Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Sizes of Things

I've told my students that the world appears to us as it does because we happen to be the size we are. I've suggested that were we considerably smaller, say, the size of an atom, the world would look much different. What appears solid, for example, would not seem solid at all to an atomic-sized creature (if such a thing were physically possible).

As something of a follow-up to that discussion I thought I'd repost this link to a fun interactive site that you'll find difficult to stop playing with once you start. By moving the scroll bar you can zoom in or out to see how big the universe is compared to our planet and how big we are compared to the smallest parts of an atom.

As you scroll toward the very small notice that it seems as if what we call matter simply ceases to exist. All there seems to be at the most fundamental level are hypothetical entities called strings - incredibly tiny filaments or wisps of energy. But if there's no material substance at the heart of reality is matter just an illusion? Give the interactive site a try and spend a little time just being amazed. It may take a few seconds to load so be patient.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Our Most Authoritarian President

Who was/is the more authoritarian president, Barack Obama or Donald Trump? It sounds, perhaps, like an easy question, but you may be surprised. The answer depends, of course, upon how you define an authoritarian, but if you define it as a leader who seeks to arrogate for himself more power than the constitution allows him then, clearly, Barack Obama was more authoritarian than Donald Trump, at least according to David French at NRO.

As French notes,
[A] president is “authoritarian” not when he’s angry or impulsive or incompetent or tweets too much. He’s authoritarian when he seeks to expand his own power beyond constitutional limits. In this regard, the Obama administration — though far more polite and restrained in most of its public comments — was truly one of our more authoritarian.
Indeed, whereas Obama used executive power to circumvent the legislature and increase the power of the federal government in our lives, Trump has used it, so far, to limit federal power and get the government out of our lives. Herein, perhaps, lies the cause of so much of the seemingly irrational hatred for Trump. Those who desire an overweening, centralized regulatory state which intrudes itself dictatorially into every nook and cranny of our lives may well fear that Trump will be successful in unravelling much of the "progress" they've made in realizing their dream over the last fifty years, for the fact is that so far from governing like an authoritarian statist Trump has, at least until now, governed like a small-government libertarian.

French gives a number of examples of the differences between Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump in this regard:
Lost in most of the coverage of President Trump’s decision to rescind the Obama administration’s transgender mandates is a fundamental legal reality — the Trump administration just relinquished federal authority over gender-identity policy in the nation’s federally funded schools and colleges. In other words, Trump was less authoritarian than Obama.

And that’s not the only case. Consider the following examples where his administration, through policy or personnel, appears to be signaling that the executive branch intends to become less intrusive in American life and more accountable to internal and external critique.

Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a man known not just for his intellect and integrity but also for his powerful legal argument against executive-branch overreach. Based on his previous legal writings, if Gorsuch had his way, the federal bureaucracy could well face the most dramatic check on its authority since the early days of the New Deal.

By overturning judicial precedents that currently require judicial deference to agency legal interpretations, [a Gorsuch] Court could put a stop to the current practice of presidents and bureaucrats steadily (and vastly) expanding their powers by constantly broadening their interpretations of existing legal statutes. For example, the EPA has dramatically expanded its control over the American economy even without Congress passing significant new environmental legislation. Instead, the EPA keeps revising its interpretation of decades-old statutes like the Clean Air Act, using those new interpretations to enact a host of comprehensive new regulations. If Gorsuch’s argument wins the day, the legislative branch would be forced to step up at the expense of the executive, no matter how “authoritarian” a president tried to be.

When the Ninth Circuit blocked Trump’s immigration executive order (which was certainly an aggressive assertion of presidential power), he responded differently from the Obama administration when it faced similar judicial setbacks. Rather than race to the Supreme Court in the attempt to expand presidential authority, it backed up (yes, amid considerable presidential bluster) and told the Ninth Circuit that it intends to rewrite and rework the order to address the most serious judicial concerns and roll back its scope.

Authoritarianism is defined by how a president exercises power, not by the rightness of his goals. Indeed, if you peel back the layer of leftist critiques of Trump’s early actions and early hires, they contain a surprising amount of alarmism over the rollback of governmental power. Education activists are terrified that Betsy DeVos will take children out of government schools or roll back government mandates regarding campus sexual-assault tribunals.

Environmentalists are terrified that Scott Pruitt will make the EPA less activist. Civil-rights lawyers are alarmed at the notion that Jeff Sessions will inject the federal government into fewer state and local disputes over everything from school bathrooms to police traffic stops.
In almost everything he's done he's proven to be less authoritarian, less of a statist, than his predecessor. That doesn't make him right, of course, but it makes the charge of authoritarianism, especially when it comes from critics who supported Mr. Obama, seem pretty silly, and it makes the cry of "fascist!" even sillier.

To be fair, Trump did say things in the campaign that warranted concern, but nothing that he has actually done in the first month of his administration justifies the allegation that he's an authoritarian or fascist. As Washington Free Beacon executive editor Sonny Bunch tweeted with a heavy dollop of sarcasm, Donald Trump is such a terrifying fascist dictator that literally no one fears speaking out against him on literally any platform.

French offers more examples to illustrate how Trump is less authoritarian than Obama at the link. He makes a pretty interesting case.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Difference an Extra Dimension Makes

To paraphrase Shakespeare in Hamlet there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our view of reality. We observe the world with our five senses and take for granted that the world we perceive is exactly what's there. We simply assume that our senses give us an accurate and exhaustive picture of reality, but why should we think that?

Why, for example, should we suppose that just because our minds can only apprehend three dimensions (four, if you count time) that that's all there are? Could the world not consist of numerous dimensions that we can not only not perceive, but that we can't even imagine? Could there not actually be entire worlds integrated with our world but closed off to us because our minds lack the necessary structure to perceive them? Perhaps the reality we find ourselves in is something like The Truman Show.

One way to try to imagine what reality might be like if there are actually more than three dimensions of space is to imagine how a three dimensional object would appear to a two dimensional being as illustrated in this short video:
If we actually do consist of more than three dimensions we would look completely different to a being who could perceive those other dimensions than we do to each other. There could, in other words, be literally far more to you than what meets the eye.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dawkins' Central Argument

One year ago biologist and uber atheist Richard Dawkins suffered a stroke (apparently minor). News of his illness brought to mind his attempts over the last couple of decades to undermine religious belief, specifically with the arguments in his 2006 book titled The God Delusion.

The book rocketed to the top of the best-seller charts and influenced who knows how many young people who lacked the skills to analyze the arguments it advanced against belief in God. Philosophers, however, even many who were sympathetic to Dawkins' naturalism, derided the book for its philosophical superficiality and, worse, its several blunders.

For example, Dawkins claimed that the central argument of the book goes something like this:
  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect is to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself, i.e. an intelligent designer.
  3. The temptation is a false one because the hypothesis raises the larger problem of explaining who designed the designer.
  4. The most ingenious explanation for the complexity of life is Darwinian evolution.
  5. We don't have an equivalent explanation in physics for cosmic fine-tuning.
  6. We should not give up hope of finding a better explanation in physics for cosmic fine-tuning.
  7. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.
Dawkins' conclusion appears like a rabbit pulled magically out of a hat. Nothing in the premises leads to it. In fact, even if all six premises were correct, there's no logically possible world in which that conclusion follows from them. The most that might be inferred from this set of propositions is that perhaps we'll someday discover a good physical explanation for cosmic fine-tuning, but even if that were to happen it still wouldn't justify Dawkins' conclusion that God almost certainly does not exist.

As it happens, the conclusion is not only a non-sequitur but it's based on at least one premise which is patently false. Premises 1, 2, 5, and 6 are uncontroversial, and I'm willing to grant 4 just to be easy to get along with, but premise 3 is clearly erroneous.

Dawkins tries to support premise 3 by arguing that if the world's complexity requires an explanation then the designer of the world must itself be even more complex than the world it designed, and must itself require an explanation a forteriori. There are, however, at least three things wrong with this:

1. If it were concluded that a designer was the source of the complex design of the cosmos (or of living things) that conclusion stands whether we can explain the designer or not. We believed, for example, that gravity existed long before there was any explanation for it, and if some future astronauts landed on Mars and discovered there a six foot platinum cube with nearly perfect angles and facets as smooth as glass they'd certainly be justified in believing that the cube was left there by some intelligent beings even if the astronauts had no idea who they were, how they made the cube, how they got it to Mars, or how long ago they did it. None of that would be relevant to the inference that the cube was an artifact of intelligent agents.

2. Complexity is a property of physical, material things which have parts. If there is a designer of the space-time-matter universe it would transcend the universe and thus itself not be material, physical, or spatial. It would be pure, immaterial mind. Mind doesn't have parts, and Dawkins commits a category error when he argues that minds must be complex. The products of minds might be complex, but it doesn't follow that minds themselves are complex.

3. If everything needed to be explained before it could count as an explanation then nothing would ever be explained. We'd be caught in an infinite regress of explanations, none of which would be satisfactory until it, too, was explained.

I hope Prof. Dawkins suffers no recurrence of the stroke and that he lives to a ripe old age. Indeed, I hope his health fares much better in response to the ministrations of his doctors than has the central argument of The God Delusion fared in response to the ministrations of his philosophical critics.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Future of Identity Politics

Victor Davis Hanson sees a bleak future for diversity politics in the U.S. and discusses six reasons in an article at The Federalist why that future is uncertain at best.

At least some of his reasons would, I think, be universally welcomed by both left and right. At least they should be. Here are a few excerpts from the article:
Intermarriage and integration are still common. Overall, about 15 percent of all marriages each year are interracial, and the rates are highest for Asians and Latinos. Forty percent of Asian women marry men of another race—one quarter of African-American males do, as well—and over a quarter of all Latinos marry someone non-Latino.

Identity politics hinges on perceptible racial or ethnic solidarity, but citizens are increasingly a mixture of various races and do not always categorize themselves as “non-white.” Without DNA badges, it will be increasingly problematic to keep racial pedigrees straight. And sometimes the efforts to do so reach the point of caricature and inauthenticity, through exaggerated accent marks, verbal trills, voice modulations, and nomenclature hyphenation. One reason why diversity activists sound shrill is their fear that homogenization is unrelenting.
I have several times over the years speculated that our racial and ethnic divisions will begin to heal when more whites and blacks share grandchildren in common. I still think that's true, and what Hanson says above gives me hope that we're moving, if only gradually, in that direction. He adds that,
The notion of an identifiable and politically monolithic group of non-white minorities is also increasingly suspect. Cubans do not have enough in common with Mexicans to advance a united Latino front. African-Americans are suspicious of open borders that undercut entry-level job wages. Asians resent university quotas that often discount superb grades and test scores to ensure racial diversity....

It is not certain that immigration, both legal and illegal, will continue at its current near record rate, which has resulted in over 40 million immigrants now residing in America—constituting some 13 percent of the present population.... Were immigration to slow down and become more diverse, the formidable powers of integration and intermarriage would perhaps do to the La Raza community what it once did to the Italian-American minority after the cessation of mass immigration from Italy. There are currently no Italian-American quotas, no Italian university departments, and no predictable voting blocs.

Class is finally reemerging as a better barometer of privilege than is race—a point that Republican populists are starting to hammer home. The children of Barack Obama, for example, have far more privilege than do the sons of Appalachian coal miners—and many Asian groups already exceed American per capita income averages. When activist Michael Eric Dyson calls for blanket reparations for slavery, his argument does not resonate with an unemployed working-class youth from Kentucky, who was born more than 30 years after the emergence of affirmative action—and enjoys a fraction of Dyson’s own income, net worth, and cultural opportunities.

Finally, ideology is eroding the diversity industry. Conservative minorities and women are not considered genuine voices of the Other, given their incorrect politics. For all its emphasis on appearance, diversity is really an intolerant ideological movement that subordinates race and gender to progressive politics. It is not biology that gives authenticity to feminism, but leftwing assertions; African-American conservatives are often derided as inauthentic, not because of purported mixed racial pedigrees, but due to their unorthodox beliefs.
Hanson closes with this:
It is increasingly difficult to judge who we are merely by our appearances, which means that identity politics may lose its influence. These fissures probably explain some of the ferocity of the protests we’ve seen in recent weeks. A dying lobby is fighting to hold on to its power.
Frustration with identity politics and the injustices and absurdities that go along with it are one of the contributing factors to Trump's unexpected victory in November. People are just weary of the balkanization and isolation of Americans along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, and the resentments and conflicts it engenders. They want a nation in which we all think of ourselves as Americans. If identity politics is dying, a lot of people are going to have trouble getting themselves to grieve its demise.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Who Are You?

One of philosophy's most fascinating puzzles is the question of personal identity. What is it about me that makes me me? Is it my body? Is it my brain? Is it the information in my brain? If the body is constantly changing then in what sense does my self perdure through time? If my identity is just the contents of my brain how do I remain the same self over time as those contents change? What significant thing about me remains the same over time that keeps me the same person?

The questions just keep coming. Suppose we say that it's our brains and their contents that make us who we are. Imagine that your body is dying but your mind is working well. Imagine further that doctors have, through amazing leaps in technology, developed the ability to transplant brains into different bodies. Suppose your brain is transplanted, at your request, into the body of a person named John who suffered a catastrophic brain injury. When you awaken from the surgery, who would you be, you or John?

Brain scientists know that if they cut the corpus callosum, the band of fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, two different centers of consciousness can be created. If either hemisphere is destroyed it's possible that a person could live on as a conscious being. Suppose your brain is transplanted in such a way that one hemisphere is placed in the body of John and the other hemisphere is placed in the body of Mary.

Have you survived the operation? If so, are you now two people? If you're only one person, which person are you, John or Mary? Is it possible to be more than one person simultaneously? If so, if you committed a crime before the operation, should both John and Mary go to jail for it?

If we adopt a skeptical view and say that there is no personal identity but rather that the self evolves over time and we're not the same person today that we were ten years ago, then how can anyone be held responsible for promises they made or crimes they committed ten years ago? If we are not the same person who committed the crime then to punish us would be to punish an innocent person, would it not?

A theist might partially resolve this perplexing problem by claiming that our identity resides in our soul, not in our body or our brain, at least not completely, and that our soul is independent of whatever body or bodies it "inhabits." But how would a materialist or naturalist who has no belief in any non-material constituents to the self, who has no belief in souls, resolve it?

Perhaps their only recourse is to deny the existence of any significant self altogether, as did the philosopher David Hume, and declare that your self is just a bundle of perceptions that you experience from moment to moment. Or they could maintain with biologist Francis Crick that you are nothing but a pack of neurons.

Unfortunately, neither of these options seems very satisfying.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Interpreting Polls

Many of us have been a bit confused by conflicting polling data on the president's approval rating since the election. Polling companies hardly distinguished themselves in the last presidential plebiscite, but in their defense it might've been difficult to detect the large number of voters who were heretofore politically somnolent who nevertheless were energized to turn out in support of Mr. Trump. Even so, these "invisible" voters shouldn't be a factor now so why are his approval ratings all over the map? Over the past three weeks polling on approval of President Trump's performance ranged from as high as 53% to as low as 39% depending on the poll:

The reason for the discrepancy apparently lies in the fact that different surveys poll different segments of the electorate. Claudia Deane of the Pew Research Center has written a very helpful article which clarifies a lot about how these polls are conducted and why different polls come up with such disparate results. She writes:
There are a number of possible reasons for polls arriving at different estimates – from the mode used to collect data to how people are selected for a survey – but here we’ll tackle one of the most basic: Did the poll include or exclude the 45% of adult Americans who didn’t cast a vote last November?

Typically, polls in the U.S. are designed to represent one of three populations. The broadest is the general population of all adults (GP). Surveys based only on adults who are registered to vote (RV) apply a narrower lens on the public. Narrower still is the filter applied with surveys that interview only registered voters who are deemed likely to vote (LV). Many pollsters might conduct surveys of all three, depending on where they find themselves in the election cycle.

In non-election years like this one, most pollsters survey all adults, but not all follow this convention. A number of pollsters continue to do surveys of registered or even likely voters. Why does this matter for Trump’s approval ratings? It’s about demographics. Voters as a group skew older and whiter than the general public. And older Americans, as well as white Americans, tilt more Republican than other groups. So, voter-only polls tend to get somewhat more favorable views of a Republican president or candidate and less favorable views of Democrats. This pattern was evident during Barack Obama’s presidency, with his overall ratings tending to be somewhat higher among the general public than among registered or likely voters.

A look at some of the presidential approval numbers released this month shows a pattern consistent with these demographic differences. LV polls – those surveys based only on the views of “likely voters” – are generally reporting higher levels of support for Trump than general population polls. There is a more muted but still significant difference in an RV-GP comparison: Pew Research Center’s general population poll conducted Feb. 7-12 recorded Trump’s presidential approval rating at 39%. Among registered voters in that survey, his rating was 42%.
So, President Trump fares better among those who are actually likely to vote than among the population at large. In other words, many of those who don't like the president's performance thus far didn't vote in November and thus have only themselves to blame.
In the U.S., roughly six-in-ten adults are registered to vote. This means that RV polls, by design, exclude nearly 40% of adults living in the U.S. and LV polls ... exclude even more, as they aim to include only those registered voters who actually cast, or will cast, a ballot. The voting rate among adults ages 18 and older was 55% in the 2016 presidential election and 33% in the most recent midterm election.

If a pollster is currently conducting an LV poll with 2018 (a midterm election year) in mind, then recent midterm voting behavior suggests that their results might be excluding the views of a majority of adults in the U.S.
The question is, though, what do the opinions of those who don't care enough to vote matter? If people are too apathetic to bestir themselves to the voting booth then surely they're too apathetic to inform themselves on what's actually going on, so why should anyone care about what they think?

Non-voters skew more Democratic which means that if all non-voters had voted in November Hillary Clinton would probably be president today. Unfortunately for those who lament the fact of a Trump presidency, a sizable percentage of Democrats just don't care. Of course, the same could be said of the majority of Republicans, but in their case enough did care to elect not only the president, but also majorities in both houses of Congress and, since 2008, a substantial number of governorships and state legislative seats.

The picture looks even bleaker for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections unless they up their game and get their people to care enough about who runs the country to go to the polls on election day.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Can Science Ground Morality?

With the loss of a sense of transcendence that has accompanied the modern era and the concomitant loss of a transcendent ground for morality moderns have cast about for something immanent upon which to base moral duties and judgment. One candidate that has shouldered the hopes of many scientifically-minded moderns is that science itself would be able to provide support for our moral judgments.

Evolution, we are told, can explain why we have moral sentiments, and indeed theoretically it can explain why we have the sense that some things are right and other things are wrong, but evolution cannot impress upon us a duty to do the things we believe are right. A blind, impersonal process cannot impose obligations. One who transgresses whatever moral sentiments may have evolved in our species needs something more than the fact that his behavior doesn't accord well with the mutations which have accrued in the human genome to convince him that he's doing something truly wrong.

Another problem with trying to ground morality in evolution is that if compassion and generosity are the products of natural selection then so, too, must be avarice and violence. How then, if our evolution is our guide to morality, do we say that the former are good and the latter bad? By what principle do we choose between these behaviors and where did that principle come from?

Another possibility is that given that happiness is good, science can tell us how we can best achieve it, but this, too, is fraught with difficulties. Just because I recognize that happiness is good doesn't mean that I have a duty to nurture it in anyone but myself. In other words, my happiness is good, but why should I consider your happiness to be good, or the happiness of people I don't even know?

James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky consider the question whether science can provide an adequate foundation of morality in a paper at The Hedgehog Review. The authors examine a number of attempts to provide a scientific underpinning for morality and conclude that the actual science in these attempts is nothing more than philosophical window dressing. After dispensing with several failed attempts to provide a foundation for morality rooted in empirical data they turn to the recent work of philosopher Sam Harris who writes this:
Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science....I think our concern for well-being is even less in need for justification than our concern for health is....And once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.
Harris makes two assumptions here that Hunter and Nedelisky think fatal to his argument that science can ground morality:
[F]irst, that well-being is a moral good, and, second, that we know what the observable properties of well-being are. Yet [Harris] doesn’t see these assumptions as problematic for the scientific status of his argument. After all, he reasons, we make similar assumptions in medicine, but we can all recognize that it is still a science. But he still doesn’t recognize that this thinking is fatal to his claim that science can determine moral values. To make the problem for Harris more vivid, compare his argument above with arguments that share the same logic and structure:
  • Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value the enslavement of Africans. But once we admit that slavery is the proper concern of social science, we can then study and promote it through science. I think our concern for embracing slavery is even less in need for justification than our concern for health is. And once we begin thinking seriously about slavery, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.
  • Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value the purging of Jews, gypsies, and the mentally disabled from society. But once we admit that their eradication is the proper concern of social science, we can then study and promote it through science.
  • Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value a prohibition on gay marriage. But once we admit that such a prohibition is the proper concern of social science, we can then study and promote it through science.
Although these parallel arguments are outlandish to our ears today, they all, in fact, have historical precedent—and from not so long ago. Most tellingly, these arguments rely on the same logic as Harris’s. But of course they have little hope of showing that we should approve slavery, prohibit gay marriage, and bring about the elimination of Jews, gypsies, and the mentally disabled. Why? Because these arguments merely assume that we should, then recommend the scientific study and promotion of these ends.
Additionally, Harris makes an error I alluded to above. It's not so much that he assumes well-being to be a moral good, although as Davison and Nedelisky point out, that assumption is problematic, rather it's his assumption that anyone has a duty, an obligation, to promote other people's well-being. That assumption is completely ungrounded. Why, for example, would it be wrong to state that my only moral duty, if I have any, is to myself and that others should see to their own interests?

Someone may reply that if I were to adopt that posture others will resent me, and I will suffer for it, but that's a purely prudential, not a moral, argument. The reply to it is that to which Plato adverts in The Republic: The best course of action is to act selfishly while deceiving others into thinking that you're actually unselfish. Indeed, the wisest course, given naturalism, is to be selfish while encouraging others to be altruistic. Why, on naturalism, would such a strategy be morally wrong?

The problem with attempts such as the Hedgehog article illuminates is that they are efforts to ground morality in human reason, but this is a quixotic task. Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen made the attempt himself and toward the end of his career he finally acknowledged the futility of the endeavor. He wrote:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or amoralists....Reason doesn't decide here....The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me....Pure reason will not take you to morality.
Nor will reason's handmaiden, science. Only a transcendent, personal moral authority which possesses the power to impose accountability can be an adequate ground for moral obligation.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Peregrine Falcon

The peregrine falcon is a spectacular flyer, the fastest flyer in the avian world, indeed, the fastest animal in the world, capable of reaching speeds of over 200 mph when diving on prey. It's a widespread species (the name peregrine means "wanderer") exceeded only by the common rock pigeon in terms of global distribution. By 1970, however, the species was almost extirpated in the lower 48 states due to frequent nesting failure. The birds were producing eggs with excessively thin shells which broke easily when the mother tried to incubate. The thinning was evidently due to high amounts of the pesticide DDT in the falcons' diet.

DDT was banned in the 1970s and efforts were made to increase breeding success by providing artificial nesting sites for the birds and reintroducing breeding birds into territories which had been devoid of falcons for decades. Over the last forty years they've made a gradual comeback and can now be found nesting on almost every bridge on every major river in the eastern United States. They also nest in urban areas on tall buildings, feeding mostly on medium-sized birds like pigeons and gulls which are abundant in cities and along large rivers.

peregrine falcon

An office building in Harrisburg, PA has hosted a nesting pair for several years and four "falcon cams" have been set up on the site (called an aerie) enabling viewers to watch the progress of the falcons, which mate for life, at close range as they raise their brood.

The birds are presently preparing to lay their eggs and are active around the nest during the day. The Harrisburg cam can be accessed here and if you click on the link during daylight you may well find yourself eyeball to eyeball with a peregrine. Enjoy.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Good Nazis (Pt.II)

Yesterday's post featured the story of John Rabe, a businessman in the 1930s who was also a member of the Nazi party. I made the claim that, despite his affiliation with a political party created by some of the most despicable people who ever trod the earth, Rabe was himself a good man. It's not too much, I don't think, to say that he and the missionaries who helped him save the lives of some 250,000 Chinese in 1937, were heroic.

The Nazi I want to talk about today is better known than Rabe, perhaps, because of the 1993 Stephen Spielberg movie made about him. The man was Oscar Schindler and the movie, which I highly recommend, was Schindler's List.

Like many ordinary people who do heroic things, Schindler was complex. He was a spy and a member of the Nazi Party, but he's honored today in Israel for having sacrificed his entire fortune to save the lives of some 1200 Jews.

Here are some highlights of his story:
Schindler was born in 1908 and became a German industrialist, spy, and member of the Nazi Party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunition factories, which were located in occupied Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He was an opportunist initially motivated by profit who came to show extraordinary initiative, tenacity and dedication in saving the lives of his Jewish employees.

he joined the Abwehr, the intelligence service of Nazi Germany, in 1936 and the Nazi Party in 1939. Prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he collected information on railways and troop movements for the German government. He was arrested for espionage by the Czech government but was released under the terms of the Munich Agreement in 1938. Schindler continued to collect information for the Nazis, working in Poland in 1939 before the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II.
Oscar Schindler
In 1939, Schindler acquired an enamelware factory in Kraków, Poland, which employed about 1,750 workers, of whom 1,000 were Jews at the factory's peak in 1944. His Abwehr connections helped Schindler to protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in the Nazi concentration camps. As time went on, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and gifts of luxury items obtainable only on the black market to keep his workers safe.

By July 1944, Germany was losing the war; the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and deporting the remaining prisoners westward. Many were killed in Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Schindler convinced SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth, commandant of the nearby Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, to allow him to move his factory to Brünnlitz in the Sudetenland, thus sparing his workers from almost certain death in the gas chambers. Using names provided by Jewish Ghetto Police officer Marcel Goldberg, Göth's secretary Mietek Pemper compiled and typed the list of 1,200 Jews who traveled to Brünnlitz in October 1944. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the execution of his workers until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945, by which time he had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers.

Schindler moved to West Germany after the war, where he was supported by assistance payments from Jewish relief organisations. After receiving a partial reimbursement for his wartime expenses, he moved with his wife, Emilie, to Argentina, where they took up farming. When he went bankrupt in 1958, Schindler left his wife and returned to Germany, where he failed at several business ventures and relied on financial support from Schindlerjuden ("Schindler Jews") – the people whose lives he had saved during the war. He was named "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Israeli government in 1963.
He once lamented that it was a source of deep anguish to him that he wasn't able to save more lives than he did.

He died on 9 October 1974 in Hildesheim, Germany, and was buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the only member of the Nazi Party to be honoured in this way.

Many Nazis were inhuman - a stunning fact when one considers that they were spawned by one of the most highly cultured and civilized nations on earth - but some, a few, perhaps, deserve to be remembered for their courage, humanity and goodness. John Rabe and Oscar Schindler are two such men. If you've never seen the movie Schindler's List in which Liam Neeson plays Oscar Schindler you really should watch it. It's an unforgettable story.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Good Nazis

It may be hard to accept, conditioned as we are to think of Nazis as the embodiment of everything evil (and indeed some of them were), but there were some members of the German Nazi party that, as difficult as it may be to believe, were surely saints.

One of these was a businessman named John Rabe who found himself in Nanking, China when the Japanese invaded that country in 1937 and began one of the most horrific atrocities in human history, brutally raping and murdering some 60,000 Chinese civilians. The rampage came to be known as the Rape of Nanking. At its height Rabe courageously managed to save at least two hundred thousand Chinese from torture and death.

Here's part of his story:
Many Westerners were living in the Chinese capital city of the time, as Nanking was until December 1937, conducting trade or on missionary trips. As the Japanese army approached Nanking (now Nanjing) and initiated bombing raids on the city, all but 22 foreigners fled the city, with 15 American and European missionaries and businessmen forming part of the remaining group.

On November 22, 1937, as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanking, Rabe, along with other foreign nationals, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone to provide Chinese refugees with food and shelter from the impending Japanese slaughter.

He explained his reasons thus: "... there is a question of morality here...I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me, and it is touching to see how they believe in me." The zones were located in all of the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.

Rabe was elected as its leader, in part because of his status as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German–Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact. This committee established the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone attempted to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area. They were partly successful.

On December 1, 1937, Nanjing Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone and then fled the city. Rabe also opened up his properties to help 650 more refugees.

Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. His attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi Party membership credentials only delayed them; but that delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. [S]ources suggest that Rabe rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.
In his diary Rabe documented Japanese atrocities committed during the assault upon and occupation of the city. On December 13, 1937, he wrote:
It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across corpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had been presumably fleeing and were shot from behind. The Japanese march through the city in groups of ten to twenty soldiers and loot the shops ... I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling. Hempel's hotel was broken into as well, as almost every shop on Chung Shang and Taiping Road.
On December 17, 1937 he added:
In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital... Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls' College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they're shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.
Rabe wrote to the Japanese commanding officer Fukui the following day:
We are sorry to trouble you again but the sufferings and needs of the 200 000 civilians for whom we are trying to care make it urgent that we try to secure action from your military authorities to stop the present disorder among Japanese soldiers wandering through the Safety Zone... The second man in our Housing Commission had to see two women in his family at 23 Hankow Road raped last night at supper time by Japanese soldiers. Our associate food commissioner, Mr. Sone, has to convey trucks with rice and leave 2,500 people in families at his Nanking Theological Seminary to look after themselves. Yesterday, in broad daylight, several women at the Seminary were raped right in the middle of a large room filled with men, women, and children! We 22 Occidentals cannot feed 200,000 Chinese civilians and protect them night and day. That is the duty of the Japanese authorities ...
At one point Japanese soldiers held a contest to see who could behead the most Chinese with their swords. They carried out this grisly sport until they had to stop from exhaustion.
Rabe gave a series of lectures in Germany after he came back to Berlin on April 15, 1938, in which he said, "We Europeans put the number [of civilian casualties] at about 50,000 to 60,000." Rabe was not the only figure to record the Japanese atrocity. By December 1937, after the defeat of the Chinese soldiers, the Japanese soldiers would often go house-to-house in Nanking, shooting any civilians they encountered. Evidence of these violent acts come from diaries kept by some Japanese soldiers and by Japanese journalists who were appalled by what was transpiring.
He managed to leave Nanking and return to Germany in 1938 working in Berlin until the end of the war. After the war he was arrested first by the Soviets and then by the British but was released by each until he was denounced by an acquaintance for being a Nazi. He was subsequently unable to work to support his family.

John Rabe
[T]he family survived in a one-room apartment by selling his Chinese art collection, but this did not provide enough to avoid malnutrition. He was formally declared "de-Nazified" by the British in June 3, 1946 but thereafter continued to live in poverty. The family lived on wild seeds that the children would eat with soup, and on dry bread until that was no longer available either.

In 1948, the citizens of Nanking learned of the very dire situation of the Rabe family in occupied Germany and they quickly raised a very large sum of money, equivalent to $2000 ($20,000 in 2017). The city mayor himself went to Germany, via Switzerland where he bought a large amount of food for the Rabe family. From mid 1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking also sent a food package each month, for which Rabe in many letters expressed deep gratitude.
Rabe, who was a diabetic, died in 1950 of a stroke. In 1997 his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing where it received a place of honor at the massacre memorial site.

Several movies have been made about what Rabe and the Christian missionaries who assisted him did in Nanking, one of which is titled simply John Rabe. It's worth watching.

We'll look at a second "good Nazi" tomorrow, but meanwhile let's pose this question: Who is the better man, one who professes to love mankind but who never does much to help people, or a man who belonged to a party which promoted hatred but who risked everything to help those who needed him? Life is complicated. So, sometimes, is right and wrong.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Climate Change Debate

Debates over climate change often seem to go nowhere. This is partly due to the fact that most people have to rely on authorities, some of whom seem to play fast and loose with data and some of whom are contradicted by other authorities.

Here are two simple rules to keep in mind that will help us, perhaps, to avoid being unduly influenced by one side or the other:

1. No one who is not a climatologist or practices in a field closely related to climatology is unlikely to possess any particular expertise in climate change and his or her testimony should not be taken as dispositive.

2. Of the arguments made by those scientists who are qualified to speak with authority we should be suspicious of the testimony of anyone who is funded by either progressive organizations, the government, or corporations which themselves pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. In other words, we should be prima facie skeptical of any argument made by any scientist who is paid by any organization which has a financial or political stake in the outcome of the debate.

Having said that, I offer here three questions I myself would like to see conclusively answered by independent climate scientists:

1. Is the climate definitively changing in a significant way?
2. If it is, is human activity definitely responsible?
3. Whether human activity is responsible or not, is the change certain to be a bad thing?

I have some thoughts on these three questions, but I certainly don't have any answers, and I'm not a climate scientist, so even if I did offer answers you shouldn't pay them any special heed, or any heed at all. The thoughts, however, are thoughts you might have as well:

Regarding question #1: When I was in Alaska I was shown compelling evidence that glaciers have been retreating over the last century, so I'm persuaded that something seems to be going on. On the other hand, despite predictions to the contrary, there's data to support the claim that there's been no significant increase in mean global temperatures over the last twenty years, and considered over the last couple of thousand years today's temperature fluctuations do not appear unusual (see chart below). Moreover, predictions a decade ago that the polar ice sheets would be diminishing have not, as far as I'm aware, been fulfilled. Nor have predictions of massive storms, increased numbers and ferocity of hurricanes, etc. come to pass. In fact, it seems to have been quite the opposite. So whatever is happening, whatever's causing the glaciers to retreat, seems, at least to me, to be very unclear.

Regarding question #2: The current thinking is that by pumping greenhouse gases like CO2 into the atmosphere we're inevitably creating conditions for runaway warming, but there are so many variables and unknowns that it's hard to say what effect our increase of atmospheric carbon is having. We don't know (or do we?) to what extent the biosphere (green plants) assimilate the extra carbon. Nor do we know what effect carbon has on the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. An increase in water vapor could increase cloud cover which would result in more solar heat reflected back into space. Moreover, if the earth's climate is changing it's not clear whether the change is caused by greenhouse gasses or by variations in solar activity. Maybe I'm wrong and all those phenomena are actually well understood, but if so that knowledge has not been widely shared with the lay public. It isn't enough for scientists and politicians to urge us to just trust them. They have to give us facts.

Regarding question #3: Plants use CO2 to make nutrients. Increasing atmospheric CO2 (within limits) might produce greater crop yields, which would be a good thing. Furthermore, some warming could produce longer growing seasons. If the polar ice melted that could open up vast stretches of land (in Greenland and Siberia, for example) for mining, agriculture, and human habitation. Too much warming would surely have calamitous effects, but, moderate warming could be, on balance, a boon to humanity. We just don't know. Or at least I don't know, and I wish those who do know would make it more clear.

Because I have these questions and haven't encountered any definitive answers I remain dubious that global climate treaties, President Obama's war on coal, and talk of carbon taxes, etc are actually necessary, and since I'm very skeptical of the wisdom of giving government even more power than it already has I want to see more solid data that shows that the globe really is warming, that the warming really is caused by human activity, and that it really is a bad thing before I support policies that would put thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people out of work and be potentially ruinous to the economic well-being of the country.

So far, the data supporting the conclusion that the climate is changing in potentially catastrophic ways, at least that I've seen, have not been incontrovertible, nor conclusive, and thus not very convincing. I'm certainly willing to be convinced, however, if someone can show me substantial and indisputable evidence that we really are on a collision course with disaster.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

On Friendship

A number of years ago I wrote a post on C.S. Lewis' book titled Four Loves because I enjoyed especially his treatment of friendship. He said so many interesting things on the topic that I thought it might be appropriate to once again share some of them with Viewpoint readers on this Valentine's Day. Here are some of his thoughts:

  • "Nothing is less like a friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to each other about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends side by side, absorbed in some common interest. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best."
  • "Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden)."
  • "The companionship on which Friendship supervenes will not often be a bodily one like hunting or fighting. It may be a common religion, common studies, a common profession, even a common recreation. All who share it will be our companions; but one or two or three who share something more will be our Friends. In this kind of love, as Emerson said, Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth? - Or at least, 'Do you care about the same truth?' The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer."
  • "That is why those pathetic people who simply "want friends" can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be 'I see nothing and I don't care about the truth; I only want a Friend,' no Friendship can arise - though Affection, of course, may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and friendship must be about something."
  • "When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass - may pass in the first half hour - into erotic love. Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other, or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later."
  • "A Friend will, to be sure, prove himself to be also an ally when alliance becomes necessary; will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in sickness, stand up for us among our enemies, do what he can for our widows and orphans. But such good offices are not the stuff of Friendship. The occasions for them are almost interruptions. They are in one way relevant to it, in another not. Relevant, because you would be a false friend if you would not do them when the need arose; irrelevant, because the role of benefactor always remains accidental, even a little alien to that of Friend. It is almost embarrassing. For Friendship is utterly free from Affection's need to be needed. We are sorry that any gift or loan or night-watching should have been necessary - and now, for heaven's sake, let us forget all about it and go back to the things we really want to do or talk of together. Even gratitude is no enrichment to this love. The stereotyped 'Don't mention it' here expresses what we really feel. The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all. It was a distraction, an anomaly. It was a horrible waste of the time, always too short, that we had together. Perhaps we had only a couple of hours in which to talk and, God bless us, twenty minutes of it had to be devoted to affairs!"
  • "In most societies at most periods Friendships will be between men and men and women and women. The sexes will have met one another in Affection and in Eros but not in this love. For they will seldom have had with each other the companionship in common activities which is the matrix of Friendship. Where men are educated and women are not, where one sex works and the other is idle, or where they do totally different work, they will usually have nothing to be Friends about."
Lewis is famous for his trenchant insights into human nature. His insights into friendship do nothing to diminish that reputation.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Political Philosophy 101

Last year about this time the election season was heating up and to help readers understand some of the terminology that was being thrown around, I ran this post under a different title (Political Taxonomy). I thought it might be helpful to rerun it now that the election is over but interest in the result remains very high: Probably one reason why a lot of people steer clear of politics is that they find the ideological labels (as well as words like ideological) to be confusing. Terms like left, right, liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian, fascism, socialism, and communism are thrown around a lot by our punditry, but they're rarely accompanied by any explanation of what they mean. This post will try to correct that omission so that as we roll deeper into the campaign season readers might have a bit better understanding of what they're reading and hearing.

For starters, a political ideology is the set of principles which guide and inform one's social, economic, and foreign policies. It's a kind of political worldview. All the terms listed in the previous paragraph denote various political ideologies.

The following diagram will give us a frame of reference to talk about these terms:
Let's start on the right side of the spectrum and define the terms going right to left. Each of them expresses a different understanding of the role of government in our lives and a different understanding of what rights citizens have vis a vis the state. I have one quarrel, though, with the diagram. I personally don't think either anarchy or mob rule belong on it since neither is a stable ideology. They both either evaporate, like Occupy Wall Street did, or they morph into communism or fascism. With that said, let's consider the remaining elements of the spectrum:

Libertarianism: This is the view that the role of government should be limited largely to protecting our borders and our constitutional rights. Libertarians believe that government should, except to protect citizens, stay out of our personal lives and out of the marketplace. They are also very reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts. Senator Rand Paul who was an early candidate for the Republican nomination for president, is perhaps the most well-known contemporary libertarian politician. Ayn Rand (who wrote Atlas Shrugged and for whom Rand Paul is named) is perhaps the most well-known libertarian writer.

Conservatism: Conservatives tend to be libertarians, but see a somewhat more expansive role for government. The emphasis among conservatives is on preserving traditional values and the Constitution and also upon diffusing governmental authority from the central, federal government and giving it back to the states and localities. They're reluctant to change the way things are done unless it can be shown that the change is both necessary and has a good chance of improving the problem the change is supposed to solve.

Conservatives take a strict view of the Constitution, interpreting it to mean pretty much precisely what it says, and oppose attempts to alter it by judicial fiat. They also oppose government interference in the market by over-regulation and oppose high tax rates as being counter-productive. They strongly oppose illegal immigration and believe in a strong national defense, but, though more willing to use force abroad when our interests can be shown to be threatened, are nevertheless leery of foreign adventures. Ted Cruz is perhaps the most well-known contemporary conservative politician, and the late William F. Buckley is the most well-known conservative writer.

Moderates: Moderates tend to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. They see themselves as pragmatists, willing to do whatever works to make things better. They tend to be non-ideological (although their opponents often interpret that trait as a lack of principle). President George W. Bush was a moderate politician and New York Times columnist David Brooks would be an example of a moderate journalist.

Liberalism: Liberals see a more expansive role for government. They take a loose view of the Constitution, interpreting it according to what they think the founders would say if they wrote the document today. They tend to think that traditional values shackle us to the past and that modern times and problems require us to throw off those impediments. They agree with libertarians that government should stay out of our personal lives, but they believe that government must regulate business and tax the rich and middle classes to subsidize the poor. They tend to hold a very strong faith in the power of government to solve our problems, a faith that conservatives and libertarians think is entirely unwarranted by experience. President Bill Clinton was an example of a liberal politician.

Progressivism: Progressivism can be thought of as hyper-caffeinated liberalism. Most prominent members of today's Democratic party are progressives as are many in the mainstream media and on cable networks like MSNBC. Progressives tend to see the Constitution as often an obstacle to progress. Whereas conservatives view the Constitution as a document which protects individual rights, progressives see it as an archaic limitation on the ability of government to promote social and economic justice. They tend to be indifferent to, or even disdainful of, traditional values and institutions such as marriage, family, and religion.

Progressives are essentially socialists who are reluctant, for whatever reason, to call themselves that. A humorous depiction of progressivism can be found here. President Barack Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton are progressives.

Socialism: As stated in the previous paragraph, socialists are progressives by another name. Both progressives and socialists desire that power be located in a strong central government (they're sometimes for this reason referred to by their opponents as "statists.") and both wish for government to be involved in our lives "from cradle to the grave" (see this ad which ran in the last presidential campaign). They favor very high tax rates by which they hope to reduce the disparity in income between rich and poor. Perhaps one difference between socialists and progressives is that though both would allow corporations and banks to be privately owned, socialists would impose more governmental control over these institutions than progressives might. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is an example of a contemporary socialist.

Fascism: Typically fascism is considered an ideology of the right, but this is a mistake. Fascism, like communism, is a form of totalitarian socialism. Indeed, the German Nazis as well as the Italian fascists of the 1930s were socialists (The Nazi party was in fact the National Socialist Party). Fascism is socialist in that fascists permit private ownership of property and businesses, but the state has ultimate control over them. Fascism is usually militaristic, nationalistic, and xenophobic. It is totalitarian in that there is usually only one party, and citizens have few rights. There is no right to dissent or free speech, and fascists are prone to the use of violence to suppress those who do not conform. Those on the far left on campus who shout down speakers and professors whose message they don't like are, unwittingly perhaps, adopting fascistic tactics.

Communism: Like fascism, communism is totalitarian and socialist, but it's a more extreme brand of socialism. Under communism there is no private ownership. The state owns everything. Moreover, communism differs from fascism in that it is internationalist rather than nationalist, and it doesn't promote a militaristic culture, although it certainly doesn't shy from the use of military force and violence to further its goals. Like fascism, however, communism does not permit free speech, and those who dissent are executed or cruelly imprisoned.

Few completely communist nations remain today though throughout much of the twentieth century the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and many other Asian and African states were all communist. Today North Korea is probably the only truly communist nation. Scarcely any contemporary politicians would admit to being communists though some of President Obama's close associates and friends over the years, such as Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, Van Jones, and mentor Frank Marshall Davis are, or were, all communists.

I hope this rather cursory treatment of the various points on the political spectrum will be helpful as you seek to make sense of what you're seeing, hearing and reading in the day's news.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Undocumented Immigrant

Long-time readers of VP know that I have a fondness for birds and from time to time post on a particularly beautiful or unusual bird that I've been fortunate to see. Recently, a species of oriole that's endemic to central Mexico somehow found it's way to a backyard feeder at a home in a residential neighborhood in central Pennsylvania.

Assuming the bird was not trapped, brought here illegally as a cage bird, and subsequently escaped, it's astonishing that it wound up so far from home. This species doesn't really migrate except altitudinally (from higher elevations in the mountains to lower elevations), and has only been recorded anywhere else in the U.S. just a couple of times, those sightings all being close to the Mexican border.

Nevertheless, here it is. It's been visiting the feeder near Reading, PA for several weeks now, it's been seen by hundreds of observers, and a news team drove two hours from Philadelphia to do a report on it for the evening news.

The bird is a black-backed oriole and the icing on the cake is that, like most orioles, it's a gorgeous creature. Unfortunately, the picture doesn't do it justice:

Friday, February 10, 2017

Post-Fact World

Of late we've been hearing that we live today in a post-fact, post-truth world. Milo Yiannopolis, the conservative bad boy loathed by campus liberals, said “We live in a post-fact era and that is wonderful.” I must politely disagree, not with the first part of his assertion which is, I say it with irony, factual, but with the second. It's not so wonderful at all, IMO.

Facts matter because truth matters, but the subjectivization of truth, most obvious in the frequently heard claim that "What's true for you isn't true for me," has made it difficult to hold onto the concept that there actually is any objective truth about most things that really matter. The conviction that there is is so yesterday.

One manifestation of the loss of a belief that truth is objective, and that it matters, is the apparent eruption in recent months and years of "fake news" stories.

Daniel Payne at The Federalist lists sixteen "Fake News" stories in the major media just since November, all of which were false or misleading, but which were repeated thousands of times on social media before the truth came out. Here are some of them:
  • Spike in Transgender Suicide Rates
  • The Tri-State Election Hacking Conspiracy Theory
  • The 27-Cent Foreclosure
  • The Nonexistent Climate Change Website ‘Purge’
  • The Great MLK Jr. Bust Controversy
  • Betsy DeVos, Grizzly Fighter
  • The ‘Resignations’ At the State Department
  • The Big Travel Ban Lie
You can read the details of each of these stories along with the rest of Payne's sixteen at the link.

Of course, if we're living in a post-truth era, it may largely be due to the fact that our media and our politicians, most notably Mr. Obama and even more egregiously, Mr. Trump, seem to live in a world where facts don't matter at all. As Peter Pomerantsev, in an essay at Granta, pungently observes, what's different today is not merely that we're living in "a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not."

Pomerantsev places much of the blame on the postmodern mindset:
How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).

Maurizio Ferraris, one of the founders of the New Realism movement and one of postmodernism’s most persuasive critics, argues that we are seeing the culmination of over two centuries of thinking. The Enlightenment’s original motive was to make analysis of the world possible by tearing the right to define reality away from divine authority to individual reason. Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ moved the seat of knowledge into the human mind. But if the only thing you can know is your mind, then, as Schopenhauer put it, ‘the world is my representation’.

In the late twentieth century postmodernists went further, claiming that there is ‘nothing outside the text’, and that all our ideas about the world are inferred from the power models enforced upon us. This has led to a syllogism which Ferraris sums up as: ‘all reality is constructed by knowledge, knowledge is constructed by power, and ergo all reality is constructed by power. Thus . . . reality turns out to be a construction of power, which makes it both detestable (if by “power” we mean the Power that dominates us) and malleable (if by “power” we mean “in our power”).’

Post-modernism first positioned itself as emancipatory, a way to free people from the oppressive narratives they had been subjected to. But, as Ferraris points out, ‘the advent of media populism provided the example of a farewell to reality that was not at all emancipatory’. If reality is endlessly malleable, then Berlusconi, who so influenced Putin, could justifiably argue, ‘Don’t you realize that something doesn’t exist – not an idea, a politician, or a product – unless it is on television?’

To make matters worse, by saying that all knowledge is (oppressive) power, postmodernism took away the ground on which one could argue against power. Instead it posited that ‘because reason and intellect are forms of domination . . . liberation must be looked for through feelings and the body, which are revolutionary per se.’

Rejecting fact-based arguments in favour of emotions becomes a good in itself. We can hear the political echo of this in the thoughts of Arron Banks, funder of the Leave EU campaign: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’ Ferraris sees the root of the problem in philosophers’ response to the rise of science in the eighteenth century. As science took over the interpretation of reality, philosophy became more anti-realist in order to retain a space where it could still play a role.
This sounds about right to me. The postmodern view of objective truth - that it's an outdated holdover from the failed Enlightenment habit of placing too much epistemological confidence in Reason - leads us to the place where a postmodern philosopher like the late Richard Rorty can assert that "Truth is whatever your peer group will let you get away with saying."

If one's peer group is the media then there's a pretty broad spectrum of things one can get away with saying, no matter how fantastical, as long as those things are critical of political opponents. Unfortunately for Rorty and his definition of truth, though, his own peer group, philosophers, didn't let him get away with defining truth that way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Valentine

A student's recent email reminded me of a letter I had written many years ago to my youngest daughter when she was a junior in high school. I had posted the letter on Viewpoint at the time, and after reading my student's correspondence I thought I'd repost the original letter in hope that someone might find it helpful.

Here it is, in part:
Hi Honey,

I've been thinking a lot about the talk we had the other night on what happiness is and how we obtain it, and I hope you have been, too. I wanted to say a little more about it, and I thought that since I was going to be away, I'd put it into a letter for you to read while I'm gone.

One of the things we talked about was that we can't assess whether we're happy based on our feelings because happiness isn't just a feeling. It's more of a condition or quality of our lives - sort of like beauty is a quality of a symphony. It's a state of satisfaction we gain through devotion to God, living a life of virtue (honesty, integrity, loyalty, chastity, trustworthiness, self-discipline), cultivating wholesome and loving relationships with family and friends, experiencing the pleasures of accomplishment in career, sports, school, etc., and filling our lives with beauty (nature, music, literature, art, etc.).

One thing is sure - happiness isn't found by acquiring material things like clothes and gadgets. It's not attained by being popular, having good looks, or being high on the social pecking order. Those things seem like they should make us happy, especially when we're young, but they don't. Ultimately they just leave us empty.

To the extent that happiness is a feeling we have to understand that a person's feelings tend to follow her actions. A lot of people allow their feelings to determine their actions - if they like someone they're friendly toward them; if they feel happy they act happy - but this is backwards.

People who do brave things, for instance, don't do them because they feel brave. Most people usually feel terrified when in a dangerous situation, but brave people don't let their feelings rule their behavior, and what they do is all the more wonderful because it's done in spite of everything in them urging them to get out of danger. If they do something brave, despite their fear, we say they have courage and we admire them for it.

Well, happiness is like courage. You should act as if you're content with your life even if you don't feel it. When you do act that way your feelings change and tend to track your behavior. You find yourself feeling happier than you did before even though the only thing that has changed is your attitude.

How can a person act happy without seeming phony? Well, we can act happy by displaying a positive, upbeat attitude, by being pleasant to be around, by enjoying life, and by smiling a lot. Someone who has a genuine smile (not a Paris Hilton smirk) on her face all the time is much more attractive to other people than someone whose expression always tells other people that she's just worn out or miserable.

One other thing about happiness is that it tends to elude us most when we're most intent on pursuing it. It's when we're busy doing the things I mentioned above, it's when we're busy helping and being a friend to others, that happiness is produced as a by-product. We achieve it when we're not thinking about it. It just tags along, as if it were tied by a string, with love for God, family, friends, beauty, accomplishment, a rewarding career, and so on.

Sometimes young people are worried that they don't have friends and that makes them unhappy, but often the reason they don't, paradoxically, is that they're too busy trying to convince someone to be their friend. They try too hard and they come across to others as too insecure. This is off-putting to people, and they tend to avoid the person who seems to try over-hard to be their friend. The best way to make friends, I think, is to just be pleasant, friendly, and positive. Don't be critical of people, especially your friends, and especially your guy friends, either behind their backs or to their faces. A person who never has anything bad to say about others will always have friends.

Once in a while a critical word has to be said, of course, but it'll be meaningless at best and hurtful at worst, unless it's rare and done with complete kindness. A person who is always complaining or criticizing is not pleasant to be around and will not have good, devoted friends, and will not be happy. A person who gives others the impression that her life is miserable is going to find that after a while people just don't want to hear it, and they're not going to want to be in her company.

I hope this makes sense to you, honey. Maybe as you read it you can think of people you know who are examples of the things I'm talking about....

All my love,


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Cause for Concern

There is, I think, a puzzlement among many Americans as to why there's so much concern over bringing Muslim refugees to our shores. Some Americans seem to think that Islam is sort of like any other religion, but I think this is a misunderstanding of Islam. Moreover, the misunderstanding includes the view that only a small percentage of Muslims are extremists, and that it's worth the risk to bring them into our country to increase diversity and broaden the tax base.

I say this is a misunderstanding because most Muslims, in fact almost all devout Muslims, adhere to Koranic law, i.e. sharia. If they do not follow sharia they're often not considered true Muslims by their co-religionists, even if they faithfully observe the five pillars of Islam, and over 80% of Muslims emigrating from most of the countries listed on President Trump's travel ban executive order believe sharia should be the governing law of whatever country they reside in.

In June I posted some thoughts on the notion of moderate Islam which I'd like to rerun here to help readers understand why there's concern and why so many people who are sympathetic to the plight of refugees nevertheless support Mr. Trump's EO:
Last January I did a post on moderate Islam which quoted at length from a column by former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy who argued that the idea of moderate Islam is something of a myth. There are no moderate Muslims, he maintained. There are Muslims and there are apostates (who, according to Islamic doctrine, deserve to be killed) and that covers the spectrum of Islamic belief.

People in the West, so accustomed to the notion that in everything there's a wide diversity of opinion, have a hard time accepting that many Muslims don't see things that way. At least they don't see Islam that way.

The following video features a Muslim speaker named Fahad Qureshi addressing an audience in Norway in 2013 on this very matter. He's attempting to make the point, a point of which he obviously approves, that, although Westerners often try to minimize it, the belief that gays should be killed and women subjugated to men and stoned to death if caught in adultery are in fact mainstream Muslim beliefs. They're not the beliefs of a fringe group of radicals, Qureshi insists, they're views taken directly from the Koran:
Keep in mind that Qureshi was addressing a mostly Muslim audience in liberal Norway. Toward the end he asked a question everyone should be asking as President Obama opens the floodgates to millions of middle eastern Muslims:
What are the politicians going to say now? What is the media going to say now? That we are all extremists? That we are all radicals? That we need to deport all of us from this country?
Actually, no. In the wake of Orlando [the terrorist massacre at The Pulse nightclub] the media I've seen, in a masterful diversion of viewers' attention, has been talking mostly about the need for gun control.

Imagine, though, the uproar had a politically conservative fanatic committed the atrocity in the Orlando night club, and a video like this had subsequently been found to have been made at a gathering of Tea-Partiers. If the views held almost unanimously by this audience of Muslims were held by even a significant minority of any group of conservative non-Muslim Americans they would be anathematized, persecuted, and endlessly ridiculed. Yet Muslims are given a pass. Their views are ignored. Why?

An anonymous gay activist in a letter quoted in Tuesday's post highlights the Left's hypocrisy:
I also now realize, with brutal clarity, that in the progressive hierarchy of identity groups, Muslims are above gays. Every pundit and politician -- and that includes President Obama and Hillary Clinton and half the talking heads on TV -- who today have said "We don't know what the shooter's motivation could possibly be!" have revealed to me their true priorities: appeasing Muslims is more important than defending the lives of gay people. Every progressive who runs interference for Islamic murderers is complicit in those murders, and I can no longer be a part of that team.

I'm just sick of it. Sick of the hypocrisy. Sick of the pandering. Sick of the deception.
So should every American be.
Later, I elaborated on how we might think about the views expressed in the above video and wrote this:
One thing I think we can say about sharia is that it's not what Westerners would call "moderate" or "progressive."

Suppose you found yourself among a group of people which, it eventually became clear to you,...
  • held approximately the same views about gays as the Westboro Baptists, only worse.
  • held approximately the same views about women as Jim Crow era southerners held about blacks.
  • held approximately the same views about Jews as did the Nazis.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of religion as did medieval inquisitors.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of speech as does the North Korean government
  • held approximately the same views about human equality as do proponents of the Hindu caste system.
  • held approximately the same views about church/state separation as fundamentalist theocrats.
  • held views regarding criminal justice that endorsed cruel and unusual punishments like cutting off the hands of thieves, whipping adulterers, hanging gays, and killing apostates.
Would you call that group "moderate"? Would you call them "progressive"? Yet these are views held by large numbers of mainstream Muslims, not just in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but in Europe and the U.S. A Pew poll found that a majority of American Muslims prefer sharia, and one in four accepts the use of violence against other Americans who give offense to Islam, for instance, by caricaturing Mohammed.
Let us do all we can to aid and comfort those, both Christian and Muslim, who are experiencing hellish suffering at the hands of Assad's military, ISIS, and al Qaeda Islamists, but let us not be blinded by compassion or political correctness to the realities of the belief system held by most of the people we're bringing into this country. Many of them do not want to assimilate, they do not want to become Westernized, and they do not want to moderate their convictions. If that's true we're possibly setting up many refugees and other Muslim immigrants for alienation, bitterness and resentment that could one day boil over into violence, the kind of awful mayhem already visited upon Paris, Nice, Berlin and Brussels in recent years.

Ignoring the cultural dissonance between Islam and the West is not a solution to the problem and will not prevent tragedy from happening.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Outraged at Trump for Agreeing with Them

President Trump's comment to Bill O'Reilly in his pregame interview Sunday certainly seemed pretty hard to defend. O'Reilly asked him about his friendliness toward Russian president Vladimir Putin and in the course of the question called Putin a "killer." Trump responded by saying that we have killers here, too, suggesting a moral equivalence between United States government personnel and Putin's government in Russia:
To draw a moral equivalency between Vladimir Putin's methods of neutralizing his political opponents, not to mention his war-fighting rules of engagement, and those of the United States was shocking to many patriotic Americans. If the president's going to accuse American leaders of being "killers" he has an obligation to adduce some evidence. Otherwise, he discredits himself by making such an outrageous claim, but there's something about the indignation that Trump's words have summoned forth from both the left and the right that's particularly ... odd.

For decades the left has been insisting that the American government is indeed guilty of all manner of murder, mayhem, war crimes, and incarceration of political prisoners. President George W. Bush, for example, was frequently portrayed as a blood-thirsty maniac who went to war in Iraq simply to avenge Saddam Hussein's attempt on his father's life. From the Vietnam era in the 1960s until the dissolution of the old Soviet Union the left habitually refused to condemn Soviet crimes against humanity on the grounds that our hands were just as dirty in Southeast Asia and Central America. For them now to profess to be offended by President Trump, who is essentially agreeing with them, is risibly hypocritical.

On the right, too, there has been a significant percentage of people convinced that President Clinton and/or his wife were responsible for the deaths of almost fifty people since their days in Arkansas. Chief among their putative victims was Vince Foster, whose mysterious death was laid at the feet of the Clintons, as was the demise of cabinet secretary Ron Brown and dozens of lesser-known figures. None of this was ever proven to be more than coincidence, however, and anyone who was nevertheless sure that the Clintons were guilty has no grounds for criticizing Mr. Trump for agreeing with them by making similar, if nebulous, allegations today.

The president was, in fact, simply acknowledging accusations many other Americans on both left and right have themselves made many times during the last three to five decades. Why then should they be so affronted when Trump agrees with them, unless they were never among the leftists, like the young John Kerry, for example, who accused the American government and military of murdering civilians, or never among those on the right who were, and still are, convinced that the Clintons had political liabilities eliminated "with extreme prejudice"?

If one was never in either of these camps then one might well ask the president what in the world he's talking about and why on earth he would talk about it, but only if one was never in one of those camps. Otherwise, they're outraged at Mr. Trump for agreeing with them, which is absurd.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Johnson Amendment

The senior editor at The Federalist, David Harsanyi, offers a compelling argument in support of President Trump's promise to push Congress to rescind the Johnson amendment which prohibits tax-exempt organizations like churches from engaging in political advocacy.

Harsanyi is a libertarian and an atheist. He's neither a Trump partisan nor does he have an ecclesiastical stake in the issue. His argument is based solely on libertarian principle. Here are some excerpts but the interested reader should go to the link and read the entire piece:
The Johnson Amendment — a law forbidding religious organizations from engaging in political activities without losing their tax-exemption status — is an inexplicable attack on free expression; an illiberal hat-trick undermining the Free Speech Clause, Free Exercise Clause, and Establishment Clause. It was created specifically to inhibit debate by forcing churches to choose between free expression and faith.

One also imagines that the folks writing the First Amendment didn’t expect their pastors would be monitored by a central government agency and forced to watch what they say in the pulpit. Yet, ignoring our rich tradition of religious activism, which includes the abolitionist movement, we’ve normalized the idea that pastors, priests, and rabbis should avoid talking about candidates, even when those candidates attack foundational ideas of faith. We now task the IRS with monitoring every utterance in every church by every religious organization in the United States, and then deciding which of those thoughts constitute acceptable speech or “issue advocacy.”

The Johnson Amendment empowers government to discriminate purely on the content of speech. So, for example, a pastor can say “Senators who fail to support school choice will soon find themselves in the fiery depths of hell, forever” but not “Candidate Al Franken will soon find himself in the fiery depths of hell, forever.” Imagine such laws dictating speech in publicly funded universities — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Political candidates, by the way, function under no such restrictions, and can be as critical of Catholicism or Mormonism or Islam as they like. Yet church leaders can’t explicitly react. And while religions have institutional positions on many major political issues, from abortion to gay marriage to refugee bans, their leaders are specifically incentivized by the state to avoid debating the people who make laws governing those issues.

Moreover, as far as I know, the Free Speech Clause does not come with an asterisk and a set of conditions for participation. The argument I hear most often in defense of the Johnson Amendment goes something like this: “What about separation of church and state, you theocratic nut! Why should I subsidize the church’s speech?”

Don’t join one, and you won’t. I don’t.
There's more at the link. Despite the Johnson amendment, proposed in 1954 by then Sen. Lyndon Johnson to adjust the Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) to prohibit campaign speech by nonprofits and tax-exempt churches, the perception has been that minority churches have been largely given a de facto exemption by the IRS, but predominately white churches have not. Rather than demand that everyone be held to the same anti-liberty standard, perhaps we should follow Harsanyi's suggestion and just do away with the standard.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Orwell or Huxley?

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. He writes an interesting piece at The Federalist in which he notes that those who fear that President Trump is Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984 simply don't understand either 1984 or Donald Trump. Our real concern should be how close we are approximating Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

1984, Nichols writes, portrays a strictly regimented, highly organized state run by Stalinist intellectuals who think they're smarter than everyone else. Trump's people, Nichols scoffs, are neither highly organized nor are they intellectuals:
[T]he Inner Party of Orwell’s totalitarian state is founded on a collectivist nightmare called “Ingsoc,” dreamed up by intellectuals who believe they are superior to their fellow human beings. The book’s villain, O’Brien, implies he actually helped write a book called the “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” It’s a forbidden text by a dissident named “Goldstein,” one that “1984”’s more daring citizens furtively pass around among themselves....In any case, O’Brien knows the book chapter and verse, even better than the traitors do.

Trump and his populists are many things, but they are not intellectuals. Their movement is about as organized as a yard full of fireflies. None of them are in danger of writing a book of any depth or meaning that might fuel a movement.

And finally, there is Big Brother himself, omnipresent and glowering, always watching, always judging, rarely speaking, a figure—again, modeled on Stalin—of superhuman virtue, intelligence, industry, compassion, and bravery. Father, protector, nemesis, demi-god, the actual Big Brother is never seen in person, a Wizard of Oz whose curtain is never pulled back. His mystique is central to the fear and awe he inspires among his subjects.

Trump is a lot of things, but he’s not Big Brother. He can’t stay quiet or keep off of Twitter for an hour. We know every tic, ever stray hair on his head, every odd gesture of his hands. We know his views at length because he talks about everything, in random order, incessantly. If this is our Big Brother, we have little to fear from a new “1984.”

No, if you really want to think about the dystopian novel that should scare you in 2017, you must go to the another school of dystopian literature, away from the gray totalitarianism of “1984,” and enter instead the sex, drug, and leisure soaked society of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

It is here, in Huxley’s grim but orderly vision of the future, that Americans should see themselves as closer to their own doom. Huxley’s World State is run by benevolent—or so they see themselves—tyrants enforcing a genetically engineered caste system, in which the populace is repressed not by violence but instead anesthetized by easy sex, ample supplies of euphoria-inducing drugs, and meaningless entertainment. Pleasure and hedonism, not violence and party discipline, are the mechanisms by which society is induced to submission.
In other words, it's not Trump and his foibles that should worry us. It's we ourselves.
The world of “1984” destroys Winston Smith by torturing him until he is capable of loving nothing but the state. In “Brave New World,” the hero—a man raised outside of the World State’s “civilization”—resists the pleasures of the new order, until he eventually submits and ends up filled-with self-loathing. He then saves the authorities the trouble of dealing with him by hanging himself.

The nightmare of a society debased by its own affluence and hedonism, increasingly turning both to drugs and suicide, is far closer to America under Trump. There is no need for Big Brother when people willingly withdraw from public life. Winston Smith took every spare moment to read, to write, and to meet his secret lover. But in a country where Americans fill their spare time with substance abuse, pornography, and moronic television shows, there are few Winston Smiths to be found—and no need for them in a state that doesn’t much care what anyone does, so long as everyone stays away from politics.
A people steeped in narcissism and pleasure, like the decadent ruling class of Panem in The Hunger Games, perhaps, has throughout history sown the seeds of its own destruction:
And if we’re lazy enough to become the decadent but efficient society Huxley foresaw in “Brave New World,” we could eventually fall to the conquest of more disciplined and martial nations. If that happens, then we do indeed risk emerging from the wreckage as the impoverished maximum security prison of “1984.” Of course, neither of these dystopian nightmares are upon us yet, nor are they inevitable.

One of the most endearing (and infuriating qualities) of Americans is that they don’t like to be told what to do. We retain a fierce streak of independence, even when it leads us astray. But make no mistake: we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal “Brave New World” than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.
Liberals will love Nichols' essay for his humorous description of Donald Trump's shortcomings. Conservatives will appreciate also his warning of the dangers posed by our culture's moral lassitude. Check it out.