Category Archives: Social Justice

Three Major Flaws in your Thinking

BrainwavesEEGToday I’d like to point out three severe and consequential flaws in your thinking. I know, I know, you’re wondering how I could possibly presume that you have major flaws in your thinking. Well, I can safely presume so because these flaws are so innate that it is a statistical certainty that you exhibit them much the time. I suffer from them myself, we all do.

Our first flaw arises from our assumption that human thinking must be internally consistent; that there must necessarily be some logical consistency to our thinking and our actions. This is reinforced by our own perception that whatever our neural networks tell us, no matter how internally inconsistent, nevertheless seems totally logical to us. But the reality is that our human neural networks can accommodate any level of inconsistency. We learn whatever “training facts,” good or bad, that are presented to us sufficiently often. Our brains have no inherent internal consistency checks beyond the approval and rejection patterns they are taught. For example, training in science can improve these check patterns,  whereas training in religion necessarily weakens them. But nothing inherently prevents bad facts and connections from getting introduced into our networks. (Note that the flexibility of our neural networks to accommodate literally anything <was> an evolutionary advantage for us.)

Our second flaw is that we have an amazing ability to rationalize whatever random facts we are sufficiently exposed to so as to make them seem totally logical and consistent to us. We can maintain unquestioning certainty in any proposition A, but at the same time be perfectly comfortable with proposition B, even if B is in total opposition with and incompatible with proposition A. We easily rationalize some explanation to create the illusion of internal consistency and dismiss any inconsistencies. If our network is repeatedly exposed to the belief that aliens are waiting to pick us up after we die, that idea gradually becomes more and more reasonable to us, until eventually we are ready to drink poison. At each point in the deepening of those network pathways, we easily rationalize away any logical or empirical inconsistency. We observe extreme examples of this in clinical cases but such rationalization affects all our thinking. (Note that our ability to rationalize incoherent ideas so as to seem perfectly coherent to us was an evolutionary necessity to deal with the problems produced by flaw #1.) 

The third flaw is that we get fooled by our perception of and need to attribute intent and volition to our thoughts and actions. We imagine that we decide things consciously when the truth is that most everything we think and do is largely the instantaneous unconscious output of our uniquely individual neural network pathways. We don’t so much arrive at a decision as we rationalize a post-facto explanation after we realize what we just thought or did. Our consciousness is like the General who follows the army wherever it goes, and tells himself he is in charge. We feel drawn to a Match date. Afterwards when we are asked what attracted us to that person, so we come up something like her eyes or his laugh. But the truth is that our attraction was so automatic and so complex and so deeply buried, that we really have no idea. Still, we feel compelled to come with some explanation to reassure us that we made a reasoned conscious decision. (Certainly our illusion of control is a fundamental element of what we perceive as our consciousness.)

So these are our three core flaws. First, our brains can learn any set of random facts and cannot help but accept those “facts” as undeniable and obvious truths. Second, we can and do rationalize whatever our neural network tells us, however crazy and nonsensical, so as to make us feel OK enough about ourselves to at least allow us to function in the world. And thirdly, when we ascribe post-facto rationalizations to explain our neural network conclusions, we mistakenly believe that the rationalizations came first. Believing otherwise conflicts unacceptably with our need to feel in control of our thoughts and actions.

I submit that understanding these flaws is incredibly important. Truly incorporating an understanding of these flaws into your analysis of new information shifts the paradigm dramatically. It opens up powerful new insights into understanding people better, promotes more constructive evaluation of their thoughts and actions, and reveals more effective options for working with or influencing them.

On the other hand, failure to consider these inherent flaws misdirects and undermines all of our interpersonal and social interactions. It causes tremendous frustration, misunderstanding, and counterproductive interactions.

I am going to give some more concrete examples of how ignoring these flaws causes problems and how integrating them into your thinking opens up new possibilities. But before I do that, I have to digress a bit and emphasize that we are the worst judge of our own thoughts and conclusions. By definition, whatever our neural network thinks is what seems inescapably logical and true to us. Therefore, our first thought must always be, am I the one whose neural network is flawed here? Sometimes we can recognize this in ourselves, sometimes we might accept it when others point it out, but most of the time it is exceedingly difficult for us to recognize let alone correct our own network programming. When our networks change, it is usually a process of which we are largely unaware, and happens through repeated exposure to different training facts.

But just because we cannot fully trust our own thinking doesn’t mean we should question everything we think. We simply cannot and should not question every idea we have learned. We have learned the Earth is spherical. We shouldn’t feel so insecure as to question that, or be intellectually bullied into entertaining new flat Earth theories to prove our open-mindedness or scientific integrity. Knowing when to maintain ones confidence in our knowledge and when to question it, is of course incredibly challenging.

And this does not mean we are all equally flawed or that we cannot improve. The measure is how well our individual networks comport with objective reality and sound reason. Some of our networks have more fact-based programming than others. Eliminating bad programming is not hopeless. It is possible, even irresistible when it happens. Our neural networks are quite malleable given new training facts good or bad. My neural network once told me that any young bald tattooed male was a neo-Nazi, that any slovenly guy wearing bagging jeans below his butt was a thug, and any metro guy sporting a bushy Khomeini beard was an insecure, over-compensating douchebag. Repeated exposure to facts to the contrary have reprogrammed my neural network on at least two of those.

OK, back on point now. Below are some examples of comments we might say or hear in conversation, along with some analysis and interpretation based on an awareness of our three flaws. I use the variable <topic> to allow you to fill in the blank with practically anything. It can be something unquestionably true, like <climate change is real>, or <god is a fantasy>, or <Trump is a moron>. Alternatively, if you believe obvious nonsense like <climate change is a hoax>, or <god is real>, or <Trump is the greatest President ever>, using those examples can still help just as much to improve your comfort level and relations with the other side.

I don’t understand how Jack can believe <topic>. He is so smart!

We often hear this sort of perplexed sentiment. How can so many smart people believe such stupid things? Well, remember flaw #1. Our brains can be both smart and stupid at the same time, and usually are. There are no smart or stupid brains, there are only factually-trained neural network patterns and speciously trained neural network patterns. Some folks have more quality programming, but that doesn’t prevent bad programming from sneaking in. There should be no surprise to find that otherwise smart people often believe some very stupid things.

Jill must be crazy if she believes <topic>.

Just like no one is completely smart, no one is completely crazy. Jill may have some crazy ideas that exist perfectly well along side a lot of mostly sane ideas. Everyone has some crazy programming and we only consider them insane when the level of crazy passes some socially acceptable threshold.

I believe Ben when he says <topic> is true because he won a Nobel Prize.

A common variant of the previous sentiments. Ben may have won a Nobel Prize, he may teach at Harvard, and may pen opinion pieces for the New York Times, so therefore we should give him the benefit of the doubt when we listen to his opinions. However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that he may still be totally bonkers on any particular idea. Conversely, just because someone is generally bonkers, we should be skeptical of anything they say but still be open to the possibility that they may be reasoning more clearly than most on any particular issue. This is why we consider “argument by authority” to be a form of specious argument.

It makes me so mad that Jerry claims that <topic> is real!

Don’t get too mad. Jerry kinda can’t help it. His neural network training has resulted in a network that clearly tells him that <topic> must obviously be absolutely true. Too much Fox News, religious exposure, or relentless brainwashing will do that to anyone, even you.

How can Bonnie actually claim that she supports <topic> when she denies <topic>???

First, recall flaw #1. Bonnie can believe any number of incompatible things without any problem at all. And further, flaw #2 allows her to rationalize a perfectly compelling reason to excuse any inconsistency.

Clyde believes in <topic> so he’ll never support <topic>.

Not true. Remember our flaws again. Clyde’s neural network can in fact accommodate one topic without changing the other one, and still rationalize them perfectly well. All it takes is exposure to the appropriate “training facts.” In fact, consistent with flaw #3, after his network programming changes, Clyde will maintain that he consciously arrived at that new conclusion through careful study and the application of rigorous logic.

Sonny is conducting a survey to understand why voters support <topic>.

Social scientists in particular should be more cognizant of this one. How often do we go to great efforts to ask people why they believe something or why they did something. But remember flaw #3. Mostly what they will report to you is simply their rationalization based on flaw #2. It may not, and usually doesn’t, have anything to do with their extremely complex neural network programming. That is why “subjective” studies designed to learn how to satisfy people usually fail to produce results that actually do influence them. Sonny should look for more objective measures for insight and predictive value.

Cher should support <topic> because it is factually supported and logically sound!

Appeals to evidence and logic often fail because peoples’ neural network has already been trained to accept other “evidence” and to rationalize away contrary logic. It should be no surprise that they reject your evidence and conclusions and it doesn’t accomplish anything to expect Cher to see it, let alone berate or belittle her when she does not.

And that brings us to the big reveal of this article…

There is a fourth flaw that is far worse than the other three we have discussed so far. And that is the flaw that most of us suffer from when we fail to integrate an deep awareness of flaws 1-3 into our thinking. We may not be able to completely control or eliminate flaws 1-3, but we can correct flaw number 4!

This discussion may have left you feeling helpless to understand, let alone influence, our truth-agnostic neural networks. But it also presents opportunities. These insights suggest two powerful approaches.

The first approach is more long-term. We must gradually retrain flawed neural networks. This can be accomplished through education, marketing, advertising, example-setting, and social awareness campaigns to name a few. None of these efforts need to be direct, nor do they require any buy-in by the target audience. The reality of network training is that it is largely unconscious, involuntary, and automatic. If our neural networks are exposed to sufficient nonsense, they will gradually find that nonsense more and more reasonable. But the encouraging realization is that reprogramming works just as well – or better – for sound propositions. And to be clear, this can happen quite rapidly. Look at how quickly huge numbers of neural networks have moved on a wide range of influence campaigns from the latest fashion or music craze to tobacco reduction to interracial relationships.

The second approach can be instantaneous. Rather than attempt to reprogram neural networks, you force them to jump through an alternate pathway to a different conclusion. This can happen with just a tiny and seemingly unrelated change in the inputs, and the result is analogous to suddenly shifting from the clear perception of a witch-silhouette, to that of a vase. Your network paths have not changed, yet one moment you conclude that you clearly see a witch, and the next it becomes equally obvious that it is actually a vase. For example, when Karl Rove changed the name of legislation, he didn’t try to modify people’s neural network programming, he merely changed an input to trigger a very different output result.

I hope these observations have given you a new lens through which you can observe, interpret, and influence human behavior in uniquely new and more productive ways. If you keep them in mind, you will find that they inform much of what you hear, think, and say.

Any Fool Can Do It

SurvivorOn October 9th, 1989, I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Survivors” that made quite an impression on me. In it, Captain Picard and his crew encounter an elderly couple living in an unnatural oasis on a devastated planet. It turns out that the wife is a phantasm, an unknowing replica of the actual wife, now long dead. She was conjured by her husband Kevin, a godlike being who was devoted to her before her death and who has remained so centuries after.

By the way, Kevin was played by the iconic character actor John Anderson (see here). You probably don’t know his name, but if you watched any television from the early 50’s to the early 90’s, you cannot fail to recognize his distinctively Lincoln-esque countenance and voice.

Anyway, at the end Kevin reveals his shameful secret. When the planet he was living on with his wife was attacked by hostile aliens called the Husnock, he tried his best to use his powers to trick or dissuade them. Those efforts failed. Refusing to take any life, even those of the deplorable Husnocks, Kevin stood passively by as they devastated his planet and killed his wife along with the rest of her people.

The anguish of this loss caused him to lose control of himself, releasing a momentary outburst of uncontrolled rage. As Kevin told it:

“I went insane. My hatred exploded, and in an instant of grief, I destroyed the Husnock. I didn’t kill just one Husnock, or a hundred, or a thousand. I killed them all. All Husnock everywhere.”

What touched me was not merely the poignant tale of grief and loss and shame and regret. What touched me was what was implied by the story. What touched me was what else the story of Kevin teaches us.

Take note that Kevin was essentially a god. Unlike Thanos, Kevin didn’t need to expend all the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. It only required one stray thought for Kevin to selectively exterminate billions of lives. He was that powerful.

So after watching this episode, I asked myself the logical question. Given all that power, and given Kevin’s deep love and mourning for his wife, why didn’t he simply think her back into existence? Why didn’t he bring back all her people and restore her planet? In fact, given his deep regret, why didn’t he bring back the Husnock and direct them along a better path? Of course he would have… if he could.

The only answer is, he couldn’t.

So the truth, the revelation, the epiphany for the viewer must be that any fool can destroy. Tearing down is easy. It can be done with one errant thought. But even an omnipotent god cannot easily create. Even one as powerful as Kevin cannot in a million years ever recreate what he can mindlessly destroy in an instant.

We humans are certainly not gods, but in this regard we are the same as Kevin. We can easily, even unthinkingly, break a dish, crush a rose, tear someone down, shoot a gun, dash a hope, take a life, smash a historical relic, burn a building, bomb a city, nuke a country, even devastate a planet. Any fool can destroy. But it is immensely difficult, even impossible, to create or restore any of those things.

And what makes us immeasurably worse than Kevin is when we take pride and joy in destroying. When we believe that destroying makes us powerful. It does not. Any fool can destroy. Fools destroy because it makes them feel powerful.

However, it takes real strength and true genius to create.

This applies not only to physical things but to ideas. Any fool can knock down ideas. Any fool can pick them apart and tear them to pieces.  It takes an exceptional person to conceive new ideas and to build on the ideas of others rather than take delight in crushing them.

And this applies to ideas like Democracy as well as to our institutions. It required generations of strong and wise people to create our democratic ideals and institutions. But it only takes a few short years for a weak-minded and craven fool like Donald Trump to mindlessly tear them all irretrievably asunder. Feeling power and even pride in the “dismantling of the administrative state” – without building something stronger and better upon it – is the work of fools.

And we have no shortage of fools.

Why Advocates Fear Success

LettingGoWe often see it in parents. Parents expend much of their lives raising their children. More than raising them, passionately advocating for them at every stage. They have built a home around them. They have expended much of their wealth to help them grow. Their emotions and their self-identity are wrapped up in their role as parents. They have done everything possible to help their children to succeed. Yet, allowing them to actually succeed, to fly from the nest and diminish their own role as parents, can be those parents’ most difficult challenge.

Similarly, success is the most fervent hope of advocates, yet it can be the most difficult thing for them to accept. Letting go is often difficult not only for advocates, but even more difficult for advocacy organizations and for an entire advocacy movement. You became impassioned, you rallied, you worked much of your life, your built institutions, you fought many battles, maybe even bled, to advance your cause. It’s understandable that it can be hard to let go. Particularly hard when your advocacy is not only your passion, but all you know how to do. Even harder when your financial livelihood and the financial livelihood of so many others depends upon the continued necessity of those advocacy institutions you have built.

The result is that many advocacy groups have a very difficult time dealing with success or an evolving social situation that has made them increasingly irrelevant. Even when 99% of their mission has been achieved, or when far more important issues arise, they still insist they need more funding, more effort, more time, more dedication, because there is just so much yet to be done. They begin to minimize their own accomplishments and exaggerate the remaining problems, so as to justify their continued relevancy as activists.

All movements go through a life cycle, and retirement is not easy for any of them. But I’m not going to name names. I’ll leave that to you to consider. I will say that I myself have long been passionately active in the atheist movement. However, as greater acceptance of atheists has been achieved (although very far from sufficient), as Trump has emerged as an existential threat to Democracy in America, and as climate change has emerged as an existential threat to the planet, I gradually let go of atheism as my primary issue. It wasn’t easy. I did go through a stage where I insisted that atheism was still a vital cause because religion is so much a foundational issue enabling all these other problems. But even that argument, while valid, sounds clingy and desperate to me now compared to so many other immediate threats, like healthcare.

Speaking of healthcare, I do feel compelled to point out one specific case in point, Culinary Union Local 226 in Nevada. They strongly oppose Bernie Sanders because of his proposed Universal Healthcare Plan (see here). They have reportedly gone so far and to pressure and intimidate members who support Sanders.

By the light being shone in this article, it should be easy to see why they would so vehemently oppose Sanders. Let’s face it, while Unions advocate for their members on a wide range of issues, healthcare is their clear raison d’être. Since healthcare in America is so prohibitively expensive, and since while other abuses still exist these are no longer the days of Upton Sinclair, people are driven to unions largely for assistance with healthcare. If Sanders were to eliminate healthcare as a major problem, those unions would lose their major point of leverage. They would no longer be desperately needed by members to advocate for their healthcare.

In my opinion, Culinary Union Local 226 and others are not unlike parents who would rather undermine a daughter’s impending marriage than allow her to leave their nest for a better life. Even if you accept their argument that they are only advocating as best as they can for their members, they are shortsighted because their current “gold” healthcare plan is always at risk. Of course, from their perspective, the risk of losing it is why their members need to continue to support and fund them. And from a more principled perspective, their “we got ours” attitude is simply unconscionable for the good of our nation overall.

 

The Great White Suburban False Hope

CollinsSenator Susan Collins has long been looked to as a rational, ethical, and principled moderate who surely would be willing to vote against her own party on issues of conscious. In fact, she has worked very hard to cultivate this image.

However after many years of encouraging platitudes from Susan Collins, and pundits predicting her near certain defection, she has almost always fallen in line with the Republican majority. Finally, her moderate facade has become too difficult to perpetuate with a straight face. Because of her long record of disingenuous and cowardly behavior, GQ Magazine published an article that asked whether Susan Collins is not actually more dangerous that Mitch McConnell (see here).

Part of the reason that Collins has gotten away with playing both sides for so long is because she is associated with the “white suburban woman” image. It is easy for us to assume that as a woman, mother, and grandmother she would never vote against the long term habitability of the planet, against a woman’s right to choose, against working families, or support sending our sons and daughters into needless wars. Surely as a white suburban woman she could never condone the actions of a disgusting, repulsive male thug in the White House. Yet she votes against the assumed interests and sensibilities of white suburban women, over and over and over again.

When one considers our profoundly unsatisfying “hope-disappointment” relationship with Susan Collins, one should also consider that this unsatisfying relationship is merely one instance of a far wider and more pervasive “hope-disappointment” dynamic with white suburban women in general.

Over the last couple decades, pundits and advocates in the media keep pointing to white suburban women as our firewall, our great hope. We keep hearing how, just like Susan Collins, they will surely rise up on this next issue. On this next vote, they will be outraged and mobilized. The Republicans have surely taken their hateful agenda a bridge too far for white suburban women!

But the reality is that, like Susan Collins in particular, white suburban women in general almost always fail to vote they way we thought they would. Apparently they are never really as outraged and mobilized as the pundits assume they are, as the activists hope they are, or as the women themselves claim to be.

Yet, despite a long history of Lucy and the Football, we kick it every time and fall on our asses every time. If you google “white suburban women vote” even now, you will find a ton of articles about how “this time” white suburban women are outraged, they’re energized, they’re mobilized, they’ve had enough!

But Vogue published a more fact-based analysis (see here). The authors recount the long history of white suburban women and their voting against their own apparent self-interest. In my personal experience I know a woman who voted for Bush for a second term, even though he had sent her two boys away to fight in a contrived war. Her rationale was “yes he did, but now we need someone strong in the White House to bring them home safely.”

The Vogue article stresses that despite their long history of disappointment, we should not and can not give up on white suburban women to do the right thing. Nor should we disparage them as moral failures or hold them to unrealistic expectations while we neglect to expect more from white suburban men.

But at the same time, fool me once… fool me twice. We should stop expecting Susan Collins to vote with the Progressives, and we should likewise not believe claims that white suburban women will save us. While some advocates might like to make it so by claiming it is so, it may be that a false sense of complacency that white suburban women will save us, is self-defeating.

We need to keep appealing to the best impulses of Susan Collins and all white suburban women. But we should also put aside unrealistic stereotypes, assumptions, and wishful thinking. Undue faith in white suburban women, like our undue faith in Susan Collins, will only benefit our adversaries.

 

A Case Study in Awful Op-Eds

BrooksA while back I wrote a blog article that rebutted the fallacious rantings by Rand Paul against Democratic Socialism (see here). Now I feel compelled to rise to the defense of Democratic Socialism once again. This time, in response to equally fallacious rantings by David Brooks.

In his recent New York Times article entitled “I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked,” (see here) opinion columnist David Brooks repackages many of the same manipulations that Rand Paul employed in his campaign to make us fear Democratic Socialism.  The article is frankly terribly written. But rather than simply refute point by point, I’d like to use it to illustrate fallacious, manipulative techniques more generally.

“Inherited Credibility” Largely discount the “New York Times” banner at the top of the article. Yes, the NYT (or any major news outlet) publishes lots of great articles and are worthy of respect. However they publish so many articles that much of it is mediocre and some is downright terrible. Rely upon information from a reliable sources, but don’t let inherited credibility outweigh your objective analysis of any particular article.

“Argument by Authority” Similarly, largely discount the name of the well-known and highly-respected author. This is another form of arguing by authority. Yes, certainly we should give some respect to the opinions of authors who have credentials and a solid reputation. But we all can name endless numbers of pundits who are well-known and highly sought after for their opinions, but who nevertheless have completely lunatic ideas about a lot of things. This is a particularly true when experts in one thing are assumed to be experts in everything. Well-published op-ed authors in particular are pressured to produce a LOT of articles, often on things they know very little about, and with very little oversight or review. Rather than be overly cowed by a pundit because of their name, consider that they might be totally out of their depth or completely misguided in certain areas.

Appeal to Revelation” David Brooks starts out his article with a rather obvious manipulation. He asserts that he used to be a Socialist, but has since learned the error of his ways. The benign interpretation of this is that he is merely trying to establish his credentials to discuss this topic. But it also serves to manipulate through an appeal to personal revelation. That is, you should believe me because I “saw the light.” But lots of people toss aside rational positions and adopt irrational or even crazy positions later in life. Don’t be overly swayed by the manipulative argument that “I once saw things like you but I got smarter.

Misrepresent Your Opponent” Brooks then misrepresents the position of those he is attacking. He claims that Bernie Sanders is not talking about “good” socialism. He does not support this assertion with any fact, but later in his article starts talking about “socialist planned economies” so as to associate that with Democratic Socialism. Again, at this point however, he does not cite even one policy that Bernie Sanders supports that could be fairly described as moving toward a “socialist planned economy.”

Don’t Bother with Supporting Evidence” Next Brooks touts all of the accomplishments of Capitalism, without of course acknowledging its inherent problems. He claims that economies are simply “too complicated” for Socialist controls, without ever offering a shred of logic to support that claim. Finally, he cites historical benefits of Capitalism, without questioning whether we can reasonably hope to sustain an economy that continues along that same trajectory.

Hijack Your Opponent’s Strengths” Brooks continues by then making the same fallacious argument that Rand Paul makes. He equates Democratic Socialism to the aberrant socialism of China and Russia. And then he goes on to pull into his “good Capitalist” camp the very countries like Finland and Denmark that Democratic Socialists actually aspire to emulate. He cites statistics of the Democratic Socialist accomplishments of some countries and attempts to claim that those are actually accomplishments of Capitalism.

Create Your Own Celebrity Endorsements” Brooks next takes time to associate his position with secondary authorities including Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Sure, it is reasonable to cite greatly respected figures who may endorse your view, but we have to remain vigilant for attempts to cherry-pick endorsements from historical figures, which is what I believe Brooks is trying to do here.

Appeal To Emotion” Some people – like me – argue that Capitalism is like a religion to many American thinkers – like Brooks and Paul – who very adroitly rationalize their faith with pseudo-economic arguments. In fact, in this article Brooks points out that Capitalism is not a religion, but then he goes on at length to characterize it as having many of the emotional benefits of a religion. Again, a lot of appeal to emotion in this article, but very little appeal to reason and facts.

More of the Same” To the extent that he acknowledges that Capitalism has problems, he insists that the way to fix them is more Capitalism. If you’re dying of lead poisoning, due perhaps to the very lead gasoline that served you so well in the past, the solution is not more lead and again, Brooks make no attempt to support his claims.

Kitchen Sink Arguments” Red lights should go off when an author, like Brooks in this article, rambles on and on in a very disjointed manner, throwing everything in that he can think of. This usually reflects a weak position. Just because you cannot make sense of what he is saying doesn’t mean he must therefore be really, really smart.

I could go on and on about what absolutely terrible writing this is and how absolutely misleading the arguments are. But I hope this analysis gives you at least some things to look for when considering articles like this in the future. We must always exercise healthy skepticism, particularly when under the thrall of “big name” authors in “big name” publications.

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.