Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Unrealistic Expectations

In a recent column Suzanne Venker, an author and cultural critic who writes about relationships, marriage and work-family issues, discusses the top three unrealistic expectations women have about marriage.

Here's her lede:
Albert Einstein once said, “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably, they’re both disappointed.”

Men and women have completely different expectations of marriage. Men may be slower to arrive at the altar, but once there, they’re typically good to go. They don’t spend the subsequent years trying to change the woman they married, nor do they fantasize about what life with another woman might be like. They just exist.

Women, on the other hand, want to change a man once they’ve married him! Really, when you think about it, this makes no sense. But that’s what they do anyway. When they’re unsuccessful, they begin to imagine what life would be like with another husband. They don’t accept that life is a series of trade-offs and that they can’t get everything they want all wrapped up in one man.

Our culture also doesn’t encourage women to accept trade-offs. They’re taught they’re entitled to it “all” and as a result expect too much. They focus on the “what-ifs” rather than on the what is.
As a result, she avers, women have unrealistic expectations about marriage. Here are Venker's top three:
  1. That a woman's husband should be her soulmate
  2. That her marriage will be based on equal sharing of tasks and responsibilities
  3. That her marriage will make her happy
That Venker thinks these are unrealistic may provoke some modern readers with feminist inclinations to reject her column out of hand, but she has good things to say about each of these. Here's just a bit of what she writes about the first:
Here’s what love is not: being swept away on a white horse by a gorgeous, svelte guy who makes gobs of money and who, miraculously, doesn’t drink or gamble or stay out late but who’s a fully engaged husband and father who cooks, cleans, and plays with his kids for hours.

This man Does. Not. Exist. (Or if he does, he’s taken.) Many women say they know this is unrealistic, but they don’t actually accept it. If they did, they wouldn’t be chronically dissatisfied.

Once again, it’s the culture that did it to them. By the time the average woman gets married, she’s been drowning in “rom-coms,” or romantic comedies. These films are meant to be an escape from real life, but rarely are women impervious to such stories. Women feed off romance—we love that stuff! But the message coming out of Hollywood is totally unrealistic.

Love wasn’t even the original purpose of marriage. It was initially about children and property. Even once love did become a focus, women had reasonable expectations for what marriage could deliver. It wasn’t until marriage became entirely optional, as a result of the Pill and women’s growing economic independence, that marriage began to shift from being about duty and obligation (combined with love) to being about finding a soul mate.
Check out the rest of her essay and see what you think about what she has to say.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Off the Rails

George Orwell was a man of the left who saw clearly that the totalitarian impulse to control thought, speech and behavior of the masses led to dehumanization, repression, and horror. His novels 1984 and Animal Farm should be required reading for every high school or college student, but so far from warning us against the mind-numbing thought-control and censorship that Orwell foresaw in the late 1940s, many schools are actually trying, perhaps inadvertently, to foster something similar to it.

That's not exactly Philipp Oehmke's thesis in his article in Der Spiegel titled "Has Political Correctness Gone Off the Rails?", but much of what he reveals about the trends on the campus of Oberlin College (which it's reasonable to assume serves as a synecdoche for elite schools across the country) certainly has Orwellian overtones.

Here are just a few excerpts from Oehmke's essay.
Only a few months earlier, a handful of students claimed they had been traumatized after someone used chalk to scrawl "Trump 2016" on the walls of buildings and on sidewalks at Oberlin and at other liberal universities. It triggered protests on some campuses, with students demanding "safe spaces" where they would be spared from hearing or seeing the name of this "fascist, racist candidate."

In the months prior to the election, "safe spaces" had been one of the most widely discussed terms at Oberlin. The concept has its roots in feminism and describes a physically and intellectually sheltered space that protects one from potentially insulting, injurious or traumatizing ideas or comments -- a place, in short, that protects one from the world. When conservative philosopher and feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers was scheduled to give a speech at Oberlin last year, some students did not approve and claimed that Sommer's views on feminism represented "microaggressions."

When Sommers appeared anyway, leading some Oberlin students to create a "safe space" during the speech where, as one professor reported, "New Age music" was played to calm their nerves and ease their trauma. They could also "get massages and console themselves with stuffed animals."

"Microaggressions" are the conceptual cousins of "safe spaces" -- small remarks perceived by the victims to be objectionable. In addition, there are also "trigger warnings" -- brief indicators placed before a text, image, film or work of art alerting the viewer or listener of the possibility that it could "trigger" memories of a traumatic experience or the recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a warning surely makes sense for people who have experienced war, who have fled their home country or who have otherwise been exposed to cruelty and violence.

But at Oberlin, one student complained to the university administration and requested a trigger warning for Sophocles' "Antigone." The student argued that the suicide scene in the play had triggered strong emotions in him and that he, as someone who had himself long been on suicide watch, should have been warned. In an article he wrote for the Oberlin Review, the student, Cyrus Eosphoros, compared a trigger warning to the list of ingredients on food items. "People should have the right to know and consent to what they're putting into their minds," he wrote. Eosphoros has since dropped out of the school.

The call for safe spaces and trigger warnings in addition to complaints about microaggressions all fall under the term "political correctness" in the United States.

[Opponents of PC] consider it an expression of a victim culture, within which the hypersensitive "leftist mainstream" (also used as an epithet) seeks to isolate itself from every deviation from its own worldview. Opponents of political correctness consider it to be an overwrought fixation on the needs of minorities and one's individual identity, on skin color and gender.

In the last decade, however, the obsession with minorities and their victimhood may have gone overboard. In a much-discussed opinion piece for the New York Times last month, Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, argued that American liberalism in recent years has been seized by hysteria regarding race, gender and sexual identity.

"The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups," he wrote.

Even as the white working class and lower class flocked to Trump in droves, students at Oberlin were busy organizing a protest against the food served at the Afrikan Heritage House. A few students had pointed out that the dishes there were at most Westernized interpretations of the original recipes, a state of affairs which showed a lack of respect toward African traditions. This offense, too, has a term: "cultural appropriation."

Meanwhile, Asian students complained that the cafeteria served bánh mì using inauthentic ingredients, prompting accusations of cultural imperialism.

The college took the complaints seriously, as it does with all grievances lodged by students. It has a reputation to protect -- and must also protect itself from the lawsuits that many of its students' parents can easily afford.

For some professors, it has gone too far. One of those is Roger Copeland. On a recent Friday afternoon, he made his way to the Slow Train Café, the only place at Oberlin where everybody meets up during the day -- professors, students and activists. He has come to talk about everything he believes has destroyed his profession. He has recently accepted an early-retirement severence package and will be leaving the school in a few weeks. Professor Copeland has taught for over 40 years at Oberlin. He is a theater professor and he looks the part. He arrives wearing a Hawaiian shirt and speaks, even in normal discussion, as if he were reciting Shakespeare from the stage.

Copeland himself took to the streets in protest in the 1970s: against the Vietnam War, against Watergate -- the big things. On two occasions, he was arrested.

Today, though, it's personal pronouns that his students are squabbling over and Copeland has little understanding. He says students no longer want to be addressed as "he" or "she," but as "X" or "they" or newly created personal pronouns. At Oberlin, terms like "Latina" or "Latino" for people with Central or South American backgrounds have been replaced with the gender-neutral "Latinx."

Cisgender is a relatively new word and Copeland only recently became aware of it. He also learned that it is often used as an insult. It describes pretty much to a "T" what he is: a white, heterosexual man who is certain that he doesn't want to be a woman and isn't even a little bit bi-sexual.

Copeland isn't the only victim. Across the country, "social justice warriors," as they are disparagingly called, are leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, attacking professors, artists, authors and even DJs along the way.
Exactly how Copeland was victimized at Oberlin you can read about at the link along with much else about the state of affairs there.

Reflecting on Oehmke's article, it's difficult to think of anything more likely to balkanize us into groups insulated from and hostile towards one another than the inability to interact with each other without having to fear that we'll be innocently doing or saying something that could cost us our livelihood.

Where does it all end, and how and why have we come to this point in the first place?

Maybe one explanation is that many young people need a cause to infuse their lives with meaning, but when all the important battles have been largely won, nothing significant is left for which to fight. So students, and their faculty abettors, find their meaning in the minutiae of "social justice," magnifying these out of all proportion to their real importance, turning them into what they doubtless sincerely believe to be matters of grave urgency, when in fact, to people outside the academic bubble who struggle just to make a living for their families, they often seem trivial. Indeed, the great-grandparents of these students, men and women who confronted real social injustice, would probably find some of the preoccupations and obsessions of their descendants mystifying.

Perhaps for some another explanation is that by successfully intimidating both college administrators and the larger, probably more apathetic, student body into acceding to their demands, they find themselves experiencing a rush of euphoria that accompanies the realization that, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they have power over others. That rush can be catnip, it can be addictive, to the spiritually empty or politically impotent.

In any case, it's ironic that so many students are devastated by the election of Donald Trump because it is surely an aversion to the political correctness such as is illustrated in Oehmke's essay and strongly supported by Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, that was at least partly responsible for the electoral backlash the left suffered last November.

The faculty and students on our elite campuses probably don't see this, though. Oehmke closes his piece with this:
A few days after [the election], news of the vote breakdown in Oberlin came in: 4,575 votes for Hillary Clinton against 412 for Donald Trump. They now want to find those Trump voters. And confront them.
What does it mean to "confront them"? Does it mean to bully, harass, and intimidate them into conforming to the majority view? If so, it's another irony that students who claim to be offended by "microaggressions" in the larger culture - who protest against them and demand safe spaces from them - would employ the same tactics, on an even greater scale, against a minority group on their own campus. How Orwellian.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Martin Luther King - An American Hero

Today is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and it would be well to focus on why we do. King was a man of great courage who was resolutely committed, not just to racial equality under the law, but to harmony among all the racial factions in America. His commitment to achieving justice under the law for every American was rooted in his Christian faith as his Letter From a Birmingham Jail makes clear, and it was that faith which made him a transformational figure in the history of our nation.

It's sad that though his dream of racial equality has been largely realized - the law no longer permits distinctions between the races in our public life - his dream of racial harmony has not.

One reason it has not is that his dream that his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character has been inverted so that the color of one's skin is often the only thing that matters, at least in those precincts of our society still in thrall to identity politics.

For example, students are still accepted into colleges and given scholarships on the basis of their race without having to meet the same standards as those with a different skin color. The same is true of civil servants like police and firemen who are often hired and promoted on the basis of test performance, but who sometimes receive preferential treatment based on race. Our Justice Department has refused to prosecute blacks who deny others their civil rights, and any criticism of our out-going president has been interpreted by some as a racist reaction to his skin color rather than reasoned opposition to his policies.

Sadly, people are judged by the color of their skin rather than by the content of their character as much today, perhaps, as at any time in our history, but that's precisely contrary to Martin Luther King's dream.

Nor do I think he would have been happy that we celebrate black history month as if it were somehow separate from American history rather than, as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby argues, an integral part of American history. The civil rights movement was not merely a black movement, it was an American movement in which the American people realized that we were not living up to the ideals of equality and liberty upon which America was founded. It was a time when the nation realized that we were not living consistently with the deepest convictions we held as Christians, namely that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God.

Martin Luther King persistently and bravely held these ideals and convictions before the American people, he refused to allow us to avoid their implications, and repeatedly urged us to live up to what we believed deep in our souls to be true. And the American people, many of whom had never really thought about the chasm between what we professed and what we practiced, responded.

It was an American achievement that involved the efforts and blood of people not just of one race but of all races. Thinking of the great sacrifices and advances of the civil rights era as only a success story of one race is divisive. It carves out one group of people from the rest of the nation for special notice and tends to exclude so many others without whom the story would never have been told.

On Martin Luther King day it would be good for us to try to put behind us the invidious distinctions we continue to make between white and black. It would be good to stop seeing others in terms of their skin color, to give each other the benefit of the doubt that our disagreements are about ideas and policies and are not motivated by hatred, bigotry, or moral shortcomings. It would be good to declare a moratorium on the use of the word "racist," unless the evidence for it is overwhelming, and, in any case, to stop thinking of racism as a sin committed by the majority race only.

Let's resolve to judge each other on the content of our character and of our minds and not on the color of our skin. As long as we continue to see each other through the lens of race we'll keep throwing up barriers between groups of people and never achieve the unity that King yearned for and gave his life for. There is perhaps no better way to honor Doctor King today than to take the time to read his Letter From a Birmingham Jail and to watch his "I Have a Dream" speech (below) and then to incorporate his words into our own lives as Americans.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Consolations of Philosophy

The philosophy department at Lehigh University answers the question: Why study philosophy? with a helpful short essay, which includes the following:
“It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” - Rene Descartes

Here’s what some of our students have said about why they study philosophy:
“It’s important to learn about genetics, but it is more important to learn to think. Philosophy makes me think!”
“Philosophy courses give you more than just knowledge of the world; they give you a deep understanding of how the world works, even how it should work.”
“Majoring in philosophy makes me a better thinker and a more well-rounded person.”
“My philosophy senior thesis was not only the best part of my Lehigh experience, but it has helped me tremendously throughout law school and my life.”
“Studying philosophy, I learned to analyze closely and critically, to question thoroughly, and to write and think rigorously. My philosophy skills has made me more valuable to prospective employers and graduate schools.”

Top Five Reasons to Study Philosophy:
1. Fascinating subject matter
2. Wide variety of interesting classes taught by outstanding professors
3. Skill development
4. Great preparation for any career or graduate study
5. Personal development
The Lehigh philosophers then go on to elaborate on the five reasons. Here's what they say about the first one - fascinating subject matter:
Philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand themselves, the world they live in, and the relations to the world and each other. Those who study philosophy are engaged in asking, answering, evaluating, and reasoning about some of life’s most basic, meaningful, and difficult questions, such as:
  • What is it to be a human?
  • What is the human mind?
  • Are we responsible for what we do, or are we just helpless victims of our genes, environment, and upbringing?
  • Is there a God?
  • What is the best sort of life to live?
  • What is happiness? Can we hope to attain it? Is it what matters most in life? Can bad people be truly happy?
  • How should we balance our own desires, needs, and rights against those of others individuals? against those of future generations? animals?
  • What kind of person is it good to be?
  • What sorts of political institutions are best?
  • What do we know and how do we know it?
  • What is truth? Is anything true? How can we tell?
  • What is art? What is beauty? Does art have to be beautiful to be good?
  • Can we justify our judgments about the merits of a film, a book, a painting, a poem?
  • What is it for one thing to cause another thing to happen?
  • Is there a scientific method?
  • How do words come to have meaning?
  • Do mathematical objects exist?
  • What is time? Is time really real?
In studying philosophy, you’ll have a chance to grapple with these questions yourself and to think about what others — some of the greatest philosophers of the past and present, as well as your fellow students — think about them.
There's much more on the benefits of philosophy at the link, including the economic benefits. One of the fascinating facts you'll see there is that some of the most successful professionals in the world were philosophy majors, as were two recent popes.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Most Unpopular Cabinet Nominee

If you were asked to pick which of Donald Trump's nominees for cabinet secretary would be most likely to draw the most criticism and ire from his critics who would you pick? Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State)? Jeff Sessions (Attorney General)? James Mattis (Secretary of Defense)? David Klinghoffer makes a surprising prediction as to who he thinks the recipient of the greatest vilification from Mr. Trump's opponents will be when all is said and done. He predicts it will be Betsy DeVos, the president-elect's choice for Secretary of Education.

He thinks that the president-elect's political foes will pull out all the stops to embarrass and discredit her when her confirmation hearings begin on January 17th:
The accusation will be that she is "anti-science," an imagined thought crime that provokes elite loathing like almost no other. Of course, there's zero evidence for the charge. They will cite her husband's comment on teaching intelligent design, which I addressed already here when atheist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss pushed the panic button on it in an article for The New Yorker. They will ask her how old she thinks the Earth is, whether human beings rode on dinosaurs, whether she has visited Ken Ham's Ark Park lately. If possible they will seek to humiliate her and cast her in the role of a Neanderthal, which is to say a deplorable.
This may all be so, but why does Klinghoffer think she'll elicit so much hostility?
Why do I say that a special note of seething from critics may characterize her hearing? Well, if you don't understand this point about the cocoon of liberalism, then much of what goes on in politics, science, religion, and entertainment may mystify you.

Liberal elites can just barely tolerate the existence of the deplorables, so long as the latter do not aspire to reverse the power relationship of dominant to subservient. Being deplorable is not about being poor, or poorly educated. It denotes, instead, a whole alternative culture where the cream of the crop in the liberal world are no longer seen as the paladins of enlightenment that they imagine themselves to be.

Hence the fury I think will be aimed more at Mrs. DeVos than at any other Cabinet appointment. Why her in particular? Because science and education are peerless in conferring the prestige from which the cocoon draws its nourishment. Take control of those away from them and they are left in a fit of sputtering rage.

Sure, Mrs. DeVos has said not a word (as far as we know) about evolution or intelligent design. Yes, the Secretary of Education doesn't set curricula for local schools, and ID advocates never sought to push ID into schools. Granted, her critics don't understand what the evolution debate is about anyway. They couldn't care less about the huge distinction between intelligent design and creationism. But anything remotely tied, however unfairly, to the latter is demon spawn to them. Nothing could be more deplorable. Not even Trump.

Let the creationists worship their intelligent designer in their tacky megachurches. The cocoon can live with that, maybe. But install in government, with influence over science education, a woman whose husband once said a favorable word about ID? Never! Oh yes. Watch for it. Given the chance, they will burn her at the stake over that one.
Well, maybe. It's certainly true that probably none of her potential antagonists on the senate education committee who might challenge her commitment to darwinism, or her lack of commitment, are likely to know very much about either the science or the metaphysics involved, much less are they likely to understand intelligent design. Whether Klinghoffer is correct that she'll be the recipient of more opprobrium than any other of Trump's nominees, I don't know, but he's surely correct that the left sees a real danger in DeVos' nomination.

Schools are the most important institution, aside perhaps from the courts, to the success of the left's long march to their goal of a secularist, socialist society. Schools are the nurseries in which the young are inoculated against the perceived evils of market capitalism and Christian religion and in which the dogmas of radical egalitarianism, abolition of the traditional family, and a totalizing statism are most effectively instilled.

The success of this indoctrination requires uniformity of thought and suppression of dissent, particularly on matters vital to the secularization of society (like darwinism) and vital to increasing centralized state power (like climate change). To the extent that DeVos holds heterodox views on these issues she'll be seen as a threat to the attempt to catechize the young in progressive ideology and will doubtless be vigorously opposed.

How vigorously she'll be opposed, and how vicious the opposition will be, we'll find out on Tuesday.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Envisioning a Posthuman World

The movement known as "posthumanism" is gradually being incorporated into the academic mainstream as an interview in the New York Times with philosopher Cary Wolfe of the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University and the founding editor of the Posthumanities book series reveals. Wolfe's posthumanism distills to the belief that there's no basis for making moral distinctions between human beings and animals and that hierarchies which implicitly assume or promote such distinctions should be abolished and abandoned.

In the interview Wolfe says:
[M]ost of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So...what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness.

An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”
All of this may be true, but a vocabulary such as Wolfe enjoins upon us is apparently elusive since he never offers one. Indeed, we might ask why any organism at all merits respect. Is it merely because it's unique and different, as Wolfe suggests? If so, does it follow that individual members of extremely common species, for instance human beings, shouldn't merit the same valuation as members of rarer species, such as timber wolves or snail darters?

And, we might also ask, why shouldn't anyone who has the power to do so exploit other organisms for his/her own benefit? Why is this morally wrong? Wolfe doesn't address these fundamental questions because, I suspect, he holds to a naturalism that offers no basis for his moral commitments. I'm speculating, but I wonder if his ethical concerns are grounded in nothing more than his own personal, emotional attachment to animals. If so, why should others think they're doing something wrong just because they offend professor Wolfe's personal preferences by ranking humans higher and more valuable than, say, rodents?

Human beings have rights that mere animals don't have because, as John Locke wrote over three centuries ago, humans are uniquely created in the image of God, are loved by God and belong to God and no man has the right to harm God's children. Strip that fundamental proposition from a society's assumptions and human rights talk, much less animal rights talk, is rendered groundless, it's just words on paper.

Wolfe adds this toward the end of the interview:
So the first imperative of posthumanism is to insist that when we are talking about who can and can’t be treated in a particular way, the first thing we have to do is throw out the distinction between “human” and “animal” — and indeed throw out the desire to think that we can index our treatment of various beings, human or not, to some biological, taxonomic designation.
Consider the logic of what Wolfe says in this paragraph. Once we "throw out the distinction between 'human' and 'animal'" there remains no argument against granting the same rights to animals as humans enjoy. In a world in which posthumanists had their way, the ineluctable conclusion would be the abolition of raising and harvesting animals for meat as well as owning an animal as a pet. It would certainly be a world in which fishing and hunting game as well as the use of animals in medical research would be banned. It also would seem to follow from throwing out any distinction between humans and animals that any difference or inequality between the rights of humans and other vertebrates (mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles), or even the rights of humans and invertebrates (jellyfish, insects) would be a morally intolerable act of species discrimination.

Perhaps a world like Wolfe envisions will come to pass when the lion lays down with the lamb, but in this world, a world in which people need fish and fowl in order to live, in which they require the labor of animals in order to ensure their own survival, Wolfe's posthumanism seems terribly naive not to mention cruel to the millions of people who rely on that Lockean distinction between human and animal for their very survival.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Repealing Obamacare

The New York Times has a nifty graphic that illustrates the difficulties Republicans face in repealing Obamacare. The architects of the Affordable Care Act made the various elements of the law so interdependent that it's going to be hard to undo some parts of it without, the Times alleges, depriving some 22 million people of insurance coverage, which would be a very unpopular result.

The problem with the Times' graphic, though, is that it nowhere mentions how many people have lost coverage under the ACA because they could no longer afford the premiums and didn't qualify for subsidies. Nor does it discuss the number of people who were able to keep their insurance but were forced to pay higher premiums. Nor does it give any idea how many of those 22 million who are projected to lose coverage would be able to find coverage elsewhere.

All these figures are hard to determine, but without having them in hand it's difficult to measure the impact of repealing a law that even many Democrats who voted for it in 2010 are admitting needs to be overhauled.

Another difficulty in assessing the impact of repeal is that until we know what it will be replaced with we have no way of knowing how many people will be negatively affected. The 22 million figure presupposes that nothing is put in place of the repealed law, but too many Republicans would withhold voting for repeal unless there was a replacement ready to go. The political realities seem to dictate that repeal and replacement will be concurrent.

Allahpundit at Hot Air scrutinizes this problem and provides some interesting insight into the GOP's alternatives.

Meanwhile, President-elect Trump seems to be pushing for rapid repeal so there better be something ready to replace it with or else we could have a situation even less desirable than the current law.