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Article on Humility

March 15, 2019

Article on Humility

 

St. Augustine said that pride was the first sin; in his book Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this identification of pride as the deadly sin and humility as the cardinal virtue as distinguishing characteristics of the Augustinian moral tradition.

Much later, Kierkegaard made humility a central concept in his epistemology and ethics also.

Later still, Diogenes Allen identified humility as the cardinal virtue, and again linked its epistemic and ethical aspects.

Sadly, we don’t live in an era where humility is treated with respect.  Instead, as Harry Frankfurt points out, we live in an era of bullshit, where arrogance is admired and the greatest, most respected leaders and pundits are the ones who neither lie nor speak truth, but who simply make noise, without regard or often even knowledge of whether what they say is true or false, simply to get noticed and have influence:  the very apotheosis of arrogance.

In his article, “Vices of the Mind,” Quassim Cassam offers his reaction to the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.  In this work author Thomas E. Ricks discusses the planning (and lack thereof) of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration.  Repeatedly the political leaders were advised by career military officers with experience and expertise that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to establish order once the Ba’athist regime was overthrown; but not only was this advice ignored, the generals who dared speak truth to power were belittled and undermined by Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz in particular. Having had successful political careers, they were self-assured to the point of arrogance; and lacking the relevant military knowledge, they were incapable of raising any questions themselves.  Ricks concludes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz were “‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’.”

For Cassam, what this points to is the dangerousness of intellectual vices.  These four men in particular combined power with pride. Their career success proved to them that they knew more than the experts, and didn’t need to listen to anyone else.  They were simply so smart in their own eyes that they didn’t feel any need to check their own assumptions.  When the generals who were experts proved right, their political bosses couldn’t process the clear evidence and change course quickly enough.  The vices of these individuals led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the misery of millions, creating two failed nation-states and a terrorist caliphate that makes us long for the days when Ba’athism and al Qaeda were the worst we had to worry about.

This article is a powerful example of why philosophy matters.  The supposedly dusty and obscure writings of Aristotle on vice and epistemology, and the esoteric research of psychologists like Dunning and Kruger, explain one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of our nation and the one that took the promising end of the 20th Century and turned it into the clusterfuck of Republican administrations in the 21st:  an international economic collapse we are still recovering from, increasing environmental disasters that continue to surprise everyone except those who paid attention to “An Inconvenient Truth,” humanitarian nightmares in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and elsewhere, international terrorism by white nationalists, all while the government of the most powerful nation on the planet fixates on whether late-night comedy and Twitter parody sites should be censored.  The common thread is that in all these cases, expertise and ethics are rejected, while unfounded confidence and will-to-power are allowed to run unchecked, causing chaos and decay while demanding veneration.  Intellectual humility is treated as uncertainty and weakness, because we have long since ceased teaching our children and future leaders to recognize virtue and vice.  We need to learn to embrace the intellectual virtues that will allow us collectively to recognize and value truth, for without it we cannot hope to find successful solutions to the many dangers we face.

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First Post of 2019: A Little Game Theory About Building a Wall

January 3, 2019

This was a Facebook post that, as often happens to me, got a little out of hand.  When I realized I’d written an entire article, I decided to just post it here too.  Enjoy!

 

One of the basic elements of game theory is that you need to understand the goals of the players; that is, if you want to predict what a government will do, understand the motives of the people making decisions. Usually, leaders want to maintain power, so they make decisions that will preserve the regime.
 
It takes a lot of work to make decisions for the nation rather than one’s own faction or oneself; it takes effort to realize that one needs to preserve the nation if one wants to have something to lead, it takes effort to be humble and honorable enough to think first of the interests of the nation and of the majority of citizens, it takes effort to find what will help the nation and do that. It takes very little effort to act on one’s own whim, follow one’s gut, do what one’s own inner demons say will make one happy in the moment.
 
#Dolt45 proudly avoids thinking, acting on impulse. He and the entire GOP have been saying that unless he gets $5 billion for a wall that can provide his base with a visual aid, a sort of security theater that won’t do much but will make them feel safer & more powerful, then his personal presidency is over.
 
He understands that he’ll look foolish if he doesn’t win. His words to Schumer and Pelosi are like the first conversation he had with the president of Mexico, back in January 2017, when the Trump “presidency” was a week old: you have to give me what I want because if you don’t I’ll look foolish. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/3/16089160/trump-nieto-call-mexico-wall and https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/01/trump-says-hed-look-foolish-if-he-agreed-to-reopen-the-government-without-wall-funding.html
 
And THAT, people, is what all of this is all about. A foolish, impulsive, selfish person, who lacks the moral or intellectual ability to be aware of anything besides his own wants and needs, is aware of only one thing: that he’ll look foolish and lose power if he doesn’t get his wall, at taxpayer expense.
 
The fact that some rich donors are also getting richer through this fight—through for-profit prisons for immigrants, through the possibility of lucrative construction contracts and so on—-is just a helpful dividend, part of what helps him to get others to support his purely ego-driven “policy.”
 
Likewise, GOP (Greedy Old Partisans) like McConnell, who have become rich beyond the dreams of avarice through “public service,” see their own power, celebrity and, most importantly, money stream threatened if Trump goes down. They saw their own chances were best if a temporary CR was passed, so initially they agreed 100-0 to keep the government open; but now that #MoronInChief has publicly rejected that solution, they fear that he’ll fall if they stick to what they initially accepted, and that he’ll take them with him. They simply have no incentive to put Country Over Party, and every reason to stick to their partisan guns.
 
And the Democrats have learned that they are dealing with a pack of proven liars, bullies and thieves, who cannot be trusted to keep any secret deals and who, left to their own devices, will destroy the nation itself through mismanagement and even double-dealing with foreign enemies. And by “Democrats” I mean the Democratic base, millions of people, who are pressuring Chuck and Nancy to stop this wall because they know that giving in will show the GOP that bullying, corruption and terrorism work, that democracy and voting and majority rule are for suckers. So the elected Democratic leaders, who represent the majority of the voters in the last election, give in to the minority party, they could find themselves out of office.
 
So that’s the game that’s being played. You have a minority party with lots of institutional political power and the support of most of the rich vs. a new majority that is struggling to turn its majority status into actual political power. The GOP are the Deep State, placing the Democratic Party in the role of revolutionaries and reformers. The leaders of these two parties each want to win for their team and cement their own security by doing so. The GOP Deep State wins if it gets its wall, and loses if it doesn’t, no matter how little good having the wall would do and no matter how much damage they do to the nation and to the millions of people in this nation if the government remains shut down. After all, the majority voted for the Democrats, so hurting the majority of people means hurting enemies of the Republicans, right? And the Democratic leaders win if they stop the wall, making not only #ToddlerInChief but now, by osmosis, every GOP leader look weak and foolish. They would look bad if they seemed to be closing the government for political gain, but #StableGenius has already said he’s proud to own the shutdown; so they have no reason to save him from his own choices.
 
The only way this changes is if the game changes. Either Republicans have to decide it’s in their own interests to override Trump’s veto, or Democrats have to decide to knuckle under to GOP strongarm tactics, thus neutering their party in the short run and committing political suicide (and possibly national suicide) in the mid-to-long run.

Why Were We Attacked on 9/11? Why Must We Remember? What Have We Forgotten?

September 11, 2018

https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf

This.  This is why we were attacked.

Al Qaeda was originally founded to overthrow the corrupt tyrannies in the Muslim world.  Osama bin Laden and his gang believed that the governments that they opposed were propped up by Western democracies and Communist dictatorships, and would never be removed until the influence of those outside powers was broken.  They knew they could ever do this in open war, as the Prophet had done when he led the faithful from Medina to unify the Arabian peninsula or the Caliphs had done when they led armies out of Arabia into Africa and across Asia, eventually even into parts of Europe.  Instead, they chose to rely on terrorism and attrition.  They would commit acts of terror in countries they intended to conquer, in order to destabilize them.  The government would have to commit to guarding everywhere, and still would not be able to insure peace.  People would start to turn on each other, as their government’s financial resources were drained and they had to rely on themselves for security.  Eventually, the country would collapse into anarchy, and the former national unity would fracture along tribal and ethnic lines.  This vicious infighting would be the “savagery” part of the strategy.  Then they, the terrorists who originally caused the problems, would ride in to fix the problems.  This is the “management” part.  They would restore the very social services they had destroyed, restore law and order, and bring peace.

And where would Russia, the US, and Europe be during all this time?  The plan was to lure these powers into war on Muslim soil.  This would serve as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and would drain the great powers of their chief advantage:  their wealth.  As they went bankrupt, they would break up and lose the ability to export their culture, their movies, their blue jeans, and their political ideas, notions about women’s rights and so on.  This is the strategy they used to shatter the USSR and, they thought, it would work against the USA too.  Big, spectacular attacks like 9/11/01 are giant, bloody recruitment posters for al Qaeda, as well as attempts to goad the West into unending war and eventual bankruptcy.

At first, it seemed like it would fail, miserably.  This is why we need to remember.  After 9/11, the entire civilized world united against the forces of barbarism and savagery.  We had more pro-USA rallies around the world in the days and weeks after the World Trade Center fell than we had at any time since the defeat of Hitler, maybe even more.  The values that our nation was founded on—that all people are created equal, that we the people should control our own government—are principles that were valued around the world, even in the Islamic world.  The Muslim world has suffered under colonization and economic exploitation, as well as centuries of economic and intellectual stagnation that had left it weak and vulnerable in the 20th Century; but even there, many people want freedom, peace and prosperity, government that works for the people and in which they have some voice, even if the form that takes is not the same as our democracy.  And even people who disagreed with us did not agree with the idea of killing men, women and children who were working, or shopping, or on school trips to the city, people who might themselves be Muslim or Jewish or Christian, American or European or Asian or African, anyone who happened to be in the World Trade Center.  And we Americans, who had been pushed apart by the Culture Wars of the 1990s, came together, despite differences in race, class or religion.  Gay and straight, atheist and faithful, rich and poor all came together to mourn as one people, and to dedicate ourselves to preserving the promise of the United States of America.  We had national prayer services, we had fundraising telethons, public expressions of patriotism surged, and military recruiters were busier than they had ever been since the end of the draft.

There were some voices of dissent to all this unity.  Culture warriors like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the Right chose to blame feminists and progressives for the attacks, saying that God hates equal pay for women and help for the poor so much that He (sic) sent the terrorists to punish us.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/19/september11.usa9  Culture warriors on the Left chose to blame the victim, saying that the terrorist attacks were just retribution for the past wrongs of colonization and the present wrongs of racism and exploitation https://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/WC091201.pdf  But the vast majority of people, from George W. Bush to Christopher Hitchens, were horrified, and we mostly saw those voices of division for what they were:  self-serving attempts to keep the Culture War Industry going and its leaders prosperous.

What we have forgotten, though, is that although we were more unified than ever, the forces of division never gave up.  Falwell and Robinson merely bided their time.  More to the point, the Republican party leaped into bin Laden’s trap.  Instead of pursuing a financially sound strategy, attacking and defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan while negotiating with other Muslim nations to side with us against this common foe, they launched a second front in Iraq, a regime that for all its despicableness had nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked us.  Yes, they supported terrorists in Israel, but not al Qaeda. They launched these wars with no realistic idea how to end them, with inadequate garrison forces to control the land and prevent them from descending into the very savagery bin Laden was seeking to create.  And worst, they did all this without paying for any of it running up huge national debts where the previous president had left a surplus that would have paid off the debt if only the Bush tax cuts hadn’t been passed.  As a result of this economic mismanagement, the world experienced an economic collapse in 2008 that much of Europe, Asia and Africa still has not recovered from.  The USA, under Obama, managed to stop the economic free-fall and slowly improve the economy, which has grown steadily for about ten years now.

Today, the United States government is pursuing national and international policies that seem to be intended to make bin Laden’s dream come true.  He could never have sabotaged the USA economy without help, which he got from Republican tax cuts.  He could never have sabotaged the world economy and alliances without help, which he got from the White House.  Bin Laden could never have turned Americans against each other and threatened to break up the United States into disunited separate nations, if it weren’t for the cooperation of Republicans who called out their state militias to watch Jade Helm exercises, or threatened to shoot Federal workers who sought to enforce health care laws, or who simultaneously worked tirelessly to deprive American citizens of the right to vote while threatening “Second Amendment Remedies” against anyone they didn’t like who had the gall to win in a free and fair election.  We have forgotten what it was that our enemies wanted, and thus have allowed them to come closer to victory than ever before.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.

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Commentary Upon the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 2018

Have you ever read the whole thing?  Take a few minutes and do it now:  http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

Of, if you aren’t into reading, listen:  https://www.npr.org/2018/07/04/623836154/a-july-4-tradition-npr-reads-the-declaration-of-independence

I don’t want to try to do a line-by-line commentary, but over the years teaching ethics and American religion I have come back to these words many times.  I have often heard them quoted or misquoted with reverence  but also at times with malice towards other Americans for whom these words were also written; for these words were written not just for those few alive to hear them the first time, but for all nations and all ages. 

In these times, I want to offer my own commentary, and what these words say to me now.

When in the Course of human events it become necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

These are often treated as throwaway lines, like the instrumental introduction to a favorite song, and we only start paying attention when the “real” text starts with “We hold these truths….”  That is a shame.  There is a lot in this paragraph that helps us understand what comes next.  First, they are clearly speaking to the world, not just other Americans.  It’s a big deal.  People didn’t just declare independence willy-nilly.  We’ve gotten rather blasé about redrawing lines on a map, but in 1776 this was seen by some to be tampering with the order of Creation.  God established the nations and fixed their boundaries, and the royal families inherited their right to rule through Adam.  Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government was devoted to refuting this claim, which would not have been necessary if it were not powerful.  And even if that sort of absolute “divine right of kings” was not always fully embraced by the English, there was still a strong reverence for the established borders and political powers.

The Declaration states that the former English citizens will “…assume…the separate and equal nation to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”  This shows the deep roots our nation has in John Locke’s philosophy, so it is worth the time to unpack it.  Locke belongs to that political tradition known as “social contract theory.”  It asks us to imagine all people as free and independent individuals, for that is what each of us is essentially even if we’ve never actually lived as free creature outside of a social structure.  What would life be like?  What is it about living as citizens in a society that makes it better than living in anarchy?  What is it that we can be asked to give up in order to be citizens of a civil state or commonwealth, and what is it that the state owes us citizens?  We are. Locke says, essentially free and equal, separate from one another unless we choose to be part of a community.  That is how Nature and Nature’s God created us.  “Nature” and “Nature’s God” are, for Locke, and for Jefferson (the primary author of the Declaration), and for most of the founding fathers, more or less the same thing.  Jefferson, like many of the Founding Fathers, was a religious liberal.  Some were liberal Christians, while others were more Deists.  Deism believed that God created the world to be good and rational, and that everything we needed to know about God could be found through using our human reason to understand the world that God created.  Deists like Jefferson and Franklin did not see any good from supposing that God regularly rips open the Heavens to help His favorites with miracles, that a guy dying on a cross could pay for your moral failures, or any of that supernatural stuff.  Study Nature, and you will understand Nature’s God.  Live a moral life as your human reason reveals it, guided by the religious and philosophical heritage of Moses and Jesus but also Socrates and Plato and (for Jefferson) even Mohammed and other sages, and you will do what God wanted you to do.  God gave us what we needed to live in the world, and left us and it to work things out.

Not everyone who signed that Declaration agreed with Jefferson’s liberal religion.  Thirteen were Presbyterians and one even a Presbyterian pastor, and the British referred to the Revolution as “that Presbyterian revolt.”  But that is who the Founding Fathers were:  religious liberals and conservatives, seculars and devout, aristocrats and plebeians, North and South, joining together despite their differences to risk their lives for a common cause. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“  If they were “self-evident,” it wasn’t to everyone, or there wouldn’t have been a war.  Later peoples have wondered how Jefferson could have written these words while himself owning slaves, and while in fact women were legally little better than slaves themselves with no right to own property, to vote, or to pursue most of the activities we assume are natural for adult citizens without male permission.  The fact is, he was deeply conflicted.  His original Declaration included attacks on slavery, which were stripped from the final version to get Southern colonies to sign on.  Some, like John Adams’ wife Abigail, urged that women’s rights be respected, but it took another 145 years for that to happen.  To many, it seemed “self-evident” that nonwhites and non-males were NOT “created equal.”  History has slowly moved to catch up with the true promise of Jefferson’s words.

“That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“ Again I say, “Creator” does not mean “The God of Moses.”  It is Nature and Nature’s God that gave us these rights, not a supernatural voice thundering from a mountaintop; these rights are discovered by the light of Nature and Reason, not from reading them off a stone tablet.  That’s what he meant, and if you disagree that’s fine but don’t quote this document to back you up.  “Unalienable rights:”  what does that mean?  It means that you have certain rights that you CANNOT ever be said to have given up.  You always have those rights, even if you think you don’t.  Among those is the right to liberty.  “Liberty” is the right to live as you want.  You may voluntarily agree to limits on your freedom, but only in ways that enhance your overall ability to do what you want.  For example, you can agree to live according to laws and to let courts punish those who wrong you, but only if those laws protect you and others equally and only if you had a part in making those laws by voting for legislators who would write them and vote on them.  By agreeing to live as part of a group, each individual agrees to respect the will of the majority; if you don’t like it, you should leave if it is intolerable, or stay and try to persuade the majority to change its mind if you possibly can. 

This is a vitally important point today.  There is a powerful movement today called “Christian Reconstructionism.”  It was founded by Rousas Rushdoony in the early 20th Century, and had profoundly influenced Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the so-called “Religious Right,” as well as many conservative politicians such as Mike Pence.  It believes that this was a Christian nation, that its laws were not discovered by natural reason and natural religion but supernaturally revealed by God, that Christians should run it and should use the tools provided by democracy to overthrow democracy, denying most people the right to vote (and thus denying most of them their basic liberty) so that only fundamentalist Christians who endorse laissez-faire capitalism should be allowed any voice in government.  This violates the principles of the Declaration on several fronts.  As we’ve seen, it distorts the words “Creator” and “Nature’s God” to mean something they did not mean in the original document; it denies the idea that “all” people are created equal, since only Christians who subscribe to a particular theology which was not endorsed even by the most conservative Founding Fathers; and it treats liberty as something that is in fact “alienable,” capable of being lost or given away.  And this assault on everything for which our Founding Fathers fought is said to be justified because we were “endowed by our Creator”!

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—-“  Governments are human institutions, established by humans, for humans, according to human reason and traditions.  It might surprise you to hear that even the great Christian theologian John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion was the most influential theological treatise of the Colonial period, said the same thing.  In his view, while Israel received its laws directly from God, other peoples were taught general moral principles by God but left to work out the details of justice and social welfare according to their own understanding and historical heritage.  Ultimately, the signers of the Declaration of Independence say, all governments derive their power and legitimacy from the consent of the governed, not from the endorsement of a small body of clerics or hereditary nobles.  And because government is justified by the will of the people, it can be deposed and replaced by those same people.

What are the reasons for taking this extreme action now?  As the Declaration says, people generally will endure a lot of abuse from their government, rather than take the risk (not only of war but also lawlessness) of overthrowing it.  (This again is straight out of Locke’s political writings.)  Things must be pretty awful to make a large group of people rise up in rebellion, throwing aside the law-and-order of their established government to try to hopefully replace it with something better.  After all, until the revolution succeeds, there is really nothing in its place but the absence of government:  so what makes the government of King George III worse than nothing?

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…  He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance…”  Who could imagine such a thing?  Would any government, say, criminalize the use of marijuana, a naturally-occurring plant, even when the people and governments of a state think it would be wholesome and necessary for the public good to legalize and tax this substance?  Would any tyrant refuse to allow a state to require non-medical “abortion counselors” to tell their patients truthfully that they are not doctors or medically trained, but merely religious advocates for a peculiar and untraditional interpretation of Christianity?  Would any despot pledge to overturn laws established for forty-five years, even when a vast majority of the people support those laws? 

“He has endeavored to prevent the population of the States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, ….”  The Founding Fathers fought against King George III because he restricted immigration!  That may sound like a total non sequitur, but one of the common justifications for limiting immigration is because “Democrats” just want to import voters who will vote a certain way.  Or, to put it another way, we need to restrict immigration to prevent the increased populations even if, or especially if the people who live in that area now want those immigrants, just because the despot and his party want to limit the numbers of people who aren’t partisans of their group.  The Founding Fathers thought that particular regions and local governments should be allowed to recruit new residents if they wished. 

“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:  For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment of any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of the States…”  LIke, say, Philando Castile?  We may not have “soldiers” living in our homes, but we do have armed people in neighborhoods who are not answerable to the people who they are sent to control, who kill some who are unarmed, unresisting and sometimes not even breaking any laws, and often those killers are acquitted in what seem to the people to be sham trials; and when the national government is asked to intervene to help prevent these killings, they refuse and even support the right of the armed forces to kill at their discretion.  And when some peacefully protest in an orderly manner by kneeling during the National Anthem at a commercial sporting exhibition, the tyrant calls them “sons of bitches” and says they should be stripped of citizenship and deported.  It’s not exactly the same as quartering soldiers in people’s homes, but it must feel the same for those who feel threatened and abandoned by their leaders’ abrupt reversal of policy from protecting unarmed people to protecting the armed ones

“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:”  This is the important one.  This is the biggie.  This is the one that could quite likely lead to civil war.  Our country was literally founded on the principle that while taxes are acceptable and even in a sense good, they MUST be made with the will of the people.  And ever since leading Republican activist and leader Paul Weyrich said over thirty years ago that the conservative cause was better supported by stopping people from voting, the GOP has pursued a concerted, conscious and deceptive strategy of stopping as many American citizens from voting as possible.  It has done this by voter ID laws that refuse to look at the identifications that are known to be carried by young people or nonwhites, while accepting other forms of identification (such as gun licenses) that are more likely carried by conservatives.  In North Carolina the state legislature quite openly discussed what sorts of ID black people were likely to have, so they could ban those.  Conservatives have talked about raising the age required for voting and have said quite openly that it’s because they think young people don’t vote conservative.  There has been talk of taking voting rights away from people to protest in favor of “liberal” causes or who were once immigrants but have become citizens.  And our Declaration of Independence makes it clear:  when a government takes your money without giving you the right to vote for the people who write the laws to raise those taxes or decide how the money is spent, that is tyranny and you have a right, even a duty, to fight back.  Conservatives had a right to vote, they lost in 2008 due to their own incompetent destruction of the economy, and they still threatened to take up arms because they didn’t like the Democratic government chosen by the majority.  Now, thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression laws, we have a government that received a minority of the votes imposing taxes on the majority, not helping even when some are murdered, praising the killers as “very fine people” while protestors are “sons of bitches,” cutting taxes for a small minority of wealthy people while the vast majority either are seeing their taxes rise or are seeing insignificant cuts at best.  If the majority is being taxed without consent, that is a recipe for revolt.  Now, many in the minority party which controls the government are talking about cutting Social Security, which was paid for with payroll taxes paid only by working people, to pay for the tax cuts given to rich people who don’t draw a paycheck and have never paid payroll taxes.  That would mean that the payroll taxes are being collected to give to the rich employers, not to the employees who were counting on using those to retire. 

  “For depriving us in many cases of, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Increasingly, people are finding themselves forced into binding arbitration to settle not just civil disputes but even criminal cases.  During the Iraq War an American contractor was gang-raped by several of her male coworkers, and told that she could not sue them under the terms of her work contract; the case had to be resolved through arbitration.  (https://www.thenation.com/article/kbrs-rape-problem/)  The company was well-connected, having previously been led by the then Vice President of the United States.  People who are injured or killed while on the job are regularly stripped of their legal protections by a government that is more concerned with protecting employers from bad publicity. 

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…”  I went to school in Charlottesville.  Having out-of-state neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate paramilitary thugs supporting the tyrant parade through the city where my children were born, having them kill one and injure many more people, and having to listen to them being praised and defended as “very fine people” by someone who is paid by my tax money despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent is beyond offensive.  If anyone can be said to have encouraged and excited domestic insurrections among the American people, it is the despot who praises murderers and who attacks professional journalists while praising and being interviewed by right-wing agitators who urge their followers to take up arms against “liberals” whom they accuse, with total disregard for the truth of their words or the consequences of their deeds, of plotting civil war, child molestation or other nonsense—-while the supporters of the tyrant have been shown again and again, to have actually engaged in those deeds.

As Jefferson said, breaking away from one’s government is not a matter to be contemplated lightly, and thus prudence dictates that we should seek every possible other remedy first.  I am not calling for the violent overthrow of the American government, as some conservative governors and other politicians did when Obama was elected.  Despite the fact that the current occupant of the White House has hinted that he would delay national elections and a majority of his party said they would support him, that has not yet happened, and thus there are still peaceful ways to dissent and to struggle for justice.  But the stated goals, the policies and the actions of the Republican Party in its local, state and national chapters has for thirty years been to subvert the election process, to block legal citizens from voting if they seemed likely to vote Democratic, to oppose the rights of cities and states to enforce their own laws regarding marijuana, immigration or weapons if those conflicted with the desires of the GOP donor base, and generally to seek to undermine democracy under the guidance of pastors and politicians who have stated their goal of imposing a “fundamentalist” Christian theocracy.  It is ironic that a fictional television program about a Christian patriarchal dystopia should be so popular when millions of people are so intent on imposing it in reality, and when, with the financial and political support of foreign adversaries, they are so close to achieving their long-held goal. 

Today, the Fourth of July 2018, is the day that the insurrectionist agitator Alex Jones said that “liberals” intended to launch a second Civil War.  This was, of course, a lie.  Other lies told by Jones have led to the parents of murdered children being harassed and threatened.  Jones pushed one of his followers to fire a gun in a pizza parlor by repeatedly claiming that the DNC ran a pedophile ring in the basement.  The restaurant doesn’t even have a basement, much less a pedophile ring, but Jones didn’t care so long as some liberals got killed.  He promotes lies about racial crimes that have pushed his white Christian male listeners to massacre black church members and others.  And this insurrectionist and traitor is heavily promoted and praised by the tyrant occupying the White House.  He “warns” his followers that “liberals” will start a civil war to encourage them to attack the liberals first——and to spend money buying weapons and other products sold by his advertisers, thus making a multimillion dollar profit by “exciting insurrection amongst the people” with the support of the Despot of DC.  People could die from this.  It is as irresponsible and criminal as a mullah calling for jihad, except that the paramilitaries and insurrectionists who agitate for violence against “liberals” and against “feminists” and against ethnic or sexual minorities have the full support and backing of the Republican Party and the Religious Right.  We are on a road that leads to civil war, and the Republican Party is pushing hard on the accelerator.  There are still exits from this highway to disaster, but we the people need to take them. Start right now by making sure you are registered to vote.  You can check online and register in 37 states (https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote).  While state and local governments have made it more difficult in recent years to try to discourage people’s participation in their government, it is still legal and possible.  Remember that your parents and grandparents in some cases risked their lives so you could have this chance.  For others, like myself, the fight was further back, but my mother was in the DAR.  My family fought for freedom.  Now there are people who have sworn to take it away.  Let’s not let them.

True and False Religious Freedom

May 2, 2018

https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/27/opinions/paul-ryans-firing-of-patrick-conroy-should-worry-us-all-parini/

The conservative attitude towards religion, and religious freedom, has long been convoluted.  Conservatives have always been vocal about their traditional rights and privileges, and denounce any violation of their “religious freedom.”  However, conservatives have generally been slow to protect the religious freedom of others who disagree with them.  It is natural that this should be so.  Being authoritarian, conformist and conservative are not necessarily the same things, but are definitely connected.  To be authoritarian is to be inclined to submit to “proper authority” and conversely to expect obedience when one occupies a position of authority; to be conformist is to seek to obey the social norms of those around one; and to be conservative is to resist change and to prize stability.  There have been plenty of conformists who were conforming to liberal peers, and there have been plenty of liberals who either sought to obey a charismatic leader or sought to be one.  But the essence of “liberal” is to value change, particularly change that aims to establish equality of all individuals; to be “conservative” is to resist change and to value the stability of a hierarchy.  Thus a conservative is more likely to judge other religions to be “wrong,” not merely in the sense of being mistaken but to be positively harmful.  Other religions challenge the traditional social order and moral values of one’s own group.

Historically, Evangelicals have disrupted social norms, but have done so in the name of a “return” to “tradition” or “heritage.”  Sometimes the “return” is actually something quite novel, but rarely is it recognized as such by its adherents.  For example, through Middle Ages and the Enlightenment there was no systematic culture war between Science and Religion.  Most of the educated people, and thus most of the scientists and philosophers, were themselves clergy or monks, or at least educated at religious schools.  As the Enlightenment moved towards the Modern period, there were increasing numbers of atheists like Hume and Nietzsche, but also many intellectuals who were believers (Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, etc.).  Likewise, most religious thinkers accepted the teachings of science, and sought to offer theological responses to developments in the natural and social sciences.  The intense “Culture Wars” we accept as normal only really began in the 20th Century, with the publication of The Fundamentals.  In attacking Darwinism and science as a whole as an alien ideology, Fundamentalist Protestants redefined what it was to be a Christian, without really realizing what they were doing.  While once almost every Christian recognized that the Bible had allegorical as well as historical truths and often felt the allegorical, moral meanings were more important than historical literalism, today large portions of American Protestantism argues that unless the Bible is 100% literally historically true, it can’t be trusted to have any moral or spiritual value.  This would have struck most Christians as absurd for the first 1900 years of our history.

In the case of the Prosperity Gospel, even preachers who recognized that they were changing the traditional teachings of their religious communities have simultaneously denied that they were anything other than Bible-believing conservatives.  Jim Bakker turned the Assemblies of God from an anti-materialistic Evangelical subculture resisting too much integration into the commercial or political mainstream into avid consumers and political players, fully comfortable with and even hungry for wealth and power.  The religion that taught “You cannot love God and Money” and “The love of money is the root of all evil” was transformed into a religion that not only accepts money, but expects it as the reward of faith and which measures spiritual worth by financial worth.  This is way beyond the notion of the “Protestant Work Ethic.”  Our Puritan ancestors might have thought that hard work was a virtue and that God would bless the faithful with material rewards for their labors, but we go further; we look at a billionaire and assume that he is morally and spiritually praiseworthy, since God wouldn’t give a bad person money.  This is a radical change from the Biblical witness, which has a much more nuanced and mixed view of prosperity.

But the Prosperity Gospel and other forms of conservative Evangelicalism do share one thing in common:  religious intolerance.  While they jealously guard their own religious freedom, those “liberals” challenge the social order and the rightness of their own views by threatening to bring in other perspectives.  In the face of such threats, conservatives are likely to respond either defensively or judgmentally.  Glenn Beck famously denounced “progressive” churches that advocated for “social justice,” warning his millions of television viewers and radio listeners to flee such evil places; he was quite unaware that his own Mormon religion was itself one of those “social justice” churches until the leaders pointed out that he was changing their traditional religious message to suit his 21st Century agenda.  Paul Ryan behaves defensively; a Jesuit challenged his views, threatened his moral authority, and rather than just let the priest spout his powerless words, Ryan gave him the only power true Christianity has ever known:  martyrdom.  Ryan fired a chaplain for expressing his religious views.  That is pretty much the opposite of the “religious freedom” Republicans pride(!) themselves for upholding.  But today, “religious freedom” often means nothing more than the freedom of conservatives to enforce their values and views on others and demand accommodation, while denying any sort of accommodation to others.

Paul Ryan’s devotion to the writings and teachings of Ayn Rand are well documented.  It is often forgotten that Rand hated Christianity more than she hated Democrats, likely more even than she hated Socialists.  She correctly saw that Christianity means raising up the weak and pulling down the mighty (see Luke 1:46-55), the very opposite of her teaching that the rich are smarter and more virtuous than the rest of us.  She also saw that Christianity is not about worldly social structures and power, but is “mystical,” in her words, rather than materialistic.  Many conservative politicians and religious leaders alike claim to be both Christian and followers of Rand, but they are either liars or fools, and Ayn Rand would be the first to say so. That is why she urged people not to vote for Ronald Reagan, even when he was running against a Democrat (http://www.openculture.com/2014/10/in-her-final-lecture-ayn-rand-denounces-ronald-reagan-the-moral-majority-anti-choicers-1981.html). In attacking the Capitol chaplain for praying as his religion taught him, saying he was too “political,” Ryan was in fact imposing his politics on another person’s religious freedom; and furthermore, he was attacking someone who actually had a thorough working knowledge of religion, had studied it and was mentored spiritually as well as academically.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit Pope.  The Jesuits have a long history of both intense intellectual achievement, and vigorous social activism.  In fact, during the days of European colonialism and the genocide of the American peoples, the Jesuits were frequently attacked by the rich and powerful because they opposed the enslavement and robbery of the poor.  They were even “irrevocably” dissolved more than once.  Compared to what some of them suffered, Father Conroy’s loss of a plum job is so minor as to barely register on the Martyr Meter.  But from a political perspective, it is important.  He was fired for practicing his faith.  Unlike Kim Davis, he didn’t deny anybody else the right to do what they wanted; while she in good conservative tradition asserted her “religious freedom” to deny others their freedom, Father Conroy simply prayed.  Yet she is held up by Republicans as a victim of religious persecution, while he is fired from his job.  Certainly, if “religious freedom” means anything, and if Evangelicals will demand the freedom to speak about their faith, to witness to people even when they have made it clear they don’t want to be witnessed to, then for them to not stand up to defend Conroy is sheer hypocrisy—-or else it is an indication that the phrase “religious freedom,” which sounds so glorious, means something very different in the mouth of a Republican.

Why Epistemology Matters

November 6, 2017

These days, it seems everyone should study philosophy.  Consider this article.  It discusses the social and political implications of the victory of relativism.  Humans run this planet because we are better able to organize ourselves than can any other species; and we are losing that ability.  Our ability to lie so effectively that even the liars are suckered is outrunning not only our ability to sift out the truth, but even our interest in doing so.

Sixteen years ago, I began to reevaluate my own appraisal of my chosen profession.  I have a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology, which was an interdisciplinary program combining Philosophy and Religious Studies.  Before that I earned a M.Div. with a concentration in Philosophy, and before that a B.A. in Philosophy with enough Religion courses to qualify for a double major if I’d wanted to.  I’ve been working the seam between Philosophy and Religion for longer than many of my students have been alive.  Arguably, I’ve been doing it since I read Walden when I was fourteen years old.  I always thought it was important for someone to do it.  I could see that most of the people around me were unhappy with the lives they were living, or were living lives that others had lived already and found unsatisfying, so the rest maybe just weren’t unhappy yet.  But I also thought, as almost everyone around me said, that philosophy was too hard and strange for most people, so it would be up to the few of us to sort this out and then teach it to others.  Just as hardly anyone really understands calculus, but our modern world couldn’t exist without it, I thought some small subgroup of academics were all that were necessary to philosophize for the rest.  And furthermore, I figured that if most people ignored us, that would be okay too; they’d muddle along, we’d try to influence things around the edges by teaching a few future politicians and legal scholars a little morality before they set out shaping the world.

In 2001, I realized how dangerous that had become.  Everyone thought the “important” things to study in school were the things that could make you rich:  business, accounting, engineering, law and medicine, maybe sports and a few others.  Philosophy, religion, humanities, history—- who needs them?  But no one is flying planes into buildings because of a disagreement over the Pythagorean Theorem or the relative merits of whole-life vs. term-life insurance or even over how to fight cancer.  They are committing acts of mass murder because they have given up on the possibility of rationally defending their own world-view.  They have given up on logic and observation leading us to a shared sense of reality, within which we could solve problems that affect us all.  They have given up on trying to understand people who disagree with them or who have different values, who love and fear different things.  The religious fundamentalist isn’t dangerous because he is religious, any more than the atheist is dangerous because she isn’t.  What is dangerous is the person who resorts to force to impose his or her standards on another, or on a group, without understanding their views.  Such a person generally hasn’t even understood his or her own views.   “Those who know only one religion know none,”  said Max Müller, and it is true:  to understand anything, you have to have some sort of comparison.  To understand your own beliefs, you have to briefly step outside them and look at them from another angle; that’s what analysis and reflection are.  So the fundamentalist usually, probably always has a truncated view of his or her own faith, whether it’s the religious fanatic or the Communist fanatic or the racist or some other ideology.  They don’t understand others or even themselves, but they’ll fight and maybe kill to defend their mistakes from any real and imagined threats.

Through 2015, I mostly believed that greater understanding could lead, if not to consensus, at least to mutual tolerance and agreement on rules of engagement.  That was the motivation behind this book.  In 2002, the economy of the nation was sliding towards recession, and there was a debate how to respond.  One side said that the best way to stimulate and repair the economy after the 2008 crash was to increase aid to the poor, such as food stamps.  That would undoubtedly have worked, since poor people spend what they get right away—they have to, they’re poor, they have debts and bills and mouths to feed.  Rich people don’t need more money, by definition, so when they get more money they are less likely to immediately stimulate the economy by spending it.  They might invest it in new businesses, but more likely they’ll squirrel it away in tax havens—-they already have thriving businesses, remember: they’re rich.  Middle-class people will save a little, pay down debts, maybe finally open that small business they’ve always wanted to.  So, practically speaking, according to the vast majority of economists, Bush should have pushed for a one-time bonus to the food stamp program, together with a modest but noticeable rebate in taxes for the poor and middle classes, leaving the rich alone.  But this suggestion was met with seeming moral outrage.  How could you punish the hard-working middle class by rewarding poor people?  (The implication was that if they’re poor, they don’t work hard enough; anyone who thinks that has never done real manual labor.)  How could you punish the rich for working hard and being smart?  (The implication here is that everyone who is rich must have worked hard and be really smart; I’ve met too many rich people to believe that.)  So I set out, in this book, to examine how we came to have such different moral judgements about how we share the profits of our joint economic activities as a nation.  My hope was that if people could see that the other side was not evil or lazy, but just had different moral and practical assumptions, maybe some sort of conversation would be possible.

What I’ve seen since that book was published is nothing short of epistemological genocide, a wholesale annihilation of truth.  Cardinal Ratzinger once complained about a “dictatorship of relativism,” but today we have something perhaps even worse:  sheer anarchy.  We live in the epistemological version of a Hobbesian state of nature, with war of each truth against all others, and the life of every truth is nasty, brutish and short.  Perhaps once there was a dictatorship, imposing mutual tolerance and a cease-fire at the expense of rejecting the possibility that any truth could be real; but in these days there is no king and everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes (Judges 21:25).  And like that Biblical story of anarchy, rape and murder, the epistemological breakdown leads to political chaos and moral collapse that starts to make a Hobbesian totalitarianism seem almost preferable, or at least acceptable.  Hence, in 2016, the yearning for a “strong man” who would impose his view of reality on everyone else and give us order.(1)    But historically, dictatorships never end well for the dictated to.  Hobbesian monarchism gave way to Lockean representative democracy, because politically speaking a participatory government that depends on mutual discussion and mutual agreement to at least fight according to non-lethal political means rather than guns is more stable than a totalitarianism that leaves dissenters no option but violence.

Democracy dies when the majority choose to opt out; the society becomes an oligarchy, a ruling elite of actual voters and those who serve them dominating the nonparticipants.  Something similar happens in the realm of epistemology.  When the majority decide it is too hard to figure out what is true or false, they allow others to dictate reality.  Once you’ve handed your eyes over to someone else who tells you where to look and what to see, and handed your brain over to others who tell you what to think and your heart over to others who tell you what to feel, you are a slave, no matter how badass you feel because your masters tell you you’re tough and strong and better than those others.  And that is why epistemology matters, for everyone, and why every single individual citizen needs to learn some philosophy.  We need to learn enough to not just accept, but understand this:

  1.  Truth exists.  Some things are real
  2. Truth matters.
  3. Truth is hard to find but it’s worth the effort.
  4. You will never have all the truth; it’s too big for one person to see all at once.  But you can at least see the side that’s facing you.
  5. Everyone can, with effort and discussion, figure out more truth, by hearing from people who have other perspectives.
  6. When you don’t know, sometimes it’s okay to withhold judgement.
  7. When you can’t wait for certainty, you may have to choose without being certain.  If you’ve headed out on the wrong direction, though, you can still realize this and turn around.
  8. It takes humility to admit when you might be wrong.  It takes courage to stand your ground when you might be right.  Therefore, you need to be both brave and humble to find any truth in this life.

I think everything else—-Aristotle vs. Plato, Locke vs. Descartes, and all the other epistemological and ethical debates of philosophers through the ages—-are less important than these few, simple principles.  And maybe this list is not complete (I’d be breaking my own list if I insisted it was).  If you have some others, or think any of these is wrong, let’s discuss it like reasonable people.  But the important point, which I will not yield, is this:  You may not know much about Plato or Aristotle or Kant, and get by just fine; but you need to know something like these principles here to function as a citizen, or even as a rational being.  Otherwise, you’re liable to end up cowering in your basement waiting for the mythical hordes of antifa marauders or Mexican rapists or zombies or whatever that someone has invented to keep you terrified—-and submissive. (more…)

When the Chef Thinks Like a Customer

March 4, 2017

Just when people are saying that Trump is being “presidential” at last (about the fifth time they’ve said that[1]), he unleashes another seemingly unhinged tweetstorm. Less than 48 hours since his most recent “pivot,” Trump has begun accusing former President Obama of wiretapping him.[2] Most news sources politely note that he makes this accusation “without evidence,” since “pulls another insane rant out of his ass” sounds a little too blunt. As one spokesperson was quoted saying, “This is Trump being Trump.” Jesus of Nazareth said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”[3] Some say he is a bully; others say he is mentally unhinged, paranoid and a malignant narcissist. What is clear is that there was not, nor will there be, a “pivot.” As Obama said before leaving office, being President doesn’t change who you are; if anything, it makes you more of what you are. Or, as CNN reports:

 

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is also probing the scope of Russia’s influence on the US election, said in a statement Saturday afternoon in reference to one of Trump’s tweets: “If there is something bad or sick going on, it is the willingness of the nation’s chief executive to make the most outlandish and destructive claims without providing a scintilla of evidence to support them.

“No matter how much we hope and pray that this President will grow into one who respects and understands the Constitution, separation of powers, role of a free press, responsibilities as the leader of the free world, or demonstrates even the most basic regard for the truth, we must now accept that President Trump will never become that man,” Schiff said.[4]

 

 

Sen. Lindsey Graham has largely echoed this same notion, saying that if the wiretaps did happen it is one of the greatest political crimes in our history, and if it didn’t and the charges are baseless, then this itself would be the greatest crime in political history; so either way, it demands a full and complete investigation. This certainly seems to be still another random, emotion-driven and logic-deprived outburst from a man who has made a career on baseless charges against others, false claims about himself and the products he’s peddling, and so many frivolous lawsuits that he’s been termed a “libel bully.”

But perhaps there’s another explanation, besides either insanity or criminality.[5] Perhaps Trump simply reacts to whatever he hears on the news; and more specifically, the far-right blogs and talk radio that endlessly praise him, since anything less than uninterrupted groveling strikes him as “fake news.” When Trump heard a biased and misleading report on FOX News about a supposed link between immigration and crime in Sweden, Trump famously tweeted out about “what happened in Sweden last night” and asked why no one was reporting about that. The problem was, no one was reporting because there was nothing to report. Again, today, Trump heard an unsubstantiated rant from a talk-radio host hypothesizing that Obama “must” have wiretapped Trump, and Trump took this claim (which had no evidence) as itself “proof” that Obama was “sick.”

As Trevor Noah pointed out, Trump avidly consumes cable news, particularly FOX News, which gives the most favorable reports about him.[6] This is crazy, as Noah says, because the only reason we watch TV news is because we DON’T have access to all the information the President has: daily intelligence briefings, classified reports and so on. He is supposed to be making the news; instead, he is merely another consumer, no better than the rest of us and, in many cases, far worse, because he lacks the context, the background knowledge, the humility, or the impulse control to avoid publicly overreacting to reports that are obviously unsubstantiated at best, and Sasquatch-level fakes at worst.

Donald Trump is like a chef at a five-star restaurant, who got hired despite a lack of cooking experience or training because he had family connections and friends who vouched for him. Now he is supposed to be producing the best food anyone has ever tasted, to maintain the restaurant’s hard-earned reputation as a prime provider of quality taste and nutrition. Sadly, he has no idea how to do that. He could ask someone to bring him up to speed, so that he can produce at least passable dishes on his own; but instead, he orders out, gets other people’s food which someone else has prepared, and presents it as his own. And unfortunately, his head is stuffed up and thus he can’t smell or taste anything, so he really doesn’t know good food from bad; he only knows that McDonald’s is quick and easy, and he likes things that are quick, easy and predictable. So he goes to whatever information fast-food franchise he finds, including sources that claim fictitious terrorist attacks or that the Sandy Hoot massacre was a hoax, and retweets and blows up as if these things were the voice of God Himself, like a bad chef who buys day-old fishwiches from McD’s and serves them as trout almandine at his five-star restaurant.

Now, if you prefer McD’s to the Four Seasons, that’s fine. And if you prefer talk radio to news that has been vetted and fact-checked and will actually retract a mistake, it’s a free country. But when you’re President of the United States, you don’t consume the news: you make it. You make it from the raw materials of real-life events, presented for your eyes only by some of the best intelligence agencies, scientists, doctors and other experts on the planet. You have a responsibility not to blindly believe or impulsively react to what you read in the press, because you make the news and you know more than whatever the guy on the TV or radio is saying.

This is a pattern, and it reveals something important about Donald Trump’s character. Repeatedly, he has said or tweeted something that was unfounded, obviously false or at least ill-advised, in a knee-jerk reaction to something he heard. And when he is called on it, one of his more usual responses is “Someone gave me that information,” or “Many people are saying it.” In other words, he naively trusts anyone who flatters him, and then dodges responsibility because someone else said it to him, and how could he possibly be expected to know better?

It wouldn’t be hard, for an adult, a mature and intelligent person, to simply stay off Twitter, not give public speeches that haven’t been fact-checked, and in general to stop acting like a buffoon. But that would require being a chef at the information restaurant, and not a customer. And in this case, the new chef was hired because the restaurant apparently wanted to go in a “new direction;” consistently high-quality food was boring, so they brought in the winner of the Great American Bake-Off to take over rather than hire someone who trained at an actual culinary school or had worked in a kitchen before. This was supposed to “shake things up,” to “disrupt the usual model,” or to “change things.” The new head chef needs to rely on the sous chefs about what generally works, and on the wait-staff to tell him how the new dishes are being received, and so on. Eventually, he would learn both what the “usual rules” are and when to break them productively and strategically. However, that would require humility, a willingness to ask questions and take advice even from people whom he beat for the job of chef. So, instead, he orders out, buying what he is supposed to make himself: policies, and the original information on which policies are based.

And to finish this metaphor: No doubt, there will be many new customers who think that it is just great that the once-fancy five-star restaurant now serves well-done steaks with catsup, rather than the flavorful chateaubriand that make it famous. Some will be glad to eat at a restaurant that doesn’t make them feel like bad cooks because they could never do what the restaurant does; now, the food is no different than what they cook themselves, maybe even a little worse. Perhaps only the real foodies will realize immediately that the once-great restaurant is dying under its new chef, and that the only reason it has lasted this long is because of its reputation and the money it has in the bank. But sooner or later, something will happen that requires a confident, competent chef in the kitchen, and then everyone will know.

[1]   Domenico Montanaro, “Stop Using the Word ‘Pivot:’ Trump is Trump and Always Will Be Trump;”NPR March 4, 2017 (http://www.npr.org/2017/03/04/518326280/stop-using-the-word-pivot-trump-is-trump-and-will-always-be-trump)

[2] Colin Dwyer, “President Trump Accuses Obama of ‘Wire Tapping, Provides No Evidence.” NPR March 4, 2017 (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/03/04/518478158/president-trump-accuses-obama-of-wire-tapping-provides-no-evidence)

[3] Luke 6:45

[4] Jeremy DiamondJeff Zeleny and Shimon Prokupecz, “Trump’s Baseless Wiretap Claim,” CNN March 4, 2017 (http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/04/politics/trump-obama-wiretap-tweet/index.html)

 

[5] Brian Stetler, “Stelter: Far-right Media May Fuel Trump Claims;” ;” CNN March 4, 2017 (http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/03/04/stelter-trump-wiretapping-right-wing-media-sot-nr.cnn)

[6] “The Daily Show,” Comedy Central, January 26, 2017 (http://www.cc.com/video-clips/ujnxnv/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-welcome-to-president-trump-s-reality)

Notes on “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.”

January 31, 2016

Fitzgerald, Allan. “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.” Religions 2015, v. 6; pp. 204-210.

 

The author says this article grew out of his experiences teaching Augustine. Generally, the classes tend to center around “issues” such as whether unbaptized infants go to Hell or Augustine’s theory of predestination. Dr. Fitzgerald asserts that this is the wrong approach, because it misses understanding Augustine himself or his approach. When challenged about infants, his response was to rely on apostolic authority and to say, in effect, “I don’t understand this, but I am a mere human and no apostle. It is not my place to argue with God or to claim to understand everything; the riches of God exceed all human understanding. Even if it seems absurd to us, if Scripture says that salvation comes to those who are baptized in the name of Jesus and only to those, we cannot argue. If God so wills it, it makes sense to God even if it is beyond our comprehension.”

Similarly, his sermons contain claims like “I did not study this today, so that now I could be aided by your prayers and together God will reveal the truth to us.” In both cases, Augustine asserts his own limitations and denies any personal authority to pronounce dogma; it is all to the left to God to teach. He as the preacher is just as reliant on the Holy Spirit as are the laypeople listening to his sermon.

Critics have claimed that

  1. These examples, particularly relying on apostolic authority rather than trying to argue and prove his views, shows a lack of intellectual rigor.
  2. Some of this, particularly the sermons, may be just rhetorical ploys to draw the audience in and make them co-opt the message.

Fitzgerald argues that Augustine’s protestations of ignorance are neither feigned modesty nor intellectual laziness. Rather, Augustine is asserting that there is truth, seeking truth is necessary and beneficial, but there are limits to human understanding and that some important things are simply beyond us. In those cases, Augustine names the mystery, points out what it is and the general borders where the truth must lie, but by claiming it is a mystery asserts both that there is something there and that it is not within our grasp.

In Fitzgerald’s view, truth is something of a horizon for Augustine. We strive towards it, but we can never reach it. But that does not mean we abandon the quest, either. Augustine could not help but ask these questions, and he thought it was a human need to want and to strive for these answers. Doing so is a spiritual exercise as well as intellectual growth. And it is an exercise in humility. Humility recognizes one’s limits and dependence on other powers than oneself.

Relativism says there is no truth. This was intended to promote humility; the “dictatorship of relativism” came about as intellectuals told others that any truth claim was innately oppressive and that everyone has a right to his or her own “truth.” But in fact, relativism promotes arrogance. The rise of climate deniers, voodoo economics, anti-vaxxers and so on reflects a general trend in postmodern America, and indeed in postmodern society in general: the assertion of unfounded beliefs as “truth” even when those beliefs are contradicted by overwhelming evidence and ironclad logic. If indeed there is no “truth,” then my belief that the Freemasons manipulate the weather with chemtrails is just as valid as your belief that there is a general trend of climate warming beginning with the Industrial Revolution due to the burning of fossil fuels. I am free to believe and act on my beliefs, even if it means burning tires to stave off the Ice Age the Freemasons are trying to trigger.

By contrast, humility says there is a truth, and that we must accept responsibility for seeking it, and that we must submit to it. It also says that I admit I might be wrong, and you (if you have a realistic humility) admit the same. Therefore I have to listen to you and agree to test our views by every available means. We argue and debate.

Religiously, we see this humility in Augustine’s motto “I believe in order that I may understand.” God reveals truth; we can try to understand it as best we are able, but we don’t create it.

I see a parallel between this and Kant’s view of the transcendental ideas. It is useful, for example, to assume the existence of God as a way to tie all our experience together; such a belief can further investigation into phenomenal reality. If we assume that reality is simply absurd, we will give up sooner; having faith that there is a first cause or ultimate unity will cause us to push the boundaries of knowledge further and to discover connections we never would have otherwise. Still, Kant says, ultimately we cannot prove the transcendental ideas to be either true or false. Pushing for these truths may lead us somewhere and help us to grow, but ultimately these ideas are beyond our grasp.

Methodologically, Augustine invites his readers or hearers to join in the search for truth, rather than to simply passively receive. Humility denies authority. Augustine may feel his study and prayers have revealed some part of the truth and that he needs to share that, but he also places himself in the same place as the hearer of the sermon, relying on prayer to reveal the truth.

As Fitzgerald presents it, there are parallels to Socratic method here; the teacher does not claim to be the “wise one” but only to love the Truth, to be a fellow traveler, a co-disciple (condiscipuli). I am struck by how similar this is to Kierkegaard as well. In his discourses he renounces authority, and asks his hearer “does it not seem so to you as well?” His pseudonyms are entirely aimed at placing the reader at a point where he or she makes the discovery and the decision. But all of this humility does not mean Kierkegaard denies there is truth, or that it does not matter what truth one accepts. Just the opposite: it is the truth that humbles, and the esthete (who does not accept the existence of good/evil or true/false, but leaves everything to will) who is the willful relativist tending ultimately towards solipsism and derangement.

 

A New Year’s Message to my Readers

December 28, 2015

First, Happy New Year!

Second, I have just unpublished most of the articles in the category “Work and Philosophy.”  I have polished these, edited them together, and submitted them for publication via Kindle under the title Labor, Property and Profit:  How Philosophy Influences American Discussions of Work.  This is my first attempt to self-publish, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it works over the next year.

I want to thank all the people who commented on my blog over the years.  You have greatly helped me organize my thoughts and correct some deficiencies.  If the final product is lacking in any way, it is not through any lack of good feedback during the process.  In the new year, I will work to replace the content I have deleted with new material.

I wish you success in the coming year and, in particular, I wish my fellow bloggers continued creativity and insight.

 

TTFN