Category Archives: Social Justice

Champion of Nonsense

RandFrom climate change deniers to religious believers, there is certainly no shortage of intellectuals championing nonsense in the public sphere. But today let’s focus on the Champion of Libertarianism, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Libertarianism is an extremist version of barely restrained Capitalism. While it may sound reasonable and appealing when presented by a faux-intellectual like Paul, it falls apart completely under the slightest scrutiny, just as it did when Rachel Maddow probed just below the surface of Paul’s position on privatized lunch counters (see here).

For a Libertarian zealot like Paul, Socialism is his most horrifying nightmare. It is therefore unsurprising that in response to increasing public support for Socialist policies, Rand Paul wasted no time in publishing a book denouncing it (The Case Against Socialism).

In making his “case against Socialism” Rand Paul focuses mainly on historical bogeymen by raising the long-dead specters of Stalin and Mao Zedong. In a television interview just the other day, he was asked what Millennials in particular who support Socialism don’t get. Paul replied that they don’t get that Socialism means that the government owns all means of production and that it has been a disaster in every country in which it has been tried. He went on to once again invoke the horrors of Stalin and Mao Zedong.

Here’s what Paul doesn’t get or does not wish to acknowledge. Supporters of Democratic Socialism are not advocating those extreme forms of Socialism. They are not advocating that the government seize all private enterprise. And further, there is no reason to think that such Socialist extremism is inevitable, likely, or even possible in America.

Paul’s entire premise against Socialism is based on an obviously specious argument. It claims that Democratic Socialism is evil because something else called Socialism was evil. It’s the reverse of the logical fallacy used by gun zealots who claim that since revolutionary era guns were protected, modern guns should be protected.

Consider this analogy to understand what Paul is doing here. It is like he is railing against tablets. Tablets, he says, are evil. They waste paper and the spiral binding can cause cuts. We did away with tablets long ago and these Millennials who support them simply do not understand how dangerous they are. But no, they are talking about electronic tablets, not spiral notebooks. And similarly they are talking about Democratic Socialism, as practiced in Norway and Finland, not what was once called Socialism in China or Russia.

If we reflected the same disingenuous form of argument back against Paul, we would say that what Paul doesn’t understand is that Anarchy has been tried and it has always been a disaster. Of course, Paul is not talking about total anarchy when he talks about modern Libertarianism. And likewise no one supporting Democratic Socialism today is talking about the form of socialism attempted by Stalin or Mao Zedong (see here).

Further, when Paul claims that Socialism has always been a disaster, he fails completely to recognize that modern Socialist countries are at on the top of every measure of health and happiness (see here). Nor does he happen to mention that virtually every country that has adopted the more Libertarian economic policies of Milton Friedman has suffered direct human and economic calamity on a massive scale. This was excruciatingly documented in Naomi Klein’s landmark book (The Shock Doctrine).

So no Rand Paul. Sorry, but it is not the supporters of Democratic Socialism that don’t understand history. You are the one who is either delusional in your blind rationalization of Libertarianism, disingenuous in your rabid fear-mongering of Democratic Socialism, or most likely both.

Sucks to be Tom Friedman

FriedmanIt must suck to be Tom Friedman right now.

Mr. Friedman is clearly wigging out, and I think I understand why. He recently wrote an NYT Op Ed in which he railed against the extremist positions of the current Democrat candidates (see here).  In it, he grossly misrepresented their positions in ways that surely he knows rise to the level of outright lies and he resorted to wildly exaggerated “end of the world” ravings about the dangers they pose.

But think of it from his perspective. Thomas Friedman has made a huge name for himself as a leading champion of radical centrism (see here). So for him, the current times are an existential threat. For him, it must be viscerally tribal. That was apparent when he appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss his article. He seemed panicked and frustrated and angry and defensive. In short, he seemed to be speaking from a place not of intellectual authority, but of gut-level lash-out emotion.

I suspect he is in this berserker frenzy because his radical centrist worldview, his tribe, is under serious attack for perhaps the first time in his long occupation of the middle ground. He has seen Donald Trump defy his radical centrist prescription for success on the Right and winning. He also sees the Progressive Left winning a lot of hearts and minds with their left-of-center ambitions. He sees that Joe Biden, the current flag-bearer of radical centrism, may not win the day. And most of all, he fears deep down that radical centrism is no longer a tenable position, suggesting that maybe it never was.

If non-centrist newcomers and their “radical” ideas continue to take hold and show success, that threatens the very foundations of radical centrism. The success of a progressive agenda would undermine a lifetime of preaching for moderation. He cannot allow his entire career, his very faith in radical centrism, to collapse around him.

So he lashes out.

And it is not just Tom Friedman, but also the many newscasters and pundits and politicians who are emotionally married to the radical middle. They cannot allow the Progressive Left to ascend. So they dismiss Elizabeth Warren as too ambitious, they call the Squad naive, and they label Bernie Sanders as a Socialist at every opportunity. They rush in quickly to defend Capitalism and all the tenants of centrism including incremental change and pragmatism and realism.

In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King identified “well-meaning moderates” as the most frustrating obstacles to meaningful change (see here). Similarly today, we still have a huge number of radical centrists like Tom Friedman who insist that it is too early, that we are asking too much, and that we should just be patient. They use any manipulation to make you feel afraid of any course other than radical moderation.

Unfortunately the planet Earth will not show us any further patience. Fortunately, more and more leaders are stepping up and refusing to defer to the evangelists of radical centrism like Thomas Friedman. More and more refuse to accept the artificial limits these “pragmatists” impose on what dreams we are allowed to dream and what bold new solutions we are allowed to embrace.

Personally, I hold no animus toward Thomas Friedman or all those passionate devotees of the radical middle, but I hope their worldview is discredited and crumbles beneath their feet. If not, the best we can hope for is too little too late.

 

The Time to Stop Debating Debate

matt_dilahuntyA while back I wrote an article called “Time to Stop Debating” that was published in American Atheists Magazine. I also posted a version in this blog (see here). In it I suggested that the Atheist Movement has moved into a phase in which it should focus on normalizing atheism, and that one important strategy to accomplish that is to  “stop debating.” Shortly after, atheist activist Matt Dillahunty (see here) posted a 25 minute rebuttal video (see here).

I thank Mr. Dillahunty for his sincere and thoughtful rebuttal in defense of continued debate. I felt that he did make a conscientious effort to be fair and even-handed while arguing that debate remains one of our most important strategies to win hearts and change minds. We do not disagree on that.

While he certainly presented a well-crafted argument, it is probably unsurprising that I do not feel he made his case and that his objections were overstated. One major problem is that he characterized my call to “stop debating” as tantamount to surrender and refusing to engage. He repeatedly paints a picture of a minority of atheists remaining silent and passive while refusing to engage in meaningful debate with a vigorous religious majority.

Clearly, I did not advocate any such complacency. I advocate engagement in all forms of discussion and persuasion. What I did say however, is that in those conversations we should take a stronger “no debate” stance on issues of belief and religion. That is, we should reject out-of-hand arguments based on faith, refuse to entertain them, and instead insist upon engaging on the basis of universal principles and evidence.

To illustrate this nuance, think of how we treat racism. We don’t “debate” racism anymore, even though a large number of people may still wish to do so. Yes, we still engage actively in social policy driven by or impeded by racist ideology. But we won’t seriously respond to discredited arguments like whether white men have superior brains. We engage in policy discussions and debate them vigorously, but we only give serious consideration to legitimate arguments. If white racists argue that they deserve special privileges purely because they are god’s chosen ones, we reject it out-of-hand without undeserved debate. To do so would “only” elevate that notion and distract from substantive debate. However, if those same white supremacists make fact-based arguments for the same policies, we should then engage honestly in that debate and be willing to be open-minded.

In public discourse, there are many topics that are “not up for debate.” We should likewise exclude religious fantasy from serious debate. If you argue that god exists or humans were created, we should dismiss those arguments as inherently invalid. If you invoke god or the Bible to justify a policy position, we should insist that you put forth legitimate arguments based upon universal principles. This should be particularly true in all government hearings and debates, but sadly it is not.

Therefore I am not advocating for refusing to engage at all. I am advocating for gradually extricating ourselves from the debate embrace that has enthralled us for millennia. It is unfair of Mr. Dillahunty to dismiss my argument by carrying it to an extreme; just as it would be unfair if I were to portray his position as advocating for the paralysis of the status quo. In the abortion debate and many others, as long as the religious Right can keep us debating on their terms, they are effectively neutralizing us. What we are willing to accept as legitimate debate is itself part of the debate and part of the persuasive process.

And as far as the persuadable middle is concerned, it is my perception that for every one person that someone like Mr. Dillahunty may rightly feel proud to have influenced for the better, there are many, many more whose uncertainty is reinforced by seemingly legitimate debate that makes it appear that “reasonable people disagree” and “there are good arguments on both sides.” Creating doubt through debate is exactly the horribly successful tactic that has been exploited by “The Merchants of Doubt” on a wide range of important issues to create intellectual and policy paralysis (see here).

Mr. Dillahunty makes some other earnest sounding arguments that are not particularly compelling. He argues that although debate has gone on essentially forever, we have new media today that could change the game in our favor. I see no historical evidence of that. Certainly the printing press did not fundamentally change the debate. In fact the Bible became the most widely printed book ever. Likewise it is not clear that the Internet will somehow make our traditional debate tactics more successful.

Mr. Dillahunty also repeatedly asserts that my strategy would only work if we atheists were in the majority. He has no basis for certainty in that assertion. There are many examples of social norms of legitimate discourse that are effectively enforced by a relatively small minority. His argument arises from his assertion that fact-based thinkers have little sway or leverage in society. That is not my assessment; we have reality on our side and the religious zealots who engage in irrational debate are in fact a minority. Finally, if we do not drive this change, if we wait for patient, deferential debate to get us there, we never will. We will be hosting the same silly debates with a Ken Ham (see here) in another thousand years, if we had that luxury of time.

So let me once more sincerely thank Mr. Dillahunty for his stimulating rebuttal. Though I am not swayed, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. I have no doubt that his efforts to educate and inform are valuable and I’m not trying to put him out of business. Quite the opposite, we need talented debaters like Mr. Dillahunty to push us out of this quagmire of eternal debates about fantasy. We should not waste talent like his rebutting long-disproved arguments rather than helping to propel the secular movement into the normalization phase.

 

The Art of Technical Lying

bart-simpson-I-didntWe discover the fine art of technical lying at a young age. It might be more accurately described as technical truth-telling, but technical lying is catchier and more descriptive. It is the practice of lying by making false statements that are technically true or at least defensible. One example of technical lying might be when our parents demand to know whether you went to that unsupervised party at Kim’s house. With feigned affront you lie and insist you did not. When confronted with evidence you claim that you didn’t really lie because it wasn’t technically a party it was a “get-together,” and you didn’t go because technically you were “taken” by Josh on his bike, and in any case it wasn’t Kim’s house since technically her parents are the ones that own it.

We all spin the truth and try to mislead and misdirect through technical nuances when it serves us, but this becomes formalized in the legal sphere where lawyers are taught to exploit technical lying in depositions and court testimonies. They coach clients to answer questions with short answers, in part to leave open ways to later claim they did not perjure themselves using some technical rationale.

Fortunately, parents generally know when their kids are playing these games and usually don’t let them get away with it. Sometimes technical lying can help in legal situations, but lawyers, like our parents, are very good at exposing such obfuscation. In legal proceedings there is usually sufficient opportunity to follow-up with probing questions that trip up and expose technical lies. Lawyers are happy to play this game in court because when a pattern of technical lying is exposed thus, it generally backfires badly on the liar and harms their credibility resulting in a worse outcome for them.

But technical lying isn’t limited to family squabbles and court proceedings. It is rampant in the public sphere and in the semi-formal environment of Congressional hearings. In responding to questions from the Press, some people engage in serial technical lying. Even in testimony to Congress, these individuals engage in technical lying with seeming impunity.

Did the President offer you a pardon? He did not. No I did not lie because it wasn’t the President, it was his lawyer and it wasn’t an offer, it was a possible offer, and it wasn’t a pardon, it was “everything in his power.”

The reason this pattern of technical lying is so frustrating is because it can be quite effective. It can really frustrate and delay efforts to arrive at the truth in situations in which the follow-up questioning is limited and delayed. In these settings, to delay temporarily is to win. This is the case for public statements, media interviews, and to a large extent even Congressional hearings. These are disparate and enough time goes by between follow-up questions that the narrative can keep changing, the goal post keep moving, and impartial observers have difficulty recognizing the extent of gamesmanship being conducted over time.

In an age in which truth is under methodical attack using every possible form of deceit and deception, technical lying is rampant. It is particularly well-suited to frustrate efforts by society to arrive at truth outside of courtroom walls. Technical lying has grown into an art form celebrated by proud dissemblers like Roger Stone.

In this ridiculous era of Trump, we have had to become far more willing to call a lie a lie. This must include lies in all their forms, and for Trump and all those who lie incessantly for him, a technical truth is most likely just another type of lie.

 

Is it finally safe to discuss Socialism?

smaug

May I ask, oh great and powerful Smaug, when thy gold will begin to trickle down upon us?

I was once at a high school party where the prolonged silence became painfully awkward and uncomfortable. Suddenly one precocious girl blurted out, “So, what do you all think about premarital sex?” Just like that, the party got lively with everyone talking about a wide range of topics.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to break the ice and make it acceptable to discuss what were previously taboo topics. Bill Maher made it allowable to talk openly about atheism, and Bernie Sanders made it acceptable to speak honestly about Socialism.

But this new open talk of Socialism frightens a lot of people, especially older people and rich people – and older rich people most of all. To them, and most Americans, Capitalism is tantamount to a religion that requires unwavering faith despite any evidence to the contrary. Therefore, it is not surprising that they spew out a lot of hyperbolic fear-mongering and misinformation in hopes of nipping all this Socialist talk in the bud.

These Capitalist fanatics spread so much misinformation about Socialism that responding to it all in one overview article is nearly impossible. Therefore I’m not going to take the time here to discuss every point in detail. I’ll simply put forth what I feel are the ethical and empirically supported viewpoints. Feel free to investigate each one more thoroughly on your own.

First, let’s talk about what Socialism is today. Let’s not allow opponents to sucker us into explaining whatever Karl Marx had in his mind a century and a half ago nor into defending the aberrant government that emerged out of the Socialist transformation in China under Mao Zedong in 1949.

Modern Socialists do not want to destroy Capitalism. The difference between a modern Capitalist and a modern Socialist it is simply a matter of where the balance point should be between the governmental and private domains.

Capitalists believe that the government is useless and ineffectual and that virtually all problems should be left to the private sector to solve; all needs should be left to the private sector to meet; and that the private sector should not be restrained in any way. They lie routinely about how much social programs like universal healthcare would cost, by failing to subtract the savings from the frightening numbers they cite. 

Socialists believe that government can and must do good things and that some things like healthcare, public infrastructure, utilities, social services, food and drug safety, and education can be best handled by government, and further can only be handled effectively by the government or through a high degree of regulation and oversight.

Between the two sides, it is the Capitalist viewpoint that is far more extreme, dogmatic, and radical. Socialists still want mostly a vibrant Capitalist system, with only some exceptions and regulations as warranted to protect society at large. Capitalists want to extract profit from everywhere without exception and with minimal or no regulation that would ensure that the public good is considered.

The devotees of Capitalism point out that Capitalism made us great. That is not completely true. Yes it was important, but most of our important achievements like worker safety, environmental protections, and many others came about only through violent opposition to the forces of insatiable unbridled Capitalism. Major projects like our highway system were government funded. And even if we give Capitalism all the credit it deserves for bringing us to where we are, that does not make it the right approach – or even a viable approach – to carry us forward into a more sustainable economic model.

And let’s be clear. Unbridled Capitalism is not sustainable. As Marx predicted long ago, the inevitable outcome of unrestrained Capitalism is growing wealth inequality and instability as all wealth is scooped into the coffers of fewer and fewer individuals. You end up eventually with one Pharaoh and a multitude of economic slaves. That level of inequity cannot be maintained for long. But worse, our planet can no longer sustain a humanity driven by a religion of unbridled Capitalism.

Contrary to everything the devout Capitalists try to claim, trickle down economics is really nothing more than voodoo economics. Socialism is not evil, and Capitalism is not “the best system possible.” Grow or die is a lie. Competition does not really yield the best products for the lowest prices, and what is good for the stock market is usually bad for regular workers (see here). Economic Darwinism is not tough love. Intellectual property rights mostly just retard real innovation. In the real world, free-market competition often breaks down completely. Tax breaks to the wealthy do not create jobs or increase wages. Highly progressive taxation on wealth is necessary and essential. A minimum wage – and a maximum wage – are good economics. And you only need sufficient, not unlimited, wages to motivate and reward talent and work. Private corporations are not inherently more cost-effective than their government-run counterparts, especially since they must extract as much profit as possible.

Taxes, by the way, are not “giving away your money.” Taxes are how we agree to fund philanthropic and charitable causes and joint ventures for the essential public good. Taxes are what we pay for our roads, and police, and all the other services that our government provides for us. Make no mistake, under a Capitalist model, all those services would be far more expensive, if they were provided at all. If left to a purely Capitalist system, all our lives would be horribly diminished.

Capitalism simply has no mechanism to fund essential public services when there is too little profit in it. Even worse, in areas like healthcare, the profit motive is fundamentally and intractably in opposition to providing the best outcome. Capitalist fiduciary responsibility requires that healthcare providers provide the lowest level of care for the highest possible price to maximize profit for their shareholders (see here). Anything less would be antithetical to the Capitalist religion.

The kind of extreme Capitalism that many Americans have been convinced they would prefer is nothing more than “I got mine” economics in which every man (and woman) are out for themselves, and screw everyone else. The idea that good can come from selfishness and greed is a morally bankrupt tenet of our Capitalist religion.

Socialism, on the other hand, is simply how we do things together. It is how we pool our efforts for the good of all. Socialism is the “let’s work together” system of economics. Socialism does not inhibit or replace Capitalism. It merely acknowledges that there are some vitally important things that Capitalism cannot do well enough and it provides the model to work together to achieve those services that Capitalism simply cannot address.

So let’s continue to carry on this discussion that Bernie started and continue to work to find the healthy balance. But do start to question the Capitalist catechism that we have all been taught, and don’t let the fanatical Capitalists convince you that you are the extremist if you defend elements of Democratic Socialism.

Religion in Public Schools

The teaching of religion in public schools is a topic that stimulates a great deal of honest debate on all sides of the issue. Should religion be taught at all? And if so, what religions? Even well-meaning atheists might feel that religion should be taught, as long as all religions – and atheistic perspectives as well – are taught equally and fairly without bias.

That sounds laudable and enlightened in theory. However, many plans that sound great in theory inevitably turn out to be disastrous when put into practice. Teaching religion in public schools is one such example.

I have personal experience with this. While serving in the Peace Corps in South Africa, I worked for their Department of Education. The South African Constitution requires that all religions be treated equally. In order to comply with the spirit of their Constitution, the Department of Education has adopted a policy that all religions should be taught fairly and equally in the public schools.

Sounds great right? The trouble is that teachers, particularly rural teachers, do not know all religions and do not care to know all religions – let alone teach them fairly. At the point where lofty policies touch the students. all that this accomplishes is to give teachers cover to preach and proselytize their own religious views in the classroom and to misrepresent and disparage all other religions – and atheism is demonized most of all.

The problem of state sanctioned religious instruction is not merely a matter of the recruiting and training and monitoring of teachers. False even-handedness spills over into teaching materials as well. Science texts typically enumerate a long list of native creation myths as legitimate. In at least one science text, after describing the monkey myth, and the milk myth, and many others, it concluded with what was almost an obligatory footnote that said “and some scientists believe that the world was created by natural means and human beings evolved.”

This sort of false balance, not unlike giving equal deference to climate change deniers, is an almost inevitable consequence of a misguided and ill-fated attempt to be fair and inclusive with regard to the teaching of religion.

I came away from my experience in South Africa more convinced than ever that our American system of simply keeping religion out of our public schools is on balance the best, most practical system of fairness. There is no shortage of alternate venues where people can preach and teach religion as much as they wish. Therefore, there is no compelling need being met by including religion in public schools, that warrants the certain risk of abuse and unintended consequences.

Assiduously keeping religion out of our public schools is in fact the more fair, the more enlightened, and the more realistic policy position.

Privatizing Theocracy

privatizationThe strategy is clear. Privatize as much of the government as possible and exempt those privately run services from Constitutional protections.

If we do not wise up, we could gradually privatize our way to theocracy.

Conservatives love privatization. Regardless of where they lie on the not-so-wide spectrum from capitalist to libertarian, they all share a foundational belief that the private sector does everything better than publicly run counterparts. To them, it is self-serving economic dogma that a hard-nosed, self-interested, profit motive is somehow inherently superior to a sincere mission to serve the public good. Therefore everything that can be privatized should be privatized.

Of course, there is no actual proof of any such inherent superiority. Sure, some privately run companies can be more efficient than governmental programs. But many are not. For every inefficient, bureaucratic, slow-moving government agency, one can point to dozens of disastrous, failed, bankrupt, unresponsive, and socially irresponsible private companies with obscenely overpaid corporate leaders.

Moreover, the primary function of private businesses is not to serve their customers with the best possible goods and services, but to extract maximum profit for shareholders and executives. The idea that competition always optimizes to result in the best possible services at the lowest possible price is a convenient fiction. Private businesses actually optimize to extract the highest possible profit by providing the cheapest possible services. Their fiduciary obligation is not to serve the public good, but on the contrary it is to pass off as many of their harms and risks as possible onto the public sphere.

It is simple math. All else equal, a well-run private company simply cannot provide better services than a well-run governmental agency because the private company must extract maximum profits. And it is a lie that government agencies cannot be just as well-run. In fact, our Conservative leaders know this, which is why they work so hard to make the Post Office and other services fail so that they can justify privatizing them.

Further, there are some public functions that are simply incompatible with the profit motive, these include things like health care. I am not against all private business, but I am against private businesses running essential social services that fundamentally conflict with their profit motive. I wrote a blog on the conflict between profit and healthcare (see here). And we have all seen how well has privatization worked for prisons.

This fanatical push for privatizing everything from military service to social security in order to extract private profits has been bad enough. But now, with Citizen’s United and Hobby Lobby and the dominance of Church-friendly executives in public office, we should clearly see another terribly dark side of privatization – the synergy of privatization and religion.

As more and more government services, from social services to education and beyond are privatized, those new “public service” companies can then exert their growing independence to reject governmental policies and even Constitutional protections to inject religious beliefs into those services. Rather than serve the general public good, rather than adhere to restrictions put in place to ensure the public good, these newly privatized services can now exert their “religious freedom” to limit those services in accordance with their religious beliefs.

The Religious Right has been frustrated because they have been thwarted in their efforts introduce prayer and intelligent design in schools. Their new strategy is focused on privatizing education so that they can “teach” whatever they wish to larger numbers of children. By simultaneously asserting religious rights of conscience for these private companies, they can do an end-run around the Constitution.

As another case in point consider hospitals. We used to have a lot of public hospitals. But we have allowed private, for profit hospitals to take over without requiring them to provide the same level of service to underprivileged populations. Increasingly, churches are assimilating all of these private hospitals and refusing to offer essential services that they feel violate their religious beliefs. The New York Times recently highlighted this (see here).

Now duplicate this same strategy to privatize every government service with an ideological or profit interest. If the greedy and the religious can remove all such operations from governmental oversight, then the protections of our Constitution become moot. How can the Constitution protect us with nothing remaining under its jurisdiction? The Conservatives want less, not more of the regulations that would be required.

Make no mistake. This trend toward theocracy by privatization will continue to accelerate unless we understand the following:

  1. Private corporations do not really do everything better, and some essential public services are fundamentally undermined by a profit imperative.
  2. Private companies must not be allowed to claim personhood and religious liberty in order to abdicate ethical responsibilities and circumvent Constitutional protections.
  3. Political leaders must not be allowed to be complicit in this theocritization by intentionally destroying working public services and by putting in place governmental structures to assist in privatization and the expansion of religious exemptions.

For further reading I recommend a previous blog entitled Why Wall Street Loves Trump (see here).