Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Opening the Floodgates

Reports have been circulating that the Obama administration is planning on granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens after the November elections. It would be a move of dubious constitutionality and would put enormous stress on the nation's economy and would completely change the nature of the country. The Washington Times explains:
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Friday threw open the door to as many as 100,000 Haitians, who will now move into the United States without a visa. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, rightly and accurately denounced enabling Haitians awaiting a U.S. visa to enter the country and legally apply for work permits as “an irresponsible overreach of the executive branch’s authority.”
But this is only the tip of the iceberg that the administration has planned for us:
Earlier this month the immigration agency solicited a printer able to handle a “surge” of 9 million green cards “to support possible future immigration-reform initiative requirements.” In an ordinary year, about 1 million green cards are issued, and over the life of this contract the company is expected to produce up to 34 million cards, a figure representing an increase of the population of the United States by 10 percent.
Set aside the legalities involved and ask, why is the President doing this? Why flood the country with people who'll become eligible for food stamps, health care, and a host of other taxpayer-funded goods and services? Why, in a time of low employment in the U.S., import millions of new workers to compete for the few jobs that are there?

The Times editors assert that these amnestied aliens will eventually be granted full citizenship and with that win the right to vote. Doubtless, they'll choose to vote as Democrats, ensuring Democratic majorities and presidencies for the next three generations if not longer.

But political power is perhaps not the only reason. Many observers believe that Mr. Obama has harbored an antipathy and resentment toward the United States ever since his youth. The most influential people in his life all despised the country, its values, its success, its power, and its influence in the world. If Mr. Obama were intentionally trying to reduce the U.S. to third-world status there'd be no better way to accomplish that than to do what he's doing. As the Times says:
It’s a disaster in the making — indeed already here — for public health and national security, straining the welfare state to its limit. Most Americans want no part of this. A Gallup survey finds that 74 percent of Americans want the level of immigration to stay where it is, or reduce it. Mr. Obama has no support for his amnesty scheme except from those who want to transform America into a nation that no one would recognize.
It's one reason why the election on November 4th is so important. If President Obama has a Democratic Senate for the last two years of his term there'll be no restraints on his power to do whatever he wishes. If Congress is unable to check him he'll certainly succeed in achieving his goal, plainly announced in 2008, of fundamentally transforming the country.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Our Need for Meaning

In his book Man's Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Victor Frankel observed that men can't live without a purpose. He observed that when people conclude that their lives have no meaning or significance they often lose their will to go on living.

When we're confronted with some tragedy, for example, we seem to instinctively seek some significance, some overall silver lining, something to give the awful event meaning. The thought that there really is no such meaning is almost unbearable. Yet that's the implicit, and sometimes explicit, message modernity relentlessly hammers home to us. Modernity teaches us that there's nothing beyond nature, that the physical is all there is, but if this is true then it's hard to imagine what meaning there could be to human existence.

Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom of Yale talk about this in an article in the New York Times. They write:
As the phrase goes, everything happens for a reason. Where does this belief come from? One theory is that it reflects religious teachings — we think that events have meaning because we believe in a God that plans for us, sends us messages, rewards the good and punishes the bad.

But research from the Yale Mind and Development Lab, where we work, suggests that this can’t be the whole story. In one series of studies, recently published in the journal Cognition, we asked people to reflect on significant events from their own lives, such as graduations, the births of children, falling in love, the deaths of loved ones and serious illnesses.

Unsurprisingly, a majority of religious believers said they thought that these events happened for a reason and that they had been purposefully designed (presumably by God). But many atheists did so as well, and a majority of atheists in a related study also said that they believed in fate — defined as the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.

In other studies ...we found that even young children show a bias to believe that life events happen for a reason — to “send a sign” or “to teach a lesson.” This belief exists regardless of how much exposure the children have had to religion at home, and even if they’ve had none at all.

Whatever the origin of our belief in life’s meaning, it might seem to be a blessing. Some people find it reassuring to think that there really are no accidents, that what happens to us — including the most terrible of events — reflects an unfolding plan. But the belief also has some ugly consequences. It tilts us toward the view that the world is a fundamentally fair place, where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. It can lead us to blame those who suffer from disease and who are victims of crimes, and it can motivate a reflexive bias in favor of the status quo — seeing poverty, inequality and oppression as reflecting the workings of a deep and meaningful plan.

Not everyone would go as far as the atheist Richard Dawkins, who has written that the universe exhibits “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” But even those who are devout should agree that, at least here on Earth, things just don’t naturally work out so that people get what they deserve. If there is such a thing as divine justice or karmic retribution, the world we live in is not the place to find it. Instead, the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.
There are a couple of points to make about this. First, the belief that things happen for a reason is logically incompatible with the prevailing cultural embrace of naturalistic materialism. Reasons are products of minds. If there is no mind controlling events, or at least able to control events, there can be no reason for whatever happens. In the universe of the materialist nothing that happens independently of human volition happens for a reason and for a materialist to hold that things do have reasons behind them is simply a case of cognitive dissonance.

If Dawkins is correct in his atheism then he's also correct in his assessment of the meaninglessness of life in a cosmos that cares nothing about us. Nothing the vast majority of us do matters much at all beyond the span of our own lives.

Second, if there is no "divine justice" there's no real justice of any sort. How can the world provide justice for the parents of a child brutally tortured and murdered by someone? Does executing the criminal satisfy justice? Imprisoning him for life? Nothing that could be done to him will ever remove the pain he has implanted in the hearts of those parents.

The secular man is caught between a rock and a hard place. Not willing to acknowledge the existence, or relevance, of God on the one hand, and not willing to give himself over to nihilism on the other, he denies the relevance of God while living nevertheless as if God undergirds his entire world. He hitches a ride on the train of a theistic worldview - living as if there are reasons for what happens in life, living as if his life has meaning, living as if justice exists, living as if there are objective moral duties - until it comes time to acknowledge the only sufficient ground for any of these and at that point the secular man jumps off the train, declaring that the ground, theism, is all foolishness and superstition.

How for example can philosopher Bertrand Russell write this and not be a nihilist:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
As Dostoyevsky's character in The Possessed, an atheistic anarchist named Kirillov, asks, "How can a man know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot?" Indeed, Kirillov ultimately shoots himself. Man can't live, at least not happily, with the worldview Russell portrays. He can't live with unyielding despair. Nor does he have to. Why he chooses to try is one of life's great mysteries.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Why Is There No Travel Ban?

A number of nations in West Africa have been, or are about to be, declared Ebola-free. One thing they all have in common is that they imposed a travel ban on the nations in the hot zone, a move which elicits the question, why won't the Obama administration do likewise?

Maybe they have a good reason, but if so they've chosen to keep it to themselves. None of the quasi-reasons they've given make any sense. The head of the Center for Disease Control, Thomas Frieden, the same man who said that you can't contract Ebola by sitting next to someone on a bus and then later advised that people who are symptomatic shouldn't use public transportation so as not to infect anyone, has been similarly incoherent on the travel ban question.

Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) summarizes the aberrant logic Mr. Friedan put on display when he appeared recently on Megyn Kelly's show The Kelly File:
Their conversation focused largely on the government’s refusal to stop travel into the United States by citizens of plague nations. “Why not put a travel ban in place,” Ms. Kelly asked, while we shore up the U.S. public-health system?

Dr. Frieden replied that we now have screening at airports, and “we’ve already recommended that all nonessential travel to these countries be stopped for Americans.” He added: “We’re always looking at ways that we can better protect Americans.” “But this is one,” Ms. Kelly responded.

Dr. Frieden implied a travel ban would be harmful: “If we do things that are going to make it harder to stop the epidemic there, it’s going to spread to other parts of—” Ms. Kelly interjected, asking how keeping citizens from the affected regions out of America would make it harder to stop Ebola in Africa.

“Because you can’t get people in and out.”

“Why can’t we have charter flights?”

“You know, charter flights don’t do the same thing commercial airliners do.”

“What do you mean? They fly in and fly out.”

Dr. Frieden replied that limiting travel between African nations would slow relief efforts. “If we isolate these countries, what’s not going to happen is disease staying there. It’s going to spread more all over Africa and we’ll be at higher risk.”

Later in the interview, Ms. Kelly noted that we still have airplanes coming into the U.S. from Liberia, with passengers expected to self-report Ebola exposure.

Dr. Frieden responded: “Ultimately the only way—and you may not like this—but the only way we will get our risk to zero here is to stop the outbreak in Africa.”

Ms. Kelly said yes, that’s why we’re sending troops. But why can’t we do that and have a travel ban?

“If it spreads more in Africa, it’s going to be more of a risk to us here. Our only goal is protecting Americans—that’s our mission. We do that by protecting people here and by stopping threats abroad. That protects Americans.”

Dr. Frieden’s logic was a bit of a heart-stopper. In fact his responses were more non-sequiturs than answers. We cannot ban people at high risk of Ebola from entering the U.S. because people in West Africa have Ebola, and we don’t want it to spread. Huh?
It's both embarrassing and disconcerting to reflect that people who think like this are ensconced in positions of power making life and death decisions for the rest of us.

Anyway, Mr. Obama himself appears to be taking the outbreak seriously enough, having taken the unprecedented step of cancelling a fund-raiser, something he didn't even do when our diplomats were being slain in Benghazi, to meet with his people to discuss developments. Presumably, part of the discussion was on the topic of how to completely flummox the American people on why he won't impose a travel ban. If he cancels a golf outing we'll know we're on the cusp of a serious Ebola calamity in this country.

I don't wish to make light of what is indeed a serious matter, but the absurdity of the administration's rationale for not imposing a travel ban forces us to draw conclusions about their reasons that are themselves bizarre. Some conspiracy mongers have alleged that Mr. Obama actually wants a crisis in this country in order to consolidate his hold on power. I think that's a little nutty.

Others have speculated that part of the reason the President hasn't issued a travel ban is because up till now he thought that all the fuss was over "a boli" and he couldn't imagine how a doughy Italian sandwich could really have precipitated a major medical threat to civilization.
I think that explanation is a little nutty, too. Anyone could have made a similar slip of the tongue, and it's churlish to fault the President for being human, although I do have to wonder how many times we'd have seen this video clip on the television news if it had featured George Bush referring to the virus as eboli?

At any rate the President could put an end to all of this foolish speculation simply by giving us a plausible, coherent reason why he still allows people into this country from places where Ebola is rampant. Until he does, the rest of us are just left to guess, even if the guesses are pretty crazy.

Friday, October 17, 2014

What Kristof Doesn't Understand

One argument sometimes heard when people express dismay at the horrific violence perpetrated by Muslims around the world is that it's unfair to condemn Islam for the crimes of some Muslims. Other religions and ideologies have their criminals, too, you know.

Well, this is true as far as it goes, but it misses the point. Consider Nicholas Kristof's recent column in the New York Times. Kristof was part of a debate on Bill Maher's television show a week or so ago that has received a lot of attention. Here's Kristof's description of the show:
Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with Affleck....so let me offer three points of nuance.

First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.
These two sentences are odd. If Islam elevated the status of women how bad must they have had it before Islam came on the scene? It's also simply misleading to lump Christians in Europe together with Nazis and Communists as though the Nazis and the Stalinists were Christians. The Nazis were pagans and the Stalinists were atheists. To somehow identify the faith of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the thousands of other Christians who risked their lives to smuggle Jews to safety during the holocaust and the tens of thousands of Christians who were martyred by the communists in the name of 20th century state atheism is an obscenity. But set it aside. Kristoff goes on to give us his second reason:
Second, today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior — most recently beheading a British aid worker devoted to saving Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.

The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.
This sounds so tepid a condemnation of evil as to be almost a parody of itself. It's about as mild as if Kristof had said that the beheadings and what not are "inappropriate, and we all might wish the Islamists wouldn't engage in that sort of unpleasantness." Why are liberals so reluctant to use the word "evil"? If that adjective doesn't apply to ISIS and Islamic terrorism in general what does it apply to? Republicans? Dick Cheney?
Third, the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2 percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.
Kristoff thinks that because the percentages are small there's nothing much to worry about here. The problem is that if only 10% of Muslims world-wide favor the death penalty for apostasy that's still 100,000,000 people which is quite alot of people, don't you think?
The caricature of Islam as a violent and intolerant religion is horrendously incomplete. Remember that those standing up to Muslim fanatics are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan, a gang of Muslim men raped a young Muslim woman named Mukhtar Mai as punishment for a case involving her brother; after testifying against her attackers and winning in the courts, she selflessly used the compensation money she received from the government to start a school for girls in her village. The Taliban gunmen who shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating for education were Muslims; so was Malala.
This touches on a crucially important distinction between Islam and other religions, especially Christianity, and it goes to the fundamental problem that Bill Maher and Sam Harris were trying to get at (I can't believe I'm on the same side as these guys).

If Christians behave barbarously they're violating the core tenets taught by their founder. They're betraying him, the Gospels, and their professed convictions. They cannot be said to be acting like Christ. On the other hand, if Muslims behave barbarously they're actually following in the footsteps of their founder who throughout his life resorted to violence and slaughter. Moreover, their behavior is consistent with much of the Qu'ran. In other words, moderate Muslims lack the theological resources to condemn the behavior of groups like ISIS, which is why it's so difficult for Muslim clerics who oppose ISIS to do so on theological grounds.

ISIS has put moderate Muslims in a very difficult position. In order to oppose the savagery of these terrorists Muslims have to both reinterpret the Qu'ran and ignore the example of the Prophet whom they revere. Maher and Harris understand this, Kristoff and Affleck evidently don't.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Lure of ISIS

One question that puzzles some readers of the news out of the Middle East is why ISIS is able to attract so many young men to its banner when even other Muslims are calling ISIS barbaric and savage. Islamic scholar Ayman S. Ibrahim at First Things gives three reasons for the appeal ISIS holds for so many Muslims. Here's a brief synopsis:
First, ISIS knows how to use the Qur’ān....To support expelling, mutilating, beheading, and crucifying their enemies, ISIS provides verses such as (Qur’ān 5:33; 8:12; 47:3-6). To encourage their members to participate in jihad and thus inherit the terrific Paradise waiting for them, ISIS recites (Q 47:15).

Second, ISIS knows how to use the early Muslim history to support its claims and military operations. It is noteworthy to mention that the Sunni Muslims view the early years of Islam not only as history, but specifically as a sacred one. Not only the prophet Muhammad, but also his companions were heroes; examples and role models to follow. The years of Muhammad, his prophetic career, his raids and expeditions, and his first four successors (caliphs) are commonly viewed as the best days in Islam, especially among the Sunni.

Third, ISIS is quite appealing to some as it serves as the fulfillment of the long awaited dream of the one unified Muslim umma (community). With the emergence of ISIS, for the first time in centuries, Muslims from many ethnicities and cultural background can claim to be “one” in Allah’s restored caliphate. They pine for the “golden days” of Islam.
This last is especially interesting. For six centuries Arab Muslims and black North African Muslims have seethed in a stew of inferiority vis a vis the infidel West. They feel deeply perplexed that they, having "the truth" and with Allah on their side, nevertheless, lose confrontation after confrontation with the technologically superior West. They were even out-teched during the crusades and only managed to defeat the crusaders because of the long supply lines and lack of support on the home front that the crusaders had to deal with. At any rate the sense that the infidels are somehow superior to them is galling.

So, when a Sunni Muslim army like ISIS seems to be sweeping all before it, seems destined finally to be on the verge of establishing the long-dreamt of caliphate, and of defeating, not only the hated Shia, but eventually the even more deeply hated Israelis and Americans, disaffected Muslims from all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East yearn to be a part of it. The atrocities they're expected to commit are exactly what Allah desires of them, as the Qur'an teaches (see above), and thus whatever qualms they may have they set aside because they are doing Allah's will.

Glory awaits them and for young men whose lives are stultifyingly wretched and hopeless, the promise of that glory is a powerful lure.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Have Some Sympathy

Those readers who follow politics have probably heard that the democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, Alison Lundergen Grimes, has repeatedly refused to admit to having voted for Mr. Obama. Her refusals have reached the parodic stage, and I started to think that maybe the truth is that she actually voted for Mitt Romney or forgot to vote at all and knew that such an admission would destroy her chances of defeating Mitch McConnell. This seems an unlikely explanation, however, since she actually campaigned for Mr. Obama in 2012.

Even so, why the aversion to admitting that she voted for him? I mean, okay, a lot of people don't want to admit they voted for him, and understandably so, because he had no qualifications for the office when he ran in 2008 and appears headed for the distinction of the most incompetent president of the last 100 years, so an admission that one voted for him reflects very poorly on one's judgment. I understand that, but even so, what is she telling her fellow Democrats when she won't admit having voted for a man whose election she worked for? Is Mr. Obama really that politically toxic?

Anyway, Molly Hemmingway has come to her defense, sort of, in a piece at The Federalist. Hemmingway writes:
Here’s the thing. It wasn’t just Grimes who voted for Obama multiple times. It was literally (literally “literally,” not Joe Biden “literally”) tens of millions of other people in this country. They really did it. For real. They put up bumper stickers. They put up yard signs. They called him a light-worker and an enlightened being. They said “He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.”

He was given a Nobel Freaking Peace Prize. The award citation reads like satire. Seriously, it’s hi-larious. If you’re ever having a bad day, just recall that President Obama once won a Nobel Peace Prize. If you’re having a really bad day, read the citation. I guarantee your mood will improve.

The media fawned over him. They got thrills up their legs. By any metric, the mainstream media was obsequious in its coverage of the president, only pulling back marginally, quite recently, and in the tiniest few quarters as the crush of scandal and incompetence has continued and grown.

Anyway, point being that it’s not just Grimes who is trying to avoid the uncomfortably truth that she played a role in electing and re-electing Obama.

Pretty much everyone who voted for Obama is looking to change the topic if it comes up. Even the crazy person who lives down my street in a house that looks haunted finally took down his Obama sign. It had been up for years. My Obama-bumper-sticker-saturated neighborhood is nearly Obama bumper sticker free these days. My Democratic friends are all talking more about Obama’s incompetence than the role they played in inflicting our country with his presidency. Yours are, too. Heck, you are, too, if you were one of the majority of voters who voted for Obama. (Or you’re shifting blame desperately in a comment thread as we speak.) Listen, I know the options weren’t great, but that’s still no defense for picking the guy who is bad at everything.

I mean, at this point, we’re down to, like, Ezra Klein and the Vox Crew when we’re counting people who are reluctantly admitting that they were in that group of people. We’re at 2006 levels of people trying to avoid talking about voting for the guy who they made president. Maybe worse. Think about that. We are in the middle of a presidency that is making the Bush administration seem like it was chock full of managerial geniuses and strategic masterminds. Of course you’re going to deny having had anything to do with the presidency that is making the predecessor look competent by comparison.

I don’t blame Grimes one bit for denying she helped elect the guy whose top hits include Solyndra, Obamacare health premiums, the assault on religious liberty, Joe Biden, ISIS sprawl, and a growing list of scandals that make Nixon, Warren G. Harding and Ulysses S. Grant look like choir boys (She might have included the failure to prepare for Ebola in this list-RLC).

So let’s lay off her. She did what she had to do. So are tons of the remaining Obama voters. They made a huge mistake. No need to vote for Grimes, obviously, but have some sympathy.
Point taken, Molly, but until I hear her actually explain why she voted for a man who pretty much just walked into the White House off the street it'll be hard to gin up much sympathy for her.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ends and Means

During the recent conflict with Hamas a young Palestinian was apprehended by Israeli forces. The prisoner was a bomb expert who possessed a lot of information on the whereabouts of a tunnel from Gaza to an Israeli kibbutz. The Israelis didn't know which kibbutz was threatened but they did know that the tunnel had been packed with explosives timed to detonate at the common dinner hour in the kibbutz. A hundred Israeli families would be wiped out if all went according to Hamas' plan. Such is the nature of the enemy the Israelis have on their border.

At any rate, an Israeli interrogator was brought in to question the terrorist. The interrogator was also a young man, as young as the man he was questioning. He was under enormous pressure to find out where the tunnel is before the explosives were to detonate in a few hours. How did he do it?

You can read the account of this episode from the war here.

As you read the article ask yourself these questions: Did the end justify the means? If so, why? If not, why? What do you suppose eventually happened to Hamid? Would the interrogator have been justified in using physical torture to get the information from the prisoner? If so, why? If not, why not? Is the infliction of physical pain morally distinct from the infliction of emotional pain? If yes, then how?