Saturday, August 19, 2017

Trump Derangement Syndrome

"Our media have a problem: they are essentially incapable of covering Donald Trump with anything less than full-on deranged hysteria." Daniel Payne at The Federalist.

It's hard to argue with Payne about this. It seems that the liberal media, as well as others, have taken on the role of Chief Inspector Dreyfus to Donald Trump's Inspector Clouseau. The mere thought of Donald Trump seems to induce in them a completely mindless, irrational malice and rancor.

Those in the media suffering from this affliction can't seem to help themselves, nor can they seem to focus on things that matter. They panicked like Chicken Little when he talked tough to Kim Jung Un, fretting that Trump would unleash nuclear war. North Korea backed down from their threats against Guam, and the media, rather than acknowledging the fact, quietly shoved the whole business down the memory hole.

Nothing much appears to be coming of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation either, although there's plenty going on with Hillary's emails and Debbie Wasserman Schultz's inept dealings with nefarious IT people, but despite having promoted the "collusion with Russia" meme 24/7 for almost the entire year, the media is now ignoring it. Any failure gets prominent attention and becomes the subject of much ridicule, any success, and there've been quite a few, gets shunted to the media equivalent of Siberia.

So what's now occupying their attention instead? Like a kitten mesmerized by a laser dot on the carpet the media is fixated on Trump's claim that there was blame to be found on both sides of the awful events in Charlottesville and that "fine people" and bad people were on both sides of the protest. The former assertion is undeniable. The latter, not so much. As of this writing there's no good evidence of any "fine people" on the side of the white supremacists, but even if the president is completely wrong about this, it's hardly the sort of error that merits the hysterics we've been witness to from MSNBC, CNN and sundry other commentators over the past week.

If you think "hysterics" is too strong a word, consider that a state senator from Missouri was driven so far out of her mind by Trump's press conference that she declared she hoped someone would assassinate the president. But perhaps I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt here. For all I know, she was actually in her normal state of mind.

Others, less vicious but equally ridiculous, are calling for his impeachment. This would be a novel development: impeaching the president of the United States because he claimed that both left and right in Charlottesville were responsible for violence. Someone should enlighten these knuckleheads to the fact that they can't impeach a president just because he says things they don't like.

In the body of his article Payne elaborates on the semi-insanity rife in the media this week:
The furor surrounding the press conference stemmed largely from one particular line Trump delivered. When one reporter asked about his claim that there had been “hatred [and] violence on both sides,” Trump replied: “Well I do think there’s blame. Yes, I think there is blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there is blame on both sides.”

With that unremarkable assertion, the media were off. “HE STILL BLAMES BOTH SIDES,” CNN blared in enormous font on its front page. In a headline, The New York Times blared that Trump “again blames ‘both sides.” So did the Chicago Tribune. So did NBC News. So did U.S. News and World Report (calling it “an insane press conference” to boot). So did NPR. So did CBS News. So did the Washington Post. So did the Wall Street Journal. So did Time. So did MSNBC. So did USA Today. NBC News later wondered: “Has Trump Lost His Moral Authority for Good?” CNN continued with the massive headlines, calling Trump’s press conference “a meltdown for the ages,” and declaring: “Trump is who we feared he was.” Vox claimed Trump “is offering comfort to racists and extremists.”

The unambiguous implication of this media firestorm is obvious: we are supposed to see it as outrageous at best and morally abhorrent at worst that Trump would claim that “there is blame on both sides.” The thing is, Trump was telling the truth. There is blame on both sides. And we have eyewitness descriptions and photographic evidence to back it up.
This evidence hasn't been very widely publicized by our fourth estate because it contradicts the narrative they wish to purvey which is that the protestors were ugly Nazi brown-shirts and the counter-protestors were gentle clergy, nuns, and grandparents. In fact, the eyewitness testimony gives a fuller picture of the composition of the counter-protestors and the violence they inflicted that the progressive media has largely, but not entirely, ignored:
New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for one, attested: “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right,” she tweeted. “I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” If there were any doubt as to whether the Left were committing violence that day, Stolberg later clarified: “[I] should have said violent, not hate-filled.”

Another eyewitness report comes from Isabella Ciambotti, a creative writing major from the University of Virginia [who was herself a counter-protestor]. Speaking to The New York Times, Ciambotti testified that at one point “a counterprotestor ripped a newspaper stand off the sidewalk and threw it at alt-right protesters.” Photographic evidence confirms Ciambotti’s account.

Raw footage of the moment the counterprotestor threw the box is inconclusive but strongly suggests the counterprotester was unprovoked at the time. Further raw footage shows counterprotesters hurling objects at white supremacists and neo-Nazis while the latter simply stand there a good distance apart from the crowd.

Ciambotti also claims to have witnessed “another man from the white supremacist crowd being chased and beaten.” Additionally she saw “a much older man, also with the alt-right group, [who] got pushed to the ground in the commotion. Someone raised a stick over his head and beat the man with it.” Ciambotti claims to have intervened before the beating could continue further.

According to Jake Tapper of CNN the leftists also physically assaulted journalists who tried to record the violence.

Payne continues:
The fact that our media dedicated an entire news cycle to Trump’s truthful statement on the matter is staggering. This was not necessary. There were plenty of things the media could have criticized in Trump’s press conference. He asserts, for instance, that “very fine people” marched with the white supremacists and Nazis, people “that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue.”

Maybe this is true, but there is no evidence that the statue protest was made up of anything other than paranoid racists. Trump should not have made this statement unless he was willing to provide proof to back it up.

Yet he also told the press: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” This, according to Vox, constitutes Trump “offering comfort to racists and extremists.”

Trump makes a lot of mistakes. Some are minor, some major. In that, he is like every president who has ever held the position. Sometimes he gets things right, too—-as he did blaming the Charlottesville street violence on “both sides.”
Truth and objectivity are very difficult to espy in our current political reportage. Too many editors, journalists, talking heads and television news producers have adopted a pragmatic understanding of truth that justifies them to themselves when they tell only one side of a story. They've embraced the post-modern notion, widely held on the left, that truth is whatever works to achieve one's purposes. If the purpose is to discredit and ultimately remove Trump from office, then any account of events which accomplishes that goal is justified and "true" regardless of how well it corresponds to the actual facts.

Payne concludes with this:
The media’s responsibility, if it even cares anymore, is to learn how to tell the difference between the things he does right, the small mistakes he makes, and the big blunders he commits. Currently the media are apparently incapable of telling the difference between all three: it’s one and the same to them, no matter what he does, no matter what he says.

This is a dismal situation for Americans to be in. We have newsmakers whose only professional function these days seems to be whipping tens of millions of people into angry, irrational frenzies. They do not seem to care about the truth. They do not seem to care about honesty, integrity, or accuracy. We are lurching from one shrieking, insane media episode to the next. And it is wearing on all of us, and weakening the bonds of fellowship and friendship between common Americans.
Those last few sentences are certainly true, and maybe that's the whole point - weakening the bonds of fellowship and friendship between common Americans.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Racial Bigotry at Sojourners

Sojourners touts itself as a magazine of Christian love, reconciliation and Christ-like compassion. So why do they publish the sort of ugly, hate-filled rhetoric David Potter delivers to his readers in a recent edition of the magazine?

In the course of a piece on Charlottesville and white supremacy Potter decides that limiting himself to condemning white supremacists imposes too narrow a scope for his purposes. He pulls out all the stops and seizes his opportunity to indict the entire white race:
[I]t is imperative that white people understand that the construct of whiteness is a disease. In baring [sic] the brutalizing effects of whiteness, people of color are all too familiar with the reality that the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorism is committed by white men: the Oklahoma City bombing, the massacre at Emmanuel AME, the stabbing attack on a Portland train earlier this spring, and the Charlottesville car ramming that injured 19 counter-protestors and murdered Heather Heyer. That white men have the highest suicide rate, accounting for 7 of 10 suicides in 2015, provides further symptoms of this sickness.
Set aside the dubious claims about domestic terrorism and the peculiar interjection of the suicide rate and focus instead on what this writer claims about being white: Whiteness, he avers, is a disease. White people are sick.

Imagine saying anything remotely like that about blacks or Arabs, Jews or Asians. It would surely get the writer fired from many publications or opinion outlets. Yet it's apparently acceptable to voice this sort of bigotry at Sojourners. It's very sad that a putatively Christian magazine allows its pages to be disgraced by this sort of vitriolic small-mindedness.

If Potter thinks that telling people that they're diseased by virtue of their race will cause them to suddenly become more receptive to pleas for racial comity and reconciliation then he couldn't be more mistaken.

If he doesn't really care whether white readers become more interested in racial harmony and just wants to vent his own hatreds, prejudices and frustrations then he couldn't be acting less Christianly.

I don't know whether Potter is black or white, but it doesn't matter. It's columns like his which drive people into the arms of the white supremacists, and, ironically enough, language and insults such as he employs are the very sort of repulsive rhetoric employed by the neo-Nazis and other bigots who demonstrated in Charlottesville.

Perhaps Mr. Potter will have the grace to print a clarification or retraction, but if not, he has shown himself to have more in common with those whom he claims to be repelled by than he is evidently aware.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Pull Down Darwin, Too?

In an article for the Evening Standard journalist A.N. Wilson, who has a biography of Charles Darwin due for release next month, notes that Darwin's statue is prominently situated in the Natural History Museum in London.

In the article he goes on to discuss two of Darwin's big ideas and writes this:
Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for [s]issies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer.

He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things. He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish.

Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.
To be sure, Darwin was opposed to slavery but not because he recognized the equality of the races. He clearly believed that whites were more highly evolved than, and in many ways superior to, blacks and famously elaborates on that belief in his Descent of Man:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. [Emphasis mine]
Such passages from Darwin arguably provided more ammunition for the pernicious propaganda of white supremacists in the 19th and 20th centuries than did any Confederate soldier or officer. When the mobs get done purging our public spaces of all the monuments to these relatively inconsequential figures perhaps they'll turn their attention toward those whose ideas really count.

On the other hand, Darwin, despite his racist views, is a revered saint on the left so his memorials are probably safe.

Equally secure are any memorials to Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, whose ambition it was to limit the production of black babies. Sanger is also a progressive saint so the mob won't be looking for her portraits to deface and burn.

It's too bad for those saddened to see the assaults on Robert E. Lee's monuments that Lee was never able to declare himself to be a Darwinian or pro-choice. If he had, ironically, his statues would be safe today.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Slippery Slopes

So leftist protestors have started pulling down statues of confederate soldiers who fought to defend the right of a state to practice slavery. Whatever one thinks of the propriety of this destruction, whatever one thinks of those who engaged in the buying and selling of human beings, one has to wonder where it will all end.

If monuments of those who fought on behalf of the south in the 1860s are to be destroyed, will all the monuments in cities like Richmond and at civil war battlefields like Gettysburg be pulled down as well? If not, why not?

If monuments of confederate soldiers, most of whom themselves never owned slaves, are no longer tolerable on the American landscape what about monuments to men who actually bought, sold, and owned slaves? Shall we destroy the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.? Shall we change the name of the Washington Monument? Indeed, should we change the name of the city itself?

What about the state of Washington? How can the citizens of that reliably liberal enclave suffer to have the place in which they live be named for a slave-holder? What about all the universities and colleges and towns across the land named for Washington and Jefferson and other slave-owners? Should not their names be changed as well and the portraits and statues of these men removed?

How about the University of Virginia which was founded by Thomas Jefferson? Is it not sufficiently tainted by its association with its slave-owner founder that it should be closed down? And what should we do with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence which were written by slave-owners? Should they not be torn up and re-written?

While we're at it how can we abide having portraits of Washington and Jefferson on our currency and on Mount Rushmore? And speaking of our currency what's Andrew Jackson's portrait doing on the $20 bill? Jackson perpetrated one of the worst atrocities in our history when he evicted the Cherokees from Georgia. Shouldn't he be expunged from our historical consciousness as well?

Furthermore, consistency demands that the Democratic Party should, at the very least, be compelled to change its name since under that name it has historically been home to all of the major racists in our nation's past. Why don't those who insist on tearing down statues of Civil War soldiers, and those who support them, take their reasoning to its logical conclusion and insist that we do away with the very name of the party of George Wallace, Woodrow Wilson, Bull Connor and FDR who interned thousands of Japanese Americans during WWII?

The first step on a slippery slope - in this case the destruction of Confederate monuments - is always the easiest, but after the first step the logic upon which it was based makes it increasingly more difficult to find a place to stop the slide into sheer madness and mindlessness.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Value of Lecture

Students and teachers among Viewpoint readers might be interested in a column at the New York Times by Molly Worthen, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina. The column is about the value of lectures in college classes, a topic about which there's quite a diversity of opinion.

After introducing her essay by quoting some instructors who eschew lecture in favor of "active learning" and think others should, too, Worthen writes:
In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.
I wonder how many critics of lecture have in their minds a picture of something like a prof I had as an undergrad who, at the beginning of class, would sit on his desk, pull a lectern in front of him, and proceed to read his lecture from a series of blue books in which the lectures were recorded word for word.

This, I know, is how many scholars at professional conferences present their papers, and it's pretty much a waste of time for the listeners who could simply read the paper for themselves.

Worthen continues:
Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice.

Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.
It is indeed hard work to listen to an hour-long lecture, but the discipline it instills and the skills it develops are immensely valuable.
Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of non-stop social media. More and more of my colleagues are banning the use of laptops in their classrooms.

They say that despite initial grumbling, students usually praise the policy by the end of the semester. “I think the students value a break from their multitasking lives,” Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and an award-winning teacher, told me. “The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.”
For my part, I don't think 60 minutes of non-stop lecture is particularly efficacious. The instructor needs to pause from time to time and let students digest what they've heard, to be questioned and to ask questions. Their opinions on the issues under discussion should be solicited and challenged and students should be encouraged to defend their views.

Many students, unfortunately, either have no questions or opinions or are reluctant to voice them, but those who do, learn.

One of the dismaying aspects of this approach, though, is that students frequently expect their opinions to be accepted tout court and to be immune to challenge. If the prof does press them on their view, or evinces some disagreement, students sometimes interpret this as a sign that they're not free in class to voice their thoughts. In other words, they see having their views challenged as a form of "put-down" when, of course, it's not that at all. It's simply an attempt to prod the student to sharpen his or her arguments, to express them in a rational fashion rather than simply emoting, and to think more deeply about what they believe.

Worthen goes on to talk about another valuable discipline: Note-taking. This is a skill that, for whatever reason, fewer and fewer students seem to have developed in high school, but in my opinion it's one of the major keys to student success in many college courses.

There's much else of interest to both teachers and students in her column, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Shapiro on the Alt-Right

In the wake of Charlottesville Ben Shapiro fired off a series of tweets about the alt-right which I wish to almost completely affirm. Shapiro's tweets are in italics accompanied by my comments:

1. The so-called alt-right is an evil movement having nothing to do with - and actively opposing - Constitutional conservatism.

Any movement based on hatred is evil. The alt-right is not evil because they're nationalistic although that could be troubling. They're evil because they wear the mantle of the nazis and the nazi ideology of racial purity which leads almost inevitably to racial-cleansing.

2. They've done an excellent job, with the media's ignorant help, of portraying themselves as large and powerful.

I don't know how many of them there are, but I suspect there are many more who sympathize with them than actually belong to any organization.

3. And broadening their definition to include anyone who is anti-establishment .... That's not what they are.

This is one of the frustrating things about the progressive media. They constantly commit the fallacy of undistributed middle, i.e. they assume that because group A shares certain beliefs in common with group B that therefore the two groups are identical. It's like arguing that because dogs and cats both have four legs that therefore dogs are cats. The fact that conservatives favor some of the things the alt-right favors does not entail that conservatives are alt-right.

4. The alt-right has a very definite philosophy, articulated by people like Spencer, Taylor, and Vox Day. 5. And excused and popularized by people like Milo Yiannopoulos. They were successful online in convincing key figures that they were 6. An important constituency. Immoral politicians and advisors then made the conscious decision not to carve them off. 7. Yes, that includes Trump and Bannon.

This was indeed a mistake on Trump's part which it's not too late to rectify. Barack Obama stood by Rev. Wright for years until Wright's rhetoric made the association untenable. Trump should completely dissociate himself from any support alt-right individuals like David Duke may be giving him. If that costs him support in the polls, so be it. It's the right thing to do. It's perhaps worth noting that despite the awful rhetoric from some elements in the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent murders of police officers, the left never really pushed Obama to disavow BLM, but they're certainly critical of Trump for not more explicitly separating himself from the alt-right.

8. Three elements assure their continued growth: pandering politicians and media figures catering to or ignoring them [i.e. the alt-right], and 9. Left-wingers labeling all right-wingers alt-right and therefore leading innocent people to believe that alt-right Judy means right.

See #3.

10. And left-wing violent groups like Antifa that drive fools into the belief that anyone who fights Antifa is necessarily an ally [of the alt-right].

11. We're watching a tiny microcosm replay of brownshirts vs. reds in Weimar Germany. They're even carrying the same flags.

This is precisely right. There's no substantive difference between the alt-right and the far left. They're both steeped in hatred and both would impose a socialist totalitarian tyranny if they could. The only differences between fascists and communists is that fascists are more militaristic, racist and nationalist (blood and soil) while communists are less fond of overt military trappings, base their hatreds more on class and religion rather than race, and are more globalist. Otherwise, the neo-nazis in Charlottesville and the left-wing protestors in Hamburg and elsewhere are simply two sides of the same coin. They're equally noxious. Given power they would both oppress the groups they hate or, if history is a guide, seek to slaughter them.

12. And leadership in media and especially the White House must actively and thunderously condemn the evil we're watching metastasize.

Trump's response yesterday has been criticized because he didn't explicitly condemn white supremacists and other fascists. I think this is unfair, but even so, the Charlottesville marchers and their ilk, like their counterparts on the left, do need to be explicitly and specifically deplored.

It would be nice, though, if the people so outraged at Trump's measured response yesterday had been as critical of Obama for his disappointing unwillingness to call Islamic-inspired domestic terrorism by its name as well as his failure to dissociate himself from the hateful rhetoric of certain elements of BLM instead of inviting them to the White House.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Few Rarities

Nature enthusiasts have been treated to several avian rarities in Pennsylvania this summer, and since it's been awhile since I've posted anything on birds I thought I'd share the news about these feathered visitors. None of the photos below are of the actual birds found in Pennsylvania this summer, but they are pics of birds of the same species.

The first is a Roseate spoonbill which inhabits wetlands along the coast in the southern states but rarely ventures as far north as the mid-atlantic region and even more rarely as far inland as Pennsylvania.

Even so, there were two of them present in the state last month within forty miles of each other. One of them is still here. Notice the oddly shaped bill which the spoonbill uses to push mud around as it probes for insects, worms, and other delicacies:

Roseate spoonbill
The second is a small heron that also is found along the southern coasts and very rarely inland this far north. Yet there was one, and maybe two of these birds in PA at the end of July as well.

It's called a Tricolored heron and the reason I said that there may have been two of them is that when one bird was no longer being seen a second one was discovered at a lake only about twenty miles away from where the first was originally found.

Tricolored heron
The third visitor is the most remarkable. It's called a White-winged tern and it's indigenous to eastern Europe and central Asia:

Yellow is its breeding range. Blue is where it winters
How this lovely bird found its way to a small lake in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania this week is a mystery, but its striking black and white plumage and extreme rarity (it may be the only Pennsylvania White-winged tern on record) have been delighting birders and photographers who've been making the trek to Tioga Co. to see it for several days now:

White-winged tern
The natural world is full of beautiful jewels, and birds are among its most gorgeous treasures. To see these creatures in real life can sometimes take one's breath away.

Friday, August 11, 2017

More on Purpose

A couple of days ago I did a post on materialism in which I argued that a materialist worldview empties the world and life of any genuine meaning despite the efforts of some materialists to salvage some measure of purpose in the fleeting ephemerata of human existence.

A friend wrote to respond to the post and add some thoughts of his own which I'd like to share. Here's the core of his response:
As is evident in the article you cite, the problem of materialists is that, no matter how hard they try, they can never fully jettison their human essence. Like C.S. Lewis says in Miracles, "While denying humanity, they all the while remain human."

Materialism is the immediate (and pitifully jejune) result of positivism. The materialist basically says, "I refuse to speculate about realities that can't be empirically verified. Prudence demands that I only give credence to what is posited to my senses--to what I know with certainty is actually there. Therefore, I reject any notion of inherent purpose and meaning.

But there are few things which are more empirically obvious than the existential reality of human beings for whom purpose and meaning are more necessary than food. As you likely know, this is the premise of Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning. Man's incessant search for meaning is an empirically verifiable, existential reality.

To fail to see this one would have to be as obtuse as the willfully blind fundamentalist Christian who refuses to consider any evidence that the earth more than 6,000 years old.

The materialist explanation that purpose is only for evolutionary "benefit" also exposes the reality they are trying to deny. Benefit necessarily implies purpose or telos--benefit means an advantage that contributes toward an end cause. But then having an end cause, like increasing evolutionary sophistication and functionality, requires an intent (aka "purpose") and the concept of intent is nonsensical apart from a will and a mind which does the intending.

It's hard for a materialist to write two sentences without asserting some kind of value attribution. But, as you have so keenly pointed out, like purpose and meaning, according to them, there can be no inherent value in anything.

All is an illusion, but then that can't even be said without a value assertion; either an illusion is "bad" because it keeps us from what is real and true, both of which have inherent value, or illusion is "good" because it enables us to gratify ourselves in some way, but then apart from sheer, visceral itch-scratching, "gratifying" one's self smuggles in notions of individual happiness and fulfillment, which are inherently valuable and thus constitute an important purpose.

To paraphrase Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, "Nothing makes a man look less like an animal than assuming he is one."
Quite so. The materialist, in my opinion, is living in a state of metaphysical tension. He realizes that human life requires meaning, significance and purpose and realizes at the same time that any genuine meaning, significance and purpose are extremely difficult to reconcile with the tenets of his materialism which reduces everything to the chaotic swirl of leptons and baryons.

Yet he soldiers on, clinging to his materialism, his desire to embrace a metaphysics which allows him to avoid a confrontation with God evidently outweighing his desire for a meaningful life. One might well wonder why.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Eight Myths about War with North Korea

Fears of war with North Korea have been exacerbated recently by the rhetoric coming from North Korea's psychotic leader Kim Jung Un who keeps threatening the United States with destruction as he pursues his quest for nuclear missiles.

Given his homicidal temperament and history and his repeated vows to launch nuclear war against American citizens, the White House can't afford to allow him to obtain the weapons that will give him the means to carry out his threats. Diplomacy has so far failed to deter him, however, and it looks as if war is a real possibility.

The consequences of actual war with North Korea would indeed be grim but, according to an article at RedState, have been largely exaggerated by our media. We've been told that the South Korean capital of Seoul with it's population of 25 million people would be levelled by North Korean artillery and that thousands of American troops based in South Korea would be targeted before they could be safely moved.

Neither of these claims is true, according to the author of the piece, a writer who goes by the name Strieff. His column debunks the claim that North Korea has the ability to inflict the damage and carnage the media tells us will ensue if war breaks out and discusses eight myths that have been circulated about such a conflict. The alleged myths are these:
  1. Seoul is within easy artillery range of North Korea.
  2. All of these long range pieces are within range of Seoul.
  3. North Korea will use all of its artillery to target Seoul.
  4. North Korean artillery will be able to hit Seoul even if it is in range.
  5. North Korean artillery will shoot thousands of rounds at Seoul.
  6. Neither the US nor ROK (South Korea) Air Force or artillery will engage North Korean artillery.
  7. The ROK army won’t cross the border to clear out North Korean artillery.
  8. Seoul will suffer massive civilian casualties.
Streiff refers to the following map which accompanied a piece in yesterday's WaPo (of which he's critical) in his response to the first two "myths":



Of the first myth he says this:
This is simply not true. Thirty miles is extreme range for tube or rocket artillery. The entire North Korean Army has, at a high end estimate, a max of 500 artillery systems and 200 rocket systems that can range Seoul’s northern suburbs and Seoul from what is now North Korea. Only one-third of Seoul can be hit by any type of tube artillery.

The drawing of a 44-mile circle and implying that there are hundreds of artillery pieces which can range as far as the heaviest North Korean rocket systems is just dishonest in the extreme.
Of the second myth he writes:
Dispersion between artillery systems is going to be at least 50 meters. Math alone tells you once you start dispersing that you quickly run out of usable real estate. Why disperse? The blast radius for a 500-lb bomb (the B-2 carries 80 of these) is 50 meters. That means it will kill 50% of everyone within that zone. Even troops in bunkers will be killed or injured by the combination of overpressure and vacuum rupturing hollow organs.

If you drop 1000-lb bombs, increasingly the weapon of choice, the 50% lethality radius exceeds 200 meters. If you want your artillery to survive more than the first air strike you will want them dispersed and in hardened positions. While the 44 mile radius on the map is cute, many of these weapons will be out of range of Seoul because clustering dozens of pieces up on the DMZ within easy range of ROK infantry and armor doesn’t make sense.
You'll have to read the rest at RedState. It's an interesting counterpoint to the catastrophic consequences we've been told would follow an attempt to take out the barbaric regime in Pyongyang.

Streiff closes with this:
...the fact is that the assertion that Seoul is going to be flattened by North Korean artillery is simply false and can easily be proven false.

None of this is to say a war with North Korea would be easy and that it wouldn’t result in widespread destruction in the northern 10% of South Korea, but don’t be fooled. The stories of an Armageddon in South Korea are simply not true. The ROK Air Force and ROK Army are not going to sit on their thumbs and allow Seoul to be pulverized. Neither will American forces.

Just like we spent a lot of effort hunting SCUDs in both Gulf wars, the artillery that can shoot at Seoul will be quickly and ruthlessly hunted down and silenced.
Of one thing there can be no doubt. North Korea simply cannot be permitted to go on building nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. They must be stopped, and if diplomacy continues to be unproductive then, it seems, Streiff's analysis will be put to the test.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Purposeless Universe

Joseph P. Carter is a doctoral student in ancient Greek philosophy at the University of Georgia and a materialist who believes that matter and energy is all there is. On the materialist view there's nothing that cannot be reduced to material stuff - no immaterial mind, no soul and, usually, no God.

Carter writes about human purpose from a materialist perspective at the NYT's The Stone, and his conclusions, though somewhat subtly stated, are pretty bleak. Here are some excerpts which will help illustrate the gravamen of his argument:
Purpose is a universal human need. Without it, we feel bereft of meaning and happiness....

But, where does purpose come from? What is it? For over two millenniums, discerning our purpose in the universe has been a primary task of philosophers....

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that our purpose is happiness or eudaemonia, “well-spiritedness.” Happiness is an ordered and prudent life.

I’m certainly no Aristotelian. Not because I reject happiness. Rather, as a materialist, I think there’s nothing intrinsic about the goals and purposes we seek to achieve it. Modern science explicitly jettisons this sort of teleological thinking from our knowledge of the universe. From particle physics to cosmology, we see that the universe operates well without purpose....
What follows from this, whether Carter intends it or not, is that whatever means we employ to achieve happiness are justified if they enable us to successfully attain it.

In other words, on materialism there are no intrinsically right or wrong means, only those that work and those that don't. If it brings happiness someone to rape, pillage and murder such behaviors aren't wrong because the universe knows nothing about value judgments.
Just as the temperature of the coffee and air equalizes, the Earth, our solar system, galaxies and even supermassive black holes will break down to the quantum level, where everything cools to a uniform state.... Eventually everything ends in heat death....

What’s the purpose in that, though?

There isn’t one. At least not fundamentally.... [T]he universe as we understand it tells us nothing about the goal or meaning of existence, let alone our own. In the grand scheme of things, you and I are enormously insignificant.
But, Carter stresses, we're not completely insignificant. We can invent pretend purposes and meaning that occupy and divert our attention enough to enable us to stave off nihilism and existential despair.

We can be important to each other, he insists, we can do things that give us the incentive to get out of bed in the morning, we can even believe there's real purpose to our lives even though we know there isn't because evolutionary benefits accrue to those who make themselves believe it.

This is a depressing recitation, but it's really all that materialism can offer. A materialist can either accept that his life is nothing more than a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", or he can reject materialism. What he can't do is remain a materialist and pretend that somehow life matters.

Jean Paul Sartre observed that "Life ceases to have any meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal." Or, to put the same thought differently, unless what we do matters forever it doesn't really matter at all.

Carter, as one would expect, disagrees with this assessment:
An indifferent universe also offers us a powerful and compelling case for living justly and contentedly because it allows us to anchor our attention here. It teaches us that this life matters and that we alone are responsible for it. Love, friendship and forgiveness are for our benefit. Oppression, war and conflict are self-inflicted.
This seems to me to be a case of whistling past the graveyard. What an indifferent universe does is impress upon us the fact, contrary to Carter's assertion, that there is no compelling case for living justly if living unjustly confers upon us the pleasures and other desiderata of life that we seek. It tells us that we are just dust in the wind and nothing we do will last or matter ultimately. It tells us that love and the rest are merely chemical reactions in our brains and that though they may benefit some people, others may benefit just as much from oppression, war and conflict.

Atheist materialist Richard Dawkins famously wrote that the universe exhibits no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Just blind pitiless indifference. In such a universe right and wrong, good and bad, are entirely subjective. What's right and good for one person may be wrong and bad for another.
When we ask what’s the purpose of the recent gassing of Syrian children in the Idlib Province or the torture and killings of Chechnyan homosexual men, we ought not simply look to God or the universe for explanations but to ourselves, to the entrenched mythologies that drive such actions — then reject them when the institutions they inform amount to acts of horror.
Notice Carter doesn't say we should judge these acts to be evil. On the materialist's view there is no genuine moral evil. Carter avers instead that we can "reject" them, but why, on materialism, should we reject these acts if they bring us happiness? Why is it wrong for men to treat other men cruelly if they believe it advances their well-being and flourishing? It's hard to see how a materialist would answer that question.

He concludes his article with these words:
One day I will die. So will you. [Everything in the universe] will decay ... as the fundamental particles we’re made of return to the inert state in which everything began.
Perhaps so, but if that's true then nothing we do on this tiny speck of a planet in the extraordinarily brief moment of time we spend here really matters.

Materialism offers no hope, no meaning, no basis for moral action, no reason for enduring the pain and suffering of life. To insist otherwise, as Carter does, is to indulge in make-believe.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

No Surprise

The French News Agency AFP recently ran a story about a study that showed that people are more likely to assume that a hypothetical "vile deed" was more likely inflicted by an atheist than by a theist.

This isn't an especially newsworthy finding, I wouldn't think, given all the anecdotal evidence out there, but AFP thought it was because the study revealed that even atheists held this view about their fellow atheists:
An unusual social study has revealed that atheists are more easily suspected of vile deeds than Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists -- strikingly, even by fellow atheists, researchers said Monday.

This suggests that in an increasingly secular world, many -- including some atheists -- still hold the view that people will do bad things unless they fear punishment from all-seeing gods.

The results of the study "show that across the world, religious belief is intuitively viewed as a necessary safeguard against the temptations of grossly immoral conduct," an international team wrote in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. And it revealed that "atheists are broadly perceived as potentially morally depraved and dangerous."

Participants were given a description of a fictional evildoer who tortured animals as a child, then grows up to become a teacher who murders and mutilates five homeless people.

Half of the group were asked how likely it was that the perpetrator was a religious believer, and the other half how likely that he was an atheist.

The team found that people were about twice as likely to assume that the serial killer was an atheist.

"It is striking that even atheists appear to hold the same intuitive anti-atheist bias," study co-author Will Gervais, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, told AFP.
There are more details at the link. I'm not sure, though, why Gervais is surprised by this result. How many of the mass murderers in the U.S. were either atheists or Islamic terrorists? I would venture to guess that the number is close to 100%. Moreover, those who were not atheists or Muslims I would venture to guess are only nominal theists who at best hold very tenuous, inchoate views about God.

There are two different reasons, in my opinion, why perpetrators of mass evil, at least in this country, are likely to be either atheists or Muslims. In the latter case it's because the perpetrator is convinced, not unreasonably, that the religion to which he is devoted actually encourages the murders of infidels, apostates, Jews, and those who dishonor the family name.

In the former case the reason is not so much that the perpetrator lacks a belief in Divine punishment, although that may be part of it, but rather that an atheist perpetrator has no good reason for thinking that any deed he might perform is morally evil in the first place.

If atheism is true then we're all just highly evolved animals, and there's no moral evil among animals. When a cat kills a mouse, even if the killing is simply gratuitous and unrelated to acquiring food, it's not doing evil. It's just doing what cats do. So it is with human beings. When one man slays another he's just doing what humans have been doing to each other ever since Cain and Abel.

Morality, on atheism, is simply something humans have devised to help them live together in society and avoid constant conflict, but if someone violates society's moral conventions they're not doing something wrong in any ultimately meaningful sense. They're just doing something that other people don't like.

When we condemn a mass killer all we're doing is expressing our disapproval of what the killer did, sort of like when fans at a baseball game boo the umpire, but the umpire who makes a bad call hasn't done anything immoral and neither has the killer. For the killer's act to be immoral he must be accountable to a higher law and a higher judge than merely the laws and judges of human society.

Thus, the presumption that someone who does evil is likely to be an atheist is a perfectly rational surmise, and the study simply shows that reflective atheists, just like most others, recognize the fact.

A theist, if he's genuinely committed to his belief, knows that if he does a horrible deed he's doing something deeply and genuinely wrong and is betraying both the faith he professes to hold and the God he professes to love. When an atheist does something horrible he has no reason to think he's doing anything wrong or betraying anything at all.

Between the two, then, who is more likely to wreak evil upon others?

Monday, August 7, 2017

GOP Tartuffery

Politicians who say one thing and do another are not difficult to find, but even so the recent senate vote on repealing Obamacare was a bonanza for connoisseurs of political tergiversation.

Seven GOP senators who had on previous occasions - when it was certain that any repeal bill would be vetoed by Mr. Obama and no danger of the law actually being undone could be espied - stoutly insisted that for the sake of the country, for the well-being of the people, the ACA had to be demolished, root and branch. But when repeal loomed as a real possibility last month these august senators' memories of their previous asseverations were evidently beclouded, and they voted against a bill that would have eliminated the law for which they had previously expressed such strenuous opposition.

Here's what each of the seven Republican senators who voted late last month against repealing Obamacare has said about it in the past:
LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK): “This law is not affordable for anyone in Alaska. That is why I will support the bill that repeals the ACA and wipes out its harmful impacts."

SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): "I believe that we made - that Congress made - a real error in passing Obamacare, we should repeal the law so that we can start over."

JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): “It is clear that any serious attempt to improve our health care system must begin with a full repeal and replacement of Obamacare.”

DEAN HELLER (R-NV): "The repeal of this law will not only reduce federal spending, but it will also allow Congress to address problems within the current health-care system.”

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R-WV): "I have consistently voted to repeal and replace this disastrous health-care law, and I am glad that a repeal bill will finally reach the president’s desk."

LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN): "Obamacare was an historic mistake, and should be repealed and replaced with step-by-step reforms that transform the health-care delivery system."

ROB PORTMAN (R-OH): “[Obamacare] is fundamentally flawed. I do think we ought to delay ... and then we’ve got to repeal this thing and start over."
Actually Murkowski, Collins and McCain achieved summa cum laude honors among Washington hypocrites by actually voting against both full repeal and the so-called "skinny repeal" which would have repealed the law but kept it in place until a satisfactory substitute was found.

If there's a Hall of Fame for political tartuffery surely these three deserve immediate induction.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Viva la Revolución!

During the recent G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany leftists from across Europe protested violently against the evils of global capitalism. The "protestors" were presumably young socialist/communists who ought to be taken aside and asked what, exactly, is their vision of a socialist future?

Is it, say, Venezuela which was at one time in the not too distant past the fourth richest nation in the world on a per capita basis, but which, since adopting socialism in the "Bolivarian Revolution" of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, finds that it can no longer feed or provide basic services for its people? Socialism has brought this once-prosperous nation to the cusp of civil war as Rich Lowry explains in a column at the New York Post.

Lowry writes:
Venezuela is a woeful reminder that no country is so rich that it can’t be driven into the ground by revolutionary socialism....

A country that has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia is suffering shortages of basic supplies. Venezuela now totters on the brink of bankruptcy and civil war, in the national catastrophe known as the Bolivarian Revolution.

The phrase is the coinage of the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, succeeded by the current Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro.

The Chavistas have worked from the typical Communist playbook of romanticizing the masses while immiserating them. Runaway spending, price controls, nationalization of companies, corruption and the end of the rule of law — it’s been a master class in how to destroy an economy.

The result is a sharp, years-long recession, runaway inflation and unsustainable debt. The suffering of ordinary people is staggering, while the thieves and killers who are Chavista officials have made off with hundreds of billions of dollars. At this rate — The Economist calls the country’s economic decline “the steepest in modern Latin American history” — there will be nothing left to steal.

Any government in a democratic country that failed this spectacularly would have been relegated to the dustbin of history long ago. Maduro is getting around this problem by ending Venezuela’s democracy.
This has been the standard modus operandi of the far left for the last one hundred years. Leftists exploit democracy to gain power and then eliminate democracy in order to consolidate that power. Finally, they employ their power to impose a violent tyranny while at the same time turning their country into an economic basket-case.

The history of Africa in the 20th century is full of case studies, and closer to home Cuba is a notable illustration of this same pattern, a pattern that George Orwell limned so charmingly for readers of his novel Animal Farm.

Lowry concludes his piece with these thoughts:
Denied the ordinary means of dissent via the press and elections, the opposition has taken to the streets. Already more than 100 people have been killed in clashes over the past several months.

Worse is yet to come. Lacking legitimacy and representing only a fraction of the populace, the Maduro regime will rely on the final backstop of violent suppression. It is now the worst crisis in a major country in the Western Hemisphere since the heights of the Colombian civil war in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the meantime, the Bolivarian Revolution is proceeding according to its sick logic — and there will be blood.
Alas, there often is. Once a government extinguishes freedom and seeks to impose a socialist economy by force, bloodshed, often massive as in Cambodia, China and the U.S.S.R., is the not uncommon result.

So, too, is economic wretchedness.

Friday, August 4, 2017

RAISE

By now you've no doubt heard of the RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act) that has been introduced into the Senate by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue and endorsed by President Trump. Predictably media liberals are attacking it and Trump's supporters are delighted with it, but what would the act actually do? What are it's strong and weak points and how can the weaknesses be strengthened?

Immigration expert Lyman Stone has a fine piece at The Federalist that summarizes the act and answers those questions. Here's the summary:
First, the RAISE ACT would eliminate “Diversity Lottery Visas,” a program that gives 50,000 visas to countries that send few immigrants to the United States in the name of, well, diversity.

Second, it would limit the number of refugees given permanent residency to 50,000 per year.

Third, it would eliminate the ability of immigrants to sponsor visas for extended family members and adult children.

Fourth, it would restructure the employment-visa system into a points system akin to those used by Canada or Australia, prioritizing young-ish immigrants with good English, high-paying job offers, and other markers of achievement.
Stone goes on to explain a bit about each of these. The points system in particular would look like this:
[E]ach person applying for immigration authorization is awarded points based on various characteristics on a 0 to 100 basis. If you get fewer than 30 points, you are ineligible for immigration.

Practically speaking, nobody except Olympic athletes, wealthy investors, or Nobel Prize winners gets a score over 45 points. For most immigrants, points come from age (26-31 is the sweet spot, earning 10 points, while over-50s get zero points, with various gradations in between), education (a bachelor’s degree earns you 5 or 6, a STEM masters 7 or 8, a STEM PhD 10 or 13), English-language skills (the top 10 percent of test-takers using a standardized test get 12 points), and salary offered (5-13 points depending on how far the wage is above median wages).

Many countries use points systems because these are easy to understand for voters, bureaucrats, and immigrants. Voters feel like they understand how they’re being governed, bureaucrats don’t have to make as many subjective choices, and immigrants have clear goals and benchmarks. The United Kingdom adopted such a system in 2008. Australia’s system is widely seen as a model for such systems. You can easily look up Canada’s scoring system online.
Like any legislation RAISE probably needs to be tweaked. Stone discusses some pros and cons:
A focus on skills is long overdue. Even as low-skilled workers in the United States may face competition from cheaper immigrant labor, high-skilled employers continue to complain that they can’t find enough workers. Shifting away from kinship-based visas that encourage immigrants to bring over lower-skilled relatives towards a system that zeroes in on skilled workers would simultaneously reduce the pressure on working-class wages while making it easier for advanced companies to hire the best and brightest from around the world.

Indeed, it actually makes it harder for companies to poach talent from abroad by creating additional barriers, such as English fluency or certain age brackets, that were not previously necessary. Say you’re an advanced polymer manufacturing company in Ohio and you want to hire an engineer. Your new hire has a PhD in polymers from a U.S. university (13 points) and you’re offering him 40 percent of median wages (13 points). But he’s 53 (zero points) and his English is only about average for foreigners (zero points). At 26 points, this candidate is totally ineligible for a visa despite obviously being good for the country.At least, that’s what should happen.

But the RAISE Act designers made a crucial drafting error. They slashed family visas, implemented a points-based system… then left the number of employment visas unchanged at 140,000. This is nonsensical. Sure, the RAISE Act relieves some pressure on low-skilled workers, which is good, but it does absolutely nothing to make the United States more globally competitive.
The problems, Stone maintains, are easy to remedy, and he suggests some fixes in his article to which I refer you for many more details than I've mentioned here.

It's hard to see why this bill, with appropriate modifications, should not be passed into law, although some will oppose it simply because it's a Republican proposal endorsed by Trump. The "Resist" folks notwithstanding, though, it's a system that makes a lot of sense, has been adopted by other first world nations, and one that we should adopt as well.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The State of Inflation

Cosmologists (scientists who study the origin and structure of the universe) have long been intrigued by the fact that regardless where they point their telescopes what they find is that the universe is almost completely uniform, that is, its matter and energy are the same everywhere in the universe. Why that should be is a puzzle.

Another puzzle is that the expansion rate of the universe is almost perfectly balanced by the universe's mass density which exerts gravitational pull. This means that the universe should neither tear itself apart in an out of control expansion nor collapse back on itself but eventually reach a state of eternal equilibrium. This is called "flatness", and flatness requires an incredible degree of fine-tuning.

One theory that has been advanced to account for these remarkable features is cosmic inflation - the hypothesis that at the very beginning of the universe when it was only miniscule fractions of a second old, it underwent incredibly rapid expansion for a miniscule fraction of a second.

Inflation is still the consensus view among cosmologists but it's being subjected of late to some tough criticism. If the critics prevail it would have serious consequences for not only inflationary cosmology but also for the multiverse hypothesis. It would also powerfully strengthen the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God.

There's an interesting article on all this by Denyse O'Leary at Evolution News. Here's her lede:
Two features of our universe puzzle cosmologists: One is the horizon problem: The universe looks the same in all directions and the cosmic microwave background radiation is about the same temperature everywhere. As String Theory for Dummies puts it, “This really shouldn’t be the case, if you think about it more carefully.” Assuming that current measurements are correct, the radiation must have exceeded the speed of light if it really communicated in this way, but that is forbidden by the standard Big Bang model of the universe.

Then there is the “flatness problem”: “The matter density and expansion rate of the universe appear to be nearly perfectly balanced, even 14 billion years later when minor variations should have grown drastically” (Dummies). Inconveniently, the apparent 1:10^66 fine-tuning of the Big Bang, of which horizon and flatness are features, is frequently used as an argument for the existence of God.

Cosmic inflation theory, first proposed by Alan Guth in 1981, modified the Big Bang theory (the Standard Model) by proposing that the universe, instead of unfolding at a steady pace, expanded rapidly shortly after it was created, which could account for apparent fine-tuning.
The article goes on to discuss some alternatives to inflation while acknowledging that inflation remains the most plausible explanation for the fine-tuning of the Big Bang. It's the most plausible explanation, that is, if one's metaphysical commitments require that intentional design be ruled out as a possible option a priori. As O'Leary puts it:
All parties to the dispute assume, as a metaphysical stance, that science cannot address the possibility that the universe shows evidence of design. Even if design turns out to be the best explanation and the most fruitful for progress, it cannot be accepted, as a matter of first principles.
The words of the philosopher/psychologist William James come to mind here. James wrote that "any rule of thinking that would prevent me from finding a truth, if that truth were really there, is an irrational rule." And so it is.

You can read a summary of the state of the debate about inflation at the link. It's not too technical and is quite accessible to the layperson.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mainstreaming Hate and Bigotry

This was a surprise. A committed liberal feminist, writing in the New York Times, of all places, offered a profound criticism of the leadership of the Women's March yesterday. Bari Weiss wonders why the four women who organized the affair have been given a pass by the media despite the fact that each of them has made decidedly unliberal, even odious, statements and associations.

Weiss begins by describing her initial enthusiasm for the March and her disgust with the then newly-elected Trump administration and then writes this:
The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, offered her congratulations to the march’s “courageous organizers” and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand gushed about them in Time, where they were among the top 100 most influential people of 2017. “The Women’s March was the most inspiring and transformational moment I’ve ever witnessed in politics,” she wrote. “And it happened because four extraordinary women — Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour — had the courage to take on something big, important and urgent, and never gave up.”

The image of this fearsome foursome, echoed in more than a few flattering profiles, was as seductive as a Benetton ad. There was Tamika Mallory, a young black activist who was crowned the “Sojourner Truth of our time” by Jet magazine and “a leader of tomorrow” by Valerie Jarrett. Carmen Perez, a Mexican-American and a veteran political organizer, was named one of Fortune’s Top 50 World Leaders. Linda Sarsour, a hijab-wearing Palestinian-American and the former head of the Arab-American Association of New York, had been recognized as a “champion of change” by the Obama White House. And Bob Bland, the fashion designer behind the “Nasty Women” T-shirts, was the white mother who came up with the idea of the march in the first place.
But despite the fawning praise these women are not what they may seem:
Start with Ms. Sarsour, by far the most visible of the quartet of organizers. It turns out that this “homegirl in a hijab,” as one of many articles about her put it, has a history of disturbing views, as advertised by . . . Linda Sarsour.

[O]ddly, given her status as a major feminist organizer, [she has sent more] than a few [tweets] that seem to make common cause with anti-feminists, like this from 2015: “You’ll know when you’re living under Shariah law if suddenly all your loans and credit cards become interest-free. Sound nice, doesn’t it?” She has dismissed the anti-Islamist feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the most crude and cruel terms, insisting she is “not a real woman” and confessing that she wishes she could take away Ms. Ali’s vagina — this about a woman who suffered genital mutilation as a girl in Somalia....

On July 16, the official Twitter feed of the Women’s March offered warm wishes to Assata Shakur. “Happy birthday to the revolutionary #AssataShakur!” read the tweet, which featured a “#SignOfResistance, in Assata’s honor” — a pink and purple Pop Art-style portrait of Ms. Shakur, better known as Joanne Chesimard, a convicted killer who is on the F.B.I.’s list of most wanted terrorists.

Like many others, CNN’s Jake Tapper noticed the outrageous tweet. “Shakur is a cop-killer fugitive in Cuba,” he tweeted, going on to mention Ms. Sarsour’s troubling past statements. “Any progressives out there condemning this?” he asked.

In the face of this sober criticism, Ms. Sarsour cried bully: “@jaketapperjoins the ranks of the alt-right to target me online. Welcome to the party.”
It requires either profound ignorance or audacious mendacity to accuse anyone at CNN, and particularly Jake Tapper, of being among the ranks of the alt-right.

Ms. Weiss goes on to ask the reasonable question, "Since when did criticizing a domestic terrorist become a signal issue of the far right? Last I checked, that position was a matter of basic decency and patriotism."

But it's not just the benighted Linda Sarsour who holds views so contrary to the goals of most feminists and associations so contrary to basic human decency:
Ms. Mallory, in addition to applauding Assata Shakur as a feminist emblem, also admires Fidel Castro, who sheltered Ms. Shakur in Cuba. She put up a flurry of posts when Mr. Castro died last year. “R.I.P. Comandante! Your legacy lives on!” she wrote in one. She does not have similar respect for American police officers. “When you throw a brick in a pile of hogs, the one that hollers is the one you hit,” she posted on Nov. 20.

Ms. Perez also expressed her admiration for a Black Panther convicted of trying to kill six police officers: “Love learning from and sharing space with Baba Sekou Odinga.” But the public figure both women regularly fawn over is Louis Farrakhan.

On May 11, Ms. Mallory posted a photo with her arm around Mr. Farrakhan, the 84-year-old Nation of Islam leader notorious for his anti-Semitic comments, on Twitter and Instagram. “Thank God this man is still alive and doing well,” she wrote. It is one of several videos and photos and quotes that Ms. Mallory has posted of Mr. Farrakhan. Ms. Perez is also a big fan. In the fall, she posted a photo in which she holds hands with Mr. Farrakhan, writing, “There are many times when I sit with elders or inspirational individuals where I think, ‘I just wish I could package this and share this moment with others.’ ” She’s also promoted video of Mr. Farrakhan “dropping knowledge” and another in which he says he is “speaking truth to power.”
Weiss goes on to explain to younger readers why Farrakhan's hateful views are so contemptible and why praise of him from the organizers of the March is so appalling. It makes you wonder whether American women really want these four organizers to be the face of modern feminism. Has progressivism degenerated to such an extent that the heroines of the movement are people who praise the oppressions of sharia, who praise tyrants and killers like Fidel Castro and those who murder police, and who embrace men like Farrakhan who are patent anti-semites and racists?

Weiss concludes with this:
Will progressives have more spine than conservatives in policing hate in their ranks? Or will they ignore it in their fury over the Trump administration?

I am sure that Linda Sarsour, and perhaps the other leaders of the Women’s March, will block me for writing this. Maybe I’ll be accused of siding with the alt-right or tarred as Islamophobic. But what I stand against is embracing terrorists, disdaining independent feminist voices, hating on democracies and celebrating dictatorships. If that puts me beyond the pale of the progressive feminist movement in America right now, so be it.
Sadly, she is indeed outside the ranks of much of contemporary progressive thinking which is more closely aligned with that of the March's organizers than it is with Ms. Weiss. The Left has been mainstreaming hatred and bigotry for some time, and the progressive media has largely ignored it. It's good that liberals like Ms. Weiss are beginning to notice and to call attention to it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Struggling to Read

Philip Yancey, a writer of many very fine books, offers a lament in the Washington Post about his inability to read like he used to. I empathize with him when he writes:
I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life.

Books help define who I am. They have ushered me on a journey of faith, have introduced me to the wonders of science and the natural world, have informed me about issues such as justice and race. More importantly, they have been a source of delight and adventure and beauty, opening windows to a reality I would not otherwise know.

My crisis consists in the fact that I am describing my past, not my present. I used to read three books a week. One year I devoted an evening each week to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (Okay, due to interruptions it actually took me two years). Another year I read the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.
So, what's the reason Yancey has degenerated from obsessive reader to literary slacker?
The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.
I'll bet Yancey's not alone in this. In fact, a friend to whom I sent Yancey's article told me that after the first couple of paragraphs he found himself fighting the temptation to check out the stuff on the sidebar.

A sage once observed that leaders are readers and readers are leaders. Yancey quotes from an article that certainly bears that out:
An article in Business Insider studied such pioneers as Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg. Most of them have in common a practice the author calls the “5-hour rule”: they set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate learning. For example:
  • Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.
  • Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.
  • Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day.
  • Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.
  • Arthur Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.
This is extremely impressive, yet Yancey's primary concern is nourishing his soul, and I suspect that most of what these gentlemen read does more to nourish their wallets than nourish their souls. Plowing through two books a day sounds more like reading for the sake of reading and that seems rather pointless except as an occasional entertaining diversion.
Charles Chu calculates that at an average reading speed of 400 words per minute, it would take 417 hours in a year to read 200 books—less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1,642 hours watching TV. “Here’s the simple truth behind reading a lot of books,” says Quartz: “It’s not that hard. We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.”
This may all be true but there's more to it. Reading, especially reading worthwhile stuff, books from which we can learn, is hard work. It requires concentration and thinking, and to remember what one has read requires having someone else to talk with about what one has read. Unlike so much else to which we devote time to perusing, reading good books requires commitment and discipline and that's not something many people are willing to invest in.

Yancey concludes with this:
I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battle against the seduction of Internet pornography. We have to build a fortress with walls strong enough to withstand the temptations of that powerful dopamine rush [that social media affords] while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish. For deep reading, I’m searching for an hour a day when mental energy is at a peak, not a scrap of time salvaged from other tasks.

I’m still ... trying to resurrect the rich nourishment that reading has long provided for me. If only I can resist clicking on the link 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl.
I'm reminded of the words of P.J. O'Rourke who advised that we should "always read stuff that makes you look good if you die in the middle of it."

Monday, July 31, 2017

Excommunicating the New Atheists

Those who enjoy reading about hypocritical ideological foibles will never find themselves short of good material to peruse.

Especially is this true of those interested in exploring the inconsistencies of those who claim to be for peace but frequently resort to violent "protest", who claim to be for tolerance but seek to silence those who disagree with them, who claim to be for the little guy while running big corporations which put little guys out of business, who claim to abhor oppression while supporting tyrannies all around the globe, who claim to be advocates for the poor but who support policies which ensure that the poor will remain so, who want to make it difficult for parents to send their children to private schools while they send their own children to private schools, who insist that we should all happily pay higher taxes while they themselves shelter their money and punctiliously take every tax deduction to which they're entitled, who deplore the use of carbon fuels while flying around the globe in their private jets, and on it goes.

Well, the National Review's Elliot Kaufman has presented us another fine example of such muddled, inconsistent thinking. Kaufman points out how the Left has essentially disowned many of the so-called New Atheists because, although these folks - people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, et. al. - were feted as long as their barbs were directed at Christians, especially Catholics, they could no longer be abided once they began to include Islam among the targets of their religious critiques.

Scoffing at religion is fine, indeed socially meritorious, as long as the religion isn't Islam.

Just as a lefty forfeits his membership card and risks excommunication if he insists on applying the same standards and expectations to blacks and Hispanics as he does to whites, just as one can freely criticize whites with the most baneful rhetoric but risks committing grievous heresy if she applies the same criticisms to minorities, so it is with religion. There are some religions, such as Christianity, upon which there is year-round open season for ridicule and derision and, on the other hand, there are religions, such as Islam, so sacrosanct that it's almost blasphemy to even politely question them.

There are plenty of gems in Kaufman's essay and I encourage you to read the whole piece, but here are a few excerpts:
Organized religion’s shallowest critics made the mistake of blasting Islam along with Christianity, and the Left crucified them for it. On Friday, it became official: The New Atheists are no longer welcome on the left. Battered, condemned, and disinvited, these godless and once-favored “public intellectuals” are now homeless, spurned by their erstwhile progressive allies. Richard Dawkins, the famously skeptical evolutionary biologist, was the last shoe to drop. He was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Berkeley because his “comments about Islam” had “offended and hurt . . . so many people,” according to the event’s organizers.

Dawkins is in good company. His New Atheist compatriots, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, had already been expelled from the party. In both cases, insufficient deference to Islam was the proximate cause. Hitchens was denounced as a “neocon” for his support of the Iraq War. This was nonsense; he remained a committed socialist, but felt a war on Islamic terror and autocracy was needed.

Harris is a liberal, straight and true, but drew the ire of Reza Aslan for refusing to except Islam from his broad critique of religion. “Islam is not a religion of peace,” Harris often says. In fact, he thinks it’s just the opposite. For that, everyone from Glen Greenwald to Ben Affleck has cast him as an Islamophobe and a bigot.

That means that three of the much-acclaimed “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism have been turfed from the left for extending their critique of religion to Islam. The fourth is Daniel Dennett, who also criticizes Islam. The only actual philosopher of the bunch, he is far too boring and ponderous to be noticed, let alone denounced, by anyone.

In his place, one can add Bill Maher, a popularizer of New Atheism who has also been barred from Berkeley over criticism of Islam. One by one, these men have been excommunicated from the Left.

What has happened? Why did the Left delight in seeing these men ignorantly mock and vilify Christians, but denounce them when they treated Islam the exact same way? Confirmation bias deserves at least a part of the blame. The New Atheists have long harbored an irrational fear of Christianity, but Christophobia doesn’t worry the Left. Combatting Islamophobia, however, is a progressive priority, and so it is noticed and addressed when it strikes. None of this New Atheist silliness bothered the Left so long as it flattered the right tribes and battered the wrong ones.

[On the left] the defense of Islam becomes a defense of Islamic radicalism and intolerance. Slavoj Žižek sees in Islamism “the rage of the victims of capitalist globalization.” Judith Butler insists that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.” These voices cannot just be dismissed as aberrant: They are prominent, fiercely secular left-wing intellectuals who find common cause with Hamas — which pushes gays off of buildings and stabs children in their sleep — and with Hezbollah, the “Party of God.”

In fact, they join a long line of left-wing apologists for murderous anti-Western regimes. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian, refused to abandon the Soviet Union, even after the tanks rolled through Prague. Professors Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman spent years dismissing and minimizing reports of a genocide in Cambodia as Western propaganda. Michel Foucault, the postmodern philosopher, defended the indefensible cruelty of the Iranian Revolution by claiming that Iran doesn’t “have the same regime of truth as ours.”
What really lies at the bottom of this tendentiousness, it seems, is not principle, nor is it genuine concern for people, it's rather an aversion to being applauded by people one holds in contempt:
In conversation with the Polish anti-Stalinist dissident Adam Michnik in 1993, the liberal philosopher Jurgen Habermas admitted “he had avoided any fundamental confrontation with Stalinism.” Why, asked Michnik? He did not want “applause from the wrong side” replied Habermas. You have to read that twice, and then think about the enormities of Stalinism, to realise just how appalling it is. But Habermas was only expressing a piece of liberal-left common sense.

In short, the New Atheists have won applause from the wrong side: the anti-Muslim, crusading Right. Christopher Hitchens, an endlessly entertaining writer who could give it to Saddam Hussein as good as anyone, was every right-winger’s favorite radical. Sam Harris started finding agreement with the likes of Douglas Murray and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Rich Lowry’s defense of Harris from Ben Affleck appeared in the New York Post. Bill Maher now delights the Right as much as he infuriates it. And the Left, smelling traitors in its midst, simply cannot tolerate this sort of transgression.
The strange love affair between leftists and radical Islamists was documented over a dozen years ago by liberal scholar Paul Berman in his book Terror and Liberalism (2004). Many on the left have always had a perverse fascination with violence and that, combined with the conviction that the capitalist West is an evil enemy, goes a long way toward accounting for their fulsome apologies for terrorism, terrorists, and tyranny throughout most of the last century.

Kaufman goes on:
Why must ardent secularists from the Islamic world like Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the type of people the Left looks to for inspiration in the history of Western secularism — be deemed bigots, while Sharia-supporting conspiracy theorists like Linda Sarsour are cherished? Why has criticizing Islam caused the New Atheists to cross a red line in the progressive imagination? These positions make no sense if one thinks of the Left as seriously secular, convinced of the need to end the reign of superstition.

New Atheism pleased the Left as long as it stuck to criticizing “God,” who was associated with the beliefs of President George W. Bush and his supporters. It was thus fun, rather than offensive, for Bill Maher to call “religion” ridiculous, because he was assumed to be talking about Christianity. Christopher Hitchens could call God a “dictator” and Heaven a “celestial North Korea,” and the Left would laugh. Berkeley students would not think to disinvite Richard Dawkins when he was saying “Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion.”
We might wonder what would liberal progressives would say were it common to find among white, male Christians a significant number who advocate executing gays, who call for the extinction of Jews, who wish to deny women the same civil and human rights as men, who wish to remove from the Constitution freedom of press, speech, religion, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, who favor banishing the separation of church and state, who desire to base civil and criminal law on the book of Leviticus in the Bible, and so forth?

A Christopher Hitchens would properly say that they're advocating for a version of North Korea, and liberal pundits would smirk and offer emphatic "amens" in response. Late night liberal comedians like Stephen Colbert would subject such people to withering, relentless public derision and obloquy until they finally retreated in abject humiliation back into obscurity.

But switch the description of the promoters of those retrograde ideas from white, male Christians to swarthy, male Muslims and progressives rapidly reverse gears, censoring the voices of anyone who publicly disapproves of those religious beliefs while disdainfully sniffing that the complainers are themselves intolerant bigots and racists.

It's as amusing as it is amazing.

Perhaps you've seen this on Viewpoint before, but it's worth showing again. With apologies for the vulgarity, it serves as a pretty good summary of this post:

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Amazing Machines

Among the phenomena which support the claim that life is the product of intentional, intelligent design is the sheer number of complex molecular machines that operate in each of the trillions of our body's cells to ensure that these cells carry out the functions that keep us alive.

One of these machines is the system of proteins that synthesizes adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from adenosine diphosphate (ADP). Here's a short video animation that describes how this machine, called ATP synthase, works:
There are thousands of such machines in the cell, all of which, on the standard Darwinian account, somehow developed - through random, undirected, processes - not only their structure, not only the coordination with other systems in the cell necessary for proper function, but also the genetic regulatory mechanisms that control how and when the machine operates. If it happened, it's a near-miraculous achievement for blind, undirected processes.

David Hume, in his famous essay On Miracles, wrote that when we hear an account of a miracle we should ask ourselves whether it's more likely, given our experience, that a law of nature had been violated or that the witness was somehow mistaken. Hume argued that a mistaken witness is always more likely than that a law of nature had been violated, and we should always, he insisted, believe what's most likely. Applying Hume's principle to the present case, we should ask ourselves, what is the greater miracle, that an astonishing mechanism like ATP synthase came about by chance and luck or that it came about by intelligent engineering?

It seems to me that the only way one can assert the former is if they've already, a priori, ruled out the possibility of the existence of the intelligent engineer, but, of course, that begs the question. Whether the intelligent engineer exists is the very matter we're trying to answer by asking whether blind chance or intelligence is the best explanation for the existence in living things of such machines as ATP synthase.

If we allow the evidence to speak for itself rather than allow our prior metaphysical commitments to dictate what the evidence says then I'm pretty sure most people would agree that the kind of specified complexity we see in this video points unequivocally to the existence of a designing mind.

If this video has piqued your interest here's another that pushes us toward the same conclusion. It's an animation of just a few of the structures and processes in a living cell. Note the amazing motor protein that carries the vesicle along the microtubule:
How does the motor protein "know" to carry the vesicle along the microtubule and where to take it? What regulates the process? What's the source of the information needed to choreograph this phenomenon? How and why did such a complex system ever come about? Was it all just blind chance and serendipity or was it somehow a product of intelligence? On which of those possible explanations, intelligence or blind, purposeless, random processes, are such mechanisms more likely?