Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking for Ethics in All the Wrong Places

A friend some time ago passed along a link to Susan Jacoby's discussion in the New York Times of a book by Phil Zuckerman titled Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. Jacoby's review serves up several examples of missing the point. As an atheist herself Jacoby is eager to defend Zuckerman's thesis that one can live a life that's just as morally good, or better, than that of any theist. Belief in God, both Jacoby and Zuckerman aver, is not necessary for the moral life. She writes:
Many years ago, when I was an innocent lamb making my first appearance on a right-wing radio talk show, the host asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from committing murder?” I blurted out, “It’s never actually occurred to me to murder anyone.”
In addition to the usual tendentious use of the word "right-wing" whenever a progressive is referring to anything to the right of the mid-line on the ideological highway, her answer to the question is a non-sequitur. The host is obviously asking her what, in her worldview, imposes any moral constraint on her. To answer that it never occurred to her to do such a thing as murder is to duck the question. The question is on what grounds would she have thought murder to be morally wrong if it had it occurred to her to commit such a deed? She continues her evasions when she says this:
Nonreligious Americans are usually pressed to explain how they control their evil impulses with the more neutral, albeit no less insulting, “How can you have morality without religion?”
We might want to pause here to ask why Ms Jacoby feels insulted that someone might ask her what she bases her moral values and decisions on. Is it insulting because she's being asked a question for which she has no good answer? Anyway, after some more irrelevant filler she eventually arrives at the nub of Zuckerman's book:
[Zuckerman] extols a secular morality grounded in the “empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule, accepting the inevitability of our eventual death, navigating life with a sober pragmatism grounded in this world.”
Very well, but why is it right to embrace the principle that we should treat others the way we want to be treated but wrong to adopt the principle that we should put our own interests ahead of the interests of others? Is it just that it feels right to Zuckerman to live this way? If so, then all the author is saying is that everyone should live by his own feelings. In other words, morality is rooted in each person's own subjective behavioral preferences, but if that's so then no one can say that anyone else is wrong about any moral matter. If what's right is what I feel to be right then the same holds true for everyone, and how can I say that others are wrong if they feel they should be selfish, greedy, racist, dishonest, or violent? Just because I, or Susan Jacoby, feel strongly that such behaviors are wrong that surely doesn't make them wrong. Jacoby seems unaware of the difficulty, however:
The Golden Rule (who but a psychopath could disagree with it?) is a touchstone for atheists if they feel obliged to prove that they follow a moral code recognizable to their religious compatriots. But this universal ethical premise does not prevent religious Americans (especially on the right) from badgering atheists about goodness without God — even though it would correctly be seen as rude for an atheist to ask her religious neighbors how they can be good with God.
This paragraph is unfortunate for at least three reasons. First, Jacoby's insinuation that only a moral pervert would reject the Golden Rule (GR) is a case of begging the question. She's assuming the GR is an objective moral principle and then asks how anyone could not see it as such, but the notion that there are objective moral principles is exactly what atheism disallows. Indeed, as indicated above, it's what Zuckerman and Jacoby both implicitly deny.

Second, the fact that someone can choose to live by the GR is not to the point. Anyone can live by whatever values he or she chooses. The problem for the atheist is that she cannot say that if someone disdains the GR and chooses to live selfishly or cruelly that that person is doing anything that is objectively wrong. In a Godless world values are like selections on a restaurant menu. The atheist can choose whatever she wants that suits her taste, but if her companion chooses something she doesn't like that doesn't make him wrong.

Third, Jacoby seems to imply that belief in God doesn't make one good, and in fact makes it hard to be good. This is again beside the point. One can believe in God and not know what's right. One can believe in God and not do what's right. The point, though, is that unless there is a God there is no objective moral right nor wrong. There are merely subjective preferences people have to which they are bound only by their own arbitrary will.

Morality requires a transcendent, objective, morally authoritative foundation, a foundation which has the right to impose moral strictures and the ability to enforce them. That is, it requires a personal being. If no such being exists then debates about right and wrong behavior are like debates about the prettiest color. They're no more than expressions of personal taste and preference.

Jacoby unwittingly supplies us with an interesting example from which to elaborate on the point:
Tonya Hinkle (a pseudonym) is a mother of three who lives in a small town in Mississippi....Her children were harassed at school after it became known that the Hinkles did not belong to a church. When Tonya’s first-grade twins got off the school bus crying, she learned that “this one girl had stood up on the bus and screamed — right in their faces — that they were going to HELL. That they were going to burn in all eternity because they didn’t go to church.”
Jacoby thinks this was awful, as do I, but why does Jacoby think that what these children did to Tonya's children was wrong - not factually wrong but morally wrong? She might reply that it hurt the little girl, and so it did, but on atheism why is it wrong to hurt people? Jacoby, falling back on the GR, might say that those kids wouldn't want someone to hurt them. Surely not, but why is that a reason why it's wrong to hurt others? How, exactly, does one's desire not to be hurt make it wrong to hurt others? All an atheist can say by way of reply is that it violates the GR, but then she's spinning in a circle. Where does the GR get it's moral authority from in a godless universe? Is it from social consensus? Human evolution? How can either of these make any act morally wrong?

At this point someone might reply that it's wrong to hurt others because it just is, but at this point the individual has abandoned reason and is resorting to dogmatic asseverations of faith in the correctness of their own moral intuitions - sort of like some of those obnoxious fundamentalists might do.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is, though, that, on atheism, if those kids can hurt Tonya's children and get away with it, it's not wrong, it's only behavior Jacoby doesn't like, and we're back to right and wrong being measured by one's personal feelings.

It's a common error, but an error nonetheless, when non-theists like Jacoby and Zuckerman seek to defend the possibility of moral values while denying any transcendent basis for them, and it's peculiar that Jacoby feels insulted when she's asked to explain how she can do this.

Another atheist, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, makes a related mistake in an otherwise fine discussion of the work of Ayn Rand. Tracinski explicitly acknowledges that most thoughtful atheists, at least those on the left, embrace moral subjectivism. He writes:
Probably the most important category [Rand] defied is captured in the expression, “If God is dead, all things are permitted.” Which means: if there is no religious basis for morality, then everything is subjective. The cultural left basically accepts this alternative and sides with subjectivism (when they’re not overcompensating by careening back toward their own neo-Puritan code of political correctness).
This is mostly correct except that I'd quibble with his use of the term "religious basis." Morality doesn't require a religious basis, it requires a basis that possesses the characteristics enumerated above: It must be rooted in an objectively existing moral authority - personal, transcendent and capable of holding human beings responsible for their choices. The existence and will of such a being - God - may or may not be an essential element of a particular religion.

Tracinski, then says that:
The religious right responds by saying that the only way to stem the tide of “anything goes” is to return to that old time religion.
It's not necessarily a return to "old time religion," or any religion, for that matter, which is needful for eliminating the subjectivity of moral judgments. It's a return to a belief that the world is the product of a morally perfect being who has established His moral will in the human heart and who insists that we follow it, i.e. that we treat others with justice and compassion.

Those beliefs may be augmented by a belief in special revelation and by the whole edifice of the Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) tradition, but the core belief in the existence of the God of classical theism is not by itself "religious' at all. That core belief may not by itself be a sufficient condition for an objective morality, but it is necessary for it.

Which is why people ask the question Jacoby finds so insulting. Put a different way, it's the question how an atheist can avoid making right and wrong merely a matter of personal taste. If that sort of subjectivity is what the secular life entails then its votaries really have nothing much to say, or at least nothing much worth listening to, about matters of right and wrong.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The President's Options

President Obama has promised that he will respond to Russian hacking undertaken during the U.S. presidential campaign. An article at discusses some of his options. Here are some excerpts:
During his presidency, Obama favored a policy of deterrence when it came to responding to cyber attacks, in what U.S. officials call “naming and shaming." He’s indicted Iranian and Chinese hackers and signed an executive order allowing the Treasury Department to impose financial sanctions on hackers. He could take similar steps against Russia, which has repeatedly denied accusations of hacking.

Another possible route, though, is an offensive cyber operation. Obama said Dec. 16 that he would respond in a "thoughtful, methodical way," and some of it "we do publicly. Some of it, we will do in a way that they know but not everybody will."
Whatever the president chooses to do, whether we know about it or not, he owes it to the American people to explain exactly what the Russians did to us that we are responding to. So far, there's been very little said about the nature of the Russian hack. Was it limited to exposing the Democratic National Committee's political machinations and John Podesta's hostility toward the Catholic Church? Or did the Russians actually manage to change votes, a much more serious intrusion that President Obama has already denied took place. If their transgression was limited to the former, a military response of any sort hardly seems proportionate.

Anyway, here are some of the president's options:
If a covert action by the Central Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency is sought, it would come after gathering as much data as possible on the specific "entities and individuals" involved in the U.S. attack, according to Terry Roberts, founder and president of cybersecurity firm WhiteHawk Inc. and former deputy director of U.S. Naval Intelligence.

That could involve wiping out hard drives connected to Russia’s intelligence community, exposing Russian hacking tools on the web or revealing where the hackers operate in the so-called dark web. Or if the specific hackers involved use bitcoin currency, the U.S. could delete their online financial cache, Roberts said. This could be done without attribution, so it’s not obvious the U.S. was behind the action.

Another possibility, according to another former NSA official, includes "deny, disrupt, degrade" attacks, where agency hackers could take down websites or networks, or break into non-government institutions and leak information. That could also include hacking into companies that have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin or leaders supporting him, or leaking information about Russia’s role in another country, deflecting the focus from the U.S.

If the president chooses an offensive military option, that would fall to U.S. Cyber Command, a relatively new agency headed by Admiral Michael Rogers, who also leads the NSA. This path requires the object of the action be a military target. Possible options here could include a cyber-strike against the systems of the FSB or GRU, Russian intelligence agencies, or launching a ransomware attack against them or manipulating their data.
Using the military presents the possibility of unnecessary escalation, which would be foolish. We're employing cyber operations against ISIL and probably did so against North Korea in 2014, but a military operation against the Russians would invite a serious military response, more aggressive action in the Ukraine or Mid-East, perhaps, and no one wants that.

President Obama has said he will respond, and the whole world is waiting to see what he will do. If he does nothing after declaring that he will punish those responsible he risks world-wide humiliation, worse, even, than that suffered after failing to back up his warning to Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

On the other hand, if he does too much he risks a military confrontation with Russia which could result in loss of life. That seems like a high price to pay if all the Russians did was reveal to the world what sort of people were running the DNC. UPDATE: Just as I finished writing this I learned that Mr. Obama has taken some public steps to "punish" the Russians. You can read about them here. Our intelligence agencies have also released information on their conclusions about Russian intrusions into the DNC and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Favorite Reads in 2016

I had time to read (and listen to on Libre Vox) a lot of books this year, about eighty in all. Here by category are my favorite thirty five or so reads (or listens) of 2016 with a brief word about each:
    History and Historical Novels:
  • Tried by Fire (William Bennett): Very readable accounts of the martyrdoms suffered by early Christians. Bennett's excellent book reads like a novel.
  • The Swerve (Steven Greenblatt): Fascinating, rambling story of the discovery in the 15th century of a manuscript of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things by an Italian humanist named Poggio Bracciolini.
  • Imperium, Conspirata, Dictator (Robert Harris): A masterful trilogy of historical novels on the life of the 1st century B.C. Roman orator and politician Cicero.
  • Pompeii (Robert Harris): A historical novel describing the life and times of the people caught in the destruction wrought by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
  • Victorian Internet (Tom Standage): A very interesting account of the invention and subsequent development of the telegraph in the 19th century.
  • Killing the Rising Sun (Bill O'Reilley and Martin Dugard): A riveting telling of the war against Japan from Pearl Harbor to the Japanese surrender.
  • Too Big to Fail (Andrew Ross Sorkin): The behind-the-scenes history of the financial collapse of 2008.
  • The Wright Brothers (David McCullough): The story of the development of powered flight by two genius bicycle mechanics told by a master of historical narrative.
  • Night (Elie Weisel): Weisel just recently passed on. His story of his experience in the Nazi camps is powerful, heartbreaking, and crucially important.
  • Luther the Reformer (James Kittleson), The Reformation of the 16th Century (Roland Bainton), Here I Stand (Roland Bainton): I read these three books (and several others) in preparation for taking a tour of Germany's historical sites of the Reformation last summer. These three were especially helpful.

  • Science:
  • Fire-Maker (Michael Denton): Denton lays out the importance of fire to human civilization and how our world and our bodies appear to be exquisitely adapted to make use of fire. There's an amazing amount of information in this brief book that I suspect most people never would've thought about. I know I hadn't.
  • Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (Michael Denton): Denton explains why the Darwinian functionalist view of evolution is at odds with the evidence.
  • A Fortunate Universe (Lewis Geraint and Luke Barnes): Two cosmologists explore the fine-tuning of the universe.
  • The Kingdom of Speech (Tom Wolfe): A work of science history that reads like a novel. Wolfe recounts, in his famously humorous style, the attempts to explain human speech in terms of Darwinian evolution and how those attempts have failed.

  • Philosophy and Theology:
  • Studies in Pessimism (Arthur Schopenhauer): An atheist philosopher explains why an atheistic worldview leads to very bleak conclusions about life.
  • The Antichrist, Genealogy of Morals, Ecce Homo (Friedrich Nietzsche): These are all books I've read before, but reread because I wanted to refresh my acquaintance with Nietzsche's thinking.
  • Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Stephen Backhouse); A very readable biography of "The Melancholy Dane." Backhouse focuses more on Kierkegaard's relationships than with his philosophy and theology.
  • Making Sense of God (Tim Keller): An excellent introduction to Christian apologetics. Written for the serious doubter/agnostic, it makes a nice companion to Keller's earlier Reason for God.
  • New Proofs for the Existence of God (Fr. Robert Spitzer): Spitzer, a Roman Catholic priest, puts new twists on some of the classic arguments for God's existence.
  • Taking Pascal's Wager (Michael Rota): An excellent reformulation of Pascal's Wager as well as a good introduction to the fine-tuning argument, the multiverse objection, Bayesian probability, and much else.

  • Novels:
  • All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr): A lovely story of a blind girl and her father in France during WWII.
  • Name of the Rose (Humberto Eco): There may be no novelist in the world a greater polymath than Eco. His story is a murder mystery set in medieval times in a monastery.
  • Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen): Listened to this and the five books following on audio. If you like Victorian romantic fiction and elegant writing you'll like P&P.
  • Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens): A charming story with lots of unforgettable characters of the sort for which Dickens is famous.
  • Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens): This and the next two novels are my three favorite novels ever. I listened to them again this year while walking because every time I read them I get something new from them. They're not easy reading, but they certainly repay the effort the reader puts into them.
  • The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
  • Les Miserables (Victor Hugo)
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (Leo Tolstoy): An excellent "sermon" on the vanity and pointlessness of so much upon which we place importance in life. Should be required reading.

  • Miscellaneous:
  • 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (Terry Glaspey): Very good introduction to 75 of the most famous works of art, literature and music. Each work carries a transcendent message.
  • Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder (Claudia Kalb): Fascinating biographies of a dozen or so famous people from Lincoln to Einstein to Princess Diana and the particular neuroses and other mental illnesses from which they suffered.
I started writing this post with the intention of listing only my top ten favorite books but quickly realized I couldn't pick just ten. Even expanding to three dozen required me to omit some I would've liked to include.

In any case, I doubt that 2017 will afford as much time to read, but even so, if anyone has a suggestion for a good book don't hesitate to pass it on.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Alan Dershowitz is a very liberal law professor at Harvard, but despite his sympathy for many of President Obama's domestic policies he's irate over what he sees as the president's recent betrayal of Israel. The president ordered our U.N. ambassador to abstain from a vote condemning Israel for their settlements in territory they occupy.

It has always been U.S. policy to veto such resolutions, but in a parting shot at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Mr. Obama, the Israelis allege, actually drew up the resolution and insisted it be brought to a vote which the U.S. then failed to veto. Not only does the resolution ban Israel from building settlements in territory they control it also bans them, inter alia, from praying at the Western Wall and living in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

Here are some excerpts from Dershowitz on Fox and Friends Monday morning: [History will see President Obama] as one of the worst foreign policy presidents ever.

He called me into the Oval Office before the inauguration -- he said he wanted my support, and he told me he would always have Israel's back, I didn't realize what he meant: That he would have Israel's back so he could stab them in the back.

What he did was so nasty, he pulled a bait and switch. He told the American public this is all about the settlements deep in the West Bank. And yet, he allowed the representative to the U.N. to abstain --which is really a vote for-- a resolution that says the Jews can't pray at the Western Wall ... Jews can't live in the Jewish Quarter [of Jerusalem] where they have lived for thousands of years. And he's going to say, 'Whoops! I didn't mean that!' Well read the resolution! You're a lawyer, you went to Harvard Law School.

[President Obama] was an appalling, appalling president when it came to foreign policy. This will make peace much more difficult to achieve because the Palestinians will now say 'we can get a state through the U.N.
You can watch the interview here:
In his recitation of Mr. Obama's foreign policy blunders in Syria Dershowitz could also have mentioned his disastrous judgment in Libya, his premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and the Iran nuclear accord. Add these to the Syria debacle and it's hard to disagree with Dershowitz's assessment of Mr. Obama's foreign policy legacy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Fortunate Universe

I recently finished reading a book by cosmologists Geraint Lewis and Luke Barnes titled A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely-Tuned Universe which describes the amazingly delicate settings of the constants, parameters and forces that comprise the structure of our cosmos. Having enjoyed the book I was pleased to come across an article by Lewis in Cosmos Magazine which serves as a pretty good summary of A Fortunate Universe. One statement in the article, however, was problematic, and I'd like to address it. Before I do, though, here's the lede from the article:
For more than 400 years, physicists treated the universe like a machine, taking it apart to see how it ticks. The surprise is it turns out to have remarkably few parts: just leptons and quarks and four fundamental forces to glue them together.

But those few parts are exquisitely machined. If we tinker with their settings, even slightly, the universe as we know it would cease to exist. Science now faces the question of why the universe appears to have been “fine-tuned” to allow the appearance of complex life, a question that has some potentially uncomfortable answers.
Lewis then goes on to discuss several interesting ways in which this fine-tuning manifests itself and follows up with this:
Examining the huge number of potential universes, each with their own unique laws of physics, leads to a startling conclusion: most of the universes that result from fiddling with the fundamental constants would lack physical properties needed to support complex life.

While this is a scientific article, we cannot ignore the fact that to many, the fact that the universe is finely tuned for intelligent life shows the hand of the creator who set the dials. But this answer, of course, leads to another question: who created the creator? Let’s see what alternatives science can offer.
But then he dashes off to talk about multiverses and grand simulations without even trying to answer the query he has raised, as if the designer hypothesis has been disposed of simply by posing the question. In fact, there are a number of ways to answer it as well as answering Lewis' apparent assumption that the question itself is an adequate refutation of the design hypothesis.

One response is to note that the universe can be thought of as the sum of all contingent entities (a contingent entity is anything which could possibly not exist and whose existence depends upon something else. You and I are contingent, as is the earth and, indeed, the cosmos itself). That being so there must be a cause of the universe that is non-contingent otherwise the cause would be dependent upon something else and would itself be contingent and thus part of the universe. This would mean that the universe would be the cause of itself which is metaphysically absurd.

Now a cause that is non-contingent is necessary. It doesn't depend upon anything else for its existence. Thus Lewis' question, what caused the creator, is philosophically ill-conceived. The creator of all contingent things must itself be uncaused.

Moreover, the design hypothesis asserts that the universe has a sufficient cause. Once the skeptic grants that the universe has a cause, even if, in defiance of Occam's razor, he wants to suggest the possibility of an infinity of such causes, he has pretty much conceded that the design hypothesis is correct.

Anyway, here's a short video on the contingency argument as developed by 18th century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz:
P.S. There's a typo in Lewis' article that those who read it should be aware of. The article says that string theory allows for the existence of 10,500 different universes. The number should be 10^500 universes (i.e. a one with 500 zeros after it). It makes a big difference. Those interested in the fine-tuning of the universe should read the whole article as Lewis provides a good overview of the contemporary issues involved.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Hateful Speech

Much of what is called "hate speech" in our contemporary political climate is not "hate" speech at all but is in fact simply the expression of ideas with which someone disagrees. Like the little boy who cried "wolf" when there was no wolf, the frequent imputation of "hate" to speech which is not actually hateful has desensitized many people to the genuine article. What I prefer to call "hateful" speech does exist, however, and our current political environment has seen a lot of it. The recent election cycle has brought out the worst in some people in whom the worst seems to lie pretty close to the surface.

Here are three genuine examples, in my opinion, of hateful speech.

The first is the case of a lawyer who spotted Ivanka Trump on his flight. As the plane was boarding this man took it upon himself to berate Ms Trump in front of her children for what he perceived to be the sins of her father:
Ivanka was on a JetBlue flight leaving JFK Thursday morning with her family when a passenger started screaming, “Your father is ruining the country.” The guy went on, “Why is she on our flight? She should be flying private.” The guy had his kid in his arms as he went on the tirade.

It turned out the person harassing Trump was Dan Goldstein, a lawyer, who was on the flight with his husband Matthew Lasner. Just before the incident took place during boarding, Lasner tweeted this:

Ivanka and Jared at JFK T5 flying commerical. My husband chasing them down to harrass them.
That sounds a lot like harassment was the intent all along. Lasner apparently deleted his Twitter account a short time later. He and Goldstein were taken off the plane and put on a subsequent flight. JetBlue released a statement saying:
The decision to remove a customer from a flight is not taken lightly. If the crew determines that a customer is causing conflict on the aircraft, the customer will be asked to deplane, especially if the crew feels the situation runs the risk of escalation during flight. In this instance, our team worked to re-accommodate the party on the next available flight.
Some witnesses said that Goldstein never screamed but that he was visibly agitated and shaking. They also said that Ivanka handled the situation calmly and with class. Airline security made the call to remove Goldstein on their own. A number of tweets from progressives supporting Goldstein can be found at the link.

I wonder what this lawyer and those who defended him would have said about someone who treated Barack Obama's family this way.

Speaking of which, the second example of hateful speech is much worse than the first. A politician named Carl Paladino, well-known in New York political circles, voiced the following sentiments in responding to a survey by an alternative weekly magazine, Artvoice.
Artvoice: What would you most like to happen in 2017?

Carl Paladino: Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. He dies before his trial and is buried in a cow pasture next to Valerie Jarret, who died weeks prior, after being convicted of sedition and treason, when a Jihady cell mate mistook her for being a nice person and decapitated her.

Artvoice: What would you most like to see go in 2017?

Carl Paladino: Michelle Obama. I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.
People on both left and right have condemned the actions of both Goldstein and Paladino although others on the left have applauded Goldstein (see also the tweets at the link), and doubtless some on the right applaud Paladino, although I haven't yet seen any public approval of him.

The third example is perhaps the worst because of the three it had the saddest consequences. A freshman student at Bryn Mawr College was hounded out of school by other students because it became known that she was a Trump supporter:
A freshman student at Bryn Mawr College has dropped out after what she says was unbearable harassment from her fellow students for supporting President-elect Donald Trump.

In September, shortly after starting at the Pennsylvania women’s school, Andi Moritz made a post on the Bryn Mawr’s ride-sharing Facebook page, asking if anybody wanted to accompany her during a Saturday spent campaigning for Trump. Moritz said she wanted another girl along to ensure her safety since she was carpooling with a man she didn’t know.

The request turned out to be a big mistake, as Moritz was bombarded with hundreds of comments from fellow students, most of them extremely hostile.

Students on Moritz’s floor held a meeting about the content of her post, and after a discussion, she took it down entirely.

Moritz told the English House Gazette, a Bryn Mawr student blog, that a low point came when she was approached by a peer mentor in her dorm, who instead of offering support began to vilify her. The peer mentor said Moritz had “personally attacked” other students by expressing support for Trump.

Moritz told the response was so hostile she ended up calling a suicide hotline for support. Later, she visited a campus counselor, who she says wasn’t very helpful.

“She basically defended the people who had said mean things to me,” she told the English House Gazette.

Just a few days after the Facebook post, Moritz decided to drop out of Bryn Mawr. She says when she told a school dean about it, the dean appeared “relieved,” and made no effort to convince her to stay.

The backlash apparently wasn’t limited to Moritz. Anna Gargiulo, who wrote the English House Gazette article that first told Moritz’s story, told she has also been harassed simply for writing the article.

“It was me speaking up about an event that honestly shouldn’t have happened on a college campus like Bryn Mawr,” said Gargiulo, who herself voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “It just makes me scared in terms of where we’re headed if the youth in this country can’t understand how to respectfully disagree.”
Ms Gargiulo's point is well-taken. When people feel the need to hurt others as a means of expressing their disagreement they reveal their own sense of inadequacy and helplessness since lashing out in hateful anger is a favored resort of frustrated individuals whose ideas have been defeated in the political marketplace. But more than that they reveal a deep-seated ugliness in their own hearts, they further alienate us from each other as a people, and they bring us all a step closer to serious violence. Wouldn't it be better for our polity, wouldn't it reflect better on dissenters and their beliefs, to focus on courteously criticizing their opponents' ideas and avoid the childish personal attacks? Or are we beyond that?

Sadly, we certainly can't look to our president-elect as a role model in this regard.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On Christmas Eve

Christmas is a magical time, but it's not the trappings of the secular world that make it magical - except maybe for very young children - rather it's the sense of mystery surrounding the Incarnation. The magic is a by-product of the belief that Christmas celebrates a miracle, the Creator of the universe deigning to become one of His creatures so that in the fullness of time He and His creatures could enjoy each other forever.

It's that belief, affirmed by Christians for 2000 years, that's so awe-inspiring and which fills us on Christmas with an ineffable sense of love and being loved, a sense that makes the whole experience of Christmas Eve tingle with magic.

The secular, commercial world has drained much of that excitement from the night by pretending that the source and meaning is irrelevant. All the talk of Santa Claus, ads for cars, beer, movies and phones, all the insipid secular "holiday" songs - none of these do anything to touch people's hearts or imaginations. They don't inspire awe. Christmas Eve is sterile and empty without the message of the Gospel and the conviction that this night is special, not because of the office Christmas party, last minute shopping, or Home Alone reruns, but because it's a night haunted by the presence of God and set apart for the delivery of the greatest gift in history.

Here are two traditional Christmas pieces that capture some of the magic, mystery, and power of this night. I hope you enjoy them and hope, too, that each of you has a wonderful, meaningful Christmas and a very special 2017:

It might be best just to listen to this next one without watching it since the video is a bit out of sync with the audio:

Friday, December 23, 2016

Why Christians Celebrate Christmas

In this season of shopping and feasting it's easy to lose sight of why Christmas is a special day. The following allegory, which we've posted on Viewpoint several times in the past, is a modest attempt to put the season into perspective [Some readers have noted the similarity between this story and the movie Taken, however, the story of Michael first appeared on Viewpoint over a year before Taken was released so the similarities with the movie are purely coincidental, although the similarities with my novel Bridging the Abyss, are not.]:
Michael, a member of a top-secret anti-terrorism task force, was the father of a teenage daughter named Jennifer, and his duties had caused him to be away from home much of the time Jen was growing up. He was serving his country in a very important, very dangerous capacity that required his absence and a great deal of personal sacrifice. As a result, his daughter grew into her late teens pretty much without him. Indeed, his wife Judith had decided to leave him a couple of years previous and took the girl with her.

Finally, after several years abroad, Mike was able to return home. He longed to hold his princess in his arms and to spend every possible moment with her to try to make up for lost time, but when he knocked on the door of his ex-wife's house the girl who greeted him was almost unrecognizable. Jen had grown up physically and along the way she had rejected everything Michael valued. Her appearance shocked him and her words cut him like a razor. She told him coldly and bluntly that she really didn't want to see him, that he wasn't a father as far as she was concerned, that he hadn't been a part of her life before and wouldn't be in the future.

Michael, a man who had faced numerous hazards and threats in the course of his work and had been secretly cited for great heroism by the government, was staggered by her words. The loathing in her voice and in her eyes crushed his heart. He started to speak, but the door was slammed in his face. Heartbroken and devastated he wandered the streets of the city wondering how, or if, he could ever regain the love his little girl once had for him.

Weeks went by during which he tried to contact both his ex-wife and his daughter, but they refused to return his calls. Then one night his cell phone rang. It was Judith, and from her voice Mike could tell something was very wrong. Jennifer had apparently run off with some unsavory characters several days before and hadn't been heard from since. His ex-wife had called the police, but she felt Mike should know, too. She told him that she thought the guys Jen had gone out with that night were heavily into drugs and she was worried sick about her.

She had good reason to be. Jen thought when she left the house that she was just going for a joy ride, but that's not what her "friends" had in mind. Once they had Jen back at their apartment they tied her to a bed, abused her, filmed the whole thing, and when she resisted they beat her until she submitted. She overheard them debating whether they should sell her to a man whom they knew sold girls into sex-slavery in South America or whether they should just kill her and dump her body in the bay. For three days her life was an unimaginable hell. She cried herself to sleep late every night after being forced into the most degrading conduct imaginable.

Finally her abductors sold her to a street gang in exchange for drugs. Bound and gagged, she was raped repeatedly and beaten savagely. For the first time in her life she prayed that God would help her, and for the first time in many years she missed her father. But as the days wore on she began to think she'd rather be dead than be forced to endure what she was being put through.

Mike knew some of the officers in the police force and was able to get a couple of leads from them as to who the guys she originally left with might be. He set out, not knowing Jennifer's peril, but determined to find her no matter what the cost. His search led him to another city and took days - days in which he scarcely ate or slept. Each hour that passed Jennifer's condition grew worse and her danger more severe. She was by now in a cocaine-induced haze in which she almost didn't know or care what was happening to her.

Somehow, Michael, weary and weak from his lack of sleep and food, managed to find the seedy, run down tenement building where Jennifer was imprisoned. Breaking through a flimsy door he saw his daughter laying on a filthy bed surrounded by three startled kidnappers. Enraged by the scene before his eyes he launched himself at them with a terrible, vengeful fury. Two of the thugs went down quickly, but the third escaped. With tears flowing down his cheeks, Mike unfastened the bonds that held Jen's wrists to the bed posts. She was weak but alert enough to cooperate as Michael helped her to her feet and led her to the doorway.

As she passed into the hall with Michael behind her the third abductor appeared with a gun. Michael quickly stepped in front of Jennifer and yelled to her to run back into the apartment and out the fire escape. The assailant tried to shoot her as she stumbled toward the escape, but Michael shielded her from the bullet, taking the round in his side. The thug fired twice more into Michael's body, but Mike was able to seize the gun and turn it on the shooter.

Finally, it was all over, finished.

Slumped against the wall, Mike lay bleeding from his wounds, the life draining out of him. Jennifer saw from the fire escape landing what had happened and ran back to her father. Cradling him in her arms she wept bitterly and told him over and over that she loved him and that she was so sorry for what she had said to him and for what she had done.

With the last bit of life left in him he gazed up at her, pursed his lips in a kiss, smiled and died. Jennifer wept hysterically. How could she ever forgive herself for how she had treated him? How could she ever overcome the guilt and the loss she felt? How could she ever repay the tremendous love and sacrifice her father had showered upon her?

Years passed. Jennifer eventually had a family of her own. She raised her children to revere the memory of her father even though they had never known him. She resolved to live her own life in such a way that Michael, if he knew, would be enormously proud of her. Everything she did, she did out of gratitude to him for what he had done for her, and every year on the day of his birth she went to the cemetery alone and sat for a couple of hours at his graveside, talking to him and sharing her love and her life with him. Her father had given everything for her despite the cruel way she had treated him. He had given his life to save hers, and his love for her, his sacrifice, had changed her life forever.
And that's why Christians celebrate Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

St. Nick

This is a post I've put up on VP a few times over the years during the Christmas season that I think you'll find interesting:

Theologian James Parker offers us a brief history of the original Santa Claus and how the myths around him grew.

Here's an excerpt:
Most people simply do not realize the rich ancient heritage behind the Santa Claus story. The secularized and sanitized contemporary version pales in comparison with the deeply Christian ethos and content of the original.

Much exaggerated legendary material is connected with his life and ministry, but if nothing else, the legends tell us what values and beliefs the church held as important as they were projected onto Nicholas. To the bare minimum of facts, legend has supplied intriguing details through such writers as St. Methodius (patriarch of Constantinople in the 850s) and the Greek writer Metaphrastes in the 10th century.

The story goes that Nicholas was born in A.D. 280 to pious and wealthy parents who raised him in the fear and admonition of the Lord and taught him "sacred books" from the age of 5. He was forced to grow up quickly upon the sudden death of his parents.

Inheriting his family's wealth, he was left rich and lonely, but he had the desire to use his wealth for good. The first opportunity to do this happened when he heard about a father who, through an unfortunate turn of events, was left destitute with three daughters. Without marriage dowry money, the daughters would be condemned to a life of singleness and prostitution, so Nicholas threw some small bags of gold coins into the window of the home (some traditions say down the chimney), thereby saving the children from a life of misery.

Later as a teenager, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Upon returning home he felt called to ministry and was subsequently ordained. He spent time at the Monastery of Holy Zion near Myra until an old priest had a vision that he was to be the new bishop.

The congregation overwhelmingly elected him bishop, and he became known for his holiness, passion for the Gospel and zeal. He challenged the old gods and paganism at the principal temple in his district (to the god Artemis), and it was said that the evil spirits "fled howling before him."
There's more to the story. Nicholas was imprisoned under Diocletian, savagely beaten, and later released under Constantine's Edict of Milan.
Those who survived Diocletian's purges were called "confessors" because they wouldn't renege on their confession of Jesus as Lord.

When Bishop Nicholas walked out of the prison, the crowds called to him: "Nicholas! Confessor!" He had been repeatedly beaten until he was raw, and his body was the color of vermilion. Bishop Nicholas was also said to have intervened on behalf of unjustly charged prisoners and actively sought to help his people survive when they had experienced two successive bad harvests.
Nicholas opposed Arianism, the belief that Jesus was a created being and not divine, and according to some, perhaps apocryphal, traditions, actually attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where he got into a physical altercation with Arias himself.

Whether that's true or not, the story of St. Nicholas (Say Saint Nicholas quickly with an Italian accent and you get Santa Claus) is a lot different, and much more interesting, than the popular mythology surrounding him. Read the whole thing at the link.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas Mirror

A friend of mine writes a blog called Thought Sifter at which he recently posted a Christmas meditation titled The Christmas Mirror in which he suggests that how we celebrate Christmas is a reflection of who we are as a person. I'd like to share an excerpt with you:
[T]he way we celebrate Christmas is a mirror that reflects who we are.

For many, Christmas is the photo-negative of The Purge. Instead of angry people taking advantage of the temporary suspension of laws against violence to wantonly dish out pain and revenge on those they resent, these people get giddy over the once-a-year opportunity to express pent-up love and gratitude. These are those who get rapturous over the sight of outgoing party invitations and present tags with other people's names in the "to" line. Such are those who feel more hope than trepidation when even the most difficult family member comes to dinner. At Christmas, these people are like (some similes can't be improved) a kid at Christmas. It's just who they are.

Others have no interest in making a good Christmas but only a good Christmas card. These are people whose lack of interest in actively knowing and loving people through the year in no way dampens their zeal to send pristine, family Christmas cards and Facebook posts. These are the sentimentalists who love the feelings of Christmas even though they aren't interested in the relational realities that should be the basis for those feelings. They are the Christmas equivalents of students who are fixated on GPAs but uninterested in education. Such people are not excited that everyone's coming over to their house, but place great value on their (and everyone else's) awareness that Christmas was at their house. That's just who they are.

Then there are the true Grinches. They neither care about other people nor about what some people will think about them for not caring. And, of course, they are only so callous toward people because they have been so mistreated by the world, and so they spend Christmas as they spend the rest of the year, comforting themselves in indignant isolation with the knowledge that at least they have always been in the right. It is who they are.

Others will use Christmas as an excuse to party (that is, party in the empty-hearted, self-degrading sense). These are ones for whom "drunken debauchery" is a cute, condescending reference to the naive prudes who would use the same phrase to describe certain Christmas parties. Those who party hard at Christmas are a lot like someone celebrating their completion of rehab at a local bar, not because they falter, but with a smirk and a wink because all the cool kids know that rehab is a joke anyway. That's just who they are.

Others, with much more gravity and self-respect, don't mind having a glass of champagne and some dessert with friends, but are really perturbed at how the whole event fosters among the ignorant that religious fable that has been such a hindrance to "progress." They can't rationally comprehend how God could come as a child in a manger. And since their capacity of rational comprehension is the gold standard for determining what can and cannot exist, they're miffed, like an erudite, early-twentieth-century physics professor rolling his eyes at the gullibility of the stupid undergraduates who go on and on about the fad called quantum physics. They're way too advanced for such nonsense. That's just who they are.

But one of the things that makes the news of Christmas "good news that will cause great joy for all the people," is that the one who came to dwell among us has made it so that we don't have to stay the way we are. Christmas leaves us with two options; we can either stay who we are or allow ourselves to be transformed into the people we were meant to be.
Lovely thought, that, and one of the good things about it is that it's never too late to let the transformation begin. One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's rendition of What Child Is This on their album Lost Christmas Eve. The line that I find most poignant and hopeful is when an older man, though dying, finds his life transformed and cries out, "To be this old and have your life just begin!"

You probably have to hear it yourself which you can do below. The video unfortunately is only cell-phone quality. The relevant part starts at about the three minute mark and, as sung by Rob Evans, is very moving.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The "Rational" Man

Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, in her book The Sovereignty of Good (1970) describes in vivid accents the modern man who prides himself in his rational approach to life unencumbered by the silly superstitions believed in by gullible religious people. The modern rational man, typified in her telling by someone like the 18th century philosophical icon Immanuel Kant, is a man who ...
...confronted even with Christ turns away to consider the judgement of his own conscience and to hear the voice of his own reason . . . . This man is with us still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy. The raison d’ĂȘtre of this attractive but misleading creature is not far to seek . . . . He is the ideal citizen of the liberal state, a warning held up to tyrants. He has the virtue which the age requires and admires, courage. It is not such a very long step from Kant to Nietzsche, and from Nietzsche to existentialism and the Anglo-Saxon ethical doctrines which in some ways closely resemble it. In fact Kant’s man had already received a glorious incarnation nearly a century earlier in the work of Milton: his proper name is Lucifer.
Lucifer? Why such a harsh judgment? Perhaps because the modern, "rational" man believes only what science and his senses tell him. The rational man looks at himself and his fellows as little more than flesh and bone machines, animals, whose only real "purpose" is to reproduce, experience pleasure and avoid pain. He regards morality as an illusion. His reason affords him no basis for caring about the weak or the poor, no basis for human compassion, no particular point to conserving the earth's resources for future generations. Whereas Kant thought that reason dictated the categorical imperative, i.e. the duty to treat others as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to one's own happiness, in fact, reason, unfettered from any divine sanction, dictates only that each should look to his own interests.

In practice modern man may care about the well-being of others, but he must abandon his fealty to science and reason to do so because these provide no justification for any moral obligations whatsoever. Indeed, the purely rational man is led by the logic of his naturalism to the conclusion that might makes right. The pursuit of power frequently becomes the driving force of his life. It injects his life with meaning. It leads him to build places like Auschwitz and Dachau to eliminate the less powerful and less human.

Would Kant have agreed with this bleak assessment. No, but then Kant wasn't quite in tune with the modern, rational man. Kant believed that in order to make sense of our lives as moral agents we have to assume that three things are true: We have to assume that God exists, that we have free will, and that there is life beyond the grave.

The modern man, of course, rejects all three, and in so doing he rejects the notion of objective moral value or obligation. That's why reason has led men to embrace ideologies that have produced vast tracts of corpses, and that's why, perhaps, Murdoch uses the name Lucifer to describe them.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Taking the Media with a Chunk of Salt

For the last couple of weeks Republican electors who meet today to make the election of Donald Trump official, have had their lives threatened, they've had their businesses hurt, they've been harassed in big ways and small all by Democrats who want them to withhold their vote for Trump. If enough of them (37) refuse to cast a vote as directed by their state's voters then Trump would fail to get the 270 votes he needs to be declared President-elect. Of course, the decision would then be thrown into the House of Representatives which is dominated by Republicans so he'd eventually be elected anyway.

What's very disturbing about this is not the possibility of Trump not being elected - he will be - but rather the threats of physical and economic harm that are being visited on Republican electors if they don't fulfill their responsibility to vote as directed by their state. Imagine the outrage had Hillary Clinton won on November 9th and Trump's supporters issued similar threats against her electors. Our democracy, it would be declared over and over on the cable talk shows and nightly news, is teetering on the brink of anarchy and fascism. Since, however, this is just a case of liberal Democrats behaving badly the intimidation is treated as a minor news story.

Recall the teeth-gnashing that the liberal media engaged in when Trump indicated that he might not accept the results of the election. This was interpreted as a threat to American democracy by much of the media and the left, but when Hillary and her supporters refuse to accept the results of the election it's portrayed in the media as just the normal boisterousness that results from people understandably disappointed that their candidate lost. People have rioted in the streets, damaged property, harmed others, and it's regarded as little more than a lamentable, but understandable, expression of grief.

The First Lady tells us that the American people now know what hopelessness feels like, and few stop to ask what would have been the reaction had Laura Bush said that Barack Obama's election filled the American people with hopelessness. The very thought would have been imputed to pervasive white racism and resentment that a black man was going to be president.

We've been told that Donald Trump has no qualifications for the office of the presidency, which may be true, but when the criticism is made by people who swooned over the election in 2008 of a man with a far thinner resume than Trump's it's laughable. Barack Obama never ran a business, never worked for a paycheck, never served in the military, never accomplished much of anything. He was catapulted into the White House because America wanted to demonstrate that it had left its racist legacy behind, and he seemed like the best available candidate to represent a post-racial America.

We've been told that Trump's pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has no foreign policy experience and is thus unqualified for the post. Perhaps so, but how many of the people making this allegation today were appalled that Mr. Obama picked for his first Secretary of State a woman, Hillary Clinton, who had even less foreign policy experience than does Tillerson?

We've been told that the closeness of Trump and Tillerson to the Russians is deeply troubling, which it is, but when the concern is raised by people who were BFFs up until the day before yesterday with the old Soviet communists and the current Russian communists, the credibility of the charge is greatly diminished.

It might be a good rule of thumb for anyone watching or reading political commentary - whenever a criticism is leveled at Trump, his party, his supporters or his administration - to ask themselves whether the same reproach applies, and to what extent, to Mr. Obama, his party, his supporters or his administration. If so, did the people expressing such deep anxiety today express the same apprehensions about the Democrats? And if not, why are they expressing it now?

The tendency of much of the media in this country today to denounce in one party what they ignore, or even applaud, in the other is the chief reason the media has lost the trust of the American people who view almost the whole establishment as little different than the National Enquirer. For many, none of it is trustworthy. It's all "fake news."

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Russian Hack

News reports and talk show discussions about the alleged Russian intervention in our election to tilt the outcome in favor of Trump have consistently left several questions unasked and unanswered. Before discussing some of those there's a piece in the Washington Post that summarizes "what you need to know" about the alleged interference:
U.S. intelligence agencies conclude that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help the campaign of Donald Trump. Here’s what you need to know:
  • The assessment is based on intelligence suggesting that the Kremlin’s hacking efforts were disproportionately aimed at the Democratic Party.
  • Previously, the U.S. intelligence community only said Moscow’s goals were limited to disrupting the election, undermining faith the U.S. electoral system.
  • On Friday, the FBI backed the CIA’s assessment. Previously, the two agencies had differing opinions that some say can be attributed to their culture: The bureau seeks tangible evidence to prove something beyond all reasonable doubt, while the CIA is more comfortable drawing inferences from behavior.
  • In an interview with NPR, President Obama said the United States will retaliate against Russia over its election hacking.
  • President-elect Donald Trump has called the CIA’s findings “ridiculous” and said he doesn’t believe it. “I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. . . . No, I don’t believe it at all,” Trump said on “Fox News Sunday” of the CIA assessment.
  • Russia has called the allegations “absolute nonsense.” In a TV interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman denied that the Kremlin interfered with the U.S. election and said that Moscow is looking forward to a new relationship with the Trump administration.
  • Officials say they think that, in addition to helping Trump, the Kremlin had a mix of goals, including undermining Americans’ confidence in the electoral system.
  • The CIA has briefed the administration that it thinks the Russians “breached” the Republican National Committee’s computer systems. Officials are less certain whether the hackers were able to extract information. The RNC denies it was hacked.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday that a Senate intelligence panel plans to investigate Russia’s suspected election interference.
  • The Obama administration has ordered a “full review” of the Russian hacking during the campaign. The investigation is headed by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. The administration promises to make the report public.
What to look for in the next few weeks and months:
  • The scramble in Congress trying to grapple with the repercussions. Members of both parties have called for a public joint House-Senate inquiry leading to a public release of the findings.
  • The impact of the report commissioned by the Obama administration once it is released. The report could pose a challenge to Trump, putting him at odds with the intelligence community. Obama wants the review to be completed before he leaves office next month.
So, some questions:
  • What exactly is the evidence that there was Russian treachery afoot other than the fact that only Democrats like John Podesta were hacked? Does it follow that because the RNC wasn't hacked the hackers didn't try to do so? Or that they wouldn't have given whatever they managed to pilfer from Republicans to Wikileaks?
  • Assuming that the Russians were engaged in mischief, what exactly did they do beyond eavesdrop on some pretty sordid exchanges between various Democrats? Did they disseminate misinformation? Was anything that came of their electronic burglary actually false? Did they somehow plant the idea in Hillary's head that she didn't need to campaign harder in the rust belt? Did they blackmail FBI Director Comey into making his last minute announcement that Mrs. Clinton was still under investigation? Did they somehow manage to alter ballots? Not according to Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson who said there's no evidence of ballot tampering at all.
  • Whatever they did, was it enough to affect the result? And why would the Russians want Trump to win anyway? Wouldn't they much rather have the winner be a woman with a demonstrated propensity to be exceedingly careless with national security documents? Wouldn't it better serve the interests of the Russians to have a president in the Oval Office who treats classified information as though it were something suitable for a Facebook post?
  • Why, if the Obama administration knew about this espionage back in September, was nothing much done about it before the election? President Obama claims that he did, in fact, confront Russian president Vladimir Putin about Russian trespassing last September and told him to "cut it out" or suffer the consequences (which probably precipitated convulsive sniggering in the Kremlin inasmuch as the threat sounds so much like Mr. Obama's "red line" threat to Syrian president Bashar Assad). Mr. Obama asserts that there was no evidence of Russian tampering subsequent to his "threat," but if so, what's the point of all the allegations that are being made now?
  • Finally, it seems a little peculiar that the Democrats are scandalized that the Russians might have interfered in our elections after the State Department, under President Obama's imprimatur, intruded in recent Israeli elections by sending an Israeli group $350,000 to help oust President Bibi Netanyahu. If there's a significant difference between what the Russians are alleged to have done and what Mr. Obama did in Israel, what is it?
We certainly don't want the Russians meddling in our elections, especially since they have so tenuous a grasp on how free and fair elections work in the first place, but until some of these questions are satisfactorily answered the claim that they did meddle in some decisive way will seem driven more by a desire to discredit Trump's electoral victory than any by genuine outrage at Russian dirty tricks.

Friday, December 16, 2016

ISIL Has Lost 50,000 Troops

As news comes out of Syria of the horrifying conditions in Aleppo and the tragically ineffective policies pursued by the Obama administration, it might be more encouraging to turn to the war against Islamic terrorism waged against ISIL. On this front there is better news:
At least 75% of ISIS fighters have been killed during the campaign of US-led airstrikes. The campaign has winnowed ISIS' ranks to between 12,000 and 15,000 "battle ready" fighters, a top US official said on Tuesday.

The figures mean the US and its coalition partners have taken out vastly more ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria than currently remain on the battlefield, two years since the bombing campaign began. Last week a US official said the coalition had killed 50,000 militants since 2014.

Speaking at the White House Tuesday, Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said the terror group is no longer able to replenish its ranks, predicting the number of fighters would continue to dwindle.

"The number of battle-ready fighters inside Iraq and Syria is now at its lowest point that it's ever been," McGurk said, describing the update he gave the President to reporters after the meeting. He noted that the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS had been stemmed by tighter surveillance and border controls.

The air campaign, led by the US and begun in 2014, has conducted 17,000 strikes against ISIS targets, McGurk said. The vast majority were conduced by US planes; only 4,500 were carried out by other members of the coalition.

The most recent targets included three ISIS leaders the US says were responsible for planning attacks in Paris and Brussels last year. They were taken out in Raqqa, ISIS' self-described capital in Syria.
There are believed to be about 3000 ISIL troops still holding out in Mosul which is under seige by the Iraqi army, most of whom will likely fight to the death. Here's an account from Strategy Page which explains why retaking Mosul is such a difficult task for the Iraqis:
December 13, 2016: After eight weeks the battle for Mosul has driven ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces from most of the city east of the Tigris River. It is slow going because, as was already known (from refugees and deserters) ISIL had planted thousands of mines and booby-traps and dug many kilometers of tunnels that allowed ISIL fighters to shift forces and supplies without risking an air or ground attack.

All this was taken into taken into account before the operation to take Mosul began on October 17th. What was unknown was how well the largely untested attack force would perform under this sort of relentless urban warfare. As far back as World War II it was known that taking a defended city usually meant it would take longer than expected and even if the attackers were superior in numbers and training they would lose as many men as the defenders.

In Mosul the attack force is losing a bit more than the defenders, in part because many of the attackers are Shia militia, who are more fanatic than disciplined and effective. The Iraqi special operations troops and most of the Kurds are more experienced and the other Iraqi army troops are somewhere in between. The situation is further complicated by the nature of the enemy, which is largely a force of men prepared to die fighting and have no problems using civilians as human shields and employing tactic to kill or delay the advance.

ISIL had over two years to prepare their defenses and even though the attackers have maps showing many of these defenses and mined areas they don’t know where all of this stuff is and it’s what you don’t know that will get you killed. While ISIL has lost over a third of their defending force in two months of combat, the attackers (about 20,000 on or near the front line and four times as many in support) suffered about ten percent losses (dead, missing, disabled and deserters) so far. The attackers keep their casualties down by using artillery and airstrikes as much as possible and advancing carefully. That slows things down and requires a lot of ammunition and expensive aerial operations. Meanwhile there are apparently some 3,000 ISIL men still in the city.
There's more on the Mosul operation at the link. President Obama, at least according to many of his critics, made three terrible blunders in the region.

1. His decision to announce the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the subsequent withdrawal left a vacuum there that ISIL easily filled and has consequently cost tens of thousands of innocent lives.

2. His decision to threaten Syrian president Assad with severe consequences should he use chemical weapons on his own people - the so-called "red line" - was a huge mistake if Mr. Obama had no intention of backing it up, which he didn't.

3. The failure to impose a no-fly zone in Syria early on before the Russians got involved on Assad's behalf. It was possible early in the civil war to save thousands of lives by preventing Syria's air force from bombing civilians and even destroying their aircraft on the ground if need be. Mr. Obama chose to do nothing and the carnage and loss of American prestige and influence as a result has been incalculable.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The GOP's Political Hegemony

In 2008 pundits were declaring the Republican party to be all but dead. The future, we were told, is with the Democrats, particularly because the GOP base - old, white men - was dying off and the country was turning browner. Well, all of that may be true, but a strange thing happened during the last eight years. The country elected and re-elected a Democrat to the White House while simultaneously stripping Democrats of over 1000 elective offices across the nation, and, to rub salt into the wound, it doesn't look like things will improve in 2018, the year of the next major elections.

Throughout most of this recent election season we were given to believe that Trump would be a drag on the GOP ticket, especially the down ballot. Like so much else in this election, though, this prediction didn't turn out the way some prognosticators thought it would.

Here's Amber Phillips at The Washington Post with the gory details:
Republicans grabbed more of America's statehouses and governor's mansions during the Obama administration than at any time in the modern era. Republicans will still control an all-time high 69 of 99 state legislative chambers. They'll hold at least 33 governorships, tying a 94-year-old record. That means that come 2017, they'll have total control of government in at least 25 states, and partial control in 20 states. According to population calculations by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, that translates to roughly 80 percent of the population living in a state either all or partially controlled by Republicans.

Things are just as good for the GOP at the federal level, where Republicans have reached the trifecta. They just won the White House, they've kept their majorities in Congress and they have a chance to reshape the Supreme Court to a strong conservative ideological leaning.

Democrats, meanwhile, will go into 2017 without any significant gains in Congress and with total control of just five states. (Republicans managed to tie Connecticut's state Senate, but a tie breaks for Democrats thanks to the state's Democratic lieutenant governor presiding over the chamber. So technically the state stays in Democratic control.)
The WaPo article features some fascinating graphics:

Phillips adds this thought:
Democrats are still soul searching for what went wrong on [November 8th]. But there are a few reasons that help explain Republicans' steady march to dominance over the past eight years. The simplest one is President Obama.
Indeed, while it's normal for the "out" party to pick up seats in midterm elections, the GOP gain during the Obama years was particularly pronounced -- more than 900 Democratic state legislators were defeated.

To make matters worse for the Democrats, in the election just past Republicans had to defend 23 Senate seats to the Democrats 13. It was widely expected that the Democrats would pick up several of these, but they did not. In the 2018 midterms, the Democrats will be defending 17 seats more than the Republicans will have to defend, and at least five of these are in states Trump won.

Here's a graphic that illustrates the predicament they're in:

The red states are states in which a Republican senator is up for re-election in 2018, the blue states are those in which a Democratic senator is standing for re-election.

When people look back at President Obama's legacy a decade from now there may well be very little to see. It's likely that the Affordable Care act will be dismantled, the Iran nuclear accord will be largely eviscerated, his numerous Executive Orders will be mostly rescinded, his onerous regulations on business will be eased, and his attempt to flood the country with illegal immigrants will be stanched. What will remain will be the precedent of the first black president, a huge national debt, a feckless foreign policy, and the shell of a Democrat Party that, having fallen into the hands of liberal/progressives, was repeatedly repudiated at the polls until forced to retreat to the coastal left-wing redoubts of New York City, California and a few satellites.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Future of the Unskilled Worker

Here's a short but fascinating video that shows us what's coming for retailers, shoppers, and minimum wage earners:
When this technology is widely adopted what will the job prospects for minimum wage workers look like? Right. So what sense does it make for minimum wage workers to demand that they be paid even more? It's as if they're deliberately trying to give their employers the incentive to automate so they can avoid the hassle of having under-educated, unskilled employees demanding they be given more money.

An article by Jeffrey Dorfman at Forbes runs the numbers and finds that raising the minimum wage to $15 and hour will result in 13.7 million lost jobs, and that doesn't factor in the effect of being able to substitute technology for workers.

So who benefits from raising the minimum wage? Here's Dorfman:
So why would labor unions fight this fight, given that they may cost millions of the people they are supposedly fighting for their jobs? There are three obvious answers to this question.

First, government employees are increasingly the bulk of union workers (with public union workers on pace to pass private sectors ones in the next year to two) and government union workers likely will make up few of those lost jobs. Government workers have stronger job protection and work for employers who can force their “customers” to cough up more revenue.

Second, there are many union contracts which include automatic pay increases tied to changes in the minimum wage. Thus, many workers who already earn more than $15 per hour will still get raises thanks to these laws. For example, California teachers have a contract that ties starting pay to twice the minimum wage, meaning that once the new California law is fully effective in 2022 all public school teachers in the state will earn over $30 per hour.

Third, although millions of workers will lose their jobs, those who keep them get substantial pay gains. For unions, the increase in union dues from higher wages will likely more than offset the loss in dues from fewer jobs. In other words, union revenue is expected to increase. While some union workers (and many more non-union workers) will lose their jobs, those who keep their jobs win big enough for total dues payments to rise. So, if you are a union not overly concerned about the fate of those job losers, a $15 minimum wage has some definite upside.
It may strike some as a cynical analysis, but it has the ring of truth.

In any case, the video above illustrates pretty starkly what the future's going to look like for those who have no skills. They're simply not going to be in the picture. Which raises a very troubling question: What does a society do with millions more unemployed and unemployable people?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Gift Suggestion (Pt. II)

Yesterday I urged readers to consider my novel In the Absence of God (2012) as a possible Christmas gift and mentioned in passing its companion novel Bridging the Abyss which came out in 2015. Bridging is, in part, the story of the search for a young girl who has disappeared and is believed to have been abducted. Members of the girl's family as well as those involved in the search are forced to confront the tension between a secular view of life which offers no ground for thinking any act "evil" and the obvious evil of which some men are capable.

Here's an excerpt from the Prologue:
In 1948 philosopher W.T. Stace wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly, a portion of which serves as an appropriate introduction to the story which follows in these pages. Stace wrote:
"The real turning point between the medieval age of faith and the modern age of unfaith came when scientists of the seventeenth century turned their backs upon what used to be called "final causes" …[belief in which] was not the invention of Christianity [but] was basic to the whole of Western civilization, whether in the ancient pagan world or in Christendom, from the time of Socrates to the rise of science in the seventeenth century …. They did this on the [basis that] inquiry into purposes is useless for what science aims at: namely, the prediction and control of events.

"…The conception of purpose in the world was ignored and frowned upon. This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated around the world….

"The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws….[But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless. A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends - money, fame, art, science - and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center.

"Hence, the dissatisfied, disillusioned, restless spirit of modern man….Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values….If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe - whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself - then they must be our own inventions.

"Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people, or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative."
This book, like my earlier novel In the Absence of God, is a story of people living in the wake of the revolution of which Stace speaks. It's a portrait of a small slice of modern life, a glimpse of what it is like to live in a world in which men live consistently, albeit perhaps unwittingly, with the assumptions of modernity, chief among which is the assumption that God is no longer relevant to our lives.

A world that has marginalized the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a world which finds itself bereft of any non-arbitrary basis for forming moral judgments, for finding any ultimate meaning in the existence of the human species as a whole or the life of the individual in particular, and for hope that the human yearning for justice could ever be satisfied.

Modern man dispenses with God and believes that life can go on as before - or even better than before - but this is a conceit which the sanguinary history of the 19th and 20th century confutes. A world that has abandoned God has abandoned the fountain of goodness, beauty and truth as well as the only possible ground for human rights and belief in the dignity of the individual.

Modernity has in some ways been a blessing, but it has also been a curse. History will ultimately decide whether the blessings have outweighed the curse. Meanwhile, Bridging the Abyss offers an account of what I believe to be the only way out of the morass into which widespread acceptance of the assumptions of modernity has led us.
If you're looking for a gift for someone who likes to read and who thinks like W.T. Stace both Absence and Bridging might be just the thing. I hope you'll give them a look. They're available at Hearts and Minds Bookstore, a great little family-owned bookshop, and in both paperback and e-book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Christmas Gift Suggestion (Pt. I)

Is there someone on your Christmas shopping list you think might enjoy reading a novel which blends philosophy, religion, and a crime story all together on a college campus during football season? If so, you might consider giving them a copy of my book In the Absence of God.

I know the foregoing sounds like a shameless plug, but Absence encapsulates a recurring theme throughout our twelve years here at Viewpoint. It's a fictionalized argument for the proposition that naturalism affords little or no basis for either moral obligation or ultimate meaning and renders a host of other human needs and yearnings absurd. Naturalism, to put it succinctly, is an existential dead-end, for unless there is a God, or something very much like God, then life really is, as Shakespeare described it, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

In the Absence of God is set on a mid-size university campus in New England at the beginning of the fall semester sometime in the early years of the last decade.

The main plot line involves a professor named Joseph Weyland who's forced by the events swirling around him, as well as the challenge presented by a young nihilist in one of his classes, to come to grips with the implications of his materialistic worldview. As he wrestles with the issues his materialism raises he's engaged in an ongoing series of dialogues with a colleague and friend named Malcolm Peterson, and also with the pastor of his father's church, Loren Holt.

Meanwhile, the campus has been terrorized by an apparent serial rapist, and several young student-athletes find themselves thrust into the role of both victim and pursuer of the person who's perpetrating these crimes.

Over the course of three weeks in late August and early September the lives of these students become intertwined with those of Weyland and Peterson in ways none of them could have foreseen when the semester opened.

In the Forward to the book I write this:
This is not a book about football, though it may at first seem to be. Neither is it a crime novel, though it ends that way. Nor is it just a book about people sitting around talking, although I'm sure some readers will think so.

In the Absence of God is a novel about ideas concerning the things that matter most in life. It's a tale of three different worldviews, three different ways of seeing the world and of living our lives in it. It's the story of how for a few short weeks in September these three views come into conflict on a college campus in New England and how that clash of ideas forces people on campus to think seriously about the implications of their deepest convictions.

It has been said that ideas have consequences and nowhere is this more true than in one's personal philosophy of life - one's beliefs about God.

It's my hope that in reading this book you'll be stretched to think about things you perhaps hadn't thought about before, or that you'll at least think about your own beliefs in new and different ways. I hope that whatever your convictions about the matters taken up in this book may be, by the time you close its covers you'll agree that those convictions matter, and matter more profoundly than any other opinions you hold.
The book is available at my favorite bookstore, Hearts and Minds, and also at Amazon (paperback and kindle), where reader/reviewers have given it 4.5 stars, and at Barnes and Noble (paperback and nook).

I hope you'll consider putting it and/or it's companion novel Bridging the Abyss (about which more tomorrow) on your Christmas shopping list.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


One of the most prominent scientists in the development of the theory of Intelligent Design is Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe. Behe first came to national and international notice with his book Darwin's Black Box in which he called attention to a concept called irreducible complexity. The basic idea is that there are numerous examples of biochemical systems and molecular machines in living things which are so constructed such that if they lacked just one part they would lose all functionality.

In other words, the system or machine has to have all of its parts present and operating in order for it to work, but, if this is so, it's a mystery how such systems could have evolved gradually by chance over long periods of time. Early versions of the system would lack parts that hadn't evolved yet and thus the prototype would be culled out by natural selection and thrown into the evolutionary wastebasket.

Various attempts have been made by Darwinian scientists to answer Behe's challenge to describe a plausible pathway by which these systems could have evolved, but few of them are persuasive and all of them are purely hypothetical.

In the process of promoting his idea of irreducible complexity Behe made famous the exquisitely tiny nano-machines that exhibit IR in the cells of all living things. Now a documentary has been made about Behe featuring his life and work. It's titled Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines, and the trailer of the film features a description of the most famous of the bio-machines, the bacterial flagellum, and also illustrates several others. Take a look:
The more one reads about the structure of life the more one is awed by the marvels one reads about and the harder it is to suppress the intuition that these things are designed. Indeed, Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick acknowledged the problem when he wrote that "Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved."

Of course, if one has a prior commitment to naturalism then design by an agent simply doesn't fit into one's grand narrative and will be rejected out of hand. If one is more open-minded, however, the intuition that these things are designed is virtually irresistible.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Intentionality and Materialism

Many people believe that human beings are a composite of both mental and material substance. This view is called substance dualism and among philosophers it seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence. Still, the currently dominant view among philosophers remains, at least for the time being, materialism. This is the view that everything, including us, is reducible to the constituents of material substance. Materialists deny that there's anything about us that's immaterial and affirm that electrochemical processes in the brain can account for all of our mental activity.

Philosopher Ed Feser argues that this view is simply false and he adduces something called intentionality as just one of several phenomena that cannot be explained as a function of matter or neurological processes:
One aspect of the mind that philosophers have traditionally considered particularly difficult to account for in materialist terms is intentionality, which is that feature of a mental state in virtue of which it means, is about, represents, points to, or is directed at something, usually something beyond itself.

Your thought about your car, for example, is about your car – it means or represents your car, and thus “points to” or is “directed at” your car. In this way it is like the word “car,” which is about, or represents, cars in general. Notice, though, that considered merely as a set of ink marks or (if spoken) sound waves, “car” doesn’t represent or mean anything at all; it is, by itself anyway, nothing but a meaningless pattern of ink marks or sound waves, and acquires whatever meaning it has from language users like us, who, with our capacity for thought, are able to impart meaning to physical shapes, sounds, and the like.

Now the puzzle intentionality poses for materialism can be summarized this way: Brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, the motion of water molecules, electrical current, and any other physical phenomenon you can think of, seem clearly devoid of any inherent meaning. By themselves they are simply meaningless patterns of electrochemical activity. Yet our thoughts do have inherent meaning – that’s how they are able to impart it to otherwise meaningless ink marks, sound waves, etc.

In that case, though, it seems that our thoughts cannot possibly be identified with any physical processes in the brain. In short: Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes.
The debate has fascinating implications. If there's more to us than just the chemicals that make us up, if there's something immaterial that's an essential element of our being, then is that immaterial mind (or soul) something that's not subject to death as physical matter is? Might there be something about us that continues to exist even after the body dies?

Materialists scoff at the idea, but materialism no longer commands the allegiance of philosophers like it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. There's too much it can't explain and intentionality is just one example.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Cellular Choreography

In my classes we've been looking at the design argument for the existence of God. One aspect of the argument is based on the amazing fact that each cell in living organisms is a factory consisting of thousands of biological machines directed and choreographed by information-rich instructions. Since we have a uniform experience of information (specified complexity) being produced only by intelligent agents, and no experience of information being generated by blind, impersonal forces, it's not unreasonable to conclude that the information in the biosphere is also the product of an intelligent agent.

The following excerpt from a longer video provides an example of the astonishing goings-on in the interiors of every cell in your body. The quality of the you tube version of the video is not good, but it's good enough.
Some questions we might ask about this include these: How do these molecular structures "know" what operation to perform and where to go to perform it? Where do the instructions (information) come from that direct and coordinate these operations, and how does such a system arise from a blind, mindless process like evolution? Indeed, how did these processes ever arise in the first cells before cells "learned" to reproduce? After all, natural selection, and thus evolution, doesn't kick in until cells can make copies of themselves. Yet many of these basic processes must already have been in place in the earliest cells or they wouldn't have survived to develop the ability to reproduce.

It's all very mysterious, but it certainly seems plausible to believe that this whole system was somehow designed. In fact, the only way to avoid that conclusion is to rule out design a priori, but why do that unless one's metaphysical commitment to naturalism is so strong that no rival hypothesis can be allowed to creep into one's thinking? If that's the case, though, one should give up any pretense of being open-minded.