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News. We are simply not ready to just be patient and let the truth seep in and percolate.

The more nuanced advice, in my opinion, to the question posed by Ari Melber is that we must discredit and stem the flow of misinformation from these sources and expose Republicans regularly to truly factual information. Once we do that, then, yes, I say just give them time for their neural networks to become comfortable with it. With enough exposure their neural networks will transform whether they want them to or not. But to accept the status quo right now and “give them time” as Mr. Gladwell suggests would be horribly premature and ill-advised.

America Without God?

I don’t often rebut other articles, but on occasion I feel that I would be intellectually negligent not to do so. One such article that requires a response is entitled “America Without God” (see here). It was recently published in The Atlantic by contributing writer Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. This article is so bloated with egregiously specious arguments that it is a real challenge to rebut it concisely.

The tl;dr that is being put forth by Mr. Hamid boils down to the following fallacious assertions…

  1. Religiosity, or religious-like conviction, is a universal and unavoidable human condition that must inevitably manifest itself in some fashion.
  2. This “religiosity” is nebulous, but seems to be defined by Hamid as an innate human compulsion to embrace an “ultimate loyalty” expressed through “strongly held ideological convictions.”
  3. As religion has declined, the resulting “God-shaped hole” has been filled by a similarly fervent set of political convictions.
  4. This “sublimation” of religion into politics has not resulted in a more rational world as promised and expected. Therefore, secularism is disproven as better set of beliefs.
  5. Religiosity cannot be “effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment.”
  6. Christianity is superior since it motivates people to be forgiving and to “withhold final judgements for another time – perhaps until eternity.
  7. Without a religious reawakening, we are left with either “world-weary resignation,” “violence,” or a “divisive wokeism.”
  8. Therefore, we should give up on secularism and re-embrace Christianity as our best hope for a better world. If we do not, dire consequences will result.

Sigh, where do I start?

First, like many articles in The Atlantic, this one is bloated and convoluted and loaded with gratuitous and irrelevant references and quotes. I don’t know if this is simply to fill space, or to argue by quantity, or to argue by creating the perception of authority, but one should not be misled into thinking that because it is hard to follow that it must be really smart.

By way of contrast I will quickly and clearly list some of the problems with this article…

  1. There is no evidence that “religiosity” is a necessary or unavoidable condition. It may be difficult to stop drinking whisky without dipping into the cooking sherry, but this does not disprove sobriety.
  2. The vast majority of Trump supporters are also the most gullibly religious believers in our population. They did not turn to Trump to fill any “God-shaped void.” They embrace Trumpism because their religious rationalizations have conditioned their brains to accept nonsense.
  3. The Left has not embraced “wokeism” to fill any void left by secularism just as atheists in general have not felt compelled to turn to anything beyond sound rational thinking.
  4. To assert that “secularism has failed” as a given is a ridiculous claim. First, we are still hugely religious as a nation. Second, secularism HAS succeeded dramatically in making our nation a saner and more inclusive place for all and has protected us from the worst extremes of religious zealotry.
  5. To claim that Christianity “tempers” our worst impulses is again asserted as a given without any serious credibility. There are countless burned, tortured, and lynched spirits that can attest to Christian forgiveness.
  6. And why is an eternal deferral of judgement and punishment a good thing? Justice must be timely to be fair and must be exacted in the real world.
  7. Lastly, but hardly the last flaw, is the fear-mongering that forms the final argument. Embrace Christianity or all the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah will be befall you!

The author is clearly motivated by a revulsion of Trumpism, a movement only rational-sounding to religious magical thinkers, then makes a false equivalence with wokeism, and concludes that the problem is secularism and that the cure is yet more religion. He attempts to maneuver us into an intellectual false choice between a secular dystopia and acceptance of organized religion as the only possible alternative. This is, quite simply, nonsense.

Look, I know I am being harsh. But this is a high-profile article that is receiving a lot of publicity. The author is out on the interview circuit spreading this nonsense of pro-religious manipulation and fear-mongering on talk-shows all across the country.

The truth is that we have not yet given secularism a chance to show us a saner world free from religion. The truth is that many of us are atheists and quite comfortable. We will not recant on our death bed nor will we ever pray in a foxhole, and we do not need to fill any God-shaped hole with Trumpism or Wokeism or any other *ism.

Now, that is not to say there is no problem. I have always emphasized that as an atheist I would not want to simply “do away with religion.” Religion has trained our brains to accept nonsense. We must fix that first or else we’ll simply adopt other nonsense, yes like Trumpism.

Reason can be our rock. Our best hope as a species is not merely the least destructive catechism of nonsense. We can learn to be rational. That is why my focus has always been on teaching fact-based thinking rather than attacking religion. My book (see here) was based on the premise that we must eliminate magical thinking, religious or non, by teaching rational thinking.

So I have still not given up on the vision of a rational, ethical, and healthy secular world and I assume John Lennon would not take back his words either…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Scammers Worthy of Respect

I appreciate folks who are good at what they do, including criminals. Once someone stole my backpack while the strap was around my ankle underneath a desk in the far back corner of a busy Internet café in Quito. Picturing that talented thief slipping cat-like under the desk and slicing cleanly through the strap only made me think, well done sir, it was an honor to be burgled by a professional of your caliber! Another time I was pickpocketed by a group of boys who packed in against me in a crowded bus in Kathmandu. I immediately detected what had happened and peered around at the expert team, all looking perfectly innocent, and nodded my respect saying, “Well done lads!”

In the same vein, I respect a well-crafted street con. I have been privileged to observe some quality teams in action. I’ve watched them practice their craft in Calcutta, Manhattan, Moscow, Cape Town, and elsewhere. One of the most impressive was a group plying their trade on La Rambla in Barcelona. They were working the classic shell game. The dealer kept expressing all expected chagrin and frustration as he lost bet after bet and handed over fists of cash to an enthusiastic group of “players” who exclaimed their delight at winning most every round.

Here’s the thing, even knowing it’s a scam, even knowing that all those “players” were plants who were hamming it up just for my benefit, it was still really, really difficult not to think I could win too. I watched all those rubes who were obviously not as smart as me win on bets against the clearly inept shell dealer. And when they lost, it was obvious to me every time where the pea actually was. The lure to join in, even knowing it’s all a scam and that I was the mark who was reacting exactly as they hoped I would, was still tangibly powerful.

The reality of course is that I had no hope of actually winning. The players only “lost” when they wanted to lose and I only knew where the pea was when the dealer intended for me to see it. Even if I were to win a few rounds, it would only have been because the dealer wanted me to win so that they could suck me in even deeper. To think I could beat them at their game would have been the height of foolishness.

I can even give some respect to more “upscale” confidence artists. A televangelist for example. These guys are really masters of bilking people out of a lot of real, hard-earned cash for nothing more than the promise of a heavenly pig-in-a-poke. Even a pyramid scheme scammer deserves some credit in my estimation. They manage to convince people they can make money by doing nothing. While in reality, the only folks that make any money are a few of the top level investors who make enough to sell the lie that everyone below them will profit as well.

I am even willing to give some level of respect to the reprehensible low-life’s who recently called up my son’s grandparents claiming to be him and asking for emergency bail money. Pretty bold and brassy to pull that off!

You might think I have a warped and misplaced set of values, as evidenced by my willingness to accord some respect to unsavory criminals. Maybe you’re right. But even I draw the line at stock traders. Despite my low standards, I can muster no respect for them.

Stock trading is just too big a scam, even as compared to organized religion. It is too entrenched, too manipulatable, too exploitable, and too consequential. It is not only destructive but unnecessary.

Look, of course I recognize the need for banking. We cannot function without socially responsible lending and credit. I also recognize the need for financial vehicles to grow our wealth and to support us in old age.

But despite the apparent “winners” in the market, stock trading does not meet any of these goals in a socially equitable or sustainable way. Stock trading is not, needs not be, and should not be, an essential vehicle for raising funds, growing wealth, or securing our futures. Not when it is such an inherently extractive and destructive force in the world.

Stock investment does not make investors “invested” in those businesses in which they hold shares, encouraging responsible long-term caretaker-ship of those companies. Quite the contrary. Stock investment promises maximum rent-seeking wealth extraction for a given investment. It only encourages investors to push companies into short-term dividend maximizing policies at the expense of workers, the environment, and the companies themselves. Shareholders exert their influence to extract maximum profit and move on as soon as soon as they have milked that cash cow dry. Day traders exert the same pressures even more ruthlessly and carelessly through their investment activities.

And even though the system allows just enough “winners” to make everyone imagine that they are smarter than the system or luckier than the system, those “winners” only make enough to entice others to invest and siphon more money from the middle class into the investor class. And as most of those “winners” eventually discover, as does anyone who thinks they are “winning” at that shell game on La Rambla, their winnings will evaporate quickly if they play long enough.

So no. Even though I can respect grifters of all sorts, I cannot offer even a begrudging modicum of respect for stock traders. They are unnecessary, rent-seeking, exploitative parasites who only extract money, real blood and heartbeats, from the little guys who think, like me looking on at the shell game on La Rambla, that they too can profit by playing the game. The stock trading game may not be controlled by one dealer, but it is an emergent form of the shell game that dupes millions of people into betting and ultimately losing.

So what is the alternative? On that I take my advice from WOPR in War Games. The only way to win is not to play. Instead invest in real, tangible assets and in hard work over get rich quick schemes. Build instead of extract. If you have more money than you know what to do with, try giving it away to support lasting and socially constructive efforts.

A Right Makes It Right for the Right

In order to continue to rationalize and legitimize their support for Trump and all of the reprehensible things he says and does, Conservatives have had to abandon any semblance of principled ethical decision-making. They have retreated in their ethical justification to one recurring assertion…

Well he has the Right to do it.

We hear it all the time nowadays. But look, let’s be clear. We value and respect the Rights that we afford to each other through social norms, mutual respect, and as codified in our Constitution. But let’s also be clear, simply asserting that one has a strictly legal right to do something does not make it right to do. Acknowledging that someone technically has a right to do something does not excuse one from recognizing any other ethical considerations.

Having a legal or technical Right to do something doesn’t make it a wise thing to do, or a courteous thing to do, or a sensible thing to do, or even an honorable thing to do. In fact, sometimes asserting one’s Right is a dick thing to do. It may even be a selfish and unconscionable thing to do. Asserting a Right can in fact be the sociopathic thing to do.

It may be my Right to wear my stovepipe hat in a crowded movie theatre, but it’s a dick move. It may be my Right tell you that your little child looks like a mutant Klingon, but no one should do that. It may be my Right to exploit loopholes so that I pay no taxes on my millions, but really? And it may be my Right to brandish my gun and wave my Confederate flag around, but is it really right to exercise those particular Rights in that manner?

Similarly, the Congress may technically have had the “Right” to block Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland for eight months, but it was a dick thing to do. They technically had the “right” to appoint Amy Coney Barrett only weeks before a Presidential election, but it was still hypocritical and low-class to assert that Right. The President may technically have the “right” to personally intervene in Federal criminal cases to serve his own personal agenda, but it is still wrong. Trump may claim a “right” to grant pardons to anyone he wishes, or redirect resources, or to have private conversations with dictators, or any of a million other things. He may have the “right” to lie about matters personal and official, but it is still unethical. Simply put, his “right” to do those things does not make any of them the right thing to do. It certainly does not excuse them or make them into behaviors that we must accept.

It is not surprising that Trump, self-serving child that he is, would assert a “right” to do practically anything he wishes. Nor that Mitch McConnell would assert that any dirty tactic he may employ is within his “rights.” But it is really sad that so many outsiders, so many pundits and elected representatives, folks whose ethical responsibility it is to be ethically responsible, respond to concerns about ethical integrity only by saying “well he has the right to do that.”

Claiming that someone else has “the right to do that” is a weaselly and cowardly attempt to appear ethically-grounded while in fact abandoning anything beyond a pathetic pretense of ethical integrity. Conversely, quite often the truly right thing to do ethically is to put aside one’s own personal selfish “rights” to service a far greater and more noble good.

And it must be pointed out that very often these “rights” invoked are usually not affirmative, specifically granted rights, or even generally accepted rights. Most often these are matters of common human decency that no one ever felt they needed to enumerate in some gargantuan list of all the things no honorable person would ever do, or would even think of doing.

The lack of a specific prohibition is not a Right.

Yet, for the most part, this is the new Trumpian ethical low that we Americans have fallen to. If your totally reprehensible and unthinkable behavior has no specific law against it beyond hundreds of years of decorum and mutual respect, then you claim that it is your “right” to do that thing. And if you are a partisan or sycophant, you excuse that behavior by simply pointing out that it is technically and legally within their rights.

Invoking a technical right to do something is one of the most abused, misused, disingenuous, and yes even unethical, levels of ethical thinking and behavior. So realize that when apologists justify bad behavior as a “right,” they are almost certainly resorting to the weakest possible justification that they hope sounds principled, lofty, and unassailable.

We should not so easily let them off the ethical hook by simply invoking this sort of disingenuous justification.