Friday, January 31, 2014

MSNBC's Boomerang

I sometimes think that some ideological partisans, particularly on the left, live in a fantasy world, or at least a different world from the one most people live in. They may not believe in a real devil, but they conjure a reality in which Lucifer roams the earth masquerading as a conservative Republican. Among his most malevolent machinations, in the minds of the crowd at the most liberal network on television, MSNBC, is the alleged conservative "war on women."

Apparently indifferent to the fact that at least as many insulting things have been said about women by the hosts of this very network than anything one can find anywhere else in mainstream media (don't take my word for it, just google the word "misogyny" plus "Keith Olbermann," "Ed Schultz," "Chris Matthews," or "Martin Bashir") the liberals at MSNBC are determined to convince the nation that if Republicans come to power, women will be confined to the attic and only allowed out when the house needs cleaning.

Now, despite having recently gotten themselves into hot water by laughing at Mitt Romney's biracial family, someone at MSNBC tweeted that conservatives will probably be offended by a television commercial for Cheerios that depicts...a biracial family.

This bit of cognitive dissonance has received so much pushback from biracial conservative families that MSNBC finally took down their ridiculous tweet. You might think that it'd occur to someone at the network to ask why they keep accusing conservatives of doing the very things they themselves have actually done and what that says about their intellectual integrity, but, no, they just march insouciantly onward ("leaning forward," they call it), convinced that conservatives are evil and need to be exposed, while apparently unaware of how foolish their hypocrisy makes them look.

A psychologist might speculate that they're engaging in a form of subliminal expiation. At some level, perhaps, the MSNBC folks are aware of their own vices and feel the need to disavow them, but they can't bring themselves to acknowledge that these egregious sins are really their own so they project them onto people who in many cases are completely innocent. It's sort of like the Old Testament practice of scapegoating.

Or maybe our imaginary psychologist might hypothesize that the folks at MSNBC suffer from a form of contempt born of jealousy. Perhaps the staff at MSNBC recognize, at some subconscious level, that those who are the objects of their mockery are actually more virtuous than they are themselves, and this recognition, bubbling up out of their id like a vague but unpleasant memory, they cannot bear. It leads them to strive to discredit their opponents by convincing their audience, and themselves, that their opponents are just as bigoted as they subconsciously know themselves to be but cannot admit to being.

Whatever the case it's a remarkable phenomenon that's unfolding at MSNBC, a kind of moral boomerang effect. So many of the indictments of alleged conservative sexism and racism hurled from this network apply a forteriori to themselves.

UPDATE: I just read that MSNBC has fired the tweeter and apologized to those offended by the tweet. That's appropriate, I suppose, but one wonders when the people who run the show there are going to stop and ask themselves what's wrong with the people they hire that they have to apologize about every other month or so for their behavior.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The President's Minimum Wage EO

Ed Morrisey at Hot Air explains why President Obama's plan to raise the minimum wage for federal contracts will be either meaningless to workers or harmful to taxpayers.

Morrisey points out that to the extent federal contractors still hire hourly workers at minimum wage, any work they do for the government will raise the cost to taxpayers since not only will the people at the bottom of the wage scale have their salaries increased but workers several grades above them will also have to be paid more to keep them ahead of the minimum.

On the other hand, if a federal contractor doesn't employ many minimum wage workers (relatively few workers, other than teenagers and part-timers work for minimum wage) then the President's executive order to raise the minimum wage for contractors doing work for the government is an empty gesture that earns him kudos only from those more inspired by good intentions than by meaningful results.

In any case, the fact that the promise of this EO has been seized upon commentators as the highlight of the President's State of the Union Address is symptomatic of the smallness of the President's aspirations for the remainder of his term. It's not that he doesn't have big dreams, of course, it's that he dare not announce what he'd really like to do - shut down the coal industry, raise taxes and gas prices, implement single-payer health care, diminish the military, expand government control of education, open our borders, severely restrict the second amendment, regulate the internet - because he's very much further to the left on these issues than are the American people, and it's not in his political interest to remind voters of that.

Unwilling to say forthrightly what he'd like to do, and unable, in any event, to get the Republicans or the nation to go along with his radical vision for the country, the President finds himself nibbling around the margins of American social policy. It's a recipe for three more years of stagnation. Given the alternative, though, stagnation may not be an altogether bad thing.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cruel Logic

A professor has given a lecture this evening in which he claims that our behavior is the product of our genetic make-up. We don't really have free will. We're pretty much at the mercy of our genes which means that we're not really responsible for what we do.

A psychopath has managed to kidnap the professor and challenges him to defend this thesis in the real world. The video, titled Cruel Logic, is pretty grim but as you watch it ask yourself, given the assumptions of the professor, what answer could he make to the psychopath's challenge.
If you were in the professor's position what could you say to save your life? Does the psychopath's behavior make sense if the professor is correct? If man truly is morally autonomous what's actually wrong with the psychopath's behavior, beyond the fact that we just don't like it?

The only way to resist the conclusion that there's really nothing wrong with what he's doing is to deny the premise that our behavior is genetically determined and that morality is a completely subjective phenomenon. But, in the absence of an objective, transcendent ground for moral behavior there is no answer.

As philosopher Richard Rorty once said, the secular man has no answer to the question, why not be cruel. Ideas do indeed have consequences.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Inevitability of Polyamory

Last fall I commented on VP (see here and here) that I thought the strongest argument against legalizing gay marriage was that if society decides that the gender of those entering into marriage no longer matters there'll be no logical barrier to concluding that neither should the number of people forming a marriage matter.

At that point marriage will be defined as a union of any combination of people who wish to legally unify their lives and if marriage were to mean pretty much anything it'll no longer have much meaning at all.

There were doubters. Respondents, many of whom support gay marriage, were nevertheless incredulous that I'd think that anyone would want to be in a group marriage (polyamorous relationship). That would be sick, some said. The courts would never allow it, said others. I, for my part, thought the skeptics were being naive about what people would do if the legal barriers to doing it were dismantled.

I cited in that original post a couple of articles which advocated the legalization of polyamorous marriages, and claimed that pressure would begin to mount in the social mainstream for the recognition of such unions.

Now comes yet another article, at CNN this time, to further bolster my prediction.

Janet Hardy argues from the existence of a number of polyamorous relationships among her acquaintances to the conclusion that polyamorous marriage should be legal. Her argument is that traditional families are becoming increasingly scarce and that they're in any case often problematic for the people in them. Thus, we should allow people to form whatever arrangements they feel comfortable with.

I'm not sure how that conclusion follows from those premises, however. She seems to be concluding that because there are these alternative arrangements therefore there ought to be these arrangements, but this commits the fallacy of deriving an ought from an is. She also seems to argue that because traditional marriage has difficulties that we should therefore allow other arrangements, but, of course, these would have difficulties as well.

But set aside these criticisms of Ms Hardy's logic. You may agree with her in thinking this would be a fine development. I'm not arguing the merits of either polyamory or gay marriage in this post. Nor do I want anyone to think or say that to oppose gay marriage is somehow "gay-bashing" or reflects hatred toward gays. That'd be both simple-minded and false.

I'm merely pointing out that if we change the laws governing marriage - which has traditionally been seen as a union of one man and one woman - so that the gender of the participants is no longer relevant we'll have no good reason to resist changing the laws so that the number of participants is no longer relevant as well. At that point marriage, family, and society will have a much different aspect than what it has been throughout most of our history. I leave it to the reader to decide whether that will be progress or not.

After describing some of the arrangements of her friends and a brief mention of some hazards of polyamory Hardy closes with this:
More problematic, of course, are issues such as child custody, inheritance, hospital visitation, etc., when more than two parties are involved. It is clear that the current legal structure of marriage cannot readily accommodate this problem....

One solution for the future, though, might be to designate "marriage" as a social institution with no legal standing and to create "civil union" as a legally recognized subtype of business partnership, available to anyone who is willing to make the appropriate commitments.

These civil unions could range from an Ozzie and Harriet nuclear pairing to a multipartner, multigenerational line marriage out of a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel. They would be required to make agreements about how they would handle the basic functions of family -- caring for children and the elderly, sharing property, ensuring succession, and so on -- and to sign contracts, just as business partners would. If they also felt the need for the social or religious status of marriage, they could seek out an institution willing to support them in that goal.

I am sure that many marriage equality opponents reading this are shouting "I told you so!" as their predictions that plural marriage would follow same-sex marriage come nightmarishly true. Many grew up as I did, in a time and place where the single-wage-earner nuclear family was the unquestioned norm and would like to see their country conform to that unrealistic standard for the rest of history.

But even then, the nuclear family was an uncomfortable fit for many, and an impossible dream for others. The America in which I want my children and grandchildren to live will make room for all kinds of families, and it will offer the same support and benefits -- legally, financially and socially -- to any family that is based on a core of love, consent and mutual responsibility. That's what "family values" should really be about.
Well, I'm not "shouting."

Monday, January 27, 2014

Nye v. Ham

Those interested in the so-called "creation-evolution" controversy might be interested in watching a debate being held on February 4th at 7:00 p.m. The debate will pit creationist Ken Ham against the popular "science guy" Bill Nye, and, because Nye is such a well-known media figure, the event has generated a lot of media attention. Details for viewing it can be found here.

Ken Ham is a creationist. Creationists hold that the book of Genesis provides an accurate picture of biological and geological origins and that any scientific conclusions which conflict with Genesis must be rejected. They also believe that ultimately all scientific findings will be seen to conform to the Genesis account.

Nye is a Darwinian evolutionist who holds that there's overwhelming evidence that life arose from a common ancestral form billions of years ago and that natural processes and forces are adequate to explain everything we see in the world today.

This might be a good time to stress that creationism is not the same thing as intelligent design (ID). Creationists like Ham, who's a young-earth creationist (YEC), hold that the world was created by God in six days about 10,000 years ago. ID, though, makes no formal claims about who the creator was, how the creator acted, or how long ago it acted. The claims of ID are much more modest than those of the creationist. ID advocates assert only that the universe and life show much evidence of having been designed by an intelligent agent and that the belief that these were the products of impersonal and blind processes is highly implausible. The designer agent could be God or it could be an inhabitant of another world in the multiverse, the process he used could have been evolutionary or more rapid, the earth could be 5 billion years old or much younger.

Whatever the case, the ID advocate argues that there's good reason to believe that the naturalistic view that natural, physical processes were alone at work in producing the universe and life is quite likely wrong. The fine-tuning of the cosmos and the ubiquity of information in the biological world are strong evidence for an intelligent provenience.

To help understand the difference between ID and YEC consider this: If it were proven beyond doubt that the Genesis account was false and that all life evolved from the same ancestral forms it would be devastating for YEC, but it wouldn't make any difference to ID.

To understand the difference between ID and naturalistic evolution consider this: If it were proven beyond doubt that the origin of life and the massive amount of biological complexity and information in living cells could be explained purely in terms of the laws of chemistry and physics it would be devastating to ID. On the other hand, if the origin of life and of biological information continue to resist explanation in purely naturalistic terms, then ID will grow proportionately more attractive to both philosophers and scientists.

In any case, ID is not represented in the Ham/Nye debate which promises to be interesting nevertheless.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ten Books People Lie About Reading

A piece by Ben Domenech at The Federalist discusses ten books that people often claim to have read but haven't. I don't know how Domenech arrived at this list, but here it is anyway for your perusal. The comments on the books are his. How many of them have you read? Tell the truth, now.

Here's Domenech:
Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me)....

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform, without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: Smith’s invisible hand is all that many people seem to know about his work, but his contributions were more sophisticated than that, rejecting a simplistic view of self-interest and greed as the motivating factors in a healthy economy.

4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: If you haven’t managed this one yet, consider that William F. Buckley, Jr. did not actually read this until he was 50, remarking then to friends: “To think I might have died without having read it.”

3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Misunderstood and misapplied by people who’ve never bothered to read it, Sun Tzu’s advice is as much a guide to war as it is to avoiding combat via deception and guile, and to only fight battles one is certain of winning.

2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Viewed by people who don’t understand the context as a guide to mendacious political gamesmanship and the use of hypocrisy and cruelty as political tools, Machiavelli’s work is likely a brilliant work of sarcastic trolling which contradicts everything else he wrote in life – which is one reason it was dedicated, sarcastically, to the Medicis who exiled and tortured him.

1. Ulysses, James Joyce: I own this book but have never read it.
There are three books on Domenech's list I haven't read, and, I'm not ashamed to say, I plan on never reading. If you're curious they're #5, #3, and #1.

I'll never read Wealth of Nations because it's eye-glazingly laborious. I won't read Art of War because I'm not sufficiently interested in the topic, and I won't read Ulysses because, well, I'm not sure why anyone has read Ulysses.

Of the books on the list that I have read, I especially recommend both of the selections at #8, as well as #7, and #6, but all of them would repay the time and effort it takes to read them (except for maybe Origin of Species which in my opinion requires a special interest in biology to appreciate). My personal favorite on the list, and in my top two or three all-time favorite books, is Hugo's Les Miserables which is a work of sheer genius.

If now you're curious about what my very favorite all-time novel is it's Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov which is also a work of genius.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Worst Thing You Can Eat

So what do you think is the worst, unhealthiest thing that you consume? If you answered sugar then you agree with the authors of this article.

Here's their lede:
A couple days ago, a group of leading medical and nutrition experts released a call for a 20-30% reduction in sugar added to packaged and processed foods over the next 3-5 years. The expert group, ‘Action on Sugar’, estimates that this change would result in a reduction of roughly 100 calories each person eats per day, and will eventually reverse the obesity epidemic. Wow. The media has picked up on this statement in a huge way, with headlines like ‘Sugar is the ‘new tobacco’, and ‘Sugar is now enemy number one in the western diet. While these headlines sound sensationalist, they are right.

A sickening amount of sugar is added to many processed foods. Some culprits are obvious. There are 9 teaspoons of sugar in a can of regular Coke or Pepsi, but others are surprising. Heinz tomato soup has 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Add two slices of white bread to that soup at nearly a teaspoon of sugar, another teaspoon or two in your coffee or tea, and that’s your entire daily sugar allowance. Sugar should comprise no more than 5% of daily energy intake, which is about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 8 teaspoons per day for men.

And what is the big deal about sugar? A calorie is a calorie – right? Well, not so much. The calories provided by sugar are void of nutrition. ‘Action on Sugar’ states it best:

Added sugar is a very recent phenomenon (c150 years) and only occurred when sugar, obtained from sugar cane, beet and corn became very cheap to produce. No other mammal eats added sugar and there is no requirement for added sugar in the human diet. This sugar is a totally unnecessary source of calories, gives no feeling of fullness and is acknowledged to be a major factor in causing obesity and diabetes both in the UK and worldwide.
Humans have no dietary requirement for added sugar. Dr Aseem Malhotra, the science director of ‘Action on Sugar’, emphasizes that the body does not require carbohydrates from sugar added to foods. Furthermore, high sugar intake may reduce the ability to regulate caloric intake, with consumption of sugar leading to eating more sugar, overeating, and ultimately to weight gain. Added sugar therefore presents a ‘double jeopardy’ of empty caloric intake that triggers further unnecessary consumption.
I'm sure many readers will see all this as very unwelcome news, but there it is nevertheless. In fact, there's even more bad news about sugar at the link. You might want to think about foregoing that jelly donut and can of coke tonight.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Douthat v. the Materialists

Russ Douthat is a New York Times columnist. Jerry Coyne is a University of Chicago biologist who, like Richard Dawkins, seems to spend more time promoting atheism than doing biology. The two have been engaging in some heady back and forth over the question whether materialism (i.e. the view that everything that exists is made up of material stuff. There's no mind, soul, or God, just atoms and energy) can provide a coherent picture of the world.

In a column at the New York Times Douthat responds to an article by Coyne at the New Republic and argues that Coyne's position is as philosophically shaky as a two-legged stool. Douthat's rebuttal to Coyne is a little long and this is just a portion of it:
What’s striking about [Coyne's] response, though, is the extent to which its own account of the secular, materialist world-picture actually illustrates precisely the problems and tensions that I was talking about, in ways that even a casual reader should find obvious but which Coyne apparently did not. He can see the weak points in a religious argument, but the weaknesses of his own side of the debate are sufficiently invisible to him that his rebuttal flirts with self-caricature.

Let me offer two examples. First, to the idea that the materialist’s purposeless cosmos poses some problems for the liberal view (or any view) of moral and political purpose in human affairs, Coyne responds:
I’m not sure what Douthat means when he says 'cosmology does not harmonize at all' with the moral picture of secularism [i.e. a view of reality that excludes God]. Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic.

But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.
So Coyne’s vision for humanity here is heroic, promethean, quasi-existentialist: Precisely because the cosmos has no architect or plan or underlying purpose, we are free to “forge” our own purposes, to “make” meaning for ourselves, to create an ethics worthy of a free species, to seize responsibility for our own lives and codes and goals rather than punting the issue to some imaginary skygod....And these self-created purposes have the great advantage of being really, truly real, whereas the purposes suggested by religion are by definition “illusory.”

Well and good. But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all?

The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit? (Let alone that they’re morally significant: But more on that below.) Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary.

It’s true that even if the conscious self is an illusion, human beings would still have purposes in the sense that any organism has purposes, and our movements — all that travel and reading and dining, in Coyne’s case — wouldn’t just be random or indeterminate. But just as nobody would describe a tree growing toward the sun or a bee returning to the hive as “forging their own purposes” in life, so too Coyne’s promethean language about human agency implies a much higher conception of what a human being IS — both in terms of the reality of consciousness and the freedom afforded to it — than his world-picture will allow.
It's a fascinating debate and Douthat has much more to say in his defense at the link, but I'd like to note that there is indeed something peculiar about a materialist like Coyne arguing on one hand that the human self is nothing but an illusory collocation of atomic particles and on the other that there's meaning and purpose to this pile of atoms, or, as he argues in his New Republic column, that the behavior of the clump of matter that is you or I somehow has moral significance.

If Coyne is right, if materialism is true, then biologist E.O.Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse are loser to the truth than Coyne when they claim in an article they co-authored, that morality "is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate" with each other. In other words, the belief that it is really objectively wrong to abuse a child or to rape a woman or to scam the elderly out of their life savings, is, on materialism, simply an illusion. These behaviors have no object moral value at all.

Biologist Will Provine puts it this way: "Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear – and these are basically Darwin’s views: There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death....There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will..."

The materialist's worldview makes for a pretty bleak picture of life if one were to live it consistently. Let me close with a quote from another materialist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote of the view of life he, as an atheistic materialist, embraces:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that 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 that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The First Holocaust

What worldview assumptions would lead people to do what Kaiser Wilhelm II did in the 1880s in Africa, and what are the intellectual seeds of those assumptions? Here's the story:
[T]here was a holocaust under the Second Reich of the Kaiser just as there was one under the Third Reich of Hitler. You may not have heard of the Herero and Nama peoples. This is not surprising; the Kaiser almost succeeded in removing them from the face of Earth.

The tragic story of Kaiser Wilhelm II's holocaust against the Herero and Nama begins in 1883 when the German flag was raised on the coast of South-West Africa, the first conquest of Germany's African empire.

Deutsch-Sudwestafrika (now Namibia) was more than a place in the sun, it was a testing ground for Lebensraum, the German word for living space. The Lebensraum policy of expansion was advocated by the 19th-century German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who distorted Darwin's theory of evolution to proclaim that migration was necessary for a race's survival.
Whether this was a distortion of Darwinian theory or a reasonable inference deduced from it can be debated, but the main point is that Darwin taught, and many subsequent intellectuals believed, that every species is in competition for resources and thus for survival. If one accepts this then it seems reasonable to conclude that the "evolutionary imperative" of survival of the most biologically fit would entail that one is justified in seizing resources from competitors and eliminating the competition where possible.
It was a policy later adopted by the Nazi Party, but back in the 19th century an uncrowded "New Germany" was to be created on African soil. The seizure of land from the Herero and Nama peoples was conveniently alibied by their "inferior" racial status.

The Herero and Nama were not "savages", indeed many Nama were the mixed-race, Christian offspring of earlier Dutch settlers.

After two decades of having their cattle and land stolen by German immigrants the Herero, under their chief Samuel Maharero, revolted. The Berlin government accordingly dispatched Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha and 14,000 soldiers to the insurgent colony in 1904. General Trotha's task was more than subduing the Herero insurrection. He was to conduct a "racial struggle" against them. Trotha announced his programme with chilling clarity: "I believe that the nation [the Herero] as such should be annihilated. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain."

After beating the Herero in the battle of Waterberg, Trotha drove the survivors into the pitiless Omaheke desert with the intention they should die from thirst and starvation. Waterholes were poisoned by "cleansing patrols" of the Schutztruppe, the colonial army, to prevent the Herero from using them.

In Berlin the German general staff publicly lauded Trotha for his "extermination" measures. By 1905 Herero fugitives still alive in the Omaheke were too weak to do anything but surrender. They were rounded up, put into cattle wagons and sent by train to concentration camps, where they became slave labour for the colony's new railways.

Women were systematically raped by Schutztruppen, the incidents turned into photographs by the new-fangled Kodak roll-fill camera. The pictures were then sent as pornographic postcards to Germany.

Food was so scarce in the concentration camps that, according to a witness, when rations were distributed, "prisoners fought like wild animals and killed each other to secure a share". Inmates died in nightmarish numbers; after two years the main concentration camp at windswept Shark Island near Luderitz was obliged to close; most of its inhabitants had perished. Even the German soldiers called Shark Island "The Death Camp".

A sane wing of the German establishment, including the chancellor Bernhard von Bulow, tried to stop the outrages as "contrary to Christian and humanitarian principle". Bulow was also aware that the genocide was damaging to Germany's international reputation. The Daily Express was one of the many British papers that gave the "war" against the Herero coverage.

Not until 1907 did domestic and international pressure succeed in making the Kaiser call off the holocaust. By then the Herero population had gone from 100,000 to 15,000 and half of the 10,000-strong Nama had been killed.
When men see each other as nothing more than the products of blind, impersonal nature, when they see life as a struggle for the survival of the fittest, when they no longer believe that each human being is created in the image of God because they no longer believe in God - or have a distorted concept of God - it's easy to see other races as inferior and it's easy to justify killing them.

It was a distorted concept of God (and of one's duty to God) that led to the Spanish atrocities against the Indians in Central America in the 16th century and at least some of the severe treatment of Indians in North America in the 19th century. It was also a distorted concept of God that allowed the consciences of slave traders and North American slave owners alike to remain untroubled about treating members of other races like livestock. And it was the complete lack of belief in God, added to the belief that man is engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival and the belief that the fittest will prevail in that struggle, that led to the horrific exterminations of the twentieth century, not just those conducted by the Nazis, but those perpetrated by Stalin against the Ukrainians, by the Japanese against the Chinese in Nanking, by Mao against his own people in the Cultural Revolution, by Pol Pot against his own people in Cambodia, by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda, and many other similar horrors throughout what was surely the bloodiest century in human history.

Ideas have consequences. The ideas of 19th century materialism - the idea that there's no objective ground for morality, that we're not essentially different from other animals in nature, and that nature is "red in tooth and claw" - provided the philosophical pretext for historically unprecedented mass exterminations in the twentieth century to which Kaiser Wilhelm's genocide in South West Africa was just a prelude.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why We Need Sleep

According to the Washington Post recent research has confirmed some theories about why human beings, and other animals, require sleep. During sleep the brain is bathed in cerebrospinal fluid that removes waste products and other toxins that accumulate during waking hours.

Staying up all night, the article says, could prevent the brain from getting rid of these toxins efficiently, and this would explain why sleep deprivation results in mental fog, crankiness, and increased risks of migraine and seizure.

Here's part of the WaPo's story:
Last year, [University of Rochester neurosurgeon] Maiken Nedergaard and her colleagues discovered a network that drains waste from the brain, which they dubbed the glymphatic system. It works by circulating cerebrospinal fluid throughout the brain tissue and flushing any resulting waste into the bloodstream, which then carries it to the liver for detoxification.

She then became curious about how the glymphatic system behaves during the sleep-wake cycle.

An imaging technique called two-photon microscopy enabled the scientists to watch the movement of cerebrospinal fluid through a live mouse brain in real time. After soothing the creature until it was sound asleep, study author Lulu Xie tagged the fluid with a special fluorescent dye.

“During sleep, the cerebrospinal fluid flushed through the brain very quickly and broadly,” said Rochester neuropharmacologist Xie. As another experiment revealed, sleep causes the space between cells to increase by 60 percent, allowing the flow to increase.

Xie then gently touched the mouse’s tail until it woke up from its nap, and she again injected it with dye. This time, with the mouse awake, flow in the brain was greatly constrained.

“Brain cells shrink when we sleep, allowing fluid to enter and flush out the brain,” Nedergaard said. “It’s like opening and closing a faucet.”

They also found that the harmful beta-amyloid protein clears out of the brain twice as fast in a sleeping rodent as in an up-and-about one. The study was published in the journal Science on Thursday.

New York University cell biologist and Alzheimer’s specialist Ralph A. Nixon, who was not involved in the study, said the findings could be of great interest to the Alzheimer’s research community. For instance, the overproduction of beta-amyloid could be linked to the development of the disease, but he said these new findings hint that the lack of clearing it out might be the bigger problem.

Other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are also associated with a backup of too much cell waste in the brain. “Clearance mechanisms may be very relevant to keeping these proteins at a level that isn’t disease-causing,” Nixon said.
There's more on this at the link.

So, if you're a college student who likes to stay up late and has to get up early and you wonder why you can't stay awake in class, it's because your brain is polluted with toxins and you may be on your way to Alzheimer's. Turn off the computer and get some sleep.

Monday, January 20, 2014

How Far We've Come

When I was in high school in a suburb of Philadelphia in the early '60s there was a working class ethnic neighborhood not far from mine into which a black couple named Baker wished to move. The neighborhood, named Delmar Village, was all-white and there was a great deal of turmoil generated by residents who wanted to keep it that way. The mob smashed the windows of the Baker home and attacked police. Mounted state police were called in to quell the disturbances that lasted for at least a week and which at the time were called a race riot by the media.

The black family believed they had a constitutional right to live wherever they wished and could afford. Presumably, they wanted their children to have the same opportunities that white children of similar economic means had. The white residents, or many of them, felt that regardless of what the constitution says about equality under the law, the black family had no place in that neighborhood. They didn't belong there by virtue of their skin color.

Martin Luther King Day is a good time to reflect on that awful episode and lament the bigotry that leads one American to tell another that he has no place in a neighborhood simply because of his race. But even though this event happened fifty years ago last August and September, and even though we've come a long way in many respects since those years, that kind of bigotry is still around today, not just among the lower socio-economic classes of both whites and blacks, but at the highest levels of the liberal-progressive movement in this country.

As a case in point consider the statement last Friday by the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who said this about conservatives:
"Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are."
In other words, people who believe that we should protect the weakest among us by protecting their right to life, and people who believe that the second amendment of the Constitution allows them to defend themselves and their families are extremists and have no place among the good people of the state of New York.

It's not clear what Mr. Cuomo means by being "anti-gay," but if he's referring to people who oppose gay marriage then he's saying that those who hold a view of marriage that almost everyone held up until the day before yesterday are extremists and also have no place among tolerant New Yorkers.

This is what Jonah Goldberg calls "liberal fascism." It's the sort of bigotry that says to people "We don't want your kind here. You have no place in our neighborhood, not because you don't look like us, but because you don't think like us." It's the kind of bigotry in which one American tells other Americans that, regardless of what the Constitution says, their opinions are so odious that liberals don't want them living in even the same state as they live in.

Cuomo's statement is ironic on several levels. It's ironic because liberals like to appear in public clothed in the theoretical raiment of tolerance and diversity, but in practice, they're intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them, and their openness to diversity only applies to things like skin color, gender identity, and sexual preference. Ideological diversity is unwelcome.

It's ironic because the governor is proposing to exile from the state probably 50% or more of its citizens for the crime of embracing both traditional views of marriage and constitutional freedoms.

It's ironic because the governor refers to conservatives as holding extreme views, but which is more extreme, to protect unborn children or to kill them at a rate of a million annually? Which is more extreme, to honor a provision of a constitution which has governed this country for two centuries or to seek to abrogate it? Which is more extreme, to hold to a view of marriage that has thousands of years of tradition behind it or to revise and probably end it for the sake of a notion of equality that was unheard of just a a few decades ago?

The governor's statement is also ironic because it's symptomatic of exactly the sort of thinking that led not only to the riot in Delmar Village in 1963, but also to the Japanese internment camps during WWII, and to the expulsion of Indians from Georgia and elsewhere in the 19th century, all of which liberals rightly deplore.

The tactic of the liberal fascists is to cover their own extremism in octopus ink while hurling the allegation at anyone with whom they have a political disagreement. I suppose it works with the uninformed, the gullible, and those who wish to be gulled, but I think we'd do well to recall the words of Martin Luther King who longed for the day when his children (and ours) would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin (or on which side of the ideological divide they reside).

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why Birds Fly in a V

I found this report pretty interesting:
Scientists have found that birds position themselves and time their wing beats so perfectly that, according to aerodynamic theory, they minimize their energy use. It's a task that requires each bird to monitor subtle changes in its wing mates' flight and alter its own path and stroke accordingly.

The new results "once again remind us that animals are much more complicated … than we often give them credit for," says Kenny Breuer, a professor of engineering and ecology at Brown University who was not involved with the study. "They're reacting in very sophisticated ways to maintain these V formations."

Aircraft can save fuel by flying in a V, leading scientists to predict how closely bunched birds in a V-shaped flock should be to save the most energy. But it's no easy feat to measure the coordinates of a bunch of geese or gulls flying fast and high overhead. "It's not something you can do with a pair of binoculars and timing it 'one Mississippi, two Mississippi,' " says study author James Usherwood of Britain's Royal Veterinary College.

When the researchers analyzed the data from 14 young ibises flying in a V, they found that each ibis placed itself an average of four feet behind the bird in front of it and at an average angle of 45 degrees. That's just the configuration needed for individual birds to catch the rising air generated by the flapping of the bird in front of it. By capturing this rising air, or "upwash," the bird stays aloft more efficiently.

But the birds do more to save their strength than simply choosing the right spot. Measurements of the ibises' flaps showed the birds time their wing beats so precisely that they continually catch the upwash left behind by the moving wings of the guy or gal ahead. That means a bird regulates its stroke so its own wingtips trace the same path in the sky as the bird in front. If a bird happens to get a little closer to or farther from the bird it's following, it instantly adjusts its wing beat accordingly, the researchers report in this week's Nature.
At the end of the video at the link a researcher muses over the question why smaller birds don't also fly in v-formations. My theory is that perhaps large birds use this pattern, in part, to take advantage of the aerodynamic benefits, but also to avoid collisions with other birds in traffic. By aligning themselves with regular spacing they diminish the chances of banging into surrounding members of the flock which would be catastrophic for large flyers like geese and swans.

Smaller, less massive birds are able to react and maneuver much more quickly than large birds, which means the smaller birds can fly in tight flocks without colliding with their neighbors. Moreover, it may be that smaller birds don't create the air turbulence that bigger birds do so the aerodynamic benefits of flying in a formation are probably not as great for the smaller birds.

I have not a shred of scientific evidence to back any of this up, of course, but that's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Here's a video of a starling murmuration that shows smaller birds maneuvering and reacting to each other in ways that appear instantaneous and which make collision avoidance seem almost miraculous:

Friday, January 17, 2014

Liberalism and Pederasty

A comment cited in a VP post the other day led me to wonder. The comment was a snide remark about Catholic priests and their affinity for sex with boys. Many of these sorts of remarks, as well as serious moral condemnations of pederast priests, are made by people who are politically liberal which is what I found puzzling.

Why, I wondered, do liberals condemn priests who prey upon boys? Why do they think such behavior should be illegal? It would seem to me that such predilections and practices are perfectly consistent with mainstream liberal assumptions.

For example, the thinking can't be that guilty priests are to be mocked and punished because of their attraction to males. That, of course, would be absurd given liberal attitudes toward homosexuality and homosexual marriage.

Nor can the reason for liberal contempt for the offending clerics be that these older men are sexually attracted to younger boys. What, on liberalism, is wrong with that? If the priests are born with a disposition toward boys how can a liberal say the disposition is wrong? And if the liberal maintains that the attraction is not a genetic condition but rather a choice for which the offender is morally responsible then why does not the same response apply to homosexuality in general?

Evidently, the liberal believes that the moral culpability of the pederast lies in the fact that he, an adult, is imposing his will on weaker children, often to their hurt, who are relatively powerless and uncomprehending. In other words, the immoral aspect of pederasty is that it exploits and often harms the unwilling weak for the benefit of the powerful, but, if so, how can a liberal condemn that?

That's precisely what happens in an abortion, the right to which is almost sacramental in liberalism. Unwavering support for the right of the powerful to harm the weak, via abortion, without the consent of the weak is the sine qua non for membership in good standing among the liberal elite. No one who opposes that right would ever win the nomination for president in the Democrat Party. How then can the same people who affirm the goodness of such a right then turn around and condemn those who use their power to abuse boys?

Perhaps it might be replied that whereas the unborn child is in the mother's body, over which she has ultimate authority, the pederast's victim is not similarly situated and therefore not subject to the abuser's authority over his own body. Perhaps, but one's sovereignty over one's body can only extend to the point where another person's body is involved. I can perhaps do whatever I wish with my own body, but I haven't the moral right to do whatever I wish to the body of another person, regardless of where the other person is located. To argue that one has a right to evict an unwanted person from one's body by killing it makes no more sense than arguing that one has the right to evict by killing it an innocent child who has accidentally wandered into one's home.

So maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that if one is in favor of abortion on demand in general, and late-term abortion in particular, one has no basis for condemning those who sexually molest young boys, whether the molesters are Catholic priests or anyone else.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Cosmological Argument

Here's a brief and very accessible explanation of one of the most powerful arguments for the existence of a being which, if it does exist, would be very much like the God of traditional theism.

The argument is called the Kalam version of the cosmological argument, and, as the name suggests, it has roots in both Islamic and Christian thought. The argument has experienced something of a rebirth since the acceptance in the latter half of the twentieth century of the standard Big Bang model of the origin of the universe and has been especially prominent in the work of philosopher William Lane Craig.
Notice a couple of things. The argument is not a proof that God exists. It simply points out that both premises are more reasonable to believe than their alternatives and, since the conclusion follows from the premises, it's more reasonable to believe it than it is to believe its alternative - i.e. that the universe has no cause.

Of course one can argue that even if the universe has a cause that cause is not necessarily the God of traditional monotheism. This contention becomes less plausible, however, when we inquire as to what we can reasonably infer about this cause from the effect (the universe) it has produced.

As the video points out, the cause would have to transcend space and time since these are physical constituents of the universe. It would also have to be very powerful to be able to cause a universe to come into being, and, we might add, it would have to be very intelligent to design a universe that exhibits the amazing mathematical precision ours does. We might also think that, since the universe contains rational, personal beings (us), it's reasonable to suppose that the ultimate cause of such beings is itself rational and personal.

If these inferences are valid then we're very close to the existence of a being not unlike the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Even so, one attribute traditionally imputed to God that we cannot derive from this chain of reasoning, as far as I can see, is his goodness. The universe is morally ambiguous and so to arrive at the conclusion that its creator is omnibenevolent requires other resources and arguments.

Nevertheless, establishing the reasonableness of believing that there exists a being that possesses the attributes that a creator of this universe must have is not insignificant. In fact, in my opinion, it brings us so close to the God of monotheism that it makes the denial of the existence of such a being, seem intellectually perverse.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Racial Bigotry and In the Absence of God

One of the comments I sometimes get from readers of my novel In the Absence of God is that they were somewhat surprised that, in their estimation, much is made of interracial dating in the book. In the opinion of these readers this is just not a concern in these enlightened times.

I'd offer two responses to this criticism. First, I don't think that the book makes that big a deal of it, and second, if anyone thinks that interracial romances are no longer an issue perhaps they should talk to the actress Tamera Mowry. Mowry recently discussed her own experience with Oprah Winfrey:
It’s no secret that “Sister Sister” star Tamera Mowry is blissfully married to Fox News correspondent Adam Housely, but what some might not have known is that the actress has faced intense online abuse over their mixed-race relationship. Mowry, 35, tearfully recounted the name-calling and mistreatment she has received as a result of her marriage to Housely in an interview for Oprah Winfrey’s “Oprah: Where Are They Now?”

She appeared on the segment alongside her twin sister and co-star Tia. The response from online haters has apparently been so intense that Mowry told Winfrey she never experienced “so much hate” in her life until after her 2011 nuptials, the Daily Mail reported.

“See, this is where I get emotional, because it’s hurtful,” Mowry said through tears. “Because when my husband and I are so openly — and we’re fine with showing — in love. Love. But people choose to look past love and spew hate.”
The story at the Daily Mail has more details, particularly about where the hurtful comments are coming from. It really is sad that in 2014 it's still very hard for some people to see past skin color, but apparently it is, and In the Absence of God captures a relatively small and quite mild slice of this bit of social reality.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Know Nothings

I've noted in this space on a number of occasions that most of the racial bigotry in this country today is found lurking on the ideological left. This may seem counterintuitive, given the rhetoric of equality with which the left often lectures us, but examples of liberal attitudes that belie the rhetoric aren't hard to find. Nor is it at all difficult to document the claim that most contemporary anti-semitism and anti-Christian bigotry is on the left as well.

An example of the latter comes in the pages of a mainstream journal of opinion, U.S. News and World Report. U.S. News last week published a column by a woman named Jamie Stiehm which was noteworthy for its explicit anti-Catholic animus. The provocation which induced Stiehm's choler was the decision by Catholic Supreme Court jurist Sonia Sotomayor to grant a temporary stay to an organization of nuns who objected to being forced by Obamacare to provide contraception to anyone covered by their insurance.

Here are a few excerpts from Steihm's rant which sounds, mutatis mutandis, like something lifted right out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion:
The Supreme Court is now best understood as the Extreme Court. One big reason why is that six out of nine Justices are Catholic. Let's be forthright about that. (The other three are Jewish.) Sotomayor, appointed by President Obama, is a Catholic who put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence. What a surprise, but that is no small thing.
How, exactly, Sotomayor "put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence" Stiehm doesn't bother to tell us, but never mind. There's a conspiracy afoot to bring religious beliefs into the public square and Catholics, don't you know, are the main conspirators. Sotomayor is a Catholic, Stiehm's reasoning seems to run, so what she did must have been an attempt to impose religion on the non-religious, or something:
Sotomayor's blow brings us to confront an uncomfortable reality. More than WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse and institutions. Especially if "you" are female. This is not true of all Catholics – just look at House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. But right now, the climate is so cold when it comes to defending our settled legal ground that Sotomayor's stay is tantamount to selling out the sisterhood. And sisterhood is not as powerful as it used to be, ladies.

Catholics in high places of power have the most trouble, I've noticed, practicing the separation of church and state. The pugnacious Catholic Justice, Antonin Scalia, is the most aggressive offender on the Court, but not the only one. Of course, we can't know for sure what Sotomayor was thinking, but it seems she has joined the ranks of the five Republican Catholic men on the John Roberts Court in showing a clear religious bias when it comes to women's rights and liberties.
Ms Stiehm holds an odd view of the separation of church and state. She apparently thinks that no belief one holds should be acted upon in the public arena if the provenience of that belief happens to be in any way religious. This view automatically disqualifies anyone who takes his or her religious beliefs seriously from holding any position of public power. The liberal Ms Stiehm is tacitly doing what liberals have long decried - she's seeking to impose a religious test for suitability for public office:
We can no longer be silent about this. Thomas Jefferson, the principal champion of the separation between state and church, was thinking particularly of pernicious Rome in his writings. He deeply distrusted the narrowness of Vatican hegemony.

The seemingly innocent Little Sisters were likely not acting alone in their trouble-making. Their big brothers, the meddlesome American Roman Catholic Archbishops are bound to be involved. They seek and wield tremendous power and influence in the political sphere. Big city mayors know their penchant for control all too well. Their principal target for years on end has been squelching women and girls – even when they should have focused on their own men and boys.
Imagine. Prelates having influence over their flock. What a scandal. Of course, there's nothing wrong with Democratic aldermen or union bosses wielding tremendous power in our cities, but if the leaders of the Church wield influence they're being "meddlesome." And, in Ms Stiehm's universe, everyone knows that the Church has been squelching women and girls for years. Just how they've been doing this and what this has to do with a liberal female Supreme Court Justice granting a temporary stay to an organization of female nuns, other than providing a pretext for a gratuitous insinuation of clerical pederasty, is a bit of a mystery.

It's also a mystery as to which "archbishops" she's talking about. Perhaps she meant "bishops" rather than "archbishops." One might think she should know the difference, but bigots can't be bothered with details like accuracy.
In one stroke with ominous implications, there's no such thing as Catholic justice or mercy for women on the Supreme Court, not even from a woman. The rock of Rome refuses to budge on women's reproductive rights and the Supreme Court is getting good and ready to strike down Roe v. Wade, which became the law of the land 40 years ago.
This is absurd given how limited Sotomayor's stay actually was, but worse than the absurdity is the contempt that seeps through in almost every paragraph, contempt for both the Catholic Church and for anyone who would object to the left's imposition of its values on the rest of society. It's more than ironic that Steihm is comfortable with secularists imposing their values on the rest of us, but she's driven to outrage that people, motivated by their moral understanding, would seek to resist.

It should be remembered that this essay was approved by Stiehm's editors and others at U.S. News who apparently think it's okay to say such things about Christians in general and Catholics in particular. Would this article have ever seen the light of day, indeed, would it ever have been written, were it about blacks, gays, or Muslims? Of course not, but in liberal precincts a writer is celebrated for having the "courage" to express her disdain for Catholics.

In the 1850s there was a political organization which promoted views about Catholics that were of a piece with those Ms Stiehm seems to hold. The group was called, appropriately enough, the "Know Nothings." Ms Stiehm could be an honorary member.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Smart Pills

I know this is going to sound like one of those ads that turns up in your inbox touting the discovery of some miracle drug that will bestow all sorts of amazing capabilities, usually of a sexual nature, upon whomever shells out a couple hundred dollars and their bank account number to the advertiser. But it's not, it's apparently a legitimate and remarkable scientific development.

Researchers at Harvard believe they've found a drug that actually restores the brain's capacity for learning back to what it was when it was at its peak at age seven. Here's the crux of the story:
[W]hat if it were possible for the adult mind to revert back to a more porous state of learning?

That's the subject of an investigation by Takao Hensch, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, who is studying a drug that may make it dramatically easier for grown-ups to absorb new skills and information — almost as if they were seven years old or younger.

The key ingredient here is valproic acid. Normally, it's used to treat neurological disorders like seizures and epilepsy, and various other mood disorders. But Hensch claims it may help restore plasticity in the adult brain.

In a new experiment, Hensch used valproic acid to bestow the gift of perfect pitch to a group of adult males between the ages of 18 to 27. Here's how NPR describes it:
Hensch gave the drug to a group of healthy, young men who had no musical training as children. They were asked to perform tasks online to train their ears, and at the end of a two-week period, tested on their ability to discriminate tone, to see if the training had more effect than it normally would at their age.

In other words, he gave people a pill and then taught them to have perfect pitch. The findings are significant: "It's quite remarkable since there are no known reports of adults acquiring absolute pitch," he says.
"Plasticity in the adult brain," the story says. I don't know if valproic acid works, but if it turns out to be safe, and if it helps folks whose brains no longer have any more plasticity than their joints do, I want some.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Governor and the President

If New Jersey Governor Chris Christie knew about the decision to deliberately snarl traffic in Fort Lee by closing traffic lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge, and did it, as has been alleged, to punish the Democrat mayor of that town for failing to support him, he should resign. There should be no place in our politics for people who abuse their power to punish political opponents and who demonstrate such callous disregard for innocent people.

Of course, if Gov. Christie should be held accountable for this scandal (and he should), how much more should President Obama be held accountable for his numerous and much more serious abuses and illegalities. What Christie did was unconscionable, but compared to illegally supplying weapons to Mexican drug lords - weapons that were subsequently used in hundreds if not thousands of murders, compared to refusing to boost security for our diplomats in Libya and then lying to the American people about the murders of four of them in Benghazi, compared to illegally using the IRS to punish political opponents, compared to widespread spying on reporters and the American people, compared to allowing the health care website to go online when it clearly wasn't ready after having had five years to develop at enormous expense to taxpayers, what Christie did was, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, mere jaywalking.

But, I can hear someone say, the President claims not to have known about any of these high crimes and misdemeanors. That's true, and maybe he didn't (in which case one must question his competence), but Gov. Christie also makes the same claim and few believe him. Why should Gov. Christie be disbelieved but President Obama be believed?

Jay Leno had it right the other evening when he quipped that "now that Gov. Christie has denied knowing anything about what his subordinates were doing he sounds much more presidential." Christie certainly does sound a lot like President Obama.

Okay, it might be replied, but Gov. Christie recklessly hurt or inconvenienced innocent people in order to punish political foes. Indeed, but closing the Mall to tourists (but not to open-borders demonstrators) was a terrible inconvenience to a lot of people, and surely the inconveniences suffered by many innocent people in Fort Lee are not comparable to the hundreds of deaths at the hands of thugs armed with weapons by our Department of Justice or the dead and wounded diplomats in Benghazi.

Moreover, it was President Obama who famously assured an audience of Latino supporters that he would punish his enemies and reward his friends. It was candidate Obama who threatened his political enemies in 2008 that if they bring a knife to the fight he'll bring a gun.

The willingness of Mr. Christie's aides to punish opponents is repugnant, but it's no more so than the willingness of Mr. Obama's underlings to illegally use the power of the IRS to suppress conservative political groups, or to use the NSA to spy on citizens, or to close, during the government shutdown, public facilities that didn't need to be closed.

There is, however, one significant difference between Gov. Christie and President Obama. Governor Christie fired the person responsible for giving the order to create the chaos in Fort Lee. No one in the Obama administration has been held noticeably accountable for any of the wrongdoing, incompetence, or sheer stupidity that has accompanied Mr. Obama's tenure in office - not Eric Holder, not Kathleen Sebelius, not Hillary Clinton, not Lois Lerhner, not James Clapper - neither them nor any of their subordinates have been cashiered for so poorly serving the American people.

The Obama administration's astonishing record of abuse of power notwithstanding in the twenty four hours after the Christie story broke there was already seventeen times as much media coverage of it than there has been of just the IRS scandal in the six months since it became public. What could account for such a disparity if we assume the media to be comprised of men and women of professional integrity?

Every media and political critic of Gov. Christie's behavior in this sordid episode should be asked a few simple questions: "Are you prepared to heap a proportional measure of criticism upon President Obama for the much more serious malfeasance of his administration? If you're calling for an end to Gov. Christie's political career over this (and, if he's guilty, I join the call) are you prepared to demand the resignation of Barack Obama whose presidency has been far more scandal-ridden and corrupt than Christie's governorship? If not, how do you justify treating the two men differently?"

It seems to me that many of Christie's critics are like a judge who punishes a purse-snatcher with a life sentence while letting Bernie Madoff go free.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Asia Bibi

Robert Spencer at Pajamas Media tells us the story of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for defending her faith against the insults of a group of Muslim women. She recently wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking him to intervene on her behalf. Here's what happened:
Picking fruit with a group of Muslim women, Bibi was ordered to fetch water for them – and drank a bit of it herself in the stifling heat. A Muslim woman rebuked her for doing so, saying to the other women: “Listen, all of you, this Christian has dirtied the water in the well by drinking from our cup and dipping it back several times. Now the water is unclean and we can’t drink it! Because of her!”

Bibi stood up to her, responding: “I think Jesus would see it differently from Mohammed.” That drove the Muslim women into a fury, and they started yelling at Bibi: “How dare you think for the Prophet, you filthy animal!” That’s right, you’re just a filthy Christian! You’ve contaminated our water and now you dare speak for the Prophet! Stupid bitch, your Jesus didn’t even have a proper father, he was a bastard, don’t you know that. You should convert to Islam to redeem yourself for your filthy religion.”

The embattled woman stood her ground, responding: “I’m not going to convert. I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind? And why should it be me that converts instead of you?”

Several days later, she was arrested for blasphemy as an enraged mob beat her and screamed, “Death! Death to the Christian!” She has been in prison ever since, awaiting execution for her “crime.”

In her letter to Pope Francis, Bibi wrote: “I do not know how long I can go on and on. If I am still alive, it is thanks to the strength that your prayers give me. I have met many people who speak and fight for me. Unfortunately still to no avail. At this time I just want to trust the mercy of God, who can do everything, that all is possible. Only He can liberate me.”
Spencer goes on to say that many Christians and Christian organizations are afraid to speak out against the barbarism this woman is suffering for fear of offending Muslims with whom they are in "inter-faith dialogue." He also expresses doubts, mixed with hope that he's wrong, that Pope Francis will be inclined to take up her cause.

It's ironic that many Americans think that Muslims are discriminated against in this country. Most of these people are apparently ignorant of what real discrimination looks like. They evidently believe that it's discriminatory to express a negative or critical view of a particular religion or ethnic group. They should ask Asia Bibi and the hundreds of thousands of other Christians who are being persecuted, tortured, and killed in communist countries like North Korea and throughout the Muslim world how discrimination, bigotry, and other forms of stupidity and hatred cash out in the lives of the people who are victimized by it.

They would do well to read a book like Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea which documents a portion of the persecution suffered by so many Christians around the globe and then they might realize that being the object of anxious glances in an airport is hardly comparable to the misery inflicted by communists and Muslims on Christians almost wherever Christians are politically powerless.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Twilight of Masculinity

A couple of articles highlight, from different perspectives, the changing nature, or, more precisely, the disintegration, of masculinity in our society. The first is an interview with feminist scholar Camille Paglia who asserts that our civilization is committing suicide by trying to erase traditional masculinity. Here are a few excerpts:
"What you're seeing is how a civilization commits suicide," says Camille Paglia.... When Ms. Paglia, now 66, burst onto the national stage in 1990 with the publishing of "Sexual Personae," she immediately established herself as a feminist who was the scourge of the movement's establishment, a heretic to its orthodoxy. Pick up the 700-page tome, subtitled Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, and it's easy to see why. "If civilization had been left in female hands," she wrote, "we would still be living in grass huts."

But no subject gets her going more than when I ask if she really sees a connection between society's attempts to paper over the biological distinction between men and women and the collapse of Western civilization.

She starts by pointing to the diminished status of military service. "The entire elite class now, in finance, in politics and so on, none of them have military service—hardly anyone, there are a few. But there is no prestige attached to it anymore.

That is a recipe for disaster," she says. "These people don't think in military ways, so there's this illusion out there that people are basically nice, people are basically kind, if we're just nice and benevolent to everyone they'll be nice too. They literally don't have any sense of evil or criminality."

Ms. Paglia argues that the softening of modern American society begins as early as kindergarten. "Primary-school education is a crock, basically. It's oppressive to anyone with physical energy, especially guys," she says, pointing to the most obvious example: the way many schools have cut recess. "They're making a toxic environment for boys. Primary education does everything in its power to turn boys into neuters."

She is not the first to make this argument, as Ms. Paglia readily notes. Fellow feminist Christina Hoff Sommers has written about the "war against boys" for more than a decade. The notion was once met with derision, but now data back it up: Almost one in five high-school-age boys has been diagnosed with ADHD, boys get worse grades than girls and are less likely to go to college.

By her lights, things only get worse in higher education. "This PC gender politics thing—the way gender is being taught in the universities—in a very anti-male way, it's all about neutralization of maleness." The result: Upper-middle-class men who are "intimidated" and "can't say anything. . . . They understand the agenda."

Politically correct, inadequate education, along with the decline of America's brawny industrial base, leaves many men with "no models of manhood," she says. "Masculinity is just becoming something that is imitated from the movies. There's nothing left. There's no room for anything manly right now." The only place you can hear what men really feel these days, she claims, is on sports radio. No surprise, she is an avid listener. The energy and enthusiasm "inspires me as a writer," she says, adding: "If we had to go to war," the callers "are the men that would save the nation."

A key part of the remedy, she believes, is a "revalorization" of traditional male trades—the ones that allow women's studies professors to drive to work (roads), take the elevator to their office (construction), read in the library (electricity), and go to gender-neutral restrooms (plumbing).
Actually, I'm not sure why she says there are no models of manhood. The Obama team a couple of weeks ago famously offered, presumably for our emulation, a stirring example of its paradigm of American manhood:



On the other hand, there is much to what Paglia says. When boys are suspended from elementary school for shaping a pop tart like a gun or kissing a girl on the hand then its clear that maleness is being suppressed and boys are being taught that to be a normal boy is somehow inherently bad.

The title of the second article states that men are, or are becoming, obsolete, but the article itself, written by Hannah Rosin, argues for a more modest proposition. She maintains that traditional masculine roles are no longer the norm in American society, a fact in which she seems to take no little delight.

She gives five reasons in support of her thesis and elaborates on each in her essay. Here are her reasons for believing that we're witnessing the end of men:
  1. It’s the end of men because men are failing in both school and the workplace and women are succeeding.
  2. It’s the end of men because the traditional household, propped up by the male breadwinner, is vanishing.
  3. It’s the end of men because we can see it in the attitudes of single mothers in the working and middle class who decline to marry because a husband would be "just another mouth to feed."
  4. It’s the end of men because men have lost their monopoly on violence and aggression.
  5. It’s the end of men because men, too, are now obsessed with their body hair.
Rosin adds this:
Obsolete does not mean worthless. It means outmoded. The twin combustion engine made the bicycle obsolete but that doesn’t mean we hate the bicycle. We just use it the way we want to, while recognizing the necessity of efficiency and change. We don’t have to turn men into eunuchs. We can keep whatever we like about manhood but adjust the parts of the definition that are keeping men back.
Now what do you suppose the reaction would be were a man to write a paragraph like this about women? Would the media not be filled with apoplectic shrieks and howls about a "war" on women? Yet Rosin can write this about men and her readers wistfully picture Pajama Boy and smile knowingly at Rosin's description of outmoded maleness.

Here's her closing thought:
I dedicated my book to my son because he is one of those boys who gets in trouble a lot, who thinks the institutions are rigged against him. I see my job as accepting him as he is, and teaching him how to adapt to the world as it is.

When I think of the world after the end of men, I think of the world my son will inherit, where, if he chooses to take his kids to a playground at 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, no one will look at him funny, no one will wonder if he’s out of work, no one will think, “What a loser,” and no one will think he’s from Portland or Toronto, they will just walk on by and not think anything of it at all. He can be his own lovely obnoxious self and also be at home in a new world.
I wonder if Rosin's son has a father around. If not, that might explain a lot.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Presidential Precedents

President Obama has established a number of very dangerous precedents for future presidents, precedents in the setting of which the media have been willing accomplices and for which the media has essentially sold its birth-right for a mess of pottage.

Victor Davis Hanson indicts both the President's conduct and the media's complicity in an essay at NRO in which he poses a series of penetrating questions. I've included more of Hanson's piece here than I probably should have, but his indictment is so powerful I wanted you to get the full effect. Please go to the link for the rest:
Will there be a scandal [in a future administration] if the new political appointees at the IRS sic their auditors on Moveon.org? What will the Washington Post say should the new president keep Guantanamo Bay open for five more years, quadruple the number of drone missions, or decide to double renditions? Will it say that he was shredding the Constitution, or that he found the terror threat too great to honor past promises?

Will NPR run an exposé on our next president should she tap into Angela Merkel’s cell phone, or monitor the communications of Associated Press reporters — and their parents? Will investigative reporters go after the president should he falsely claim that an ambassador and three other U.S. personnel died in the Middle East during a video-sparked spontaneous riot? Or if he then jails the filmmaker for a year on a trumped-up parole-violation charge?

In other words, because for the past five years the members of the Washington press corps have abdicated their traditional adversarial role as watchdogs of the executive branch, can we still have watchdogs at all in 2017? If the next president falsely swears that his new health-care program will not affect citizens’ current coverage, what consequences could possibly follow? If the New York Times went after such perfidy in 2017, would the new president just say, “Where were you when Obama did it?”

If a conservative should be elected, and his Justice Department decided not to enforce federal gun laws in certain cities, would not the president say to his critics, “You were happy to ignore the flouting of federal immigration law in sanctuary cities, so why not exempt gun control too?”

Or if the new attorney general were Asian, and called his fellow Americans “cowards” over their inability to address past discrimination, or referred to Chinese- or Japanese-Americans as “my people,” how could African-American activists or any other group possibly object?

If, in 2017, we begin another five years of 7-plus percent unemployment, will the media call it a “jobless recovery” — as they have not since 2009, but most surely did in 2004 when George W. Bush ran for reelection with a jobless rate of a little over 5 percent?

What will court watchers do should the next president weigh in on pending trial cases — claiming, for example, that the son he never had would have resembled a murdered young man, or arguing that the police acted stupidly when they arrested a favorite of the president’s?

If our next president says there is a red line, ignores infractions of it, and then says he never said it, will the press go after her as it went after George W. Bush in 2003 when the promised stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction did not turn up in Iraq? If a debate moderator interrupts our next president’s reelection debate to incorrectly point out that his challenger is wrong about the facts, will we chastise her as unprofessional and ban her from further debates?

If a conservative president is elected, will the media object should he editorialize about personal success and wealth — suggesting that novice entrepreneurs should build their own businesses without federal help, reminding the struggling that they have not yet reached a point where they have made enough money, chiding some that we need to create wealth, not spread others’, or advising us that it is always the time to profit? Would the press object that the president’s serial and unsolicited sermonizing was proving a bit much? Or would he have to accuse doctors of lopping off limbs and ripping out tonsils for profit to win rebuke?

Will NBC object if our next president plays 150 rounds of golf in his first five years in office? Would it seem at all excessive to ABC if our next chief executive were declared a “god” by colleagues in the press corps, or if the president promised to lower the level of the seas and cool the planet?

In 2017, if the next president attempts to freeze new drilling on federal lands, only to brag that more oil and gas have been produced (on private land) during her tenure than ever before, how would CBS respond to such disingenuousness?

For that matter, in 2017 will novels again be written about killing the president, and prizes once more be awarded for docudramas about his assassination — and will he be called a “Nazi” and “Brown Shirt” by his political opponents, as President Bush was?

During the next presidency, will the filibuster still be bad, or will it suddenly be good again? Will there be a nuclear option again? Recess appointments? Executive orders? Signing statements? Votes against extending the debt ceiling? Are these again to be excesses, or is it a case of “It depends”?

What will the media do if the next president hires lobbyists, ignores the revolving door, or wins record donations from Goldman Sachs — while promising to run the most transparent administration in history? Will minority activists hound the next president should their constituents’ employment rate and income nosedive? Or is the answer to be, “It depends on the president’s race”?

If in 2017 the chief executive urges his supporters to “punish our enemies,” what will be the media reaction?

Will the Los Angeles Times object should the next president borrow $6 trillion in his first term? If we have four more years of zero interest, will that policy be deemed reckless and inflationary?

The predictable answer, of course, to all these questions is, again, “It depends.” If a liberal like Hillary Clinton wins, then the same exemptions will almost surely continue, even in the absence of the race card. But if a conservative should be elected, then the old hypocrisy will reappear and we will be treated to the damnation of a Christie, Paul, Rubio, or Cruz as “the worst president ever” or an “amiable dunce” or one of the other sorts of boilerplate disparagement accorded Reagan and the two Bushes.

.... we are entering a new period in presidential history, and it may be difficult to go back to the status quo ante 2009, when reporters were not state megaphones and the president paid a price for not telling the truth.

More likely, the members of the national press corps do not even now quite get it that they have been completely discredited. Whether they toady up to a liberal president or revert to standard criticism of a conservative, I doubt anyone will much care any more. If the next scandal is an open-mike slip to Putin, a linguistic flub like “corpse-man” for a Navy corpsman, a barefaced lie like swearing the president never spoke to his own disreputable uncle, or a complete distortion such as bragging of the energy production that she sought to stifle, the media will face a novel situation: If they object, then the public will wonder, “But why now all of a sudden?” If they keep silent, the public will shrug, “Oh, more of the same.”

Nor have we fully appreciated that a president who has supposedly taught constitutional law has done more to damage the Constitution than did Richard Nixon — and, so far, without consequences of any sort. The next president in theory can tap the communications of his opponents, pick and choose which laws are to be enforced and which are mere suggestions, and use federal agencies to monitor the politically suspect. He can go to, ignore, undermine, or praise the U.N. as he sees fit. He can bypass Congress to bomb a foreign country, and give pressure groups amnesty from any federal law he chooses. If the next president’s chief adviser claims that liberal Democrats are analogous to the mass-murdering Jonestown cult, would it really matter?

So we are living in scary times. The nation has grown used to the idea that what the president says is probably either untrue or irrelevant — and yet it does not really any more care which.

The people also assume that it doesn’t matter if our pundits talk of the person in the White House as a “messiah” who prompts tingling legs, or if they take notice of perfect pant-leg creases, or, of course, if they declare that he is the smartest president ever.

The result, in the Age of Obama, is a deeply rooted cynicism that works out something like the following: The president of the United States is now an iconic figure and thus cannot be held to the minimal standards of veracity demanded of other Americans. The press is an advocate of his agenda and picks and chooses which scandals can be half-heartedly pursued without endangering their shared vision.

How could the media possibly repair its sullied reputation without appearing abjectly hypocritical or artificially zealous? How can the next president resist assuming the extra-constitutional prerogatives of the current one?
I don't think the media can restore its reputation, nor do I think future presidents will feel the same constitutional constraints upon their power that past presidents have. When Barack Obama said in 2008 that he wanted to fundamentally change the country we had no idea the extent to which he would do so, but he has, and it will take us generations to recover from the precedents he has established, if in fact, we ever do.

For its part, the mainstream liberal media, having flung aside all pretense of integrity, objectivity, and veracity in its slavish, obsequious devotion to the Obama administration, will probably continue its long slide into obscurity and irrelevance.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is the Debate Over?

Nina Munk has written a book titled The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Her book is critical of the idea, promoted by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, that poverty could be meliorated by simple technological fixes such as bed nets to prevent malaria-spreading mosquito bites, wells to provide clean water, hospitals to treat curable diseases, fertilizer to increase yields of food crops, etc.

William Easterly reviews Munk's book at Reason.com. He writes:
[Sachs believed that ending poverty] was just a matter of raising enough money to pay for the right combination of known technical solutions to poor people's problems. Sachs would provide a slam-dunk demonstration project by deploying these comprehensive tech fixes in a dozen or so "Millennium Villages" in Africa. Success would build upon success, and advocacy money would flow, until poverty was eliminated from the poorest continent.

The Idealist, Nina Munk's brilliant book on Sachs' anti-poverty efforts, chronicles how his dream fell far short of reality. Munk, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, follows Sachs around as he supervises the experiment. She also goes out on her own to the Millennium Villages, especially Dertu, in the ethnic Somali region of Kenya's arid north, and the more centrally located settlement of Ruhiira, Uganda. What she finds in these villages reveals much about the future of the aid and development debate.

Sachs' technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu's wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.

A little more than a year after that, the wells are up and running again, and the Millennium Villages blog celebrates Dertu as having "the most reliable water supply within the region." Yet by 2011 the wells have run completely dry due to a drought—a not-uncommon occurrence in the arid region.

Such examples multiply in Munk's book, showing that purely technological answers to poverty fall well short of Sachs' promises. It turns out that technology does not implement itself; it requires the assistance of real people subject to widely varying incentives and constraints in complex social and political systems.

Munk relates successes as well as failures. Sachs' project spent $1.2 million on health in Ruhiira, hiring two doctors and 13 midwives. Now many fewer mothers in Ruhiira are left to their own resources to give birth, and the prevalence of malaria has fallen dramatically. But too often, the failures seem to offset these small victories. In recent years, Munk has found herself chronicling a rising chorus of criticism. Three months before the release of Munk's book, Foreign Policy published a harsh critique of the project, offering negative verdicts from an impressive roster of experts in the development field.

New York University economist Jonathan Morduch told Foreign Policy that Sachs' "big-package approach is an anachronism relative to the ideas that development economists have gravitated toward.... Sachs ... hoped to show that properly delivered aid could bring about the end of poverty. His critics rarely mention this aspect of his work. The notion of such sweeping change is apparently so implausible to today's development economists that they do not consider it worth refuting. The big aid debate that Sachs initiated is already over.

We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates....his idea that aid could rapidly bring the end of poverty was wrong. It's time to move on.
I'm certainly no expert on poverty or the aid/development debate, but I pose this question to those who are: Can we successfully and permanently reduce or eliminate poverty in places like Chad or Haiti without first changing the culture? And if not, how do we 1. change a culture, 2. justify doing so in an age when such attempts are condemned as chauvinistic and imperialistic, and 3. what do we change it to?

It seems to me that a culture cannot be altered without destroying the people who have lived it for centuries or millenia, but even if we could alter a failing culture I doubt there'd be a will to do so given the aversion to cultural imperialism and the embrace of cultural relativism that exists in much of American society.

And yet apart from fundamentally changing the culture I don't see how we can do anything more than bring temporary and minimal relief to the most blighted parts of the world. Aid is just economic aspirin and development requires building an entire infrastructure and network of interlocking institutions that evolve over long spans of time and which are undergirded by attitudes and ways of thinking that are alien to many stuck in poverty today. Can those kinds of changes happen? Can they happen without somehow changing the hearts and the mindset of a people?

I don't think so, which is why I believe that the most important work being done among the poor is that being done by missionaries who not only bring physical relief to those who suffer but also offer them the spiritual resources to gradually free themselves from lifestyles that chain them to their poverty. Without the liberation that those spiritual resources provide anything else we do is like trying to get an overloaded hot air balloon into the air. It just bumps along the ground until the fuel is exhausted and everything remains just as it was at the outset.