Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ruminations on Yesterday

Yesterday's political events stirred up a number of thoughts and questions in my mind, the answers to which may be obvious to those readers with more bountiful intellectual gifts than I possess, but I'll share them anyway.
  • How could people listen to some of the speeches last night and not laugh out loud? There, for instance, was Michelle Obama lecturing her audience to not let anyone tell them this country isn't great. This despite the fact that her husband has for his entire life been telling us that this country needs to be fundamentally transformed.

    It's her husband who has been telling us that America is racist, that we're going to suffer a self-inflicted eco-catastrophe soon, that the principles on which it was founded need to be revised. This is the woman, moreover, who eight years ago told us that until her husband had been nominated she had never been proud of this country, and now she's telling us this is a great country?

  • Then there were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who have spent most of their lives condemning the wealthy 1%, economic inequality, crony capitalism, the political corruption big money fosters, and calling for government regulation or even a takeover of the financial sector, throwing their support behind a woman who is the embodiment of all of the things they despise.

    Bernie Sanders, the man who for a year and a half has led a "revolution" that would wrest control of the country from the hands of the wealthy, who was undercut by the supposedly neutral Democratic National Committee (DNC), surely with the knowledge, if not the connivance, of Ms Clinton, now comes out and asks his supporters, who invested so much time, energy, treasure, and hope in his cause, to vote for the very woman who is the antithesis of everything he stands for. It's breathtaking.

  • Why is it that now, whenever there's a terrorist attack, the news media keeps asking whether ISIS was behind it? To repeat a famous question, what difference, at this point, does it make? Why the fascination with ISIS? It's as if the people reporting on these things somehow think the victims are less dead if ISIS wasn't involved. Or is it that they think that if the terrorists aren't affiliated with, or influenced by, ISIS then there's no reason to think that their religion had anything to do with their crimes.

    Perhaps by focusing on whether the perpetrator was associated in some way with ISIS they can elide mention of the things these terrorists all have in common. They're all relatively young Muslim males. Whether they're influenced by ISIS or not is irrelevant.

  • Why are the Democrats and their media spokespersons so eager to implant the idea in the national consciousness that the DNC emails were hacked by the Russians? A tranche of emails were released by Wikileaks a few days ago showing collusion between the DNC and the media to sabotage the Sanders campaign. It would seem that the salient questions would not be who hacked them but what they say and whether the emails were genuine, which no one is disputing and which is why Debbie Wasserman Schultz was ousted as the chair of the party.

    For some reason, though, the media seems to want us to focus on the fact that it was the big, bad Russians who hacked them, probably to help Trump, they're saying, instead of having us focus on the corruption in the Democratic party and in some precincts of the media which, according to the emails, are populated by servile lackeys of the Democratic party.

A couple of concluding thoughts. Why isn't the media focusing on this question: Do we really want to put in charge of our nation's security people who can't be bothered to secure their own email communications? Shouldn't we be having that conversation, especially in light of Clinton's reckless use of electronic communications? I hope our CIA is as good at hacking the emails of our adversaries as the Russians apparently are and as the Chinese doubtless are, but I doubt that either the Russians or the Chinese are as complacent about security as the Democrats have shown themselves to be.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Pro-Life Nation

We're sometimes told that a majority of people in the country favor a woman having the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or to terminate it via abortion.

The claim is a little misleading. Pro-choice advocates use it to defend the policy of allowing a woman to tend a pregnancy at any time until just prior to birth, and as is the case with extremists like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, while the baby is being born and even after the baby has emerged completely from the mother.

This is not, however, how many pro-choicers understand their position.

A recent Marist survey of 1,009 adults conducted July 5-12 found that 62 percent of people who identify themselves as pro-choice want to limit abortion to the first three months. Kathryn Lopez at National Review summarizes the results:
Though 51 percent of Americans say they are pro-choice, about 8 in 10 Americans support substantial restrictions on abortion (78 percent), and would limit it to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy. This number includes 62 percent of those who identify as pro-choice, 85 percent of African Americans and 84 percent of Latinos.
Clearly, there's a disconnect between the average pro-choice individual and groups like Planned Parenthood which want no restrictions at all placed on when an abortion can be obtained. Among other findings of the poll, according to Lopez, were these:
Taxpayer funding for abortion is opposed by 62 percent of Americans. This includes 65 percent of African Americans, 61 percent of Latinos, and 45 percent of those who say they are pro-choice, as well as 84 percent of Republicans, 61 percent of Independents and 44 percent of Democrats.

Concerning the recent Supreme Court decision, Nearly 8 in 10 Americans (78 percent) want abortion clinics to be held to the same standards as other outpatient surgery centers. This includes 77 percent of African Americans and 82 percent of Latinos, as well as 77 percent of women, and 84 percent of millennials. About three quarters of those who identify as pro-choice (74 percent) agree, as do strong majorities regardless of party affiliation.

In addition, 70 percent of Americans want doctors who perform abortions to be required to have hospital admitting privileges. This includes 71 percent of women, 77 percent of millennials, and 78 percent of Latinos, Pro-life and pro-choice adherents are also equally likely to support such a requirement at a rate of 7 in 10 for each group (71 percent).

And by almost 20 points, a majority of Americans (56 percent to 37 percent) do not believe that healthcare providers should be forced to perform abortions against their conscience or religious beliefs. This includes 6 in 10 Latinos (61 percent) and 4 in 10 who identify as pro-choice (41 percent).
Maybe the Marist poll is inaccurate, or maybe the numbers have always looked like this, but if not, there seems to be a tectonic shift in attitudes taking place in this country concerning the practice of abortion, and folks like the Democrat party elites and Planned Parenthood look like extremists occupying the nether fringes of mainstream public opinion.

Maybe it's time to redefine what we mean by "pro-choice" and reevaluate what it means to be "pro-life."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Choice

Jonah Goldberg, who I think is currently America's most brilliant writer on politics, has written a column in the wake of the Republican convention that struck a chord with me. Jonah is a conservative who finds Mr. Trump to be totally unsatisfactory as presidential timber and at one point he laments the fact that many of his fellow conservatives seem contemptuous of anyone who refuses to support Mr. Trump. He writes:
I hate what I’ve learned about my side. I hate thinking the worst of people I once respected — sometimes unfairly and sometimes with adamantine certitude. I hate watching TV and seeing people slowly bend to the alleged new necessities.

Every few minutes another e-mailer or Twitter follower claims that my only option is to board the bandwagon, get with the program, or see the writing on the wall — as if such hectoring were an argument rooted in some kind of principle other than the fascistic glorification of the mob and a new right-wing version of The Right Side of History. The party barge is leaving the dock for Wales and one must jump aboard or be painted the party-pooper or the traitor.

I hate discovering that so many people are disappointed in me for not playing my part in a racket.

Every day, if not every hour, I am told that my true motives are in reality desires, goals, and ambitions that have never once entered my mind. I want Hillary Clinton to be president of the United States as much as I want to be a patient of a narcoleptic proctologist (“Oh, I’m sorry, did I leave that in there all that time?”). I want the Supreme Court to be handed to the Left as much as I want a lap dance from Chris Christie.

I hate that after 20 years of fighting what I believe to be the good fight, so many can’t muster the good will or generosity to consider that I’m doing what I think is right. I’m entirely open to the argument that my analysis and judgment is wrong. But I am resentful, furious and, most of all, contemptuous of the lazy and self-justifying assumption that my motives are malign.

I have nothing but sympathy for those who feel they must vote against Hillary Clinton. But I have scorn for those who think that requires lying about Trump. If you’re a true-believer in Trump, that’s fine. I think you’re making the same mistake that the Left’s 2008 true believers made about Obama. There are no saviors in politics. But when millions of people think there can be, those of us in the Remnant of doubt get treated like heretics.

That’s fine. Indeed, despite my obvious fatigue and anger, I’m actually far more hopeful than you might think. In Cleveland, I met scores of fellow heretics. We didn’t meet in catacombs. But we plotted and planned all the same. We are the anti-establishment now.

We stand opposed to two parties united behind two different facets of statism and identity politics. We are the new rebel alliance fighting against the narrative of a new empire. We aren’t as many as I would like, but we are far from few. We may not win, but one thing is for sure: It’s more fun to be the rebel.
You can read his entire column at the link as well as subscribe to his G-File which is emailed once a week.

From my point of view, among all the reasons why Trump should be viewed with deep suspicion, the fact that Sean Hannity has a man-crush on him is not the least, and among the reasons why it may be necessary to vote for Trump is that as bad as he is, his opponent is much worse.

Indeed, Trump is a cornucopia of vices and faults, but almost any flaw one could find in him could also be discovered without hardly looking in Hillary and/or her husband, who would surely be co-president should she be elected.

I deeply resent that the two major parties have forced us to make a choice between a man who has the emotional maturity of a sixth-grader and a woman who corrupts everything she touches, who is a stranger to the concept of integrity, who puts her own convenience and personal secrets ahead of the national security, and who has given the appearance, at the very least, of influence peddling - not just to American banks but also to foreign governments.

I question the moral judgment, wisdom and intellectual consistency of those who are enthusiastic about either Trump or Clinton. How can one be enthusiastic about the prospect of being led either by a towering narcissist or a felonious incompetent?

On the other hand, I reluctantly disagree with those who argue we should withhold our vote. This came up in an e-conversation with a friend this morning as we talked about Jonah's column and the anguish many conservatives are feeling this election cycle at having no one they can be excited about. Here's an edited version of what I said to him: Trump's candidacy has managed to split conservatives into two factions: Those who place principles above expediency and those who are willing to subordinate their principles to a Nietzschean ressentiment or hostility toward the source of their resentments. The shame of it is that the latter group, in which we find people like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, are showing open contempt for those in the former group like the National Review crowd and Ted Cruz.

For my own part, though I sympathize with the more principled folks among the #NeverTrumpers, I think we have to vote for the least bad candidate. If we don't we're sure to get the worst possible candidate.

Everything people despise in Trump's character, and there's much to dislike, we'd get in at least equal measure in Hillary and/or her husband. But worse than that we'd also get someone who has been proven to be as cavalier about the truth as she is about the safety of American diplomats, someone who has been reckless with national security and shown terrible judgment in Libya, Russia, and Iran, someone who has prostituted herself to the big financial institutions she claims she'll rein in, someone who has never created a business or a job, and who has no significant positive accomplishments to show for her years in public office.

Equally as troubling, in my mind, is that Ms. Clinton embraces the progressive social agenda on abortion, open borders and open bathrooms. Indeed, I think she'd be even more radical on some of these matters than she indicates.

In any case, whether or not I'm right in holding the belief I mentioned in that last sentence, two issues are paramount for me in this election: Illegal immigration and the Supreme Court. On both of these I think it necessary to gamble that Trump would do better than Clinton. Indeed, from a conservative point of view, it's hard to imagine him doing worse, but I'm very far from being enthusiastic.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Saving Lives in Iraq

Last month I did a post on an aid agency called Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC) and the work they're doing in Fallujah, Iraq to save the lives of Iraqi refugees from the horror of ISIS and the turmoil of war.

PLC has recently sent out an update which presents a summary of what they've accomplished in the last couple of months. It's an inspiring account. Here's an overview:
  • Since May 26, you've given more than $751,047.
  • We've spent $421,000 providing lifesaving food, water, and more, as of July 18.
  • Displaced families have received more than 611,000 pounds of food.
  • We're delivering 52,000 liters of water daily.
  • We've provided 1.5 million liters of water total.
  • We've served approximately 43,000 people.
  • Fallujah families are expected to be kept in camps for 3-6 months. Currently we have enough funds on hand to help for one more month.
Over the last several weeks, you’ve helped bring truckloads of food—rice, lentils, beans, cooking oil, sugar, tea, and milk. Each food pack you provide is large enough to feed a family for a month. You’ve also delivered hundreds of portable cooking stoves, tanks to provide a daily supply of clean water,bars of soap, hygiene kits, and more.

These families survived bullets and bombs. Thanks to you, they have a good chance of surviving the desert, too.
You can read more about their work at the link.

PLC is not political, they're not affiliated with any government agency, their work is funded completely by donations, and as of now they're the only international aid group working inside the militarized zone. The need is great and will grow greater as the Iraqi government moves on in another month or so to liberate Mosul from ISIS.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

What Sharia Is and Isn't

Despite the title of his recent column in the New York Times, What Sharia Is and Isn't, Noah Feldman doesn't really tell us much about what sharia is and isn't.

He explains the difference between sharia and fiqh (Sharia is the will of God revealed in the Quran and in the life of Mohammed. Fiqh is the interpretation of God's will by scholars applying their reason), but he doesn't say anything about the question to which people attach the most importance nowadays, to wit: What, exactly, is the content of sharia? What is it that most Muslims - not the "radicals," but average devout Muslims who wish to live according to sharia - believe that the Quran teaches?

One thing I think we can say about sharia is that it's not what Westerners would call "moderate."

Suppose you found yourself among a group of people which, it eventually became clear to you:
  • held approximately the same views about gays as the Westboro Baptists, only worse.
  • held approximately the same views about women as Jim Crow era southerners held about blacks.
  • held approximately the same views about Jews as did the Nazis.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of religion as medieval inquisitors.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of speech as the North Korean government
  • held approximately the same views about human equality as advocates of the Hindu caste system.
Would you call the group "moderate"? Yet these are views held by large numbers of mainstream Muslims, not just in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan but in Europe and the U.S. A Pew poll found that a majority of American Muslims prefer sharia, and one in four accepts the use of violence against other Americans who give offense to Islam, for instance, by caricaturing Mohammed.

One reason why it seems so easy to radicalize young Muslim men and turn them into murderous terrorists may well be that for a great many young Muslim men the ideological distance they must travel from mainstream beliefs to radicalization is not really all that far.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Creation of the Internet

Al Gore has for eighteen years been saddled with the accusation that he once absurdly implied that he was responsible for the creation of the internet. His defenders, on the other hand, have for as long complained that Mr. Gore has been unjustly maligned by ungenerous critics who misinterpret his words, and that he never intended to suggest that he invented anything.

I'm no fan of Mr. Gore, but I tend to agree with his defenders on this one. Here's part of the interview he gave in 1999 which led to so much merrymaking among his detractors:
A fair interpretation of his words and their context is that he's asserting that he was among the legislative leaders responsible for funding the development of the network, not that he invented it.

Whatever the case with Mr. Gore, though, Ben Tarnoff at The Guardian relates an interesting account of some of the genuinely seminal steps in the evolution of the internet, and, justly or unjustly, Mr. Gore's name doesn't appear in it even once.

Tarnoff's genesis account puts the creation event in a beer garden, of all places, near Palo Alto, California in 1976:
In the kingdom of apps and unicorns, Rossotti’s is a rarity. This beer garden in the heart of Silicon Valley has been standing on the same spot since 1852. It isn’t disruptive; it doesn’t scale. But for more than 150 years, it has done one thing and done it well: it has given Californians a good place to get drunk.

During the course of its long existence, Rossotti’s has been a frontier saloon, a gold rush gambling den, and a Hells Angels hangout. These days it is called the Alpine Inn Beer Garden, and the clientele remains as motley as ever. On the patio out back, there are cyclists in spandex and bikers in leather. There is a wild-haired man who might be a professor or a lunatic or a CEO, scribbling into a notebook. In the parking lot is a Harley, a Maserati, and a horse.

It doesn’t seem a likely spot for a major act of innovation. But 40 years ago this August, a small team of scientists set up a computer terminal at one of its picnic tables and conducted an extraordinary experiment. Over plastic cups of beer, they proved that a strange idea called the internet could work.
You can read the fascinating details at the link. The article dove-tailed, strangely, with something I read in a book I'm currently rereading. It's a biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Christian humanist scholar and reformer who was born about 1466. The biography was written in 1924 by historian John Huizinga who makes this statement:
Erasmus belonged to the generation which had grown up together with the youthful art of printing. To the world of those days it was like a newly acquired organ; people felt rich, powerful, happy in the possession of this 'almost divine implement.' ...What would Erasmus have been without the printing press? To broadcast the ancient documents, to purify and restore them, was his life's passion. The certainty that the printed book places exactly the same text in the hands of thousands of readers, was to him a consolation that former generations had lacked.
As I read this I thought that the computer - and the internet and social media to which it has given rise - is in many ways analogous to the printing press. Just as the Protestant reformation and so much else could never have happened prior to the printing and circulation of thousands of copies of books and pamphlets, so, too, could so much that happens in our world today never have come to pass without the internet and social media. The Arab Spring is perhaps a salient example.

At any rate, check out the article at the link if you're interested in the history of this world-changing innovation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Choosing Determinism

Philosopher Stephen Cave writes recently in The Atlantic that the idea that human beings have free will is dying out among scientists. The results of the experiments of neuroscientists, he argues, all seem to support the notion that at any given moment there's only one possible future. Our "choices" are determined by causes of which we may be completely unaware but which make our decisions ineluctable.

I've excerpted parts of Cave's essay below and follow the excerpts with critical comments.

Cave observes that,
In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.
It should be noted that the agreement to which he refers is a tacit consequence of a metaphysical assumption shared by many researchers - the assumption that there are no non-physical, non-material factors at play in the universe or in human beings. If physicalism or naturalism are true then determinism follows, but there's no good reason to think that either are true and lots of good reasons to think they're not.

He goes on to say that,
We know that changes to brain chemistry can alter behavior—otherwise neither alcohol nor antipsychotics would have their desired effects. The same holds true for brain structure: Cases of ordinary adults becoming murderers or pedophiles after developing a brain tumor demonstrate how dependent we are on the physical properties of our gray stuff.
Quite so, but it doesn't follow from the fact that changes in the physical brain cause changes in behavior that therefore the physical brain is all that's involved in behavior. A viewer can change the physical settings on his television and thereby change the image on the screen, but it would be foolish to conclude that therefore the image can be completely explained in terms of the workings of the television set.
Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.
This is a misreading of Libet's work, a clarification of which can be read here. Libet himself believed that human beings had free will. It would've been peculiar of him to hold this view after he had proven that the view was wrong.
The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.
If the system which produces our choices is indeed "a physical system like any other" then determinism is very probably true, but the assumption that our choices are solely the product of physical causes is an unprovable metaphysical statement of faith. If we are also possessed of an immaterial, non-physical mind or soul, as many philosophers believe, that faculty could possibly function as a locus of free choice. The only reason for thinking that such minds don't exist is an apriori commitment to physicalism.

Cave next addresses the human and social consequences of a widespread belief in the truth of determinism. They're not good:
Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency....This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?

Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.
Some philosophers have suggested that given the consequences of living consistently with an awareness of the truth of determinism that the philosophical elites ought (strange word in this context) to deceive the masses and just not tell them about it. The elites should foist upon the public a kind of Platonic Noble Lie. Cave, however, demurs:
[F]ew scholars are comfortable suggesting that people ought to believe an outright lie. Advocating the perpetuation of untruths would breach their integrity and violate a principle that philosophers have long held dear: the Platonic hope that the true and the good go hand in hand.
This is a strange reaction, it seems, for if determinism is true, why should scholars be uncomfortable promoting a lie? What would make such a tactic morally wrong if they really had no choice in employing it?
Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will.

Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower.
There's something very odd about a metaphysical view - physicalism - the implications of which are so destructive that they can't be shared even among many of those who accept the view. If a belief is such that one cannot live with it consistently there's probably something deeply wrong with the belief.

Physicalism, however, does entail determinism and as Cave points out in his essay, the consequences of determinism are bleak. For instance, if determinism is true then:
  • Praise and blame, reward and punishment, are never deserved since these assume that the recipient could have acted otherwise than he or she did act.
  • There are no moral obligations, no moral right and wrong, since morality is contingent upon uncompelled free choice.
  • There's no human dignity since dignity is predicated on the ability to make significant choices.
It's hard to see how people could live with a belief which has these consequences without falling into nihilism and despair. Yet that's where physicalism - and the closely related views called naturalism and materialism - leads.

Philosopher John Searle offers an antidote to the determinism described by Cave in this Closer to the Truth interview: