Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Can Religious People be Moral?

We’ve come distance since the time of Pierre Bayle, the early Enlightenment philosopher and journalist who got in trouble by suggesting that atheists can, after all, be decent people; but the concept of a moral atheist is still paradoxical to many—I heard the historian John Lukacs on CSPAN a couple of years ago expressing his astonishment that some of the atheists he had met over his lifetime turned out to be people of good character. Nevertheless, for many of us, the more salient question these days is becoming whether belief and morality are antithetical. It’s not just that bad behavior and religious fervor may be statistically associated. It isn’t encouraging for the apologist that Mississippi is the most religious state in the Union, but correlation isn’t the same as causation. The deeper suspicion is that religiosity, at least in its AM radio form, is intrinsically anti-ethical. There are several reasons to think so, none of which require you to think that dear old Aunt Maude is a moral monster:

1.Many religious people claim that actions are good because a transcendent power says they are good. Of course one can claim that shooting a doctor or flying a plane into a skyscraper is not actually praiseworthy behavior but only by asserting that the television preacher or Imam who sponsored this behavior was not really reporting God’s wishes. Thing is, though, it all becomes a game of theological he said, she said since, ex hypothesi, there is no way to judge the authenticity of revelation by reference to a rational standard of right and wrong. For all you know, Osama has been right all along.

2.Religious ways of thinking about morality promote the notion that ethics is some profoundly mysterious subject and that there aren’t sound and rather obvious reasons for most of the norms of civilized behavior. While there certainly are times when it is hard to decide on the right thing to do, focusing on dubious instances creates a false impression. For the most part, it’s quite obvious what the right thing to do is, which is why it is legitimate to hold people responsible for their actions. Pretending that ethics is rocket science just provides a second handy excuse for bad behavior that hasn’t already been blamed on original sin.

3.Religious people commonly suggest that we ought to try to be good; but this way of thinking, though an inevitable stage of moral education, confuses doing right with pleasing somebody. It’s a moral fault in a grownup that has more than theoretical consequences since it routinely leads people to abdicate responsibility to the nearest authority figure.

4.Religious thinking corrupts practical reasoning by introducing infinities into moral calculations. Pascal’s wager is a good example. It doesn’t matter how low one estimates the probability of the truth of religion so long as the postulated reward for accepting it is infinite: .0000000001 times infinity is still infinity. The bet will always be worthwhile. In fact, this kind of reasoning was the conceptual recipe for fanaticism long before Pascal, though in practice 72 virgins is apparently close enough to infinity for practical purposes. (I note, parenthetically, that the insistence of religious people on the infinity of rewards and punishments is more evidence of the profound vanity that underlies faith.)

5.Traditional religiosity leads to political immorality because it abdicates to God and the next world our responsibility to create a space for ourselves in this world in which good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior punished.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And Another Thing

I wrote the following couple of paragraphs in a comment thread about the prospects for a split in the Democratic Party:

"I don't think the issue is capitalism versus anti-capitalism so much as democracy versus oligarchy. While the New Democrats and the Old Republicans disagree as to whether experts or billionaires should be in charge, they agree that the history of the last couple of hundred years has taught us that government by consent of the governed is a childish idea on a par with the fantasies such as legal equality. A certain faction of the Democratic Party base disagrees about all this and actually believes that, for example, if the majority of the country is in favor of having a public option or not invading Afghanistan, their wishes should mean something. For that matter, these feckless idealists believe that government agents should not be allowed to get away with torturing people. Imagine that!

Snark aside, I just don't encounter very many people who are interested in nationalizing the toilet paper factories. What I do hear are voices that oppose the current organization of American business, not because the corporations are private but because they are politically powerful and deeply irresponsible, even to their erstwhile owners. Like feudal barons, the corporations have taken over part of the sovereignty of the state—they even maintain their own courts. The perceived problem is at root more political than straightforwardly economic. Is this our country or theirs?"

I would ask for unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks, except that the Talmud of ifs, ands, and buts I would ideally like to append to this tiny Torah would run to at least as many volumes as the Short History of Human Vanity. Nevertheless, a few additional thoughts:

1. A serious critique of how American society is organized would have to look as hard at the NGOs as at the for-profit corporations. The mentality and often enough the salaries of top bureaucrats are comparable to those of private CEOs. Anyhow, the term “corporatism” is too unspecific to capture the essence of the current conjuncture.

2. Property rights are not natural facts but historical constructions, and the proof of their artificiality is that they have obviously changed dramatically over the two and third centuries of our national existence. In particular, one form of property, the modern corporation, was a 19th Century invention like the cotton gin. The point of insisting on the social construction of property is not, as Conservatives always assume, to badmouth property rights in general. Indeed what bothers me about corporations is the way in which they weaken one of the great advantages of private property by disassociating ownership and responsibility. Nobody washes a rented car, and no stockholder or executive gives a damn what happens to General Motors after he sells out or retires. Limited liability may be a good thing insofar as it promotes the flow of capital to productive uses and yet a bad thing insofar as it serves as an all purpose mechanism for dumping externalities on the public. The point is not to restore some sort of Jeffersonian utopia of yeomen farmers holding forty acres in fee simple, but to work towards new legal forms that restore some accountability in a knowledge economy.

3. The usual complaint about Democracy is that the people are too ignorant to make meaningful decisions, but the irony is this notion is trotted out most often in connection with issues like war and peace or social equity where the public often turns out to be wiser than the self-appointed wise men. Where the public really is wretchedly informed, for example, on issues like global warming or the true state of the American health care system, it’s vox populi, vox dei. I have a different perspective. I don’t think there is anything sacred about democracy—as ought to be obvious, I don’t think there is anything sacred at all—and I certainly don’t believe that the majority is always right or should have unlimited sway; but my reading of history has led me to conclusion that societies are both more stable and more dynamic when they are responsive to the wishes and interests of their members and do the many things that are necessary to ensure that the People are something different and better than a mob. Where the leading classes don’t recognize—and fear—the authority of the population, they won’t be zealous in looking after their interests either. They may make populist appeals for strategic or tactical reasons and they will certainly continue to repeat the usual pieties, but they will inevitably end up favoring the interests of themselves and their class.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another Modest Suggestion

According to the Supreme Court, money is speech, which is hard to argue against since we all know that money talks. On the other hand, unlimited political contributions erode one of the most fundamental preconditions of a lawful society, the establishment of an artificial realm of legal equality in which reasons can be heard above the din of power. Men are not made equal, after all. We make them equal by agreeing to treat them as equal for certain specific purposes. Of course in the real world, even if we refrain from settling law suits by holding a public auction, wealth already lays a heavy thumb on the scales of justice. Which is why we don’t need to find other ways to safeguard the prerogatives of privilege. Dollars are already more effectual than votes, and even formal equality, far from being a looming threat, is a departing dream. Which leads to my suggestion: in order to form a more perfect Union, let us level the playing field a little by imposing a progressive tax on political contributions. Token contributions, the $20s and $50, would pay little or nothing, while the $1,000s would get nicked significantly. Let us allow anybody to contribute any amount of money to any candidate or cause, but let a portion of that contribution go to the public treasury. Monsanto and Pfizer and rest can go on purchasing senators just as they do right now, but they would at least have to pay some reasonable levy, say 50%, every time they did so. Think of it as a sales tax. After all, their intent is to buy the country or at least rent it. It’s only fair that the rest of us get a cut of the profits they intend to make from the transaction.
The Kiss of Death

The idea of making Medicare available to everybody over 55 was wildly popular, even more so than the public option. That, and not the vanity of one Connecticut Lukudnik, probably sealed its fate. Both American parties are terrified of democracy. It’s not much of a secret that our system of government amounts to a series of bulwarks against the will of the people. What the health care fiasco is demonstrating is that frustrating the wishes of the majority is no longer enough. The system is also determined to hurt their interests. “For the people” is apparently just as bad as the widely despised “Of the people and by the people.”

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Price of Vanity

The debate about Afghanistan is usually framed as a matter of dueling moralisms. The hawks, supposedly, are the ones who insist that the Taliban must be defeated because of their support for terrorism and their oppression of women and Afghanis in general. The doves are represented as unhappy with our military intervention because of a generalized rejection of war as an instrument of policy. I have my doubts if this version of the argument has much to do with the real opinions and motives of the participants since both sides use ethical appeals to pretty up positions taken for Real Politik reasons and like to paint their adversaries as, respectively, brutal cynics or feckless idealists. Well, I don’t know what really gives with the military experts, IR mavens, and talking heads: my own thinking about our Afghanistan policy isn’t about morals or motives. I simply don’t think we can win the war.

In many respects, Afghanistan is not very much like Vietnam—there is vastly more international support for our efforts in Afghanistan than there ever was for our Southeast Asian adventure, for example, and Vietnam never harbored terrorists who attacked us at home—but in one way, the two situations are similar. As Nixon understood just as well as LBJ or McGovern, there was never a prospect of prevailing in Indochina. Thing is, there is no prospect of prevailing in Afghanistan either. It’s not just that the American public would not stand for the level of expenditure required for victory. Victory wouldn’t be worth it even if it we were willing—or able—to pay the price. The real question for Obama is whether deferring defeat for a few years is worth some lesser but still enormous cost.

Of course there are always people who will claim that America can do anything if it weren’t for the defeatists among us. From their point of view, I’m not very patriotic to suggest that my country has limitations just like any other.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Down with Religious Freedom?

It has always made a huge difference in American politics whether the liberty that matters will be the rights of individuals to stand against collectivities or the rights of collectivities such as churches, local governments, landlords, corporations, and families to oppress individuals without the interference of the central government. I was reminded of this distinction while reading Jonathan Israel’s account of Baruch Spinoza’s opinions on religious freedom and how his views contrasted with those of John Locke. Both wrote in favor of toleration, but Spinoza, though he favored an absolute right of individuals to believe in any faith and practice it privately, thought that the state should restrain the public activities of dissenting religions because they were likely to be combinations against the public peace and engines of oppression—not an unreasonable suspicion in his century as, for that matter, it is not in ours. Locke’s version of toleration was almost exactly the reverse. He maintained that the state should tolerate, within limits, dissenting churches but not dissenting individuals. His notion of tolerance is sometimes criticized because it did not extend to atheists or Catholics, but it was even more narrow than that.

Maybe Spinoza was on to something. When the politically actively churches of our day complain about government action, they are usually unhappy because the state is preventing them from telling individuals what to do. It’s as if the Mormons and Baptists and Catholics were asserting a First Amendment right to persecute others. Legalizing same sex marriage or abortion doesn’t obligate anybody to do anything. These reforms simply deny religious groups the authority to impose their own morality on nonbelievers. In essence, their plaint that somebody else’s rights diminish theirs duplicates the arguments of Southerners, who claimed that the government has no right to tell them that they can’t own human beings.

The neocons and others still promote the ancient thesis that organized, obligatory religiosity is necessary to maintain social cohesion; but the 700 Clubs, Muslim brotherhoods, and Unification churches have exactly the reverse tendency. They promote division and hatred as, with some few exceptions, politically active religions always have.

I’m not suggesting that the government should attempt to suppress particular sects or churches, but I think it is time we stopped giving them special rights such as the tax exemption for their non-charitable activities. One can only give freedom of conscience to artificial persons like churches by compromising the freedom of real persons.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Enemy

Intellectually ambitious right-wingers like to appeal to the ideas of the German Carl Schmitt, who famously asserted that one cannot have a politics without an enemy. I don’t go along with that, but I also don’t agree with a certain tribe of sweetness and light commentators that objects to acknowledging the existence of real enemies even when the antagonists in question have already defined you as their enemy. When the Conservatives shriek their “Juden heraus!” message to liberals and even moderates, I don’t feel obligated to make excuses for their eliminationist rhetoric. They are dangerous enemies not only of me, but of my country. I have no desire to emigrate to Madagascar.

It’s not that I propose an inverse of AM radio hatred, mind you. People here in San Francisco may not want to live in Mississippi or Texas, but we’ve never proposed to eject these benighted states from the Union even if their adherence to democracy and even their loyalty to the United States was and remains highly dubious. Despite the non-stop provocation that comes from the red states and which is only unremarkable because we don’t remark about it, we refuse to be like the Limbaughs and Becks, who dream out loud of driving the vermin out of their sanctuaries on the coasts or like their more consistent followers such as Jim David Adkisson who have already acted on their exortation to “Go Kill Liberals.” Nevertheless, as far as I’m concerned, if my enemies want enemies, they’ve got ‘em.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Believe It or Not

An old Believe It or Not comic I read as a child breathlessly announced that common table salt was actually made out of two violent poisons, chlorine and sodium. I don’t remember if this attempt to make chemistry lurid explained what happens if you throw sodium in water—that information may have been restricted to an R-rated version I wasn’t allowed to read. The bit did make an impression on me, though; and it has since become part of my own private transcendental apparatus, one of the synthetic a priori propositions in the Swiss army knife of my mind. I find it especially useful in thinking about politics.

I know too much history to romanticize revolutions or long for radical change, but the endlessly harped upon themes of bipartisanship and civility have no appeal for me either and not just because they are bleated out with such transparency insincerity by apologists for the status quo whose idea of social peace is the permanent triumph of one side. I prefer to recognize that there really are conflicting interests in the world, beginning with, but certainly not limited to the haves and the have nots. A rational political chemistry seeks to compound something more savory than endlessly strife or endless oppression from these ingredients, but it doesn’t pretend that conflict is just a misunderstanding. Indeed, thinking there is no conflict is the misunderstanding.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Crux

As many commentators have remarked, the health care systems of the rest of the industrialized world have little in common except for the fact they each and every one of them is better than ours. The debate about health care isn’t, or shouldn’t be, yet another argument between the virtues of socialism or capitalism, public or private. Things are really simpler than that. The issue is whether one particular industry, the health insurers, will be allowed to go on siphoning off 5% of American GNP. The insurers understand what’s at stake perfectly. What matters isn’t public options or cooperatives or single payer insurance schemes. If we’re ever going to have a decent system, the insurance companies simply have to go or at least change their business model beyond recognition so that instead of making money by denying care, they make money by supplying it. Small wonder then if no American politician or journalist goes unbribed in the next couple of months. People fight harder for their privileges than for their rights, and few privileges are so succulent as the license to steal currently enjoyed by the insurance industry.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rectification Part III: Jumping the Shark

All this rectification business came to a head for me in the wake of the ACORN fiasco as politicians of all stripes fell over one another to denounce the organization because a couple of its most junior employees in a couple of its offices said some dumb things. Serial killers caught red handed are granted the courtesy title “alleged” even on Fox News, but no judge or jury was necessary in the face of a few minutes of handheld video of a guy in a pimp suit. One understands that for the Republicans, the real crime of ACORN was not a crime at all, but the organization’s success in registering the wrong kind of voters—most of the Conservatives I know would love to limit the franchise to the right kind of people. The interesting thing has been how eagerly the Democrats have gone along with the Republicans in the ritual denunciation of ACORN and even supported a clearly unconstitutional Bill of Attainder against the organization in Congress. The teabaggers may believe that the Democrats are a bunch of reds; but to judge from their overt behavior, the Democrats are as eager to distance themselves from any underclass effort to organize as any member of the Chamber of Commerce.

I don’t know a great deal about ACORN, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if some of its chapters engage in dealings I’d disapprove of. The outfit is very loosely organized, after all, and its membership doesn’t have the social connections and cultural finish that allow other pressure groups to flaunt the law without upsetting anybody who matters. Thing is, I do know that far more credible allegations of far more heinous behavior have been lodged against Hallilburton and Blackwater without giving the pundits a case of the vapors. ACORN hasn’t stolen billions or killed and raped hundreds, but they obviously just aren’t our kind of people. The law was never meant to be applied equally in these cases just as a deal’s a deal when it comes to the compensation of higher management in a bailed-out bank, but not when the ones who lose what they were promised don’t have any political or social clout. A contract with a union, in particular, has pretty much the same force as a 19th Century treaty with a tribe of Indians.

The Republicans and the Democrats have genuine differences, but they are both what an old lefty would call bourgeois parties. When Obama is done being a Communist/Socialist/Fascist/Nazi/Muslim or whatever, he is as dedicated to capitalism as anybody else. There just isn’t any major group in this country eager to nationalize the toilet paper factories. There aren’t even a great many of what one could reasonably call social democrats about; and that brand of socialism, let us remember, isn’t very revolutionary even in places like Sweden where, right wing propaganda aside, the bulk of the economy remains in the hands of private firms and people do their sweating in saunas, not concentration camps. In not recognizing the notable absence of would-be commissars in this country, the neocons and their less erudite allies are simply stuck in a time warp, still trying to understand our politics as if the same groupings were at war now that were fighting it out in the 1930s. They aren’t. The Democrats still draw some strength from what’s left of organized labor, but the dynamism of the party comes from the knowledge industries and the professional classes, groups and businesses that want government to help them make money and grow the country by promoting better education, regularizing our national finances, fixing the health care mess, and subsidizing research and development. Their program isn’t radical: in terms of American history, it’s rather similar to the ideology of the early 19th Century Whigs who were similarly committed to national improvement and skeptical of imperial adventures. There’s a lot more John Quincy Adams than Karl Marx about Barack Obama. Indeed, it is not completely inaccurate to claim that as the Republicans have gradually turned into Dixiecrats, if not full-blown 1840-style Jacksonian democrats, the Democrats have gradually become the Party of Lincoln. As for leftist radicals in the U.S., hay no moros in la costa.
Rectification Redux

If we’re really going to use more accurate names for the political tendencies of our time, perhaps we should consider going back a little further in history for inspiration. I’m not talking about reverting to the Plebs and the Patricians or even the Optimates and the Populares. Our politics, a struggle between elites, has no room for anything like a people’s party. I’m thinking more about the Tories and Whigs of 18th Century Britain. Especially in foreign policy, their George the Third had much in common with our George the Least. As Brendon Simms exhaustively documents in his recent book Three Victories and a Defeat, the English, mostly under Whig leadership, had been very careful to cultivate alliances in their long struggle with the French right up to the triumphant climax of the Seven Year’s War—what we call the French and Indian War. The Tories, on the other hand, didn’t have any use for diplomacy or the continent. Their sovereign, the first king from the House of Hannover who didn’t have a German accent, simply posited that England was the greatest nation on earth and didn’t need or much appreciate anybody’s help in ruling the world or keeping her colonies. Which is why when the Revolution came, England, faced by a continent full of determined enemies and hostile neutrals, was utterly alone, overmatched, and finally defeated. If you read the political pamphlets of the time, the clueless Tories even sound like American neocons and share a similarly impractical program of world domination. Pointing out that England was, after all, a rather small country was regarded as unpatriotic, just as our tub-thumpers regard any acknowledgement of the limits of our power as craven defeatism.
The Rectification of Names

Democrats often avoid the term liberal in favor of the supposedly more marketable label progressive. The desire to rebrand is understandable granted the effects of thirty or forty years of the vilification of liberalism, and it may even be advisable from a pragmatic point of view, but observers with some knowledge of American history will take issue with it. Actual progressivism, the attitudes and policies of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, differed in very important ways from contemporary liberalism. One can argue with some justification, in fact, that its real heirs are the big government nationalists who call the shots in the Republican Party. It’s not just that TR was an unabashed imperialist. The Progressives were almost as cavalier about civil rights as Bush or Chaney. The tender concern for free speech and dissent that we associate with the left of our day was then notably absent. The Progressives also resemble modern Conservatives in their willingness to use government power to enforce their own cultural values: The war on drugs began in 1914 with the passage of the Harrison Act. And let us not forget Prohibition.

Of course many features of the Progressive program were and remain anathema to rightists and are favored by the left along with most of the population of the country: the trust busting, the progressive income tax and the estate tax, and vigorous government action to protect the environment. The liberalism of the 20th Century nevertheless represented a repudiation of much of what Progressivism stood for. What is ironic is that the secession of the liberals from Progressivism took them in a libertarian, Jeffersonian direction. It’s the liberals who actively oppose the expansion of executive power and stand up for the other 90% of the Bill of Rights. The statist elements of the Progressive agenda have been taken up by others. Which is why I prefer to be called a liberal.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Taking the Side of the Things

We think the scientists do science
And nature just sits there and poses.
In fact, without a firm alliance
Of man and thing there’d be no gnosis.
The line between the S and O
Is dotted and moves to and fro.
It’s like what happens on a date
If you get lucky and you mate.
We get inside of nature’s pants
Because the lady wants to dance.
Or to make the selfsame point
Without alluding to your joint:
Science happens
As much in things as in the mind
Else the naked eyeball of our pride
Would be definitively blind.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

A Snarkfree Suggestion

Taking my cue from Bob Somerby, I suggest that you copy the following information and send it on to at least five people, preferably people who don’t agree with you about health care.

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:

United States: $7290
United Kingdom: $2992

Life expectancy, 2007:

United States 78.0
United Kingdom: 78.8

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

An Unfortunate Passage

While waiting for Snow Leopard to finish installing itself on my computer, I idly paged through my old paperback copy of Hannah Arendt’s Origin of Totalitarianism. I had highlighted a passage, which I apparently had somehow guessed would become highly relevant 45 years later:

“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

One is supposed to sympathize with the just plain folk who shout down their representatives at townhall meetings and dream out loud about murdering the goddam liberals before they get a chance to pull the plug on grandma or herd the white Christians into concentration camps. Human actions and ideas have their explanations, after all. There’s a reason for all the paranoia and cultural despair; and, anyhow, it’s political error to scorn so large a portion of the electorate. As of 11:30 P.M. September 1, however, I don’t feel sympathy for the shock troops of the Great American Idiocracy. It’s not that I expect that the mob will prevail exactly. This is not Germany in the 30s: the reactionary program of establishing a white trash republic on these shores once and for all is demographically implausible. Unfortunately, there may be enough of ‘em out there to make the country ungovernable and bring about a paralysis that guarantees a miserable future for everybody. That’s what keeps me awake at night.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Epidemiological Surveillance

One argument in favor of telling the truth is that lying is ultimately self-defeating. It’s worth making claims about matters of fact because somebody is liable to believe what you say. Lying, especially habitual lying, devalues speech. As Robert J. Fogelin used to point out, however, people do lie, quite frequently as a matter of fact, but we nevertheless go on talking. The situation recalls a reply to an objection formerly advanced about a different vice. When told if he didn’t stop, he’d go blind, Woody Allen promised to quit after he got nearsighted.

Human society would hardly be possible if it could be easily subverted by individual acts of bad behavior. Indeed, since a certain amount of skullduggery is built into the machinery, displays of virtue can be entirely more threatening to the status quo than any rampaging murderer. No serial killer ever raised as big a ruckus as Martin Luther King. Of course most ethical behavior is not so alarming. Most of it is largely invisible, and what does surface is either treated as a vestige of a long-dead past like Walter Cronkite’s journalism or else is chalked up to the intervention of an angel of the Lord or the bite of a radioactive spider—religion and/or science fiction. Objectivity and fairness, in particular, are widely regarded to be impractical, either as a matter of principle or because, as one television anchor explained the other day, the threat of losing millions of dollars in income for doing your duty amounts to force majeure. You just can’t expect anybody but a Don Quixote to try to unsell their souls as long as there are several years left in the term of the contract. But are there circumstances under which ethical behavior can infect a diseased social system? Is morality ever catching?

At various times in history, justice, fairness, and disinterest appeared as marvelous new inventions. Societies paralyzed by the tetanus of internecine strife the ancients called stasis found a way out through the intervention of prophets and lawgivers, though it says something about habitual human behavior that disinterested benevolence was commonly associated with supernatural intervention or madness. One of the reasons that modern states emerged from the interminable savagery of early medieval knighthood was that a lawful monarch, be he ever so hypocritical, was preferable to the thugs in the castles so long as something like justice arrived with his regime. Indeed, even the thugs recognized the advantage of such a system, which is part of the reason that the kings eventually prevailed over the dukes.

Well, we don’t live in the Dark Ages, though barbarism and religion are obviously on the march and there is something feudal about the great corporations whose masters claim a right not merely to influence, but sovereignty in the nation. Is it possible that public spirit could spread like a new strain of flu among such swine? I’m not saying it’s likely—if anybody is immune to the virus of integrity, it’s surely Senator Grassley—but I wanted to point out that it has happened before.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Decision

Obama is quite right to point out that the finances of the United States and the economic health of the nation absolutely demand that we get a handle on health care costs and do so in short order. To this material imperative, one should add the moral obligation we all have of finally addressing the human needs of our fellow citizens in an adequate way. But there is a yet more pressing reason why the system must be reformed this year, a political reason. What’s at stake is the future of the nation as a going concern. It’s not just that defeat of health care in the face of a clear public mandate for change would be a clear proof that the nation is not even minimally democratic. Such an outcome would also and disastrously represent a victory for overt corruption and blatant thuggery. Can we really afford so dramatic a demonstration that our legislature is under the thumb of silver-haired whores and semi-literate ideologues? And what kind of a society can we expect to evolve into if we allow the disruption of our political debate by mobs of crazy, potentially violent, and heavily armed people who have been whipped into nativist fury by nonstop black propaganda? If incredibly cynical P.R. men really can convince people that the majority party in the United States is out to snuff your grandma, we’re simply toast.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Another Argument about a Pig

The American right is currently making yet another effort to show that FDR’s policies did nothing to ameliorate or end the Depression. Their argument, which has the virtue (for a conservative) of a lack of originality, is that it was only World War II that decisively ended the economic slump. I leave it to the economic historians to reprint the relevant graphs and charts that show that things did get markedly better in the wake of the first years of the New Deal, but I want to highlight the essential contradiction of the Republican argument. The first part of their argument is a claim that deficit spending, i.e. Keynesianism, doesn’t work, but the second part of their argument is that it does. War, after all, goes one better than Keynes’ recommendation that the government pay people to dig holes and then fill them up again. It simply blows holes in things all over the place. At the very least, the rightists ought to address the question of how the war ended the Depression if it wasn’t by ending the demand deficit.

In fact, the Republicans are perfectly aware that government deficit spending benefits the economy during times of recession. They just prefer military spending, if not outright war, as the vehicle of stimulus. There is also another peculiarity about their version of Keynes. They haven’t gone along with the second half of the Keynesian prescription: running a surplus when times are good. In my lifetime, only the Democrats have followed that suggestion.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Crucial social ideals are not maintained by the magic of personal virtue. Something like tout comprendre c'est tout pardoner applies to good as well as evil acts. I have frequently asserted that American journalism is not atrocious because of the venality of its personnel, but because of the viciousness of a system that promotes and rewards bad behavior. Moralizing about the failings of this or that pretty face on cable amounts to blaming the electrons for the short circuit. Thing is, the same logic applies in reverse. If Cronkite and the other luminaries of the early decades of T.V. news were especially admirable, we should not forget that their careers were made possible because the big company executives temporarily tolerated an integrity from their employees they did not possess themselves—David Sarnoff, after all, was every bit as deplorable a human being as Rupert Murdock. Television news was a loss leader. If the execs of the 50s and 60s had insisted on making a profit from it, it would probably have been as bad as the current cheesy mix of entertainment, advertising, and propaganda.

Both virtue and vice are explicable, which does not mean, however, that we aren’t entitled to praise the former and despise the later.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

An Anniversary Card that Demonstrates Why I Never Got Hired at Hallmark

I get the same melancholic feeling looking at Armstrong's footprint as I do thinking about paleolithic grave sites where a handful of shells and beads have been left on the remains of a child. Both vestiges are protests against mortality. The fantasy of manned space flight is a counterfactual assertion of a cosmic destiny for our species just as funeral customs reflect the equally vain hope of personal survival. Unless we find some pretty fundamental loopholes in the limitations that physics puts on technology, we are never going to go to the stars. I assume we could put men on Mars at immense expense, but then I guess the Egyptians could have built a pyramid even larger than the pyramid of Cheops. Meanwhile, for the record, teflon was invented in the 1930s.
The Great Beast: the Real Problem with the Demos

The classic nightmare of the conservatives is that the people will rise up and take their money. Which is the main reason they have the “this is a republic, not a democracy” bit on speed dial. On the evidence, however, an aroused People are more likely to prove reactionary than radical; and for every instance of redistribution at gunpoint one can find several cases of mobs demanding a restoration of the old order. The melody of the rough music is often enough the Horst Wessel song. It takes an extraordinary amount of time, effort, and money to teach the majority of individuals anything, so that activating existing prejudices will always be easier than mobilizing informed self interest. Republicans understand this basic fact much better than Democrats and practice on the simplicity of their constituents with much greater efficiency.
To Hume it may Concern

One can only learn from experience when there is something to learn. As a general method, empiricism is simply a recipe for superstition. Indeed, the history of religion is in large part the history of an interminable research project, an attempt to figure out the wishes of the gods. The ancients were quite methodical about it: the Mesopotamians carefully correlated the configurations of the stars and the shapes of the livers of sacrificed animals with what happened later, and the Roman priesthoods and the Senate itself noted the political results of prayers and supplications to the various gods and tried to learn from experience as best they could. One thinks of theology as a largely deductive operation, but a great deal of scholastic logic chopping is devoted to explaining away the apparent failures of an underlying inductive methodology.

You often hear that science is made possible by the faith that the universe operates according to regular and comprehensible laws, but that thesis can only be valid to the extent that a certain amount of hopefulness is indeed a psychological precondition for persistent inquiry. Nevertheless, the fact that the fisherman who goes on fishing is the one who may actually catch something doesn’t mean that the optimism that motivated his patience is really warranted. After all, as we all know, lots of the time it isn’t, just as for the most part the things in the universe don’t make any damned sense at all. Induction works, when it works, which isn’t often, not because of some theological or metaphysical principle but because detectable regularities do govern a tiny proportion of possible cases. It looks like it works in general only because in general we focus on the exceptions, the relationship between the temperature and volume of a gas, for example, instead of the relationship between a person’s temperament and the position of the planets at her birth or the likelihood of my coming down with a cold and the color of my shirt last Thursday. The much-mooted problem of induction, like the unreasonable utility of mathematics, is a chimera, an accident of sampling. I thought you should know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What is Corruption?

We let our public people and ourselves off easy. If a congressman hasn’t violated a statute in a provable way, we won’t call him corrupt. For several centuries, however, political corruption wasn’t understood as a crime, though it often enough resulted in bribery and other specific crimes. Corruption was simply the commandeering of public institutions by private interests. By that definition, of course, our entire political system is deeply corrupt. Indeed, under the effective, as opposed to the paper constitution of the nation, the corporations are the fourth branch of the Federal government; and any attempt to limit their power and income amounts to an insurrection. The health care companies and arms manufacturers have a prerogative right to their exorbitant profits, which is why their supporters, who have internalized the American religion of corruption, are sincerely scandalized by suggestions that the public good should sometimes impinge on private interests. Thus in the current debate about health care, we hear that a public option is impermissible because it would provide better services at lower cost than private insurance firms and thus lower their returns to capital or even drive them out of business.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Intelligent Design: Part Deux

Although I’ve been frequently told that the sage does nothing and everything is accomplished, I have reason to believe that the non-sages sometimes do get results by doing something and that they haven’t just been following their noses all this time. Paleontology certainly suggests that the pace of cultural evolution—the development of new tools, the succession of artistic styles—picked up sharply someplace between homo erectus and yours truly with the implication that a greatly increased capacity for insight and planning was involved in that giddy acceleration. In the history and prehistory of our species, intelligent design has resulted in rapid change, in drastic contrast to biological evolution, whose incredibly slow pace reflects the absence of even a moronic mind.

Various people have pointed out the irony that the same people who insist that a divine intellect has to be postulated to explain the emergence of the machinery of life are big fans of the master role of non-intelligent processes in the working of human societies. Automatic market mechanisms are trusted to turn blind selfishness into effective cooperation. Simple instincts allow termites to build arches from their own shit; why look for a fundamentally different kind of explanation for the rise of Microsoft? Even scholarly non-ideologues sometimes show a predilection for this sort of thing. Hence attempts to reconstruct the early history of agriculture usually assume that these developments just naturally happened because hunter-gathers dropped seeds near their huts and one thing led to another. Or consider accounts of the invention of writing that finesse the transition from pictographs to a system that can actually reproduce a specific language as if this process didn’t require figuring out something that wasn’t obvious at all.

Historians of technology sometimes distinguish inventions that want to be invented from those that don’t, airplanes as opposed to helicopters, buttons as opposed to zippers; and there may be something worthwhile about this idea. Nevertheless, it is obvious that not only all innovation, but also the ordinary operations of civilization require thoughtfulness. Heraclitus asserted that every cow is driven to pasture by a blow. That may work for cattle, but no human economic system would even succeed in getting its floors swept if the janitors didn’t have an idea of what it meant to clean things up. Rewards and punishments—the cattle prods and the cookies—motivate systems of action patterned by language. They are useless in the absence of higher mental functions. For better or worse, we just don’t act like ants in an anthill, a fact that can be verified by comparing San Francisco to the actual anthills described in Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson’s most recent book, Superorganism. All that said, arriving at a new pattern of behavior does require a more conscious intrusion of mind into habit than routine work; and developing and implementing a cooperative plan is still more problematic, which is probably part of the reason we’d like to think that it’s all automatic.

The definitive tome on the history of premeditation in human history remains to be written. It’s certainly the right time to address the topic because, short of relying on the mercy of God, current circumstances demand that we get together and figure out how to fly the plane. We need to look at the precedents. Autopilot is simply not an option in the face of resource depletion and environmental degradation, not to mention the California constitution. Instinct and custom are far more comfortable, far more loveable, than thoughtful action; and in eras when the consequences of bad innovations are likely to be worse than the results of going with the flow, automatism may even be adaptive. Under contemporary conditions, however, the principled rejection of reason and responsibility we call conservatism is simply suicidal, though, to be fair, you have to admit it doesn’t require as much committee work as doing the right thing.