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The Closing of the American Mind
5 of 5 stars
Perhaps the most important non-fiction ever written in English. A revealing, penetrating, inspiring text on the state of education and the modern American mind. It was Bloom’s life work - his profession at the University Of Chicago - to ...
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The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion
5 of 5 stars
New and captivating ideas about our past. French thought, killed by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and the Postmodern gang, appears resurrected by the likes of Gauchet. In physics the most deeply piercing ideas are the simplest, and in the for...
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The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism
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Great ZOT, this man can write! At age 90 - and still with us - we hope Peter Gay remains another sixty to seventy years so we might garner another half dozen books from him. While "The Enlightenment" was written in 1966, the ancients of...
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The Power of Myth
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Sex and the Origins of Death
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Why we die and how to beat it From the outset what UCLA’s Wm. Clark reports is staggering; Death is “not an obligatory attribute of life” and did not appear with the advent of it. Cellular aging resulting in death may not have occurred...
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The Lonely Man of Faith
really liked it
Remarkable impressions Rabbi Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, presents interesting ideas concerning the dual nature of humans and the status of this nature in modernity. That status, says the Rav, is bleak because the practical self, rec...
On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence
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Reason at a cost Author Peter Atkins wrote perhaps the most amazing science text ever written, a thriller from start to finish: Physical Chemistry 8th Ed. (Which, by that electrified version of the Pony Express, I received pristine from...
Hypermodern Times
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Lipovetsky’s mixed bag of modernity Lipovetsky is one of those French philosophers who’ve rebuilt their intellectual tradition after the wreckage of Foucault, Derrida, and the postmodernist gang. This slim book packs a punch, dis...
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
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Comparisons between historical tyrannies and America’s brewing I found this very short book mildly informative (about 14,000 words, 30 pages of regular text, stretched to 126 pages in its pocket format). The author draws parallels betwe...

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Q & A with Brett Alan Williams's bookshelf: read
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Any questions about "The Father" are welcomed, except how it ends. :)


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The Road to Serfdom
Politics
Second Treatise of Government
The Basic Political Writings
Rights of Man
A Letter Concerning Toleration: Humbly Submitted
The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates
The Federalist Papers
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
A Brief History of Time
Love and Friendship
Giants and Dwarfs: Essays, 1960-1990
Shakespeare's Politics
The Science of Freedom
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past


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September 3, 2018: Confronting the Constitution. Part 2: Government of, by, and for unstable humans

In Confronting the Constitution, David F. Epstein offers his chapter, “Political Theory of the Constitution.” [1] Here we see what range and depth the Founders explored in their mission for the best form of governance. A government guided by self-evident truths about human nature, natural rights philosophy, and the purposes of government arrived at by the power of reason. “The obstacles of prejudice and partiality,” writes Epstein, “did not persuade the Founders that establishing government by consent was impossible, only that it was difficult. [They feared] that a failure to agree on a government at that time would lead to disunion, anarchy, and eventual usurpation… [Success] appeared fragile and fleeting.” [2] It was a government, in Epstein’s reminder of Solon, which was not the best government they could devise, but the best government the people would accept.

In creating a governmental structure populated with unstable humans in service to unstable humans, the Founders set out to use human nature for and against itself in proper measure for each office and their arrangement. While a marvelous balancing act, Epstein warns that without reference to underlying principles, Constitutional institutions can easily be debased, vilified, or disposed of. [3]

Recall, these men were scientists or heavily influenced by European Enlightenment on the heels of Isaac Newton’s scientific revolution. [4] Their philosophic differences were devoted to reason, not tribe. Each had good and bad ideas, but their quest for truth produced practical solutions that satisfied their purpose in the end. It’s informative to note their kind of thinking is practiced today almost exclusively by science, engineering, and the practical arts of medicine and law. [5]

Epstein delineates the logic when it still applied to politics. He begins with the abstract and not entirely accurate “state of nature” hypothesis of self-preservation, where each person takes the law into their own hands. (Notice how our Stand Your Ground laws return to this.) Hence, social instabilities of “dissensions and animosities.” [6] But if self-preservation is of primary importance, the necessity for order and control makes a need for governance obvious. With the Declaration’s enunciation of equality for all men (see last line, first paragraph) and their inalienable rights, government’s purpose is then “to secure these rights.” [7] Foundational to all of it is the source of government’s legitimacy as just powers derived from the consent of the governed. But as James Madison put it in the 1787-88 debates, “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” [8]

But before that, they had to pay for it. If individuals were going to form a new society, surrendering a portion of their liberty once used to defend themselves, this society’s government, as an enforcer of their rights would need tools to secure them. Laws created, enforced by police, decided by courts all cost money, and that means taxes. “The necessity of taxation alone,” writes Epstein, “means the right to property is not immune to political decision [imposed upon it].” [9] (Take that, conservatives.) And since taxes mean there must to be something to tax, the Founders sought prosperity for all through protection of rights to “honest industry,” not to coddle the wealthy. [10] (Take that, liberals.)

Once paid for, the problem was not only to select but attract meritorious individuals to office. Provide opportunity and motive by catering to human nature, but be careful about it. One motive was the ambition that loves office or honor. Despite this salute to the ancient virtue of honor, “Even Montesquieu suggested virtuous men do not entirely forget themselves.” [11] And as Madison said, “If [patriotism] be the only inducement, you will find a great indifferency in filling your legislative body.” [12] More likely “the love of fame… would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit…” [13] To control that love of fame, “The Constitution,” says Epstein, “not only grants powers [to those recruits] but arranges offices so as to encourage those powers to be used well.” [14] The Founders wanted virtue, but didn’t count on it, preferring to manage self-interest instead.

But how should these representatives be chosen? Should they be selected via indirect elections, for refinement and grasp of governance by knowledgeable electors—at the risk of cabals and horse trading? Or direct elections by frequently ignorant masses, selected from a more accurate representation of the people? The solution was a mix. The House as unrefined populist representatives as witnessed today, and the Senate, which used to be distinguished, though more debased with time. [15]

For the Congress and Executive our Founders believed the people could better control by reward and punishment the personal motives of representatives through elections, rather than hope to “elevate men who do not think of themselves at all.” [16] Though as one Anti-Federalist observed, most elected representatives will be complete strangers to electors. Only those locally familiar in small republics (states) can be properly judged. But Federalists, and ultimately the Constitution, argued otherwise. Resemblance between representative and represented is not so important as the represented being able to choose, second-guess, and depose their representatives. Better that power be in the hands of those likely to be jealous rather than friendly with those elected.

But what the people could do was limited as well. While they would choose from these recruits and judge the outcome of their polices, the people would not create policies. “A noteworthy feature of the new Constitution was its total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity for any share in government [in its direct creation of laws].” [17] That’s the representative’s job, and leaves the people alone to pursue their productive interests.

“The Founders did not bend much effort to conform the principles, morals, and manners of citizens to our republican form of government,” writes Epstein. [18] Because they built one to accommodate “human nature in a rawer, purer form,” one more enduring than what was strived for in strict virtuous republics of old. [19] “Virtue, they judged, was too corruptible to be the main foundation [of government].” [20] Elections were the most obvious way of interesting representatives in preserving the rights of the people.

Though elections could not secure the people in every instance. Corrupt representatives might engage in “harvest as abundant as it was transitory,” [21] employ “concocted deceptions that an inattentive people fail to detect,” [22] or baldly usurp powers. And as John Locke puts it, “for the same Persons who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them, whereby they exempt themselves from Obedience…is contrary to the end of Society and Government.” [23] So the rule of law would be divided in its execution among the 3-branches of Congress, Executive, and Judiciary.

But even this can be abused by the encroaching nature of power. Witness America’s Executive today as it lauds over a compliant legislature betraying their Constitutional oath to check the president. Hence, the Founders added supplemental separations: the bicameral legislature (each house checks the other), Executive veto over Congress, which can fail if Congress is united enough, impeachment for any public official, and judicial review (see revocation of Trump’s first two Shia Muslim bans [24]).

Judicial review is done with a twist: by deliberation of judges not elected, so not directly subject to the people’s popular, often passionate, will. “Indeed,” reports Epstein, “the people’s original intent can even be enforced against their own later inclinations…” [25] Which implies the written Constitution meant something fixed. (Is this support for originalism?) James Madison and James Wilson even proposed a veto power for the Court, but it was defeated on “grounds that it would make statesmen out of judges, corroding their impartiality,” and role as interpreters of law. [26]

“The Founders expected the president to defend his power because he is ambitious, not because he understands or loves the Constitution.” [27] Hence, judicial review was not merely another competitor in power, but an enforcer of primary law. Yet again, this technique fails to corner every offense. Presidential powers exist that do not depend on legal guidance or judicial review. “As commander in chief of the armed forces, he could suppress an insurrection…” [28] Those killed have no legal recourse. “Corruption or treachery could be quite consequential in the time before the next election, and he might corruptly contrive his reelection, even his initial election.” [29] (Recall, this book was written 28 years ago about insights 202 years before that.) For such cases, control by election is after the fact. So impeachment allows an auxiliary precaution against slow and vulnerable elections without resort to “the Right of Revolution,” thus channeling passions of the people with a rational option. [30] Impeachment gains force by focus on one person. He cannot reasonably blame a council (though we’ll expect it). And to avoid a president beholden to a Congress that can impeach the Executive, the Founders divided this process between the House (impeachment), Senate (conviction), and the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice presiding.

How would all this be tied together to protect people’s rights in an effort to stabilize unstable humans? Anti-Federalists believed the people’s interests would best be secured by small-republic state institutions to defend against national encroachment. But impotence of the Articles of Confederation showed Federalists that states could not be corralled even to pay their own bills. “By denying states the power to issue paper money, impair the obligation of contracts…and allowing the national judiciary to enforce those prohibitions, the Convention reflected Madison’s view that the nation should protect individual rights against the states.” [31] Not the other way around. Natural rights and resulting stability would serve the purposes of prosperity, once again revealing prosperity’s practical utility. The Founder’s structure would encourage “Public attachment by a train of prosperous events,” gaining the people’s trust and thereby consent to federal powers. [32] The enjoyment of rights and prosperity would be “a valuable crutch for government that protects those rights.” [33]

The Constitution is a blend between two opposing political theories: autonomous small-republic state governments as obstacle to national overreach, and a central authority whose components are checked and balanced in arrangements of a large-republic. Though as Epstein cautions, among many other distortions, the state / federal equilibrium has been imbalanced by the 14th Amendment’s 1868 expansion of federal powers in response to Civil War, and by the 1913 17th Amendment that makes senators popularly elected, edging the Senate closer to the populist House.

When Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?” he replied, “A Republic—if you can keep it.”

Until next time, November 5, 2018.

[1] Allan Bloom Ed., Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990. According to this George H. W. Bush era 1990 text, “David F. Epstein is a deputy director of net assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has taught political science as a member of the Graduate Faculty, The New School for Social Research, and is the author of The Political Theory of The Federalist..” Beyond that, he appears invisible.

[2] ibid, pg. 128

[3] We see this in our most recent election, amplified by America’s absence of civics education. From political Right-wing vilification of constitutional guarantees to a free press (what Edmond Burke called the Fourth Estate), to cries from the Left for apportionment of Senate seats by population in response to Trump’s cabinet appointments. Regardless of population, each state gets two Senators, tilting in disproportionate favor to small states, diluting the voice of large ones. The Founders tangled with this question, prioritizing the two seat model because it protected the rights of minority states from majority abuse. Isn’t it precisely this idea championed by our modern Left? This Connecticut Compromise was seen by some Founders as protection of minority population states, while others saw it as a “triumph of extortion by the small states.” Ibid., pg. 117

[4] Ben Franklin is credited with founding electrical sciences. Thomas Jefferson was a naturalist and inventor. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Jon Jay enrich their Federalist Papers with good governance analogies to science. John Locke, who from Jefferson inherited the delineated rights for his Declaration, was a chemist.

[5] Scientific thinking engaged in by the Founders is now rare in politics. While science and its technology are the basis of wealth creation, science is a frequent annoyance to business when it finds negative outcomes of various products, processes, etc. Excluding Trump and Bush-2, the EPA is an example of science obstructing the dollar’s desire for profit over environment.

[6] Bloom, pg. 78

[7] ibid., pg. 78

[8] Federalist 51

[9] Bloom, pg. 84

[10] ibid., pg. 84

[11] ibid., pg. 96

[12] ibid., pg. 96

[13] ibid., pg. 97

[14] ibid., pg. 93

[15] Further examples can be found in actions of Senate Democratic Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, when in 2013 he and the Democrat majority reduced confirmation requirements from 60% to a mere majority. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky now confirms Trump loyalists without check from Democrats. Mitch McConnell and Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa also violated their oaths to the Constitution by their denial of confirmation proceedings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Merck Garland in 2016 because it was a “contentious election year.”

[16] ibid., pg. 97

[17] ibid., pg. 94

[18] Bloom, pg. 98

[19] ibid., pg. 98

[20] ibid., pg. 98

[21] Federalist 72

[22] Bloom, pg. 106

[23] John Locke, Second Treatise, Peter Laslett Ed., revised edition, New American Library, 1965, pg. 410

[24] Note that Trump’s so called “Muslim ban” was in fact a Shia Muslim ban. Only Shia countries were on his list. No Sunni countries were included. Trump established 8 new businesses in Saudi Arabia during his campaign, has a golf course and resort in UAE, and does business in Lebanon, all home to 9/11 hijackers that killed almost 3000 people in the US. No Shia countries have killed Americans on US soil.

[25] Bloom, pg. 109

[26] ibid., pg. 110

[27] ibid., pg. 110

[28] ibid., pg. 110

[29] ibid., pg. 111

[30] Wikipedia on Right of Revolution.

[31] Bloom, pg. 120

[32] ibid., pg. 100

[33] ibid., pg. 100



July 2, 2018: Confronting the Constitution. Part 1: Did the Founders get it wrong?

Around about 1980, Robert Goldwin and Walter Berns persuaded a group of philosophers to celebrate the US Constitution’s bicentennial through an examination of its philosophical origins and eventual detractors. With Allan Bloom as editor of the project, the result was 16 chapters, each with a different author and perspective for Confronting the Constitution. [1] As Bloom puts it, “The Framers challenged the world to meet them on the field of reason. To test their conviction is to honor them.” And so, for that and the thrill of learning, this new themed series of blogs is based.

The text begins with “Philosophic Understandings of Human Nature Informing the Constitution” by Thomas L. Pangle. [2] He reveals that 17th century Enlightenment philosophy was obsessed with governance. After millennia of trial and error civilizations, finally the idea of human dignity, potential for all, coalesced as the purpose of society. Pangle examines the hierarchy of political philosophy that emerged from this realization. Starting with the simple but critical question, What is a human being? What are its motivations, needs, requirements? In short, what is human nature? Once defined, successive levels in the hierarchy are addressed. How do these creatures live as individuals? What is the best way for them to live in groups? How should a state be organized? In what way should a nation be governed? Each answer up the ladder depends on the last one. Since the definition of the human being is the most fundamental, it’s also the most important because from this will rise the hierarchy of social machinery.

Like the mathematical definition of a machine, if you get that definition wrong, whatever you build from it, no matter how carefully, won’t work, at least not well. Consider the sixty year experiment in Berlin, one side capitalist, the other communist. Despite its careful planning, communism was such a mismatch for the human psyche they had to build a wall to keep people in. Marx’s “alienation” turned out to be more like “incentive.”

With Europe’s Enlightenment, the human definition got a new answer just in time for America’s Founding. A human being is, philosophers claimed, a creature that seeks first and foremost to preserve itself from death. Self-preservation is the central human interest. Humans are thus creatures with vital interests. From this emerged human rights to protect those interests for a just society in service to human dignity. “A fundamentally different character from the various sorts of local, traditional, and divinely revealed rights men invoked since time immemorial,” writes Pangle. [3]

From this philosophical foundation America’s Founders determined the Constitution would not be a covenant of devotion and obedience to a tribal god of a chosen people. Pleas to supernatural powers for justice fall outside the realm of reason. In other words, gods are fickle, who knows what they’ll do? And while people worship different gods, they all have a common capacity for reason. Reason became the tool for society building, in Aristotelian terms, because of what it could do verifiably in the here and now material world. Leave that other personally stabilizing force of religion, and a right to it, up to the individual, but don’t run a country with it. History was replete with this folly on national scales, hence the need for separation. [4] By granting a right to religious freedom, without state sponsorship, our Founders reduced religion from fact to opinion. In doing so they sought to defang consequences of the converse.

Likewise, in tailoring our social fabric the Constitution would not repeat the classical Greek notion of a small republic. The ancients believed only small republics could hope to keep every citizen like-minded and virtuous enough to maintain cohesion. It didn’t work. America was already large by comparison, and expected to get larger. Without state religion or patriotic virtue, how could stability be maintained in a large country?

Using the right to interests, Madison would embrace a large republic over the small because different environments spread over an expansive country would generate different interests. Farmers of the land have different interests from fishers of the sea. Different factions spawned from these different interests would then check and balance each other to stabilize the whole.

Furthermore, this idea of interests formed the basis for David Hume’s remark that “modern political economy [showed] natural ends of humanity require active promotion of avarice, private commerce, and extensive manufacture.” [5] “Trade was never esteemed an affair of the state till the last century…” [6] Suddenly economics as an expression of interests would support dignity, and become part of the philosophy of reason. Economics became a route to social justice. Private vice became public virtue.

This new social model was a practical one. Needs of the body came first. Ego second. Character was no longer explicitly part of the plan. But while the government was expected to be morally neutral in private matters, no one expected the people themselves to be morally neutral. With no state faith, George Washington warned, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” [7] Unfortunately, Enlightenment philosophers had not found a reasoned argument for people to be moral. At least not as compelling as an ever watching God with promises of heaven or hell. They also knew the watchful eye of communities could yield to individualism’s trajectory. The best they could do was the Golden Rule beginning at least with ancient Egypt, and implied in the “social contract” (which isn’t social [8]). The Founders realized the new definition and government structure to accommodate it put civilization on fragile footing, just not as fragile as the ancients.

As Pangle notes, Enlightenment’s vision of the human was based on what they called “a state of nature.” A non-historical abstraction as a place to start the study. [9] But since the machinery of civilization emerges from this—from what defines human beings, to interests, to rights, all the way to the structure of nations—are we certain we got the right definition to begin with? What if it’s wrong, or incomplete, or incapable of addressing unforeseen change in the future?

It was the inventor Thomas Jefferson who received from John Locke the chemist his definition of the human being, and Locke’s rights to life, liberty and property, which Jefferson converted to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (He didn’t say amusement.) But what happens when the right to property threatens the right to life for those on the other side of the planet? What happens to rights in support of interests when the 600 million humans alive in 1700 approach 8 billion in 2018? Interests require resources. A simple fact of nature is that there is no infinite material anything. [10] For the industrialized world, self-preservation is no longer threatened by scarcity, but abundance. Are rights narrowed by fundamental changes external to human nature? Does this require modification of the human definition in terms of what’s emphasized and included?

Like the machine defined by math above, what Enlightenment defined as human was necessarily an approximation. In mathematics there’s something called a “series.” The first term in a series is most important. Successive terms have diminishing impact, but as each one is included, their inclusion makes whatever the series describes come closer to reality. Did Enlightenment philosophers fail to include enough terms in their series description of human nature? [11] Could it be the first-things-first material perspective should have included our ethical, communal, and spiritual aspects?

If Enlightenment’s description was truncated, after three centuries of social experiment shouldn’t we see the effects? It’s difficult but doable to isolate cause in laboratory experiments of physical phenomena, much harder to provide more than inference when it comes to human society. The infinity of human foibles suggests cause and effect are not linear, often not even sensible.

That said, if a society is built on self-interest, demoting morality, and religion that once promoted it, at least according to Washington, might we expect an eventual excess, even perversion of self-interest? [12] While not universal, examples in Washington DC, corporate America, Wall Street, and the masses who seek to emulate them enunciate this perversity. But can it really be traced to Enlightenment’s definition? The ancients had despots, abuse, and corruption too.

What the Enlightenment did was remarkable, a moral leap forward. But every human measure creates new problems requiring counter-measures to compensate. Does the old definition of humanity need an upgrade? In future posts we’ll ponder an extended series approximation of human nature.

Until next time, September 3, 2018.

[1] Allan Bloom Ed, Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990. Robert Goldwin (1922 - 2011), Walter Berns (1919 – 2015, Allan Bloom (1930 – 1992).

[2] Thomas Pangle.

[3] ibid, pg. 10, italics added

[4] “We’ve believed a lie for so long that the church and the state be separated,” said Pastor Elias Lorera of Fresno’s Christian Temple Assemblies of God. In “The Christian Right Adopts a 50 State Strategy,” NYTimes, June 20, 2018. As Trump’s GOPP tries to unify religion and politics.

[5] ibid, pg. 19 David Hume (1711 – 1776)

[6] ibid, pg. 19

[7] George Washington’s Farewell Address

[8] The social contract is not social. It’s an agreement people are born into, then conform to without express agreement. A practical arrangement made for strangers. A requirement for large populations.

[9] Confronting the Constitution, pg. 71

[10] Technology pushes the carrying capacity of nature. In 1940, average US bushels of corn per acre was 40. Today it’s 150, at the expense of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, and the Great American Prairie. Once 370 million acres of natural habitat and its inhabitants, now 370 million acres of biodiversity desert. North America’s Serengeti lost in the length of one lifetime. Factory floor of an agri-planet and the greatest transformation of our natural world by mankind anywhere on earth. (I’m going to enjoy some of its produce for lunch today.) Like the physical limit to the number of transistors on a circuit chip, there’s a limit to how many bushels an acre can be forced to produce.

[11] See the remarkable and useful Taylor Series.

[12] Michael Shermer disagrees with Washington. In his Moral Arc he makes a case for religion producing the opposite of moral action. Scientific thinking and the Enlightenment, he claims, deserve most of the credit for advances in morality and justice, at least since they arrived.



May 7, 2018: America could never become a totalitarian State… Right?

When I was a boy, our home was divided by a sibling in the US Marine Corps and another in marches against the Vietnam War. Significantly younger than both, differences were a mystery to me. But I wasn’t the only one confused. As pressures grew, my parents tried to adjust, though not always sure to what. To many it was a mystery how the Heartland could find itself centered in a firestorm ignited by National Guard murders at Kent State, our university closed by riots and burned buildings. [1] But what was clear even then, and persists to this day, was that our close nit family was a casualty of hostile ideologies that hardened with time. That core of community, where I felt a sense of family belonging with its attendant meaning for the only period in my life, never recovered.

When Ronald Reagan arrived on the scene during my high school years, I was inspired to hear a public figure with a positive message. Finally, I thought, I can stop feeling bad about Vietnam. Whatever Reagan’s policies, irrelevant to a kid, I felt pride in my country instead of disgust. This was Reagan’s talent, the opposite of Trump. Which is not to say Trump’s rhetoric is always wrong.

Stepwise since Reagan, his GOP mutated into neoconservatives powered by Vice President Cheney’s corruption, then the forgotten austerity of an obstructionist Tea Party, and finally absolutist populism with a fondness for America’s enemy and murderer, the Dictator of Russia. [2] All the while as what economists Autor, Dorn, and Hanson label The China Shock inflicted “underestimated adjustment costs and distributional consequences.” [3] Translation: mass unemployment, dislocated families, and “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” as Trump rightly put it. [4] After Reagan, Republicans ceased to think creatively. [5] Intellectuals who could argue for conservative ideals from the perspective of reason have been vilified by their own Right as not visceral enough. Conservatism is in ruins, but for much bigger reasons than mere incompetence.

Each of these steps was a signal that Arnold Toynbee’s diagnosis was correct: “Civilizations disintegrate when leaders stop responding creatively, [sinking into] nationalism, militarism, and tyranny of a despotic minority… death by suicide…” [6] Because all civilizations are self-destructive. The boon and bane of our species — innovation — is what humans do. But technical and social innovations hurl civilizations apart as they struggle to hold themselves together. Society is a giant machine that humans build. It then acquires a power of its own. A kind of artificial intelligence of invisible hands that will strangle its maker. It takes creative thinkers with counter-innovations to save us from it. To adjust, when most aren’t sure to what.

This devolution of leadership has left the Right with no inspiration beyond their constant revival of evils committed by the Left as sanction for their own. Hence the refrain of Barack Obama (not in office), Hillary Clinton (she lost), and Bill Clinton (gone 18 years). The litany of largely imaginary crimes are the daily fodder of our Joseph Gobbles imitators. As Eric Hoffer showed, true believers first and foremost must deny reality or reinvent it to protect their fragile dogmas, which is all the Right has now. [7]

I’d prefer to label our newsworthy Right (and Left) as “fringe,” but the fringe has come to dominate America. Thank our Gobbles imitators; self-reinforcing echo chambers; internet amplification of otherwise unheard cranks; simplistic application of motivated-reason accepting only evidence that makes us feel better, and motivated-morality applying morality only to the other tribe. Add to this, structural flaws like Gerrymandering and primaries, both inciting the least reasoned / most radical to lead the way, and it’s no wonder America is rotting in absolutism laced with its many pathogens. [8]

Absolutism nurtures ignorance, because truth lowers the fever. Our propagandists have fortunes to make by boiling the blood to rally the troops. Inhaling this infected atmosphere produces a kind of delirium that’s easily steered with false promises of salvation. Among the most powerful is something I once had: belonging and its attendant meaning. As a disconnected nation of strangers, more than anything we yearn for belonging. In this Clan Age, absolutism offers an emotionally charged lure: Swear to the creed and your emptiness is filled with a simple act of free will. Choose well the new God.

All this has people asking, could America become a totalitarian state? Like the failed democracy of Athens, the failed Republic of Rome, or today’s Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, and The Philippines. As Freedom House reports, “For the 12th consecutive year freedom has declined, with 71 countries suffering… This democratic recession is global.” [9] Or as one Latin American so familiar with their many despots put it, “We’ve seen this movie before, just never in English.” [10] The legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues American authoritarianism has commenced. [11] Consider the dictatorial nature of Trump’s actions, or antics, cover up, and institutional assaults by Congressman Devin Nunes, Mike Conaway, Mark Meadows, and Jim Jordan. [12] Loyalists are in place. The propaganda arm well established.

Hannah Arendt recalled her own witness to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, when supporters of totalitarian regimes treated evidence “as non-facts…in line with the totalitarian contempt for facts and reality…” [13] This, and the rampant conspiracy theories she chronicles prepared the mental ground for action. Like Stalin’s Great Purge with millions of his own people murdered. “Post-factuality is pre-fascism,” writes Yale historian Timothy Snyder. [14] “When Mr. Trump calls journalists ‘enemies of the people,’ he’s quoting Joseph Stalin.” And trashing our Constitution his supporters pretend to love.

Absorbing the brunt of The China Shock and incompetent leadership, the Right’s anger is as understandable as the giddy thrill of Trump’s assault on political correctness. What’s not consistent is their moral conversion. The new God is not the old God.

Against Trump, one in four Christian evangelicals have been true to the moral teachings of Jesus, while 3 in 4 betray every major verse we know. [15] Trump’s supporters cheer at his pep rallies when he claims to hit back ten times harder, while Jesus counsels, “Turn the other cheek.” Trump and his sycophants blame everyone but himself for his own failings, rejecting “Pull the plank from your own eye first.” For Trump and his followers, only winning matters, no matter how shameful the means. But, “What good is it to win the world and lose your soul?” And while Trump and his propagandists share and defend his liar’s addiction, Jesus said, “Seek the truth to set you free.” [16] Such duplicity is all the more grotesque for the Right’s deception of their own Savior.

Does this make Trump’s Christian supporters, hypocrites? Not to them. For many, Trump is a “gift from God.” [17] Like Cyrus, King of Persia, who freed captured Jews from Babylon, Trump will free Christian conservatives from liberals. [18] King David was a beast too, but God used him as a tool for good. [19] (Recall, Paul condemned this notion as reprehensible. [20])

Similar excuses are given by the morally vacant Flight 93 Election, [21] and those many email viruses the Right bathes in, like the call to arms penned by Livermore, CA Mayor Dr. Marshall Kamena. [22] Except, of course, per usual, it was written by a Right-wing blogger with poor Kamena’s name attached. But never mind. It’s the ignition of emotions that matter, not truth. As Thomas Paine wrote, when a man so “prostitutes the chastity of his mind…he has prepared himself for commission of every other crime.” [23]

And yet, if a Trump supporting Christian could win a foot race and its million dollar prize for his church to feed the poor, would he cheat? Ride a horse, perhaps, drive a car? Isn’t winning for some greater good what matters? Do immoral means to moral ends pervert those ends? Is this why our Founders gave us the Constitution they did, because process is a moral matter?

So far, that Constitution has stopped Trump’s quest to cure his septic inferiority with dictatorial power. But can that document tame the passion of millions, called by their new idol and his media lairs to destroy the Founder’s creation? Will it be that immoral fraction of once moral Christians who betrayed their God and our Constitution that lead us to tyranny if it happens? If we American’s ever so fancied ourselves to believe this Republic could never become a totalitarian state, we now see how wrong that is.

America is in the grip of hostile ideologies, hardened with time. As the Right continues its tailspin, their yearning for authoritarianism rises. [24] But eras like this are educational tools. For history, for political philosophy, human psychology, and that all-inclusive topic, the rise and fall of civilizations. Which will it be?

Until next time, Monday July 2, 2018.

[1] Student Protests of the 1970s, Library News, University Of Iowa, 5/4/2010

[2] James Kirchick, How the GOP became the party of Putin, Brookings Institute, July 27, 2017

[3] David H. Autor, David Dorn, Gordon H. Hanson, The China Shock: Learning from Labor-Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade, Annu. Rev. Econ. 2016.8:205-240

[4] The Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017

[5] One example of Reagan’s creative thinking came out of his response to MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Instead of the assurance of destroying both sides in a nuclear exchange as a deterrent to war, why not seek to eliminate the threat through a defensive shield: his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Even still, pundits claim this was a failure. And yet, the remarkably successful anti-missile missile PAC-3 (in production and fielded for 20 years), and its follow-on THAAD are products of SDI. The PAC-3 scenario was said to be impossible because “It’s like hitting a bullet with a bullet.” Except bullets don’t travel nearly so fast, nor are they self-guided with pinpoint precision onboard radars. Reagan then leveraged SDI with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, resulting in a successful Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 at Geneva.

[6] Wikipedia: Arnold Toynebee

[7] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, January 19, 2010

[8] JONATHAN RAUCH, How American Politics Went Insane, Atlantic Monthly, JULY/AUGUST 2016

[9] STEWART PATRICK, Global democracy retreats as authoritarianism marches forth, The Hill, 03/04/18

[10] Gideon Rose, Is Democracy Dying, Foreign Affairs, pg. 8, May/June 2018

[11] Cass Sunstein, Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, Dey Street Books, 2018

[12] BRENT BUDOWSKY, Mueller marches on, while the House GOP covers up, The Hill, 3/13/18

[13] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt, pg. xxxii, 1985

[14] Timothy Snyder, Donald Trump and the New Dawn of Tyranny, TIME, March 3, 2017

[15] Not all Christian evangelicals support Trump. One in four do not. Some are vociferously opposed and practice the teachings they hold dear. Eric Sammons, Christians' Support For Trump Undermines Their Public Witness, The Federalist, October 12, 2016

Neil J. Young, Dear Evangelicals, A “Begrudging” Vote for Trump Is Still a Vote for Trump, Religion Dispatches, October 4, 2016 Russell Mooresept, Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?, New York Times, September 17, 2015

[16] Mathew 5:39, Mathew 7:5, Mark 8:36, John 8:32

[17] Wayne C. Anderson, Reader's view: Trump a temporary reprieve, gift from God, Duluth News Tribune, Jan 13, 2018

[18] Ed Kilgore, Bibi and the Christian Right Agree: Trump Is the New Cyrus the Great, New York Magazine, March 5, 2018

[19] DAVID FRENCH, Imagining Trump’s Evangelicals in King David’s Time, National Review, March 22, 2018

[20] Paul: Romans 3:8, Bible Hub

[21] Publius Decius Mus, The Flight 93 Election, CRB, September 5, 2016

[22] Publius Decius Mus, Democratic Livermore Mayor Marshall Kamena on Donald Trump, Snopes, November 22, 2017

[23] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, pg. 8, Prometheus Books, 1984 (1794)

[24] Charles Kaiser, Can it Happen Here? review: urgent studies in rise of authoritarian America, The Guardian, April 8, 2018 Thomas B. Edsall, The Contract With Authoritarianism, New York Times, April 5, 2018



March 5, 2018: The light, the power, the glory: kids. But can they save us?

During the close comet encounters of Hyakutake and Hale Bopp in 1996 and ‘97, I had the good fortune of working at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The word “work” I use here loosely for two reasons. There was nothing work-like about it, and the pay was $3.12/hour. [1] We on the staff labeled ourselves Griffith’s Volunteers, and we relished the mission — to teach.

Built in 1935 on funds bequeathed by Welsh-born industrialist, philanthropist, and attempted murderer (of his wife) Griffth J. Giffith (1850 – 1919), the Observatory is among the two most remarkable Los Angeles attractions including the Getty Museum. The reason Griffith attracts 1.5 million annual visitors is because it appeals to children. [2] More precisely, to child-like curiosity that resides in each of us if we give it a chance to breathe. Griffith Observatory provides the oxygen. When people discover the place you can see color return to their cheeks.

As “Telescope Demonstrator” I held the most coveted position. An endless talker, thrilled to excite others with science, I could not have found a better setting. The dark confines of a 60 foot diameter dome, punctuated by eerie red lights, a 200-inch streak of telescope lunged at the sky through a gash in the roof. A telescope more people have peered through than any other on earth, 8 million so far.

Both Hyakutake and Hale Bopp, were back-to-back once-in-a-century events. Even the national media descended when I found myself before PBS Newshour cameras. A three minute interview and address to crowds wrapped around the roof was boiled down to a five second sound bite. I called to the people and pointed at the sky, “That comet tail you see now is sixty times longer than a full moon is wide!” Eighteen hundred miles away in Iowa, my mother saw this with expectations a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was soon to follow.

Visitors set record attendance with up to 1500 per night through the dome. More could have passed, but it was hard for people to leave that small space once they glimpsed their place in the universe. The leading enthusiasts were children. It was kids who provoked adults to remember what it was like to wonder, be amazed, and thirst for more. Be they elderly, romantically obsessed, or gangs who strived to impress their brothers, I remember not one to leave without a sense of urgency. Like they’d just this instant, quite unexpectedly, discovered where the real stars were, and they wanted a piece of it.

Throughout the night I’d return from answering questions, sharing enthusiasm, or the regular wrestling match with Creationists to a reprise of my intro. “Tonight we travel back in time! We’ll do that because even at 186,000 miles per second – or one foot per nanosecond - it takes time for light to travel space. So you see me now as I was 10 or 20 nanoseconds ago. But 1500 light years that way is Orion Nebula. What you’ll see there, right now, happened about the time the Maya invented zero, Barbarians burned Rome, and Christianity became official in Constantinople. But in astronomical terms, Orion’s in your pocket. The universe is so big you can go back in time 14 billion years and not take a step. So come see the sky. It’s yours. Who else could it belong to? Now questions! I love questions.”

As adults hesitated, children raised their hands in unison like salutes to the sky. “Why is the moon round?” “How long would it take to walk to Jupiter?” “What do you put on a hotdog with mustard and onions?” This last question came from a shy four year old whose father responded to my laughter with, “You asked for questions. You didn’t tell him they had to be about astronomy.”

On one special occasion a small boy raised his hand. I bent my 6’2” frame over the little fellow to say, “A question! I love questions. What’s your question?”

“I know something about astronomy,” he said. And rattled off a series of facts as though read from a book.

“Wait. Stop,” I said. “Follow me.”

I walked to the center of the dome. I pointed at him, and then the space beside me. With a quick check of his mother he left her in line to take his station.

I turned to the crowd and said, “I have just been outdone by a five-year-old.”

“Five and one-half,” the boy said.

After the slightest pause, I responded, “Then five and one-half it is.”

“Am I going to be your helper?” he asked.

“No. You stay here. I’ll stand in line with your mom. You’re the astronomer. This is show town. This is your show. Take it away.”

I stood by his mother as he scanned a long line of people, many much larger than he. He said nothing. I shrugged and said, “We just want to know what you know. Go.”

And he did. With perfect enunciation, but so tenderly, people in the dome fell mute to listen. The only other sound was that quiet hum of German motors still turning their telescope 60 years on.

As he told his story about galaxies that eat each other, suns that blow up so hard they fall down, and stars so heavy a little bit weighs a lot, patrons huddled about him as though sustained by heat of some cosmic campfire. All as that 200-inch tube scooped light from other worlds with no eyes to catch them. That little boy was center of the universe. [3]

After three or four minutes he was done. He walked to his mother’s side. He held her hand for his turn up stairs to the eyepiece. An old woman began to clap. As the audience responded, he looked about to see what they were applauding for.

I shook my head, amazed at yet another of Griffith’s many wonders. In the most hedonistic environment on this planet and beneath that ovation I whispered to myself, “It’s not what you show, it’s what you know.”

I hope the remarkable curiosity of that little boy survived these last twenty-plus years. In that time America has cheated our young people through dogmatic doctrines and their necessary negligence. Creationists have long sought to invade science education with religion because they’re unsettled by the facts of nature, and fear skeptical thinking about their beliefs. As China builds its economy on science, Americans seek to “teach the controversy” between biological evolution and biblical creation. There is no controversy. Other than in the fertile imaginations of Creationists and their Intelligent Designers, yet to understand the first fundamental rule of science enunciated 2600 years ago by Thales: only natural causes allowed. Supernatural powers, miracles, and magic bear no testable predictions, provide no reasoned models of nature, and cannot be refuted. Try building telescopes, radios, or aircraft with that.

Likewise, we now find the science of manmade global warming off limits to parents who prefer their children conform to creeds defined by ideologues. States across the country are in another battle of the books to sanitize them of science. In Idaho’s battle, Representative Scott Syme recently said, “I don’t care if the students come up with a conclusion that the earth is flat – as long as it’s their conclusion, not something that’s told to them.” [4] Math and science demand independent verification and proofs by the student as standard practice. But barred from man-centuries of effort before us until every finding is personally validated would freeze all advance. I needn’t prove Newton’s calculus or mechanics to use both in engineering with accurate results. Syme would rather children be wrong than know the truth so long as they got the wrong answer on their own. Remember, Syme is a legislator of laws.

But math and science aren’t the only thing we’ve neglected to teach our young people. According to the Educational Commission of the States, only 17 US states are accountable for civics education. [5] Americans graduate high school with no understanding of self-governance. Is the Constitution superior to statue law; why are there individual rights to begin with; why are courts and the legal process so slow? So vacuous is our grasp of self-governance that in 2017 Newsweek reported a quarter of Millennials find democracy a bad or very bad form of government, a third support authoritarianism, one in six favor military rule. [6]

Simultaneously, an embarrassing fraction of campus students have been taught so little of history, philosophy, and the examination of ideas they’re terrified of adult issues easily defeated with open debate. They yearn for intellectual sanitation of “safe spaces” where they can hide from imagined “micro-aggressions” as they shed tears for cameras and university administrators petrified of violating politically correct McCarthyism.

Kids are one of the stellar powers in this universe. They’re born curious. It takes years of training to kill that. Now that we have, can they save us from what we did to them?

Until next time, the first Monday in May.

[1] I have my last check from Rick Tuttle, the Controller of the City of Los Angeles under glass on my desk for one hour at $3.12. Void after 2 years, I’ll not be able to cash it if times get tough.

[2] Griffith Observatory, Griffith Observatory. MISSION: Griffith Observatory inspires everyone to observe, ponder, and understand the sky.

[3] It is quite literally true, that little boy was the center of the universe as is every other location. So fond of this little fellow I was that I incorporated this real life experience into my first novel.

[4] Betsy Z. Russell, Rep. Syme: Don’t care if students conclude earth is flat - as long as it’s their own conclusion, The Spokesman Review, 2/1/18

[5] Jackie Zubrzycki, New 50-State Analysis: Most States Don't Include Civics in Accountability, Newsweek, 12/13/16

[6] REBECCA BURGESS, HAVE MILLENNIALS FALLEN OUT OF LOVE WITH DEMOCRACY? , Newsweek, 9/2/16



January 1, 2018: Why America’s anti-science movement is a moral matter: Part II, The Left

This time we look at the assault on science from America’s political Left, concluding with consideration of equivalence between Left and Right in this crusade.

Back in March with Part I of this post we looked at several aspects of America’s assault on science from our political Right. We saw the self-contradiction of denying scientific facts while dependent on them in our daily lives. Even broadcasting denials of science over radio built by it. We looked at the coupling between science and morality through their shared requirement for reason, linking these factors with democratic government. When science is rejected, reason goes with it. Without reason, morality is crippled and capacity for self-governance dependent on moral justice cannot last—the moral matter. “Scientific values of reason,” writes Michael Shermer, “are not the products of liberal democracy, but the producers of it.” [1] Science denial is not merely about defiance of the other Party, or lying in order to regain a sense of control over experts labeled as elites. The American Right does now what Islam did in the 11th century when they found rational thought a threat to the Koran. [2] That anti-rational movement won, and Islam lost their place as cultural light of the world for the last 700 years. Sometimes, social movements, no matter how apparently inane, destroy whole civilizations.

But America’s anti-science struggle didn’t start with the Right. It began with 1950s / 60s French academics on the Left who decided after two world wars that reason was to blame, and to be abandoned. With human senses near bottom in the animal world, how and by what means could the very tool that enabled our survival possibly be jettisoned? The answer came in their creation of postmodernism and the relativism it was based on. Michel Foucault argued that rationality was a coercive regime of oppression. Jacques Derrida sought a non-philosophical philosophy. And Jacques Lacan seized a bit of scientific cachet while debasing it with his declaration of equivalence between “the erectile organ and the square root of negative one.” [3]

Hmm.

But nonsensical ideas require protection. So like any fragile belief, quasi-supernatural powers had to be established to build a space free from rational challenge. As Ferry and Renaut write in their French Philosophy of the Sixties, this was done by “accustoming readers and listeners to the belief that incomprehensibility is a sign of greatness,…that the thinker’s silence before incongruous demands for meaning was not proof of weakness but indication of endurance in the presence of the Unsayable.” [4] Humans were to be freed “from any dependence on the concept of objective truth.” [5]

Once done, as David Stone’s critique is titled, Anything Goes. [6] And it did. Foucault claimed: 1) “There are no facts, only interpretations,” 2) what matters most is not what is said or written, but what is not, and who says it, and 3) with the help of Heidegger, the idea that any truth, “is at the same time and in itself a concealment.” [7] Recalling the argument of the cube which hides three sides no matter from where it’s viewed. Analogous in its violation of physical laws and common sense in the question, “If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?” With previous examination, we needn’t simultaneously see the cube’s other sides to know what’s there.

Of course there’s an element of truth in all three of Foucault’s attempts to relativize reason, but in the hands of absolutism, “the democratic project,” writes Ferry and Renaut, is reframed as “ideology…or metaphysical illusion.” [8] Eventually, not only were postmodernists to expunge rational thought, logic, and science, but all Western “bigotries,” including Western traditions, philosophy, religion, and history. Particular hostility was harbored for the majority, as we recall the US Constitution strives to tame its potential ills, but seen by postmodernists as an innate evil. Instead, they favored a “tyranny of the minority,” victims of a majority, real or imagined.

While this movement colonized American universities in the 60s, it seems to have become significant or dominant in sectors of the humanities by the early ‘90s when Marxism’s flaws finally doomed it as a useful ideology against the West. By 1996 Lawrence Levine could brag that Berkeley reversed white student populations from 68% in 1974 to 37% by 1994, while 75% of America was white at that time. [9] Racism as racism’s cure. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. elaborates in his Disuniting of America this new mindset lauds a redefinition of multiculturalism with its preservation of ethnic identity, hostile to the old idea of a melting pot. [10] Where dignity becomes a posture of opposition and self-segregation. From the beachhead of our universities these ideas spread to achieve what in part the Klan failed at after a century of intimidation. Since all movements are counter-movements we shouldn’t be surprised to find a majority of US conservatives now view college education as a national threat. [11]

To show how much venom the Left has specifically for science and scientists, consider one example from scores in academia, the award winning UCLA feminist theorist, Sandra Harding. In her popular university Women’s Studies text she writes, “The best scientific activity and thinking about science are modeled on men’s most misogynistic relations to women—rape, torture, [and] choosing mistresses.” [12] For Harding the equations of Newton and Einstein—F=ma, E=mc2—are gender-laden sexism. [13] Echoing Right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s “wizards of smart,” Harding dismisses “practices of science [as]…sacred commandments.” [14] But if this were so, those cell phones, TVs, ships, satellites, and vaccines wouldn’t work as science predicts they will. One wonders if Harding has access to the fruits of science in her daily drive, work, and healthcare. Like Creationists to Harding’s right, she wants a science indifferent to the way nature really is, exchanged for a creed to make her feel better. And for Harding’s support? “Mainstream thinkers,” she writes, like “Derrida, Foucault, Lacan...” [15] In the end, Harding demands science conform to political, social, and gender-based passions (forget realities of nature) to forge a masculine-free “feminist science,” through what she calls “a painful world-shattering confrontation.” [16] It has a familiar ring.

Like Nazi Science made free of Jews. [17] Stalin’s Proletariat Science that led to Mao’s Great Leap Forward, starving 30-40 million people. And Islamic Science, where Pervez Hoodbhoy reports, papers are “accepted for the Scientific Miracles Conference…of the International Islamic University at Islamabad for their theological correctness.” [18] We won’t build working devices with that, or solve global warming, or combat next year’s flu strain, any more than we would with Harding’s feminist science. There is but one science, revealed in the book of nature. And just as we see on the Right, when science is ditched, reason and morality dependent on it, go down with it.

Christina Hoff Sommers documents one thread of this in The War Against Boys. [19] Sommers showed how irrational dogmas become government policies wrecking human lives when she investigated the Women’s Education Equity Act (WEEA) Publishing Center. With $70 million in tax payer funds, this almost 20 yearlong effort pushed postmodernist policy to education departments across the country. [20] Its critical need was enunciated by then director Katherine Hanson when she claimed that in the US alone: Every year nearly four million women are beaten to death; violence is the leading cause of death among women; the leading perpetrators are men at home. [21] Numbers used to prod policy makers to take action against the dangerous nature of boys in school.

But instead of pathologizing boys, a bit of the scientific method and simple math could have avoided a lot of wasted money and terrorized children. Divide 4 million by 365 days in a year and that’s almost 11,000 murders per day in just one country. Based on Hanson’s claim, as of 2014 with 125.9 million women in the US, almost none of them would exist. And as reality would have it, in the year she divined these numbers, heart disease was the leading cause of female death (370,000), followed by cancer (250,000). According to the FBI, the number of female victims of homicide that year was 3,631. [22] Without question a tragic number, but short of 4 million by a multiplicative factor of over 1000.

Such anti-rationalist, anti-science doctrines in their varied forms are taught as Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, branches of literary criticism, philosophy, and revisionist history in university humanities departments across this country. Their credibility garnered from campus proximity to science and engineering where they actually test claims against reality, unprotected by pseudo-religious rules of political correctness. For postmodernist liberals, application of critical reason to their self-contradictions is defended against through accusations of insensitivity. Harding explicitly makes this point, as do campus speech-code-supporting students unprepared for exposure to adult life. Thus creating another victim with, as Bertrand Russell noted, “superior virtue of the oppressed.” One dare not challenge that, like they dare not challenge “the Lord thy God.” [23]

Hence the French root of postmodernism, and its upkeep in America as politically correct McCarthyism. This movement is largely why less than half of the American electorate voted for a well-known thief, draft-dodger, and want-to-be despot for 2016 president, as a counter-movement. They hated the Left more than they feared betrayal of their beliefs. And doing so has revealed the Right’s embrace of Foucault’s ideas that helped build our modern Left. Administration advisor Kellyanne Conway’s now infamous remark that lies are “alternative facts” is a restatement of Foucault’s first point. Foucault’s second, with truth-as-concealment, feeds the Right-wing’s conspiracy fetish and propaganda machine. While both sides by default dismiss the other thanks to Foucault’s prioritization of who makes any truth claim. Little did our modern Right realize how liberal (and 11th century Islamic) they are.

So, who’s more radically anti-science, anti-reason, and thus morally compromised, the Right, or the Left’s intellectually sounding assault on the West? It’s a close contest. Considering the current status of our Culture Wars, I wonder if the Left can see the cost of their assault on science and reason now?

Until next time. The first Monday in March, the 5th, 2018.

[1] Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science Alex Humanity to Truth Justice and Freedom, Henry Holt and Co, 2015, pg. 135

[2] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle For Rationality, Zed, 1991

[3] Sokal & Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectual’s Abuse of Science,, Picador, 1998, pg. 27, the quote shown is a truncated summary

[4] Ferry & Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pg. 14

[5] Sokal & Bricmont, pg. 234

[6] David Stone, Anything Goes, Origins of the Cult of Scientific Irrationalism, Macleay Press, 1998

[7] Madsen & Madsen, 1990, Science & Culture, 56, pg. 471-472, appearing in Sokal & Bricmont, pg. 234. From the Sokal’s hoax itself, making his successful attempt to be published in one of the premier sociological journals by imitating their gibberish.

[8] Ferry & Renaut, pg. xvi

[9] Lawrence Levine, Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History, Beacon, 1996, pg. xviii

[10] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, Norton, 1992, pg. 16, 43, 80, 92, 116, 118.

[11] Chris Riotta, Majority of Republicans Say Colleges Are Bad For America (Yes, Really), Newsweek, 7/10/2017

[12] Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Cornell University Press, 1986, pg. 112

[13] ibid pg. 42

[14] ibid pg. 39. And as this weren’t bad enough, “Those wedded to empiricism,” claims Harding, “will be loath to commit…that the social identity of the observer [makes a difference] in research results.” Pg. 26 Imagine observers making different numeric measurements based on their social identity.

[15] ibid pg. 27

[16] ibid pg. 39

[17] Wikipedia, Deutsche Physik

[18] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle For Rationality, Zed, 1991, pg. 180. Italics added.

[19] Christina Hoff Sommers, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, Touchstone Simon & Shuster, 2000

[20] WEEA funding http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/Biennial/125.html

[21] Sommers pg. 48

[22] ibid pg. 49

[23] Exodus 20:2



November 6, 2017: Down in the dark, beneath the American psyche, some of it’s not so bad

In the September 18 issue of New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan asks what it must be like to live in a tribal society like Syria, Iraq, or the Balkans where the smallest difference defines friend or foe. [1] But we already know, he claims, as we live in America. Where the 18th century hope was that emotion could be defeated by reason, and deep divides “bridged by a culture of compromise,” he writes. For Sullivan we have regressed to more primitive origins of our evolution. “Tribalism, it’s worth remembering,” Sullivan notes, “is not one aspect of human experience. It’s the default human experience.”

Sullivan maintains this wasn’t a problem, until recently. “Tribalism only destabilizes a democracy… when it rivals our attachment to the nation as a whole; when it turns rival tribes into enemies.” It’s also easy. “One of the great attractions of tribalism, is that you don’t actually have to think very much. All you need to know on any given subject is which side you’re on.” A condition that Animal Farm and 1984 author George Orwell characterized as a propensity for self-contradiction and indifference to reality. [2]

Today, American tribes are much more about “what we stand against,” than “what we stand for.” As a naturally superstitious species, our polarization is accentuated by a conspiracy theory mindset nurtured by the internet. As Walter Quattrociocch notes, this mindset is a kind of “quasi-religious mentality.” Where we again occupy a mental space, “a bit like the dawn of humanity, when people attributed divinity to storms.” What he characterizes as our Age of Credulity. [3] Fodder for tribes.

In an On Being podcast, The Righteous Mind author, Jonathan Haidt takes the tribal notion a step deeper into the realm of Richard Dawkin’s selfish gene. [4] But with one of two expressions, each having been essential for human survival. Elsewhere differentiated by selection of individual traits favored by Dawkins, or selection of community traits as offered by E. O. Wilson (much to Dawkins’ irritation). For Haidt, liberal or conservative is a function of one or the other of these encoded behaviors. Haidt has even revealed two of their most defining differences with simple tests of imagery. When viewing dots on a screen, his conservative subjects preferred the dots be cast in an orderly fashion. Liberals preferred a variety of distributions. Order for them, it seemed, was equivalent to confinement, hierarchy, and potential abuse of authority.

For Haidt, the more freedom and prosperity people have with markets that cater to wants, including bias-reinforcing media echo chambers, the more our two personality traits will be self-segregated like some chemical distillate. “So progress,” host Krista Tippet remarked, “leads to incivility.” Haidt’s hope for remediation is a revival of civics education on America’s long history of Left and Right with the pairings each is most concerned with: order or reform; stability or change; belonging or autonomy; freedom or equality; responsibility or rights. Having abandoned civics education, these are mysteries of the dark arts in America.

From the same classical-liberal camp of Europe’s Enlightenment, these competing priorities became hostile thanks to divisions created by the 1789 French Revolution. Which allows for an interesting implication: that America’s culture wars are the extension of a 220 year conflict without (fortunately) a winner. Such are the implications of Yuval Levin’s Great Debate: Edmond Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. Per Levin, “If political ideas are applications of philosophical ideas—of some understanding of what is true and good in life—then serious political debates must be rooted in different philosophical assumptions.” [5] Arguments between Burke and Paine that set our modern stage were about the priorities those assumptions warrant. Balance was and remains the hard part. Too much order is authoritarian. Too much change is destabilizing.

While Paine courses through my blood, I found Burke more convincing. Burke is not opposed to reform, but to save tradition he wants change to be gradual. A pace the community psyche can absorb over slow time so as not to threaten personal bonds. Society for Burke is about people living with others, indebted and responsible, not demanding and entitled. Society has been a centuries-long experiment to find the best way to live. (See the evolution of law commencing with Ur Nammu 2100 BC.) For Burke, we should not dispose of that learning for a return to square one based on some abstract proto-society of the individual alone in a hostile wilderness that Paine was so enamored with.

But if we’re to reference the earliest living state as “natural man” from which to extrapolate society, as Paine seeks to do, then based on what we now know, isn’t the first proto-society mother and child? Before Hobbes, Locke, and Paine were individuals in a struggle with nature, they were utterly dependent on mother for survival. To the infant, she must be something like God, providing not only sustenance for the body, but some form of meaning through the infant’s own value reflected from the mother. Does this fundamental arrangement lead the growing child to a sense of entitlement and rights, or debt and responsibility? With foreknowledge that individualism’s evolution would lead to the former, and a stronger view of indebtedness, our Founders would have given us a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

While Burke is too tolerant of transgressions by those in power, Paine is anything but. And not without cause. Paine’s witness to corrupt power makes justice and equality his central concern with perpetual reform a requirement of moral societies. If government fails to be the guardian of rights, Paine’s urge is to burn it down, reboot from that time before social relations and hierarchies. As though such a clean slate could exist in reality without a multitude of leftover alliances. Paine seeks to apply the scientific method to civilization, but it can seem like a surrogate for an axe to grind. Like the scientist’s mathematical model, idealized by perfect spheres and unperturbed parabolas, in the field he finds his model an approximation. A myriad of unmodeled phenomena from the winds of change to irrational human behavior yield a different answer. While the scientist adds those phenomena for a more precise solution, Paine seems little concerned for lessons learned that Burke would rather preserve. Both sides have valid arguments, and each goes too far. But we’re better for having both than only one or the other.

And richer still for the great debates between Plato and Aristotle over many of the same Western dichotomies. While this ancient duo roams over wider terrain and they crisscross with Burke and Paine, their disputes elucidate “what is true and good in life.” Their philosophical ideas converted to application as politics were the West’s first contest between pairs of opposing priorities for the same cause: the best way to live.

In Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light we find Plato’s Republic “…is all about raising that collective order to the highest… [making] the individual’s health and happiness dependent on the larger political community.” [6] Like Burke, “Plato’s philosophy looks constantly backward, to what we were, or what we’ve lost…” While, like Paine, Aristotle’s is “a philosophy of aspiration.” “Steadily looking forward, to what we can be rather than what we were.” [7]

And yet, for Plato, now crossing paths with Paine, our existence is a cave of illusions to be escaped from for higher principles. Plato’s politics was a quest for “a foundation more elevated and certain than custom, public opinion, and majority rule.” [8] But for Aristotle the pragmatist, as for Burke, what’s so bad about the cave? It’s what we have, where we are, in the here and now that matters most. Let’s work with that.

For over 2000 years the West has debated what is true and good in life, and ultimately from this, speculations about the best way to live. I’m struck by the repeating theme of duality, and I wonder, is this an inflection of the old mind-body problem? And is the mother and child its first biological expression? What the body needs as material; what the mind needs as meaning.

Fundamentally different, the two require different things. Our bodies are in constant competition with the world outside, or think they are. Our genes don’t know there’s another meal in four hours, they want to gorge. Hence, America’s obesity epidemic. Our body’s concern is with the material world. But the mind has other worries. Especially once age and experience with The Great Reality is recognized for what it is. When despite our myriad of distractions it finally dawns on us that each is biodegradable. Who wants an early start in the recycle? As pastor Forest Church once said, religions are a result “Of being alive and having to die.” [9] Our mind knows this and demands a solution. Competition between the material world with existential realities, clouded by hormones, and tamed by age is bound to have different outcomes for different people over time, and thus, which tribe they swear by. While America’s current, perhaps permanent political vulgarities could convert the Pope to a nihilist, fortunately, we have the treasures of Plato, Aristotle, Burke, and Paine. Down in the dark, beneath the American psyche where foundations of substance lie, some of it’s not so bad.

Until next time, Monday, January 1, 2018

[1] Andrew Sullivan, America Wasn’t Built for HumansSeptember 18, 2017, New York Magazine

[2] On Being

[3] George Orwell

[4] Walter Quattrociocch, Inside The Echo Chamber, Scientific American, April 2017

[5] Yuval Levin, Great Debate: Edmond Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Basic Books, 2014, pg. 43

[6] Arthur Herman The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, Random House, 2014, pg. 62

[7] ibid pg. 52

[8] ibid pg. 28

[9] Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas, Doubleday, 1989



September 4, 2017: Has America become a nation of liars? [1]

In Kurt Anderson's September 2017 Atlantic article, How America Lost Its Mind, he argues that 1960s Postmodernist relativism served as an assault on conservatives who did not view their religion, traditions, and values as mere subjectivity. [2] Anderson writes, "…by the 1970s [Michel Foucault] was arguing that rationality itself is a coercive 'regime of truth'—oppression by other means." [3] Coupled with what Anderson calls ultra-individualism this became pick-your-own-reality and morality. This relativism also served as training-by-example for Right-wing "alternative facts" used to disempower what they view as liberal elites in science, academia, government, and the press. A construction of the Left which years later would invite Rush Limbaugh, global warming denial, and the Creationism of Intelligent Design from the Right. In a society where so many feel they have lost control, lies are one way to get it back.

Stuart Rachels wrote, "Moral thinking begins when we try to see things as they are… Morality is the effort to guide one's conduct by reason." [4] But relativism dismisses "things as they are" as unknowable, in proximity with convictions based on claims to truth. I.e. dangerous, allowing judgment and thus discrimination between good and bad. Compare relativism's dismissal of social judgment from the Left with our Right-wing's dismissal of science. [5] With alternative facts, otherwise known as lies, conservatives feel they've thrown relativism back in the face of liberals. Ironically, with tools of Enlightenment reason the Postmodernist Left warped reason, while soaked in technology we approach a pre-Enlightenment Middle Ages mindset through imitation of the Left by the Right. [6]

Per Rachels' warning, crippled moral standards release restrictions on immorality. As Anderson's article implies, this topic has become something of an American obsession. My own observations of this trend began early. Part "loss of innocence," part witness to history, my starting point commenced with parents who were products of the Great Depression and WWII. Born late I was raised like an only child. Well cared for, never hungry, I wanted for little.

At ninety-one, my mother still recalls her embarrassment among other girls at school when each day she revealed the quarter stick of butter for lunch her mother wrapped in newspaper that morning. The sole provision all eight children in her home received after a stale slice of bread with coffee poured over it for breakfast. Yet about the same age in my own life I was convinced the reason I received what I did was because I deserved it.

One evening as a 4 year old I stood in the checkout line behind my mother at the local grocer as she and the clerk made small talk. Loitering, I spied 1 cent Tootsie Rolls displayed quite obviously for me. I casually inspected the most desirable of these identical treats and put five in my pocket. Back home I presented my gift to the family: one Tootsie for each. After the inquisition I was marched to convene with the grocer's manager. He hovered above me. Head down, I thrust out that tiny hand I had then to expose five kidnap victims as proof of my crime. I cried and apologized before an audience of shoppers. Unsure of further consequences, I begged the punishment not be too severe. Not merely at bedtime, but before the Lord himself in his house I had work to do at church on Sunday—pray for forgiveness.

So it was I received my first lesson that I was not deserving, but lucky. Lucky my parents had the hardships they had without having them myself. As Chantel Delsol wrote, "A people are made by hardship. They are also made by its absence." [7] Hardship provides moral perspective, a kind of conscience fetched from suffering that is anything but relative. When it comes to morality, abundance can be a curse. Such are the teachings of Buddha and Jesus.

My parent's pointed me toward what the word morality meant. Such lessons notified me of a standard. They instilled a trust of others, high expectations of their moral stance, and mine. Except for the occasional typically-boy fistfight, I remained under this impression well into adulthood. I'm grateful for that upbringing. I consider it healthy, wholesome, and entirely naïve for the America we live in now.

One adult lesson came from a woman with no higher education. It was from her I formally recognized motivated-morality. Wrongs done by her, her friends, family, or political party were excused. Only other tribes received moral judgment. Values were a matter of utility. After she had an affair with a married man, which she held not to be adultery (she too was married), I severed ties and never saw her again. She was a Christian woman. The kind of Christian with four-square-gospel jubilation for every word of Christ, and paradoxically, the Ten Commandments. By then, I'd left the faith unable to square the Bible's self-contradiction of love and slaughter in violation of its own morality.

My second adult tutorial came from a man I worked with, educated to the highest level with a PhD. He was not a religious man. Our field is one in which the peer review process makes mistakes public, and not infrequently, embarrassing. This man recast those public embarrassments as conquests. He'd then wait to see if I would endorse his lies to patch his ego and satisfy his required loyalty. For a time I practiced diversion. I changed the subject or complemented something else he did. I began to question my own morality in exchange for peace. The work was fascinating, surroundings like an idealized Lyceum, the minds of others in our group, exceptional. But one by one they peeled away because they knew something I didn't: rarely are we faced with big events to reveal our moral fiber. Minor transgressions are portentous. Midway among the exodus, jolted by external events, I quit, and moved to California. Years later I heard of an international scandal that made front page news of the Houston Chronicle, centered on the man and place I left behind as it imploded.

About this time Bill Clinton was lying about his sexual escapades to a Grand Jury and inquiring about the definition of "is." Truth revealed, followers rallied: "We all make mistakes," "Bill and Monica are in love," "But he's our first feminist president." More irony, and motivated-morality as Senator Packwood from the other party was pursued for his own infidelities. Intensified by my experience I recoiled from these people and their excusers. Immorality and its supporting lies were not confined to my small arena, but played on a national stage.

Then came Iraq. I was back in Texas, part of a research group headed by one of the most devout, moral, honest, and truly good men I've ever known. But nationally, lie leaders spun a willfully complicit public, yearning for retribution after the 9/11 terrorist attack. [8] Working for the world's largest defense contractor I was staggered at how many of the most educated people on earth refused to see blatant violations of reason in our march for Saddam. I made it my duty to correct them. Furious and outspoken I felt the need to tell my supervisor I was not a security risk, and did. All this culminated in a realization that childhood lessons were compromised. Not recognizing I had one, I divorced my tribe and stopped lying for it. [9] Evolving fantasies from 500 tons of invisible yellow cake uranium to WMDs never found before or after the ruse were a crash course in worldwide lying, and most Americans embraced it. Then, we gave birth to ISIS, doomed 4500 US troops, 150,000 Iraqis, $2T, and with zero connection to 9/11, Saddam Hussein, a favor for Osama bin Laden who'd been hoping to kill him for years. [10] The power of lies.

Now, fueled by political correctness, valid populist anger perverted by talk-radio propagandists, and horrid political opposition, 63 million Americans preferred a lifelong liar and thief for what historian Tom Ricks notes as, "certainly the worst president in America history." [11] After seven months of Trump's attacks on the Constitution his followers claim to love, the stench of Russian money laundering, Trump's vulgarity, ignorance, incompetence, and clear mental derangement, who are his most ardent supporters? Three quarters of Christian evangelicals who cheer when Trump hits back "ten times harder;" who relish Trump's caustic blame of others for his own failures; who endorse his lies in order to patch his fragile ego, parading their loyalty because only winning matters. [12] And yet their Savior urged to "turn the other cheek," [13] "pull the plank from your own eye first," [14] and "the truth will set you free," [15] not the lie, nor the liar. Such people failed to ask if Jesus would embrace such an unrepentant beast. Another adulterer, like Bill Clinton whom these people despise for his adultery.

Before our evolution of relativism, lies, and immorality, the presidency came with expectations of moral character. [16] But Trump was never required to return what he'd stolen. [17] With his mental perversions born to excess, our own Caligula has no moral bearing. [18] Nor does his cult, applying motivated-morality only to others. And it's these people, not Trump, who matter most. We've seen to what ends Trump will go to mend his bottomless complex of inferiority. When Trump is impeached or expunged by the 25th, will this minority whom Trump schools at his rallies retain any decency? If, after impeachment, to hoist his ego Trump makes a call to arms under guise of 2nd Amendment protection from tyranny, will they? History shows, zealot minorities trigger revolutions.

With these examples spanning the political spectrum, the gamut of education, gender, class, believers and non-believers, I ask the obvious question: Has America become a nation of liars?

Of course there are millions of Americans who strive to live honest and moral lives. Among the many examples of courage and compassion as I write this, my friend in Houston tries to rescue dogs trapped by hurricane Harvey. While simultaneously from my radio Rush Limbaugh establishes the day's false premise: humans don't create hurricanes (ignoring exacerbation), thus any association of Harvey’s record rainfall with the global warming hoax is also a hoax. Conflating storm category with rainfall, Harvey "is not unprecedented," he says. "Everything in America’s been politicized, folks." [19] (Harvey beat the old record by 4".) Liars make every circumstance conform to their distorted morality.

Until next time, the first Monday in November, the 6th.

[1] Such a question demands the question, Does this apply to the claimant?

[2]Kurt Anderson, How America Lost Its Mind, The Atlantic Monthly, September, 2017

[3] Relativism might be said to begin with David Hume (1711-1776) who claimed that "reason is slave to passions." A fact that apparently did not apply to him.

[4] Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th Ed. McGraw Hill, 2010

[5] Brett Williams, Why America’s anti-science is a moral matter. Part I: The Right, March 6, 2017

[6] Of course, rejection of reason is selective for both sides, depending on convenience and party creed.

[7] Chantal Delsol Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World, ISI Books, 2003

[8] For a fascinating tour of Iraq War immorality, see PBS FRONTINE, The Secret History of Isis. Corrupted mostly by Vice President Dick Cheney, the scandal took a large step when Cheney swapped a CIA report destined for Collin Powell's UN speech with a fabricated report more incendiary. CIA consensus was that Saddam Hussein had no connection to Al Zarkawi in Iraq whom Osama bin Laden himself disavowed. What Powel read instead was the lie that Saddam and Al-Zarkawi-as-Al-Queda were affiliated, 21 times. As Treasury Secretary and required security meeting attendant Paul O’Neil said, "Taking down Saddam was Topic A ten days after inauguration." CBS News, Bush Sought 'Way' to Invade Iraq, Jan 9, 2004. As the Al Queda connection frayed the mission became to cleanse Iraq of WMDs. But if we wanted to remove such weapons, why not pay a visit to China, Russia, India, Pakistan, or Israel? One: because they can fight back. Two: because that was not Topic A. All to compensate for the humiliation of a desert tribe’s success against the world’s superpower.

[9] As noted in a previous post, my work and its search for truth in nature was the backdrop. Iraq was in the foreground.

[10] Daniel Benjamin, Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda Are Not Allies, September, 30, 2002

[11] On Point with Tom Ashbrook, A Historical Perspective On Trump's White House, August 26, 2017

[12] Not all Christian evangelicals support Trump. One in four do not. Some are vociferously opposed and practice the teachings they hold dear. Eric Sammons, Christians' Support For Trump Undermines Their Public Witness, The Federalist, October 12, 2016

Neil J. Young, Dear Evangelicals, A “Begrudging” Vote for Trump Is Still a Vote for Trump, Religion Dispatches, October 4, 2016 Russell Mooresept, Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?, New York Times, September 17, 2015

[13] Mathew 5:39

[14] Mathew 7:5

[15] John 8:32

[16] With five Vietnam deferments, Trump claims to have been a "brave soldier" in his "personal Vietnam" for not acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. He now awards the Medal of Honor.

[17] Except, so far as we know, $25M returned to students defrauded by his Trump University. For which he remarked, "I got a great deal." Either he did and thus defrauded more money than he lost, or this is it another of his automatic lies to patch his inferiority complex. See more here.

[18] Nicholas Kristof, There Once Was Great Nation With an Unstable Leader, August 26, 2017. People Magazine, Trump Boasted of Avoiding STDs While Dating: Vaginas Are 'Landmines … It Is My Personal Vietnam', October 28, 2016

[19] Rush Limbaugh, Monday August 28, 2017. Notice how Limbaugh conflates storm category 4, which the 1900 Galveston hurricane reached, as have others, in order to say there's no global warming influence on Harvey. Hurricane category is defined by wind speed, not rainfall. Harvey is the current record. Galveston is not in the top 10 Texas hurricane rainfall maximums.



July 3, 2017: I just can't shake that dual nature thing

Sometimes, like today, I ask myself, "Did I do the right thing?" My cats and dogs now own me. My house and yard enslave me. Hundreds of books call me day and night from the shelves for attention. Before that thing happened, I let these matters go. While pressed by schedules, rushed by deadlines, comrades rang my home office to ask, "Does that design work, or not?"

I had excuses for an unkempt house, an unmowed lawn, and why I failed to give Scooby and Tiger their walk as they sat side by side staring at me. And just for emphasis, Cooty, the cat who managed house affairs, sat behind them, adding a pair of eyes to the plea. But I was busy being responsible. They wanted daddy to make money for food and treats, "Right, kitty, kitty?"

But then, a few years ago, that thing happened. It was a decision. Some neurons in my head activated somehow. They began to form new connections, and all sorts of biochemical things commenced that I've yet to read about. This lead to new networks that generated new ideas, and those ideas stimulated emotions, and those emotions told my body to start moving in the outside world.

Now, I'm not so sure those neurons are really my own, but whoever they belong to, here's what they said, "Leave a good paying, highly respected position, where you know and enjoy what you're doing, and go do things that pay nothing, garner no respect, where you know very little." As a founder of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky, once said, "Its so thrilling not to know how to do something." My neurons reminded me of that. And so it was, from this strange sequence of events I left my career behind to make time for one of the most impractical endeavors to the American mind: the pursuit of art and the humanities.

What?

Why?

For one, art and science share the same transcendent experience. On those deep dives into reality when its laws become murky, one is filled with anticipation. Until those neurons link, and you're plugged directly into nature. It's electric. Ditto for art. For me it's painting, writing, and studies in history with the philosophy that attends it, as well written books are obviously fine art. Each time I hit that brush stroke that works, craft a line of my own that says it all, or discover history I never knew in a book, I want to jump to the window and shout to the neighbors, "Did you see that?"

"Art," Picasso said, "is the lie that tells the truth." About us. That's why myths work, great paintings, music, novels, sculpture, and high poetry that rhymes, like Pushkin. [1] Science is the avenue to Truth in nature. Art, the avenue to Truth in humans. And that's the other reason I decided to pursue it. It's that nature, human nature, that I decided to focus on because it's so murky, and odd, I can't stop staring at it, filled with anticipation, in wait of that connection that explains us.

At the heart of our oddity is this dual nature thing we pondered last time. Remember E.O. Wilson's hypothesis, that we evolved through natural selection of individual survival traits, and group (community) survival traits. If true, selfishness and selflessness are woven together in the genes.

This dichotomy in humans is reminiscent, only by analogy, of another in physics: wave particle duality in the atomic world. [2] Wave particle duality can be demonstrated by a common college experiment. Cut open two slits in an opaque card. Let the card intercept a laser beam so dim that just one photon of light at a time passes through the slits. Beyond the card place a photodiode array that clicks each time a photon strikes. Let this go on for a while and what shows up on the array? A pattern created by interfering waves. Like the interference of waves off the bow of two boats (like two slits in the card). If their wave peaks meet in phase, they produce a "freak" wave, added together, twice as big. If they meet out of phase, they subtract and flatten the water's surface. Yet the photodiode clicked each time a photon hit. It's a particle. But if so, how can an individual photon interfere with itself from the other slit as though it were a wave? Doesn't it have to pick one slit or the other to pass through? Dual nature in the quantum world-kooky. Like humans are kooky.

Through human history we see civilizations emphasize one component of human nature or the other, then battle back and forth between the two. The ancient Hebrews chose a stern and ridged spirituality that fostered belonging and survival in a harsh desert surrounded by hostile powers. At the same time, in their own rocky terrain, Greeks lavished their monuments with nude statues, worshiped the power of mathematics, and threatened their own belonging with philosophy that never stops asking if what we think is true is true. To the Hebrews, dogma was to be obeyed. For the Greeks, dogma was to be challenged. The problem of Athens and Jerusalem. Violent collisions of these outlooks are a repeating theme in history. We see this dual nature today in America's hyper-polarization: Belongers vs. individualists. Believers vs. skeptics. Decisive-seat-of-the-pants-no-nonsense-doers vs. experts.

Michael Shermer and Chantal Delsol-whom we met last time-demonstrate this concerning that fundamental element of Western political philosophy, individual rights. "The Rights Revolution of the past three centuries," writes Shermer, "have focused almost entirely on the freedom of individuals, not collectives... The first principle of survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that the discrete organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group... This drive to survive...and therefore freedom to pursue the fulfillment of that essence is a natural right." [3] While for Delsol, "We suffer from the illusion that democracy's destiny will be fulfilled if we apply its mechanisms on the widest scale possible. We cling to the illusion that this will happen if we expand its founding principles to the utmost...with no exceptions and no limitations, convinced any expansion of rights corresponds to progress." While religious man held each moment of this life as a mold for the next, ideological man thought his work for a "radiant future symbolically inscribed his acts...in an immortal future society," says Delsol. "Contemporary man no longer has at his disposal anything more than his own limited existence, of which his death constitutes the absolute end, not only biologically, but spiritually, socially, symbolically." [4]

I absolutely, positively agree with...

Both.

Central to political philosophy (which is what this blog is supposed to be about) stands the question, What is the right way for humans to live so we might flourish, as Aristotle urged. Two thousand years later with the same concern for our dual nature in mind, Alexander Hamilton asked if societies are capable of "establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend...on accident and force." [5] And still we don't know.

So on days like today, I wonder, should I have stayed with rocket science where problems are easy? Is the study of art and the humanities really going to help answer deeper questions about humans? Maybe that was a rogue neuron.

Until next time. The first Monday of September, the 4th, 2017.

[1] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975

Rhyme, says Polanyi, is the intentional separation of words from their factual use in information exchange, converted by rhyme to a transcendent state, toward that of music and myth. While modern poetry is a short story read in staccato cadence.

[2] Despite wild claims and fortunes made by Deepak Chopra, but for devices made from quantum laws, they apply only to the quantum world.

[3] Michael Shermer Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, And Freedom, Holt and Company, 2015, pg.12-13

[4] Chantal Delsol Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World, ISI Books, 2003> pg. 121, 176

[5] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, #1, Random House Modern Library, (1787-1788), pg. 3



May 1, 2017: Shermer vs. Delsol, Liberation or Dispossession?

Rather than continue the examination of moral implications from America's anti-science movement, this time from the Left, I decided to first consider two books stark in their opposition. Their focus is one of two paramount issues of our age: the status of the human condition. Of course this reflects every human endeavor, including that other great issue: planetary assault causing earth's sixth great extinction now underway thanks to human overpopulation, myself included. [1] The books are Michael Shermer's The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, and Chantal Delsol's Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World. [2] This post serves merely as an introduction to their thought.

Though a very approximate summation, Shermer sees the world materially, practically, quantifiably, like Aristotle. Delsol sees the world spiritually, existentially, qualitatively, like Plato. While Shermer pays lip-service to community, to him we're a species of individuals. For Delsol this outlook comes with negative consequences that permeate and threaten the West. While Shermer acknowledges we have problems, we now know how to solve them with science and reason. For Delsol, the way we solved our problems killed our humanity. For Shermer, reason has come far but remains in dreadfully short supply. For Delsol, the penetration of reason is radical and incomplete only in failing to recognize its own limits. For Shermer Western civilization is more peaceful, stable, comfortable, knowledgeable, richer with more stuff, longer healthier lives, and we have rights coming out of our ears, no longer under the thumb of a despot. We have Enlightenment to thank for a way out of humanity's long bondage to circumstance. While Delsol writes, "Why do people seem so dissatisfied when so many, in the West at least, have acquired everything they reasonably need to be happy?" Rather than bondage to circumstance, it is precisely ancient man's acceptance of both his ineluctable condition (mostly this means death) and his persistent need to escape it that gave meaning through acceptance and hope. Hope not of escape from that ultimate human fate as modernity attempted and failed, but a hope to cope with this first fact of life through traditions built non-rationally, not irrationally. Modernity's intolerance for the realities of life have made us tyrants of another sort for Delsol, determined to torch what gave us meaning because we've decided that conviction to concepts which granted significance are dangerous (religion, patriotism, heroism). Likewise, we have Enlightenment to thank for this mistake.

For Delsol, real life is full of contradictions, some of which are necessary as a state of existence. They cannot be made to universally vanish for utopia unless we do what we did: deny contradictions exist by relativistic means. Like good and evil are merely matters of culture bound opinion, or by creating social tyrannies of oppression like political correctness. Instead, traditional ways established over centuries of trial and error addressed these natural contradictions with countermeasures. "Religious thought," writes Delsol, "explained the permanence of temporal imperfection and thereby legitimized the necessity of a moral code, politics, and all the other structuring antinomies [i.e. contradictions between two apparently correct solutions]..." For Delsol, religion with its promise in the face of despair, politics with its command structure, not perfect equality, and economics with winners and losers are a bit like checks and balances in Constitutional governance. Each branch can step on the other's territory. Battles emerge over important issues as the victors ebb and flow. A messy, but organic not analytical, leveling act that attenuates too much oscillation of naturally unstable humans.

I often challenge the blatant contradiction of those who simultaneously embrace capitalist selfishness, and Christian selflessness. But Delsol says, that's life. And for reasons modern arguments miss. For example, profit is capitalism's reward for hard work, innovation, and service. But along the way to profit, some are inevitably left with less. On a broad scale there will be rich and there will be poor, an apparent injustice. Isn't there some way to fix this? One is, "A kind of happy austerity," writes Delsol, "in which desires would be limited in proportion to available goods, imagining that people would be content with a bare minimum made palatable by the attainment of equality for all." A socialist solution - while far from the only option - that not only ignores the reality of imperfect existence but denies yearning for reward and recognition. It's a flawed definition of human nature, or an expectation that human nature will conform to a higher calling if only ideals of equality could override natural emotions. Here Delsol echoes Michael Polanyi who asserts that only if we manage to abandon moral perfectionism can we come to accept reality. [3]

But moral imperfection is hard for Enlightenment moderns to accept. Enlightenment thought has been so successful in providing solutions for everything from spaceflight to the Founder's Constitution, why would any stone be left unturned if justice is a fundamental human desire? Though patient, Shermer's vision seeks to turn those stones, expanding the moral sphere as dictated by reason wherever it leads. This includes those animals whose brain structure and emotional function science has found to be little or no different from our own. [4] To Shermer, Deslol's non-rational solution looks like a method without a plan, destined for that good old time abuse. For him, our moral gains didn't come from tradition, least of all religion. "Most of the moral development of the past several centuries," Shermer writes, "has been the result of secular not religious forces... The most important of these that emerged from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment are science and reason... The moral universe bends not merely toward justice, but also toward truth and freedom... the product of societies moving toward more secular forms of governance..." His survey of the religious backdrop and participation in "witch" burning 60,000-100,000 women, and the disembowelment of heretics is enough to make even the Internet generation blanch. And must we be reminded of abject immorality in a God who murders first born toddlers and children of Egypt in Exodus? Even first born of livestock. Where's that external objective morality Delsol frees from the flimsy intrusion of reason? For Shermer, these examples show what doesn't work. And regardless of whether or not God exists, humans are not good at practicing what they preach. There's a better way, and Shermer says we know as fact what that is. Time to leave the Middle Ages behind, not go back to it.

Certainly there seems support in Delsol's argument for contradiction in humans themselves. We want love and independence, belonging and autonomy, someone of extraordinary measure to look up to, often combined with insecurity that hopes to pull those people down. If, as E.O. Wilson claims, natural selection filtered us by gene traits expressed through individuals and by group traits expressed through community and culture, then these contradictions are built in. [5] Hardwired to express individualism and selfishness (greed), or community and altruism (virtue). In that case, Shermer and Delsol argue for one side or the other of our dual nature. But which way is right for the world we're in? Or is there a solution waiting to be discovered that unifies both? Do humans have a capacity for balance?

Until next time. Monday, July 3rd, 2017.

[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Picador, 2015

[2]Michael Shermer Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, And Freedom, Holt and Company, 2015. Chantal Delsol Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World, ISI Books, 2003

[3] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975

[4] The Cambridge Statement on Animal Consciousness, in Marc Bekoff, Animals are conscious and should be treated as such, New Scientist, September 2012

[5] E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, Liveright, 2015



March 6, 2017: Why America’s anti-science movement is a moral matter. Part I: The Right

For half a millennia the many varied nations of Islam were the greatest cultures on earth. Science, mathematics, architecture, and economics all thrived in Islam, while “in the West, Charlemagne and his lords, were dabbling in the art of writing their names.” [1] As tribunals sentenced sixty thousand “witches” drowned or burned at the stake, Islam shined through Europe’s Dark Ages.

But Islam’s Golden Age didn’t last. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg notes, by the 11th century, extremists opened the door “to complete destruction of science and scientists.” [2] According to Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy some in Islam began to proclaim “a holy war against Rationalism… against the upholders of reason and advocates of philosophy and science.” [3] Cultural suicide accelerated when Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) provided political power needed to destroy rational thinking. [4] He won. Islam lost. By 1258 Mongols sacked Baghdad. By 1492 the Iberian Peninsula surrendered. Islam silenced itself when it abandoned science.

But could science really be that important? Or is it related to something more?

Fast forward 500 years to Rush Limbaugh’s own holy war against science and scientists as, he claims, “One of the four corners of deceit.” [5] In Limbaugh’s quest for class conflict we hear scientists belong to those “wizards of smart.” The rest of us are “the hicks, the little people.” [6] This vilification is broadcast to millions over radio waves discovered, and electronics built, by science.

This hostile paradox is widespread and dominates powerful places. Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe claims global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated against the American people.” [7] He’s chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Texas Republican Representative and science denier Lamar Smith has built his reputation on harassment of climate scientists and attorneys general with 25 subpoenas, from a committee that issued only one since its creation in 1958. [8] Smith is chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The irony.

These are people who fly on jet aircraft, use smart phones, and light emitting diodes not candles to read by. They laud capitalism, innovation, and entrepreneurs dependent on science to create wealth. They favor a strong military, contingent on science and its technology to defend this nation. A nation they claim to love, most notably its Founders, all of them products of Europe’s scientific Enlightenment. The founder of electrical sciences, Ben Franklin; naturalist and inventor, Thomas Jefferson; Hamilton, Madison, and Jay with scientific analogies to proper governance in their Federalist Papers. More irony.

Or is it? Tocqueville found Americans so busy that we’re suspect of elaborate explanations. [9] We prefer quick, easily ingestible answers (sound bites). As a can-do nation from the Frontier onwards, Americans harbored an anti-intellectual posture from the beginning. Hence, America’s science deniers hoodwink a scientifically naive public without much resistance. Such habit and influence opens the door for destruction of science and scientists because reality is more complex than a morsel.

It’s also more interesting. Consider that family of atoms in the form of a molecule called carbon dioxide. This greenhouse gas is made of one carbon, two oxygen: CO2. Atmospheric CO2 rose past 400 parts per million in 2016. [10] Sounds small. Until one calculates the total volume of earth’s atmosphere to find an astounding 40 gigaton CO2 increase per year. [11] And a commensurate decrease in breathable oxygen combined with carbon that takes place when burned. [12]

But how do we know this atmospheric CO2 came from humans? Answer: the type of carbon atom found in that molecule. They’re not all the same. There’s a carbon atom with 12 particles in its nucleus, C12, and another with 14, C14. C14 is created in earth’s upper atmosphere every day when C12 gets stuck with two extra particles it didn’t want. [13] Half the C14 created today will cast out those visitors through radioactive decay in about 6000 years, its half-life. This division by half continues until after 60,000 years no C14 made today will remain. Were today’s excess carbon dioxide from natural sources it would have todays C14 signature. It doesn’t. [14] Under well understood chemistry, millions of years of carbon rich plant burials gave us coal, buried marine plankton gave us oil, and none of it has C14. Just like the dearth of C14 atoms in that carbon dioxide molecule measured from our atmosphere. And what’s more, the weight of all that annually added carbon equals the weight of annual fossil fuel inventories burned the world over. [15] A human imprint on global warming. One of hundreds. On January 18, 2017, NOAA, NASA, and UK’s Hadley Center announced from different data sets our hottest year since 1880 data gathering began. And 16 of our 17 hottest years were since 2000. [16]

If you didn’t know any of this, does that make you “a hick,” a “little person?” I didn’t know it either, until I did. Now I do. So do you. Feel like a “wizard of smart?” I don’t. But once known, plans can be made, policy, action, designs for new industries that turn engineers lose on global warming constraints as an invitation to innovate and get rich. The way China dominates solar markets while America drags its heels because science is evil and nature is a liberal. While Congress remains rooted in old technologies that fund their campaigns, China crafts the Asian Century the same way America crafted the last one—with science. In January 2017, China announced a $361 billion program to build clean energies and create 13 million new jobs. [17]

The same science used to build high-tech society is precisely the same that shows human caused global warming a fact: physics, chemistry, biology. The same science that put man on the moon, made iPhones, and pharmaceuticals. Yet many Americans think global warming science is different from other science. A fallacy facilitated by descendants of Islam’s Al-Ghazali from our own conservative Right with their “alternative facts.” As Voltaire (1694-1778) said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” [18]

As Stuart Rachels wrote, “Moral thinking begins when we try to see things as they are… Morality is the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason…” [19] But rejection of science is rejection of reason. Without reason, moral judgment is crippled. And this is where America’s anti-science movement links to larger issues.

The connection becomes apparent in tight coupling between science and reason with morality and self-governance. From the reasoned basis for moral judgment comes a realization that not only must the ends be rational and moral but the means to an end must be rational and moral. Our Founders implemented a system that placed how we arrive at results on an equal, sometimes higher plain of morality than their ends, which may be merely practical, but no less critical for stable governance. This process depends on right-reason, not motivated-reason which is not reason as we saw last time. Likewise, on right-morality vs. motivated-morality which is not moral. Both require truth. Truth requires reason. But a sizable fraction of America has abandoned truth and reason, and thus the Founder’s foundation that depends on it.

The evolving corruption of this moral package was bound to have effects on the ground. And it did. Thanks to Hillary Clinton’s untrustworthy nature, decimation of American manufacturing, and threatened by politically correct assaults on tradition, Americans abandoned their traditions to choose the liar from a field of 17 Republicans for president. [20] The Republican conservative Right has defrauded everything they once stood for, from Reagan’s capacity for compromise, to the Founder’s scientific thinking, to Jesus Christ himself. For in John, Jesus did not say “Seek the lie and it will set you free.” Nor “Seek the liar.” [21] Trump’s lies were a welcomed insult to facts and experts many Americans have come to hate. As Foreign Affairs contributor Tom Nichols puts it, “Americans have reached a point where ignorance…is seen as an actual virtue. To reject advice of experts is to assert autonomy…and insulate their increasingly fragile egos.” [22] A fascinating confluence between the excesses of individualism and consequent yearnings for a tribe. [23] And should Christians among the conservatives reject our Founders method by deciding that any means justify the ends, they’ve conveniently forgotten it was Paul who condemned “Let us do evil, so good may come.” [24] Trump’s theft of other people’s property, his decades association with the mafia, and his vulgar immoralities complete with the smell of treason were embraced because Trump appealed to emotional excess that irrational populism thrives on. [25] (Which is not to say Trump won’t succeed materially. [26]) All of this exposes moral decay for a party that once referred to itself as the Moral Majority.

But the Right is not a monolith. Even Right-wing Glen Beck labeled Trump a sociopath. [27] And Bush Administration attorney Eliot Cohen wrote in his acid bath blistering of Republicans, they are engaged in “moral self-destruction.” [28]

That Trump is a carnival barker or a hopeful dictator is less important than what this reveals about America. We’ve arrived at an historic moment when a beast is welcomed for leadership by almost half the voting public. The direction of governance that America now moves in is not what the Founders founded. As Michael Shermer notes, they gave us a methodology, not an ideology. The opposite of what we now see as it was a method of scientific thinking. “Scientific values of reason,” writes Shermer, “are not the products of liberal democracy, but the producers of it.” [29]

With Congress already in pursuit, like 12th century Islam, Trump has commenced another witch hunt for scientists. [30] Intellectuals are first to be purged in all authoritarian regimes. A regime welcomed by America’s Right because they have betrayed Western ideals they once championed. It should be no surprise they would imperil the Republic the way Al-Ghazali did his own. The Right’s attack on science is symptomatic of moral bankruptcy, and part of a much larger depravity. If institutions and norms our science-minded Founders founded on reason, truth, and trust don’t survive, it won’t get better.

Until next time, Monday May 1, 2017.

[1] Steven Weinberg To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, Harper Perennial, 2016, pg. 105.

[2] Weinberg., pg. 120.

[3] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle For Rationality, Zed, 1991, pg. 120.

[4] Hoodbhoy, pg. 126.

[5] Rush Limbaugh, God and Climate Change, Common Sense Evaluation, November 4, 2014.

Heather Horn, Is the Right Wing Anti-Science?, The Atlantic, 9.10.2010.

[6] Rush Limbaugh, Wizards of Smart, Limbaugh Letter, January 1994.

[7] Brad Johnson, Inhofe: God Says Global Warming Is A Hoax, ThinkProgress, March 9, 2012. Wikipedia, Jim Inhofe.

[8] Lisa Rein, House science chairman gets heat in Texas race for being a global warming skeptic, Washington Post, November 7, 2016. Phil Plait, Scientists Stand Up To Congressional Attacks , SLATE, June 2, 2016.

[9] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America, Mentor, 1984 (1840)

[10] Brian Kahn, The World Passes 400 PPM Threshold. Permanently, Climate Central, September 27, 2016.

[11] Note dates on data as measured CO2 increases over time. See links from this article for the deeper science: Phil Plait, Did I Say 30 Billion Tons of CO2 a Year? I Meant 40.,SLATE, AUG. 20 2014.

[12] O2 decrease with carbon combustion is given in this article which also addresses other proxies including ocean and plant absorptions with some basic accounting. What is causing the increase in atmospheric CO2?, Skeptical Science.

[13] Marshall Brain, How Carbon-14 Dating Works, How Stuff Works.

[14] Solomon et. al., PDF: Are the Increases in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Other Greenhouse Gases During the Industrial Era Caused by Human Activities?, IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Richard Hilderman, Fossil Fuel and Atmospheric Levels of Carbon Dioxide, Mother Earth News, 1/9/2011. Prentice et. al., Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis, IPCC, 2001. Note the accounting for volcanic and Mid-Ocean ridge CO2, quite natural and also without current C14 signatures. John Cook, Do volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans?, Skeptical Science, July 6, 2015.

[15] John Cook. See Figure 1 for graphical representation. The human fingerprint in global warming, Skeptical Science, July 2015.

Above references Carbon Information Analysis Center, breakdown by annual output worldwide and by nation. CIACA, Note to get CO2 weight from weight of carbon burned multiply by 3.667 for carbon’s combination with O2.

[16] Chris Mooney, U.S. scientists officially declare 2016 the hottest year on record. That makes three in a row., Washington Post, January 18, 2017. Hottest Years: Instrumental temperature record, Wikipedia.

[17] Reuters, China to plow $361 billion into renewable fuel by 2020, GLOBAL ENERGY NEWS, Thu Jan 5, 2017.

[18] Voltaire , Miracles and Idolatry, Penguin, 2005 (1765).

[19] Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th Ed. McGraw Hill, 2010.

[20] Donald Trump, Donald Trump's file, POLITIFACT. FRONTLINE, President Trump, PBS, January 3, 2017. Donald Trump, Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women, New York Times, OCT. 8, 2016.

[21] John 8:32.

[22] Tom Nichols, How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That's a Giant Problem, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2017.

[23] We might wonder if a psychological feedback mechanism is at work between individualism and dogmas. Evolution of individualism has rendered American’s ever more isolated, stripped of belonging, and hence of meaning. This hinges on an assumption that meaning comes from without, from the value we have to others reflected back at us in face-to-face relations of true communities which no longer exist. Individual purpose, on the other hand, comes from within – we make it up: work, tasks, acquisitions, displays. Purpose and meaning are not necessarily mutually exclusive, one can lead to the other. But with greater isolation, dogma gives us a sense of recovered belonging through a tribal affiliation. In modern America this does not lead to true communities, but to abstract affiliations, usually through the internet, occasionally a temporary interaction between strangers at a protest. So dogma fails to provide community, rigidifies our views, and increases individualistic isolation. Two books related to this matter are Louis Dumont’s Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective, University of Chicago Press, 1992 (1986), and Eric Hoffer’s True Believer: On the Nature of Mass Movements, Harper Perennial, 1966.

[24] Romans 3:8.

[25] Michael Rothfeld and Alexandra Berzon, Donald Trump and the Mob, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1, 2016.

David Cay Johnston, Just What Were Donald Trump's Ties to the Mob?, POLITICO, May 22, 2016.

David Corn, A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump, Mother Jones, Oct. 31, 2016.

[26] Should we suspend moral appraisal as we await Trump’s material performance? After all, reckless abandon common to populism earns early, costs late as it did Hugo Chavez. Presumably another favorite of Trump, not through imitation alone, but by his stated admiration for despotic murders Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-un, and Vladimir Putin, who has found no greater alley against the West. Such ethics make the Right no different from the Left they assail for claiming moral relativity as protection from conservative judgment. Despite his national budget surplus, Bill Clinton remains an exhibit for moral degeneracy according to the very conservatives ignoring Trump’s adultery. Motivated-morality judges only the other Party, and gives our own a pass. For Trump’s fondness for dictators see, MEGHAN KENEALLY, 5 Controversial Dictators and Leaders Donald Trump Has Praised, ABC News, Jul 6, 2016.

[27] Tré Goins-Phillips, Glenn Beck explains why he thinks Donald Trump is a ‘sociopath’, The BLAZE, Oct 24, 2016.

[28] Eliot Cohen, A Clarifying Moment in American History, The Atlantic, Jan 29, 2017.

[29] Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science Alex Humanity to Truth Justice and Freedom, Henry Holt and Co, 2015, pg. 135.

[30] Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, Trump transition team for Energy Department seeks names of employees involved in climate meetings , Washington Post, December 9, 2016. Then Transition pulls back., Jan 24, 2017. Reuters, Trump administration seeks to muzzle U.S. agency employees , Washington Post, ???, 2016.

Alex Kirby, Trump seeks to gag US scientists, Climate News Network, January 26, 2017.



January 2, 2017: Revenge politics: America’s Culture Wars just get hotter

America’s November 8, 2016 presidential election was not a tectonic shift, it was a supernova. From years of wide-ranging observations, wondering where this would end, this essay descends from political philosophy to politics. One thing is clear, both Right and Left find right-reason an obstacle. We live in an Age of Emotion now.

Last time we considered systemic flaws in America’s political system. A system incrementally revamped toward direct democracy in opposition to what our Founders created: stable governance of, by, and for naturally unstable humans. Reason will always be in combat with passion because humans are first and foremost emotional creatures, not intellects. Yet we can check emotions with institutional barriers to block us when emotion takes over as we know it will. The Founders invented a system to save us from ourselves.

They knew the difference between right-reason and motivated-reason. Right-reason accepts evidence for reality, regardless of how it makes us feel. It accepts evidence conditionally, as new discoveries can modify understanding, or even upend it. This does not necessarily make what we know incorrect, but incomplete. Newton’s laws were incomplete without Einstein. Though we use Newton to build devices that work, more today than ever, because his laws apply to our everyday world. On the other hand, motivated-reason in such abundance today, accepts only that evidence supporting what we already believe, rejecting evidence that makes us uneasy. Devices engineered to this standard wouldn’t function. But just such a design now dominates America. Welcome to America’s revenge politics, a reflection of our Culture Wars.

Democratic forms of governance around the world are threatened for the same reasons. The Economist, headlined What’s gone wrong with democracy, blames lost jobs to China, and economic upheaval of the 2007 crash. Since the Great Recession democracies have inched backward as the number of free people declines. [1]

Foreign Affairs journal multiplies our suspects with the rise of authoritarian populism. Populism further stimulated by incompetent leadership, mass multiethnic migrations (too many humans on earth), and destabilizing effects of Internet fake-news. [2] As Fareed Zakaria has it, “All [populist] versions [Left & Right] share a suspicion and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions.” [3] Populism does not want that rational barrier to emotional excess. In the everlasting contest of political philosophies the world is watching. And the last time democracy fell in Athens, it lay dead worldwide for 2000 years.

Populism is the political face of our Culture Wars, with many of its battles over territory that doesn’t exist: Republican President George Bush tried to fabricate an emergency in his waning term to seize dictatorial power, Democratic President Obama established elaborate programs to steal our guns and ammo. Our echo chambers and social media make the old Chinese saying current, “One dog barks at a shadow, and a hundred dogs respond to make it a fact.”

Such thinking cannot survive right-reason, but it thrives on motivated-reason. With its central principle of revenge, populism appeals to our emotions, not our intellect. This is of particular interest to me, not only by its collective impact on the West, but because of the battle I fight with it daily. I come from what we Americans call the blue collar working class. We tend to be emotional about things we don’t understand. Employing a great deal of what I label the 2/98 Rule: 2% knowledge 98% bluster. In argument our pitch elevates in uptalk, the finger wags, and we display what biologists designate the threat face, a snarl that mammals use to intimidate opponents. This behavior was on persistent display during our election, and served to communicate tribal affiliation. It’s also a cover for self-doubt, a diversion as we try to bluff our way to certainty. Deep down it’s a plea, to ourselves. Impossibly complex society makes us feel helpless, desperate to convince ourselves that we’re in control when we know we’re not. We are the targets of populism.

I committed to change through higher education, though upbringing is never distant, and much I’d not want to lose. I also got lucky with a career in science and engineering where abstract learning meets practical application. These disciplines require challenge, test, checks and rechecks of every detail, all day every day in search of Truth. Nature passes judgment. Get it wrong and what you build will fail. That career gave me the ability to confront every belief, especially my own, inside or outside the workplace. Eventually, I realized I had to divorce my tribe, because so long as I identified with it I couldn’t stop lying for it. There are other ways to hone critical thinking, but I suggest none better than science. Unfortunately, America ranks near bottom in science education in the industrialized world, and poorly among all nations. [4] This makes us easy marks for emotionally satisfying answers.

Where do these answers come from? First, on the popular, not intellectual, Right: America’s talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh has competition from the Left in MSNBC television, but Limbaugh is the best propagandist we have. Entertaining, endearing (when he talks about his cat), he sounds like just another regular guy. His weave of revision, truth, and lie in a single paragraph is a thing of beauty. Punctuated with his signature, “Don’t doubt me.” Republican ex-presidents, ex-vice presidents, presidential candidates, and Speaker of the House have all called into Limbaugh’s show. Certain not to face scrutiny, they curry his blessing and influence in what Limbaugh calls “Realville.”

Realville is a place where good economic news was no thanks to ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), hence Limbaugh’s nemesis, Obama, because ARRA money would not be spent for years. Same week, bad economic news. Realville’s response? How could this be, now that we spent all that ARRA money? Frequently, we Americans care very little for truth, but we care very much about winning.

Limbaugh has a dogma to nurture. He knows paper defenses burn easy. Following our election, he provided the best characterization for populist motivated-reason I’ve ever heard him say: “The default reaction to any media story that has anything incredulously stupid, dumb or negative about Trump is to not believe it, folks… The default position has to be - if we’re going to be intellectually honest with ourselves - is rejection.” [5]

Yes, in this explicit self-contradiction, Limbaugh uttered the words, “intellectually,” and “honest.” He told listeners they dare not fact check negative stories they hear, a kind of blasphemy. And while this is listener prep for what’s coming, there’s more to it. As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, “Mass movements… interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and realities of the world… [The true believer] cannot be frightened by danger nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.” [6]

Limbaugh’s job is to boil the blood, rally troops, define the creed. It’s the National Conservative Crusade against the National Liberal Crusade. Any waver from purist absolutism wins the label of liberal from the High Priest. Per Hoffer, “All [mass movements] irrespective of doctrine… demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.”

Populism is a mass movement, but it’s not a policy. It’s a tool for demagogues to manipulate those who can be. Energized by, “Whites ages 25 to 54 lost about 6.5 million jobs more than they gained [since the recession].” [7] Which explains some of the Right’s enthusiasm for internet conspiracy, hoax, email viruses, fake-news otherwise known as lies [8]; Christian hypocrisy according to some Christians [9]; embrace of Russia’s hack of the American people, not necessarily their machines, with a Mid-Eastern perspective of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” making Reagan’s GOP read like GOPP, the Great Old Putin Party [10]; and of great significance we’ll examine next time, a 12th-century-Islam-like science denial that’s about more than adolescent defiance of authority. All this from what used to see itself as the “family values” Party.

Influence from the Left begins with some science-free sectors on campus. UCLA’s Sandra Harding claims that Western technocracy is “modeled on men’s most misogynistic relations to women—rape, torture, [and] choosing mistresses” [11]; university postmodernists asserted in 1950s France the persistent notion that the truth is, there is no truth [12], an assault on Western reason and tradition, now embraced by the Right [13]; and wailing students offended by micro-aggressions, soon to be nano, pico, and femto-aggressions serve as fodder for Limbaugh. [14] Where’s the space between these and superstition?

On his last official tour through Europe, President Obama urged nations to resist “crude nationalism that drowns out dissenting views.” Excellent. So too our political correctness. Racist, sexist, and homophobe are cast about with generosity to ostracize and muzzle.

Post-election, PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff said to a guest, “I hear you saying we’ve missed a whole chunk of the county in our effort to be diverse.” Steve Deace responded, lack of diversity was ideological, not ethnic. He added, “Those of us who think that we shouldn’t have men in bathrooms next to our young daughters are called bigots, when we used to just call them parents.” [15] Now, Bernie Sanders and others are at last voicing concerns over identity politics. In America’s constant fear of the tyranny of majority, Democrats fell victim to a tyranny of minority. Modern identity under the flag of diversity looks a lot like tribal segregation with a posture of opposition, not inclusivity. As liberal Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. lamented, our once vaunted melting pot that strived to confer an American character is dead. [16]

Neal Gabler’s assessment asked, "Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities… in seething resentment…" [17] Enunciating utter blindness to liberal bias in popular culture, all the way down to television commercials. Consider the Boost ad as obese white men clothed only in bras, panties, and high heels stumble about to fuel Danica Patrick’s Formula One race car. The white man seated on a bus blundering to make breakfast on a hot plate as a black woman stands over him, looks down, shakes her head, and enjoys her Kellogg’s breakfast bar. Or three white and one black man, frantic for food from their Honda hatchback, smash chips in their face, pour beer in their eyes, as a white women records their primate behavior from a forest blind. Imagine gender and/or race swapped. Not about history, the boardroom boys club, or comic book heroes to the contrary, but what the common man who feels discarded by this society receives from it at every intermission. He just voted. Pop culture or politics, it’s the message not the messaging.

Ever vengeful, our sides are now divided more by Culture War than income. After 8-years, 15% of Obama judge appointments remain unfilled by the now standard practice of Republican governance: obstruction. Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, denied even to hold hearings on Obama’s final Supreme Court appointment of moderate, Judge Merrick Garland. [18] “These elections are just too contentious. The people should decide our next Justice.” But they already had, in as much as our Founders wanted by distancing the Court from passions of the people, who elected Obama. Given we swap parties every eight years, do Republicans imagine Democrats will forget their blatant abuse of this Republic they claim so much to love? The way Republicans didn’t forget Judge Robert Bork? Tit-for-tat is not governance for long.

So what have systemic flaws and this social miasma produced? The most untrustworthy candidates to simultaneously compete for office. In our hyper-individualist society creating creatures like these, has America finally lost its capacity to produce virtuous leaders? What does this say about us in that cycle of civilization’s rise and fall, or do we even care? Can Americans divorce their tribe to remove that “fact-proof screen”? We are losing the system that saved us from ourselves.

Until next time. Monday March 6, 2017.

[1] What’s gone wrong with democracy, The Economist, March 1-7, 2014, [2] Foreign Affairs, The Power of Populism, November/December, 2016, [3] Emphasis added. Fareed Zakaria, Populism on the March: Why the West In in Trouble, Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2016, [4] Pew Research Center , February 2015, [5] Rush Limbaugh November 15, 2016, [6] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Harper Perennial, 1966, [7] Eduardo Porter, We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned, All Things Considered, NPR, November 23, 2016. Note also the man who read an Internet story that led him to drive all the way from North Carolina with his loaded rifle to Washington DC (300 miles). He did this based on fake news that children kidnapped by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s pedophile syndicate were housed at a Pizza parlor, where the man fired one round into the floor to emphasize demands. In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns, Cecilia Kang, Adam Goldman, New York Times, December 5, 2016. Shortly after this: “The son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, embraced a baseless conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton…” Incoming national security adviser's son spreads fake news about D.C. pizza shop, POLITICO, 12/4/2016, [9] Eric Sammons, Christians’ Support For Trump Undermines Their Public Witness, The Federalist, October 12, 2016, Neil J. Young, Dear Evangelicals, A “Begrudging” Vote for Trump Is Still a Vote for Trump , Religion Dispatches, October 4, 2016, Russell Mooresept, Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?, New York Times, September 17, 2015, [10] AP, FBI chief backs CIA’s conclusion Russia interfered with election, December 16, 2016, [11] Sandra Harding, The Science Question In Feminism, Cornell University Press, 1986, [12] Ferry & Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985, [13] Erik Wemple, CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes: Facts no longer exist, Washington Post, December 1, 2016, [14] Lukianoff and Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, The Atlantic, September 2015, [15] How the mainstream media missed Trump’s momentum, PBS Newshour, November 9, 2016, [16] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The Disuniting of America, Norton, 1992, [17] Neal Gabler, Farewell, America: No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently, Moyers & Company, November 10, 2016, [18] Malvika Menon, The Republicans’ Rash Rejection of Merrick Garland, Harvard Political Review, April 24, 2016



November 7, 2016: Is PCD an acronym for Programmed Civilization Death?

For some reason unknown to me I’ve always been interested in origins and endings. How something got started, why it stopped. Like all children I incessantly asked, “Why?” As there seemed no end to it, my mother repeatedly invited me to go play in the creek, climb trees, find your friends. Discovery of protozoans in that creek water, or that stars in the sky were like our own sun, only intensified the question. Why did those things exists, how did they get started?

It was years later I came across a magnificent book by William R. Clark, Sex and the Origins of Death. [1] I once asked why people die. The answer, “Because they get old,” didn’t suffice. My parents seemed old, still alive, doing well. But Clark’s book provided an answer, and knocked me off my feet. I was delighted to get up and have it knock me down again, chapter after chapter. “Death is not an obligatory attribute of life,” writes Clark, and did not appear with the advent of living creatures. As he explains, cellular aging which results in death may not have occurred for more than a billion years after life’s first entry on earth. Programmed cell death, PCD, displayed through wrinkles and forgetfulness, seems to have arisen about the time cells experimented with sex. As nature would have it, we die because of the many mechanisms built into us to make sure we do. Death does not just happen, it is worked toward with safeguards to assure our cells don’t backslide into immortality as cancer cells do. Once our DNA realizes our reproductive years are over, the code executes, and one by one our cells receive their command to commit suicide. All the while, as the cell decapitates itself, innocent organelle roam about its cytoplasm, performing their tasks, unaware of doom.

So I began to wonder, by analogy are humans in a society like cells in the body of civilization? Do each of us possess an inner program that commands contribution to a kind of social disorder once a psychological threshold is crossed?

As I made Morgan ask Ne Shoul, “Do civilizations fail, not by chance or circumstance, but because decline is intended, without knowing it? Like William Clark said of our aging bodies, death is worked toward, without wanting to.” [2] All the while as we go about our busy lives, unaware of doom and the part we play in a different kind of PCD.

There seems a similar ignorance of intent to America’s current trajectory, but only if we pause from our busy lives of work to contemplate our status. Otherwise, whatever’s going on might seem like just another of the many oscillations we’ve experienced time and again. And maybe it is. Roman philosophers repeatedly claimed the end of Rome was soon to come. Eventually they were right.

This rise and fall of civilization belongs to those origins, and endings that fascinate me. There have been a great many social advances in our own. And who can argue with the extension to what humans can do through technology? Seated in the comfort of my library with two dogs on their couch and two cats on their (not my) desk, I poke keys destined for a worldwide distribution platform, pretty much for free. Starting with the creation of East African tools 2.5 million years ago, Australopithecus garhi showed that innovation is something humans naturally do (assuming they’re on our lineage), and do well. Science and art are the crown of our innovative achievements, with Newton and Einstein, Michelangelo and Frederic Church as idols in their field. But given all societies eventually fail, that we’ve not been able to hit on a recipe that survives in perpetuity, and that humans are self-destructive, these are evidence that the same cannot be said of civilization. And it makes me wonder, why?

There are a number of hypotheses, not mutually exclusive. Spengler’s ominous work likens the life of civilization to that of a person. [3] Born with curiosity, enthusiasm, and growing strength, new societies forge ahead to become high culture with little concern for consequences. Culture matures, loses strength, begins to regret, and takes its first step toward disintegration. Spirit that once animated society can no longer be recalled as it ages and dies. Spengler’s hypothesis is a trajectory.

President John Adams’ grandson, Brooks Adams, in his astonishing contribution submits the idea of cycles, reinforcing the notion that all great ideas are killed by excess. [4] Adams’ volume led Theodore Roosevelt to a 15 page review in which he wrote, “Few more powerful and more melancholy books have been written.” [5] For Adams, the cycle begins as a superstitious, spiritual phase, where fear and war dominate. There’s also a strong artistic element as an outlet for spiritual impulse. This life of fear is tamed by incremental innovations that lead to advances in economy with greater control and organization. Eventually life becomes confined by work, laws, and demands of economics dominated by greed. Complexities of society sap humans of their humanity. Art dies as a nonessential. People become desperate for salvation. Descent begins with growing fear and a deep sense of lost control.

The Durant’s emphasize the incompatibility of intellect and soul. [6] “As education spreads, theologies lose credence,” they write. “The moral code loses aura and force as its human origin is revealed and as divine surveillance and sanctions are removed… An age of weary skepticism and epicureanism followed the triumph of rationalism over mythology in the last century before Christianity, and follows a similar victory today… An unmoored generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption, and the restless disorder of family and morals in all but a remnant clinging desperately to old restraints and ways.”

Where does America reside in this course of function and dysfunction? If we could discover where we are and why, might we prescribe correctives? Comparison is complicated because ancient history suffers a paucity of information, while modern history has too much. As we say in engineering, what is signal and what is noise?

There’s a great deal of noise in America today. But from the hundreds of clattering factors, what better example of dysfunction than the state of our political system? A political system where not so long ago, conservative President Ronald Reagan and liberal Speaker of the House Tipp O’Neall’s legislative acts were hard fought works of compromise. There was frequent acrimony, but compromise was not yet seen as treason. During this time, Reagan held a dinner to raise $1 million for Boston College and its O’Neill Library. And one day Reagan found by his bedside Tip O’Neill praying for Reagan’s recovery after an assassination attempt. Politics is adversarial by nature, but adversarial does not mean bellicose. In those days, opposing party members dinned at each other’s home with their families. As one politician whose name now escapes me said, “It’s really hard to hate your opposition when you know his wife and kids.” Today, dinner with a political opponent is violation of talk radio orthodoxy. In those days the results of presidential elections were accepted by the loser, and no one dare speak on national television of a revolution if their candidate lost, or execution of their opponent. Such vulgarity reveals abject ignorance of our very own history, when the last revolution we had mauled 750,000 men into their graves.

How could so much of what was, unravel so quickly if we didn’t mean to unravel it? Turns out, we did. At least that part responsible for governance. Jonathan Rauch lays out the process. [7] He notes our political machine’s decline in capacity for self-organization by removal of intermediate systems of informal interaction. (I must highlight my refrain of lost community, despite unending abuse of the word.) “For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or all of the above,” writes Rauch. “Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties… The middlemen could be undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive. But they had one great virtue: They brought order from chaos...” While we should be alert to corruption, over correction has given us the mess we’re in.

For example, the primaries were not always an election process with direct input by the people. Candidates were once decided by legislative conventions, caucus, and insider haggling. Our current system of primary election is decided by a tiny fraction of the electorate most passionate, ideological, and consequently less reasonable. Our Founders tried to distance people from the process by implementing a representative republic to defang those passions, not a direct democracy that exacerbates it.

Open dialogues in closed door sessions, and anonymous votes where only final tallies are announced are now rare. We prefer transparency, sunlight as disinfectant, and gridlock because no one dare speak their mind when records show they said something to infuriate their most radical fringe. This fringe is Congress’s highest concern, thanks to an incumbent’s gerrymandered district – convoluted lines dawn on a map to encircle only the most extreme voters associated with their views – something the UK, Canada, and Australia have wisely made illegal. A single square district would force politicians toward the center as it would include a variety of voter viewpoints. Even King Solomon, “divided his kingdom into twelve districts which deliberately crossed tribal boundaries… to lessen clannish separation of the tribes.” [8]

Gerrymandering created its own problem because same-party competition is now a more radical challenger pandering to fanatics, not to the country, not even to their own state, driving incumbents further Left or Right. And with elimination of pork-barrel spending, what incentive do politicians have to cooperate? We Americans naively expect (as I did) ideal execution of our politician’s angelic nature of ethical and moral judgment, with nothing to show voters back home for working with the other side.

As Rauch tells it, “Campaign-finance reform did stop some egregious transactions, but at a cost.” The cost was creation of super PACs, 501(c)(4)s, and 527 groups where the money’s harder to track. Now we can’t know if Russia or some other foreign power has influence in our elections, because all a super PAC need do by law is incorporate with an innocuous sounding name and anonymous donors. By diverting money out of the Party, the Party no longer holds sway over candidates. The Party once required character, cooperation with others in the Party, and broad appeal. Instead, outsiders, non-career politicians, and candidates make their name as anti-establishment rebels who smear their own comrades, and shut down the government to gain points for zealotry. “The core idea of the Constitution was to restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise,” writes Rauch. We’re now caught in a cycle where nothing gets done by virtue of recent sanitations, which lead people to want another outsider, making things worse, whereupon the people want yet another incompetent to break what’s already broken.

As Rauch puts it, “Political reform of the last 40 years [favors] amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism… over mediation and mutual restraint… All the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics…”

So I come back to the question of why civilizations fail. There is cause, and there is noise. But if failure of self-governance in a Republic isn’t a cause, what is? One thing is clear from all the hypotheses of demise: great civilizations destroy themselves. We can help delay that if we balance human nature through recognition of what it is. But can a nation now so dogmatic perform such magic?

Until next time, the first Monday in January, 2017, the 2nd.

[1] Williams R. Clark, Sex and the Origins of Death, Oxford University Press, 1996 [2] Brett Williams, The Father, Combustible Books, 2013 [3] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Oxford University Press, 1991 (originally 1926) [4] Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay,Macmillan, 1916 (1st Ed. 1895) [5] Theodore Roosevelt, Review: The Law of Civilization and Decay, The Forum, January 1897 [6] Will & Ariel Durrant, The Lessons of History, Simon & Shuster, 1968 [7] Jonathan Rauch, How American Politics Went Insane, The Atlantic, September, 2016 A PBS Newshour interview is here. The Atlantic article is here. [8] Will & Ariel Durant, The Story of History: Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Shuster, 1963



September 5, 2016: Murray Rothbard’s strange and zany world

I sometimes amuse myself by gazing at the brilliant words of Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), framed and hung on my wall: “Every once in a while the human race pauses in the job of botching its affairs and redeems itself by a noble work of the intellect.” I liked the quote so much I bought Rothbard’s book, The Ethics of Liberty. [1] While my review of it was less than warm, as an influence in America’s political arena, Rothbard, an economist and libertarian, deserves a more extensive hearing.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe introduces us to this volume as one that fills a gap between economics and ethics. Rothbard, he says, integrated the two by a concept of property that guides libertarian action. It was Rothbard’s goal to create a “science of ethics” in the face of opposition that denies such a science is possible. Without a science of ethics, they claim, we are left to whims of the State with its limits imposed on the individual. In the text, Rothbard tries to separate man’s political existence from morality, yet the science he strives for seeks to provide a moral logic based on reasoned argument, therefore a moral legitimacy to his ethic.

One opposition to an ethical science comes from relativistic views that allege objectivity in ethics impossible. Since the cultures people are raised in have different value systems and meaning – so relativists claim – there can be no objective truth or human universals, which are in reality a matter of social preference. This is the truth promoted by those who claim there is no truth.

On this matter I side with Hoppe and Rothbard. At the most fundamental level, humans are humans no matter where you go. Of course there are extremes. The Taliban value life in a manner quite different from the Pope. Such differences can be grounds for conflict. But both are born, grow old, die, and most of all have quite similar wiring in the space between their ears, at least since the last forty thousand years or so. Universal, timeless human truths are why we understand Chief Seattle’s lament, Shakespeare’s plays, Biblical cautions, Greek tragedy, and the sad facts of life expressed by Sumer’s Gilgamesh. Such morality tales span five thousand years of different cultures, languages, perspectives, and their own shades of human meaning. Evidence that there exist moral convictions more than mere social preferences particular to each society. Why would thousands perish in attempts to free themselves from tyranny in Babylon, the Roman Empire, America’s slave trade were it not for universal desires for freedom? The inkling of rights and justice can be seen all the back to the first known law code of Ur-nammu, ca. 2100 BC. Despite Rothbard’s lose use of the word science, three cheers for his defiance of social fashion.

With this perspective Rothbard proceeds with a fine defense of natural law - general rules based on human nature and universals. Natural law is agnostic, without need of religion, notes Rothbard. “In natural-law philosophy, reason is not bound, as it is in post-Humean philosophy, to be slave to the passions, cranking out the means to arbitrarily chosen ends.” Somehow, only Hume’s application of reason was except from reason’s impotence. While opponents of natural law ask “who is to establish these truths about man?” The answer, says Rothbard, is not who but what, and that is reason. There is for Rothbard, an objective moral order, much as we moderns prefer otherwise. And just because it may be difficult to deduce, in the words on Allan Bloom, “is not to say it is unavailable.” [2] Though Bloom and Rothbard would not be fellow travelers.

Rothbard then digs into his libertarian thought. He claims legal principles can be established in three ways, “…by slavish conformity to custom [i.e. tradition], by arbitrary whim [what he labels “rule of the State”], or use of man’s reason.” But are these mutually exclusive?

Michael Polanyi offers a reasoned tradition that is anything but slavish. [2] Last time we touched on Polanyi’s idea that societies in the real world must have a traditional framework of some sort or they couldn’t exist. Even Rothbard seeks to establish a tradition of thought with a set of rules, entailing a persistent practice of allowance and restriction. Polanyi’s analogy is science, with a tradition of practice that elevates good science as it seeks to suppress frauds. A practice not so unlike the policing of religious orthodoxy, with exceptions, like encouraging free contributions of creative descent. The highest rewards in science are given to insight that modifies or upends current understanding in the interest of Truth about nature, not maintenance of an orthodoxy. These rules are unwritten, not enforced by a State, and always conditional on our best understanding. Polanyi’s traditional society is not static, without freedom or challenge, but grows through reinterpretation of the same traditional rules. But Polanyi recognizes political persuasion does not operate in the same way as science. People will occasionally engage in deceit for personal gain without open review by others of mutual authority. So institutions are required to keep factions from destroying each other, and this implies the State, with laws and regulations, as America’s Founders envisioned. The establishment of law has more latitude than Rothbard allows.

It becomes clear that Rothbard wants to make all rights subservient only to property. “For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights,” he claims, “but rights lose their absoluteness and clarity…when property rights are not used as the standard.” This absoluteness becomes Rothbard’s biggest problem. As he tells it, free speech is a right one has only “on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed…to allow him on the premises.” This perspective denies more abstract rights, like belief. Does someone have a right to hold their religious beliefs only on their own property, or granted access by the owner? While I agree with Rothbard that speech rights do not provide a right to trespass, this recurrent tactic stretches a valid idea (free speech) to absurdity in order to indict something different. The invader still has free speech rights no matter where they are, just as they have a right to their own religious beliefs, but these rights are circumscribed, in this case not to supersede property rights. Society requires a rational balance, not an absolutist dogma that makes all things subservient to Rothbard’s materialist notions.

Repeatedly Rothbard sets the table in terms that satisfy his conclusions. In his chapter “Knowledge, True and False,” we learn that Smith has reported Jones is a homosexual. Again, there are only three possibilities allowed. One reason Smith says this about Jones is because it’s true. “It seems clear then that Smith has a perfect right to [report this fact]…For it is within his property right to do so,” writes Rothbard. “Current libel laws make Smith’s action illegal if done with ‘malicious’ intent, even though [it] be true. And yet, surely legality or illegality would depend not on the motivation of the actor, but on the objective nature of the act.” But aren’t an accidental murder and a planned one of a different sort? In Rothbard’s example, Smith has no right to privacy because there isn’t one he can attach to property. What if Smith lives in a place where his homosexuality would lead to his being ostracized, assaulted, murdered? We needn’t climb too far down the social hole Rothbard digs to find it flawed. The “force from disseminating” which Rothbard abhors was called virtue, attached to morality. And for one who supports true community, what does community do when moral judgment says homosexuality is wrong? As Polanyi says, a tradition of truth seeking discovers homosexuality not a free choice or mere preference, but a fact of some human genomes. Hence, human rights. Though this example begs the question of religious community.

When it comes to those unable to cope in Rothbard’s property-centric world, we find little relief. “The parent may not murder or mutilate the child,” writes Rothbard, “But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e. to let the child die.” This also applies to abortion, and marks a departure from typical conservative platforms. Rothbard supports abortion because if the mother decides to abandon her “freely-granted consent…the fetus [then] becomes a parasitic ‘invader’ of her person…[with] a perfect right to expel the invader from her domain.” This transformation of a living creature based on perception is striking. While parasites invade with instinctive intent, humans are created by willful acts. But as Rothbard teaches, the fetus, or any child, is incapable of a contractual agreement in any parental arrangement, so parents owe them nothing. Only the calculus of social contract, no moral responsibility in Rothbard’s world. That the fetus is as dependent on the mother as Rothbard’s idealized man is dependent on his property for life – sacred ground for Rothbard - is ignored.

Naturally, this thinking applies to animals. There can be no moral component to the extermination of eight billion passenger pigeons, the last Yanksee River porpoise, or anything else, because it’s just our nature. “…animals [like children] cannot petition for their rights…,” says Rothbard. While two hundred twenty-seven years ago, Jeremy Bentham asked, “The question is not can they reason, not can they talk, but can they suffer?” In the case of children and animals, Rothbard guards simplicity by forcing requirements of contract and property they’re incapable of meeting, using the wrong basis for consideration.

When it comes to the State, Rothbard sounds like talk radio with its invention of matters that don’t exist, or recasting issues in language of the zealot that makes slaughter seem righteous. Instead of a system that surrenders some individual rights to civil authorities as a means of engaging dispassionate third parties, separated from those involved in argument, for Rothbard this is “the State’s control of violence of the police, armed services and the courts….” The “States taxation if theft…on a grand and colossal scale no acknowledged criminals could hope to match…[where] no private competitors are allowed to invade its self-arrogated monopoly to counterfeit new money…[where] the postal service has long been a convenient method for the State to keep an eye on possibly unruly and subversive opposition to its rule…a vast criminal organization.” Even governmental license of radio and television “stations to use frequencies and channels,” is nefarious to Rothbard. But business wants centralized government allocation of bandwidth to avoid unwanted electromagnetic interference. While the consequences of a power to tax or its absence are clearly seen in the American Revolution and founding of the United States, which presumably Rothbard would have rejected. Rothbard would have benefited from reasoned debates of problems in governance by The Federalist and Anti-Federalist.

While some of Rothbard’s claims have been realized in America from irresponsible taxation and spending to abuses of power (but the post office?), his assertions read like paranoia. Government operation of the Veterans Administration, student loans turned over to private corporations who rape the system, or deregulation of Wall Street with loss of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, all show how government and the private sector can run amok. There are also cases where they work effectively. Otherwise known as the real world.

Rothbard could never unravel our wrinkles because his definition of the human is so flawed. He then struggles to make reality fit his model. Rothbard tries to separate ethics (right action) from morality (right and wrong) with its humane social influence because morality is a community matter individuals submit to as “coercion,” not guidance in Rothbard’s view. Rothbard’s human psyche is alone in the universe. Others are simply perturbations to his formulaic individual. The State is Rothbard’s Boogie Man to blame, inflated to cartoon dimensions. His political philosophy is, as Leo Strauss would say, “engaged in a project to change the world rather than understand it…from the high end of virtue to the low end of commodious self-preservation. Something genuinely human is in danger of being lost.” [4]

Perhaps I should not be surprised when there are adults who believe in Creationism, Postmodernism, and crop circles, but as a relative newcomer to this arena, I must confess a measure of naiveté. This text stunned me. To think there are adults who take this kind of purportedly serious thinking seriously, and in our Congress on this very day. I hesitate to explore what other pseudo-philosophies haunt our halls of governance with a potent foreboding for our future.

Until next time, the first Monday and 7th of November.

[1] Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 2002 [2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon And Schuster, 1987 [3] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975 [4] Leo Strauss, Straussianism, Mark C. Henrie, First Principles, 2011



July 4, 2016: A little good news about Western instability

Last time, closing remarks on this blog made note of Michael Polanyi’s lamentation, that Western civilization is inherently unstable. [1] In this post we ponder a particular aspect of instability that Polanyi points out in his final chapter, “The Open Society,” and the form of freedom he believes an open society should have.

First, a bit about Polanyi (1891-1976): He was a remarkable fellow, and part of historic irony. A Hungarian physical chemist, it was claimed he was destined to win the Nobel Prize, when instead of completing his scientific work he turned his attention to social issues. His son went on to win the Nobel for chemistry in 1986 ten years after Michael’s death, and two of Michael’s students also took home the award. Rare company. Michael Polanyi was also mentor to Austrian-born Frederick Hayek (1899-1992), another Nobel winner, in economics, and author of The Road To Serfdom. [2] A book with widespread influence that might be called the Capitalist Manifesto. The irony is that Michael’s brother Karl, in a complete reversal from Michael and Hayek, wrote the Socialist Manifesto, The Great Transformation, also with significant influence, both books frequently referenced today. [3]

Michael Polanyi’s book deals with modern society, without defining what modern means. Of course in this context “modern” means as compared to ancient, which was…what? I can’t resist creating this opportunity to drop in another remarkable fellow to help answer this perennial question, Marcel Gauchet (1946-). Gauchet’s Disenchantment of the World provides a rip-roaring thrill ride of how he believes we got to the modernity we have. [4]

Gauchet writes that before invention of the State, humans were “Projected into a world in which the order was irrevocably fixed in an earlier time of foundation. Each of us had an assigned place in this order we could not repudiate. In this world, our defining potential [to innovate] was preemptively abandoned. There was no question of who we were and how we fit in; no question on transforming the order of things.” But with invention of the State comes upheaval through State ambition, and a hierarchy where some are closer to the gods than others. Later, with the Axial Age (ca. 800 BC-300 BC) an attempt was made to unify the order of earlier religions under a transcendent supreme principle: God (prophetic Judaism), Nirvana (Buddhism), the Tao (Taoism, while Confucianism was a century earlier), or Reason in service of the Good (Greek philosophy). Suddenly “order was no longer self-explanatory,” writes Gauchet, “but depended on a higher reality or principle. Growth toward this reality then became possible through devotion or understanding.” In all cases the individual turned inward (prayer, meditation, analysis) to find the way outward. The holy was, “no longer an irrevocable past, and there were now ways of making contact with it,” says Gauchet. “Now we could change our relation to [this higher reality] by becoming servants to God, seek spiritual Enlightenment, or through reason grasp the Ideas.” The future was no longer fixed, and it acquired a measure of uncertainty. The old notion of a sacred power in things was attacked, and the world was disenchanted by man, with the holy confined to this higher reality alone (passport to modify the planet). This commenced the era when “religion would bring about an exit from religion,” claims Gauchet, and with that the opening of questions that were once closed, i.e. our role, purpose, meaning.

While the ancients expected tomorrow to be like today, we can never know what tomorrow will be. Herein lays an instability inherent in societies that focus forward rather than back. With the old roles lifted, freedom becomes central. Polanyi notes two forms of freedom: one that tends toward an absence of restraint, the other as liberation through submission to obligation. The first form is an individualistic freedom inherited, according to Polanyi, from the Utilitarians who defined the good society as that which creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Rational limits on this exercise dictates that one’s freedom must not interfere with another’s right to the same freedom. Without such limits, absence of restraint leads to anarchy. This is an anti-communitarian freedom. While rewarding to the individual, this theory of freedom is inspiring at inception, but not inspiring in long term practice because emancipation from the old chains are forgotten over generations.

The second form of freedom is submission to a “higher ideal.” It fosters community and the inspiration that belonging through submission to the ideal brings. Complete submission is what totalitarian regimes thrive on as witnessed in the first half of the 20th century. In such extremes the old freedom from arbitrary abuse of power is reframed as freedom from circumstance, from want, from fear, or some other universal that the State claims it must enforce. Polanyi proposes a middle road, one that already exists in science and law.

Contrary to modern hostility toward tradition and authority, Polanyi argues that society can be free and open only if it has both. Polanyi notes that during the European Enlightenment, traditional authority had to be rejected because it was opposed to the free pursuit of knowledge. “Once these opponents were defeated,” writes Polanyi, “[this notion] remained, but it came to imply that science required repudiation of all authority and all tradition.” And yet, Enlightenment science requires both.

How? Deeper understandings of reality are not the private conviction of a scientist, but released for open inspection of data, analysis, and conclusions by all others in the field. An iterative exchange eventuates in truth about nature as it is, that all can agree on. When that examination arrives at judgments substantiated by a tradition of examination and test, a respect for authority in science results, and real things are built. It is the true nature of nature that science holds as its central concern. Just as justice is the central concern of law. The institutions of law, courts, and enforcement, are composed of traditions and authorities.

But these traditions are not closed or inflexible. “While science imposed an immense range of authoritative pronouncements,” writes Polanyi, “it not merely tolerates descent in some particulars, but grants its highest encouragement to such creative descent. While the machinery of scientific institutions severely suppresses contradictions to accepted views about the nature of things [astrology, Creationism, UFOs], the same authorities pay their highest homage to ideas destined to sharply modify those accepted views [Relativity, quantum mechanics].” Polanyi calls this a “decentralized, free procedure of mutual adjustment.” There’s not only a tradition of practice with a belief this practice is the best one to reveal truth about nature, but there are careers and authority for those who do it well. “All these areas of free interaction operate within a tradition of discipline,” says Polanyi, while still being free to criticize and innovate.

By this analogy Polanyi expands to society at large. “A free society is not simply an open society in which anything goes,” he writes. “It is a society in which people engage in activities considered worthy of respect, with the freedom to pursue those ends…dedicated to various ideals. It cannot be a free society by being open to matters such as these, by being neutral on truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, honesty and fraud.”

A free society exists with traditions that provide a framework within which members make free contributions. “The freedom of mere self-assertion can lead only to disintegration of standards and institutions,” claims Polanyi. “It may lead from time to time in an equalization of interests that mutually tame one another to a point that people can live in a working balance. However, no one who holds the view that freedom is mere self-assertion will be devoted to maintaining such a balance: he will rather be devoted to upsetting it in order to achieve more of his own interests. As Adam Smith foresaw, the chief danger to balance would come from manufacturers, for none of them would have interest in maintaining a free system of competition. Their interests would lie in securing monopolies in order to control their markets.” Hence the need for rational regulations (as Frederick Hayek noted), just as government must be limited because humans are humans no matter where you go.

“Under this system of spontaneous order,” says Polanyi, “individuals are engaged in the competitive pursuit of personal gain. Scientists, judges, scholars, clergymen, et. al. are guided by systems of thought to promote the growth, application, or dissemination of that to which they are dedicated. Their actions are determined by their own professional interests, which do not aim specifically at promoting the general welfare of society.”

Objections to this system are that the public good seems surrendered to the personal motives of individuals, and that society will drift in a direction willed by no one. In a system of spontaneous order the public interest is not controlled by the state, but appears controlled by an irresponsible bourgeois. Polanyi argues that despite all the inheritance, family power, and class differences, oligarchies in societies of spontaneous order do not exercise anything like a controllable plan. With so many moving parts in such complex societies they cannot tell where they are going, nor control the direction of all the players. SONY’s famous 250 Year Plan fell to two boys who invented a company in their garage they later called Apple. “The plain fact is that necessarily man is adrift [in modernity],” claims Polanyi.

If there were a central truth in politics the way there is in science and law, actions in the public interest would be easy. That’s not the case, so persuasion in politics is a matter of one interest striving for as much power as it can get, to survive, and to oppress. Institutions must be built to keep these interests from destroying each other and the whole system. Those intuitions cost money. Hence, why America’s Founders emphasized economic interests, because prosperity pays for national defense and law enforcement to preserve individual rights, as an offset to despotism, not to coddle the rich as some delight in asserting. As Polanyi writes, “A higher level moral sphere exists on the basis of a lower-level sphere of profit, power, and parochialism of interest…crasser interests transformed, in operation, into moral principles like justice.”

“Only if we manage to abandon our deeply ingrained moral perfectionism,” says Polanyi, can we come to accept such a system. But if we let a higher cause, moral as it may sound, take over governance, then “moral inversion” eventually occurs. The State takes charge of morality for a perfected utopia as it did for Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Polanyi’s system is an imperfect moral system that can and sometimes will be immoral, which is paradoxically in service to ideals of truth, justice, and equality that can never be perfectly attained. “The evils which prevent the fullness of moral development,” writes Polanyi, “are precisely the elements which are the source of power that protect moral accomplishments.” Such a system is a bit like the internal combustion engine he writes, “it is noisy, smelly, and occasionally refuses to start, but it is what gets us to wherever we get. We must somehow learn to understand and tolerate, not destroy, the free society.”

Having made a career in pursuit of scientific truths Polanyi writes about, I, and the scientists I know, find politics in practice often unbearable. By Polanyi’s teaching, this is naïve, and it’s some relief to find our views too idealistic. We shouldn’t expect from humans the coherence we find in nature. But there’s just one problem that Polanyi didn’t raise, or likely couldn’t yet see.

Let’s look at that at another time. Maybe the first Monday in September, the 5th, 2016.

[1] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975 [2] Frederick Hayek, The Road To Serfdom, University of Chicago Press, 1994 [3] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, 2001 [4] Marcel Gauchet, Disenchantment of the World, Princeton University Press, 1997



May 2, 2016: Enlightenment, we owe you, but do those non-believers you made have a future?

When I was a small boy I found myself – not without resistance – in the pews of First Christian Church. For a five year old there was nothing more cruel than to willfully attire a child in his Sunday best. A little boy’s suit to cinch the torso, a colorful noose that restricted blood flow to the brain, and pants that I’d already outgrown. Added to this cotton confinement was the packaging of humans shoulder to shoulder in long wooden pews intended to stifle a child’s requirement to fidget. Had I known such treatment might be imagined as micro-aggressions, I’d have been well fit for our current campus tantrums.

My imagination cut off from the physical world, I was at times forced to surrender to the sermon. While ours was a church not fond of fire and brimstone, I did pick up bits and pieces of what even to a child seemed like highly contradictory messages: God’s love, God’s slaughter. But I never got much clarity on apparent incongruities. Either adult patience for childish questions was lacking, or adults didn’t have an answer either.

Much later at university, I broke the mental speed barrier of mathematics. Exceeding that boundary hit me like a sonic boom, knocked off my feet by the power of mathematical sciences. Not only to describe the natural world with amazing accuracy, but predict its future actions. Despite hollow assertions by a few postmodernists not yet forgotten in their graves, that mathematical conduit between mind and the physical world reveals Truth about nature. Those planes, trains, and cell phones behave just as scientific prophesy said they would. Science works.

In those far off college years, lingering contradictions about the world expressed by ancient writings of a relatively passive religious upbringing were revived. I’d get to the bottom of those religious riddles the same way I solved physics problems. I decided if God gave man reason, God given reason insisted satisfaction. No equivocations, no excuses, no mysterious ways.

Will and Ariel Durant penned well what I, like others before me, discovered, “Just as the moral development of Hellenes had weakened their belief in the quarrelsome and adulterous deities of Olympus, so too development of the Christian ethic slowly eroded Christian theology. Christ destroyed Jehovah.” [1] Morality evolves. Immoral slaughters in the Bible were not like differences in the comprehension of quantum mechanics between humans and chimps. As though only God could understand his murder of innocents, while mere humans dare not ask. To me, this was mythologized politics, made by people for people. That’s why the gods of every religion I studied, including the Bible, were so suspiciously human in their frailties. Which was not, nor could it be, a denial of higher powers. Rather a denial of human claims attributed to those powers.

Mix this approach with a born iconoclast, socialized in the anti-authority post-Sixties Seventies, and I was primed to embrace goals of European Enlightenment when I finally met it. As Peter Gay (1923-2015) wrote in his National Book Award winning volume, “Enlightenment united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom, above all freedom in its many forms…freedom, in a word, of moral man to make his own way in the world.” It was a Greek revival that in Gay’s gesture to Kant said, “Dare to know: take the risk of discovery, accept the loneliness of autonomy.” [2]

So I did. And was rewarded, materially, as are most of us in the West. With skills refined by Enlightenment’s natural philosophers like Bacon and Newton, one can not only predict the future, but combined with Adam Smith’s economic system from the same era, one can buy it. A period we call retirement. No more begging feudal lords for a portion of the food we grew ourselves to keep us in old age.

As with all social movements, Enlightenment was not without conflict. “The philosophe’s perception of a distinction between mythmaking and scientific mentalities was the perception of a fact,” writes Gay, “but since they came to it first through their position as critics and belligerents, they almost invariably converted the historical fact into a moral judgment, praising, indeed identifying themselves with one mentality, and denigrating the other. They translated their insight into an indictment.”

Likewise, when faced with campus preaching of Creationists, I went on the offensive. Disgusted with their intentional misrepresentations of science; their product of doubt, like the tobacco, lead, and global warming denier industries with word games seemingly plausible to a scientifically illiterate public; their indictment of science as a theory as though that meant a hunch, like cell theory, electrical circuit theory, Newton’s theory of mechanics, and their great nemesis the theory of evolution, all used daily to build real things. By that time I already knew Jesus did not say, “Know the lie and it will set you free.” [3]

Above all, Creationists had no models of nature. All they could do was build glass arguments, or put words in scientist’s mouth, then tell how wrong they were. It was clear that until Creationists were able to provide a more successful model of nature, corporate powers like ExxonMobil, Alcoa, and Cargill would use science to expand their empires. It was also apparent that each time Ken Ham, ICR.org or the Discovery Institute claimed errors in science in their Creationist “museums,” websites, or books, they showed how enslaved they were to it. Creationists proved to be as wrong as those scientists who fail to realize that the deepest facts of human nature are deaf to scientific explanations.

While my hair still sets fire when I’m within earshot of Creationist propaganda, I’ve softened since those years when I’d drive down to San Diego just to argue with ICR.org. I see that I was just as guilty as Creationists for what Joseph Campbell would say is missing the message for the symbols. [4] And I understand more about why believers of any stripe feel the way they do, why they seek comfort that modernity doesn’t provide, why they want to save something of tradition vs. fickle adulation of the new. I understand why they believe, but not yet how. I see this not simply because my own mortality is realized, though surely that contributes, but because I’ve recognized two realms of Truth, nature and human nature. When I replaced religious supports in my life with what could be proven, I was trying to reconcile a much elaborated approach to the human condition as we experience it, with an approach to nature as it is. In Marcel Gauchet’s words, our approach to the human condition in religious form provides an “illogical solution to our illogical condition” (being alive and having to die). [5] Bio-chemistry, physiology, physics provide no satisfactory answer to this problem. As the Durants ask, “Has all the progress of philosophy since Descartes been a mistake through its failure to recognize the role of myth in the consolation of man?”

Hence, Enlightenment and I are not as cozy as we once were. How that shakes out will take years to size up, but Enlightenment has been getting some bad press on this blog. It’s not new. “Ever since the fulminations of Burke and denunciations of German romantics,” writes Gay, “the Enlightenment has been held responsible for evils of the modern age.” While there are plenty of dispersions yet to cast, I will remain grateful for what those Europeans did.

But now that our freedoms have been won, and our “loneliness of autonomy” taken to its extreme, is this what we wanted when we jettisoned those illogical solutions to life’s illogical condition? As Chantal Delsol compares our eras, “Ideological man thought his combat for a radiant future symbolically inscribed his acts in capital letters in an immortal future world. Life had meaning; it stood for something, and could therefore quietly disappear behind its points of reference. Death did not mean an absolute end; it was subordinated to something greater and therefore devoid of any sense of catastrophe.” [6] Enlightenment chastened us with a biological expiration date, forgotten after we hit the dirt.

I’m reminded of a remark my niece once made concerning the age of a relative who was 90 at the time. It was an annual family gathering when she said, “That’s so old. I’d never want to live to be ninety.” I replied, “And you’ll be dead for countless trillions of years. Ninety sounds like a long time?” Half the attendees laughed, the other half, stunned. Leading one to respond, “That’s why we believe in everlasting life through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” And I’ll bet it is. The conception of infinite finality certainly troubles me on those rare occasions I fail to keep myself furiously busy.

I’m not suggesting a return to that good old time religion, but rather a balance of two realities, nature and human. Sadly, societies are like oscillators; they oscillate, forever out of balance. Idealized harmonic oscillators swing smoothly, but real ones, like real civilizations, aren’t so well behaved. They possess nasty nonlinearities, sent on some trajectory by a movement, whipsawed by a counter-movement. It makes me wonder if the arguments of Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, and E.O. Wilson gaining ground in the non-believers movement won’t one day soon be due for a damping theory. A theory of existence that accounts for undeniably rational facts of our natural world, and the irrational human condition as it is, much as we wish otherwise.

So what do all these spiritual ponderings have to do with a blog dedicated to political philosophy? Because political philosophy is dependent on a moral base, and morality has been historically dependent on religion or reason. As noted last time, philosophers have never successfully provided a reasoned argument that would bind people to moral rules the way an always watchful God did (a look to history shows this far from perfect). As the Durants wrote, “No reconciliation is possible between religion and philosophy except through the philosopher’s recognition that they have found no substitute for the moral function of the Church.”

As statistics noted in past postings attest, that watchful God is in retreat in the West, which leaves us with questions about the future. As Michael Polanyi has it, “Christian beliefs and Greek doubts are logically incompatible; and if the conflict between the two has kept Western thought alive and creative beyond precedent, it has also made it unstable.” [7]As statistics noted in past postings attest, that watchful God is in retreat in the West, which leaves us with questions about the future. As Michael Polanyi has it, “Christian beliefs and Greek doubts are logically incompatible; and if the conflict between the two has kept Western thought alive and creative beyond precedent, it has also made it unstable.” [7]

Personally, internally, maybe so. Externally, in civilization, maybe not. Perhaps the trite nature of our modern disputes is a tolerable outcome compared to what it was when people were so certain of their faith they’d engage in a Thirty Years War. I can see both sides of this coin. But I haven’t given up hope on a synthesis that does what so many have claimed can’t be done. If nothing else, such pursuits keep me furiously busy, concealing that expiration date.

Until next time, the first Monday and 4th day of July, 2016.

[1] Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, Simon and Shuster, 1968 [2] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Birth of Modern Paganism, Norton, 1966 [3] John 8:32 [4] Joseph Campbell, The Power Of Myth, Doubleday, 1988 [5] Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, Princeton University Press, 1999 [6] Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning in an Uncertain World, ISI, 2010 [7] Michael Polanyi, Harry Prosch, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975



March 7, 2016: Let’s hear it! Three tears for equality!

There’s a dominant storyline in America today: victims. Who knew there could be so many? Not that there aren’t victims. Last year, sixty million people were displaced by wars advanced by despots, and the vacuum created by America’s conquest of Iraq. When Wall Street got the Glass-Steagall Act removed by the congressmen they bought, gamblers speculated with our money to trash the world economy. Immediately after which they gave themselves $18.4 billion in bonuses. Plus they had several trillion in taxpayer dollars in their pocket, and kept their tools of the trashing - CDOs and derivatives - exempt from regulation, so why not get a bonus? Meanwhile the taxpayers, some of whom can share blame along with governmental programs to prod Freddy Mae and Mac, lost their jobs, homes, families. Since taxpayers can’t afford a politician of their own, America is run by people who serve somebody else. We’re all victims of that. But there are even people who get strangled on Staten Island for failing to give the state its tax for cigarettes sold on the street. After which a man angry about the incident executed two police officers unrelated to it. There are plenty of victims, but the victims I mean are those who seem to be pretending.

The radio laments that an upstart author was compared to successful, established authors, constituting an insult to her identity. The TV tells me there’s a lack of racial diversity among LGBT characters on television. And African American leaders claim that multimillionaire NBA basketball players are slaves on a plantation. Had I known as a boy I could be a victim of such inequality, I’d have paid attention in basketball practice.

But did you hear that the Amazon’s golden toad, Yantze River dolphin, Pyrenean ibex, black-faced honeycreeper, and West African black rhino just went extinct? Driven into extinction, forever, by one globally dominant species. Now there’s a victim. The rhino’s horn was ground up as a beer additive for – among other false claims - better sex, as though the planet needs more humans. Since rhino horn is made of the protein keratin, drinkers could have trimmed their own toenails as an additive, and saved the rhinos.

Instead, if you live in America, while these species and 2000 others blinked out of existence last year, you would have heard the sobs of college students. Coast to coast students marched, screamed, and sobbed, until their administrators resigned, over hurtful “micro-aggressions.” One micro-aggression occurred when a white student “commandeered” the Spanish word fútbol instead of soccer. Another was a photo of two girls with a mustache and sombrero as part of their Halloween costume. Never mind that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it made Hispanics victims of…something. Incredulous? See the link below and its references. [1]

Video of these events garnered all the requisite outrage and media attention meant to imitate community shame, now that communities are dead. There were apologies, contrition, tears on camera to dramatize the great conversion that perpetrators of micro-aggressions make in their obedience to conformity. Once done, we could all forget about it in time to feign outrage for the next aggression, a kind of American pastime.

Worldwide ecosystems collapse, America continues its slide unabated with what could be our first Emperor in Chief of Pomposity, and 300,000 were killed in Syria, while we hyperventilate about sombreros. As Chantal Delsol tells it, a people are made by hardship. They are also made by its absence. Hence, she notes, we have become a petty people. [2]

Some might see this striving for victim status as one of the sacraments of political correctness (PC): the oxymoronic notion that a common good of group-preferentiality must be obeyed, while simultaneously rejecting that any common good can exist, much less intrude on individual free choice. Every era has its fashions. But there seems something more fundamental to our tantrums than mere PC. I suggest one component is our concept of equality.

Equality was a central support of Enlightenment individualism. Our Founders gave us a Bill of Rights (not a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities) to ensure equality and freedom of individuals (not communities). What was the foundation of equality? Did it mean something once? Or did equality evolve, from meaning to something now trying so hard to be taken seriously?

Enter French philosopher, Phillipe Bénéton. [3] Bénéton’s book elaborates how innovative humans are with social structures, norms, and values – something the ancients saw as reckless. We’re never satisfied. Like the latest gadget, there’s got to be a better way, be it phones or rights, computers or equality. According to Bénéton, Enlightenment innovation in equality lacked a solid foundation. As the demarcation between Medieval and modern thought, arguments abound as to its Christian influence. Is equality a Christian inheritance thanks to Christianity’s idea of the person, each endowed with a unique essence? Or, while a Christian inheritance, does modernity make equality practical by transposing it from the spiritual realm to the temporality of everyday life? Or, lastly, is modern sovereignty of the individual something new, no connection to Christianity? (I chafe at these notions of sovereignty as no one is sovereign. At the very least each has been utterly dependent on a mother, without which they would not exist.)

As Bénéton tells it, Christian perspectives promoted rules of life for spiritual salvation, while modernity promotes rules of society through a legal process for what might be called material salvation of peace and prosperity. The Christian model imitated the Aristotelian with its stress on moral education to make humans more than they are. Modernity tends to leave humans as they are, elevating our flaws as an expression of identity. Early on, equality was expected to play out within confines of Christian morality with its checks and balances on individual excess. “But,” he writes, “the Founders failed to see they were setting a time bomb.”

Not according to George Washington. In his 1797 farewell address he said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” But religion defined how? By a loving God of the New Testament, or the same God that kills innocent first born, including infants and toddlers. See Exodus 4:21. God denies Pharaoh a choice, despite sending Moses with His demands.

The result of our more recent procedural society is that, “We no longer engage the heart to create indissoluble bonds,” writes Bénéton. Though he does not note that bonds fostered by common belief are unlikely in pluralistic societies with no state sanctioned religious or moral system. (See The Federalist for Madison’s brilliant but portentous solutions. [4]) Instead, we replace these indissoluble bonds with what we hope to be more dependable laws, procedurally administered by dispassionate third parties. Equality then depends not on common sentiments, but formalized rights.

One can see how we replaced sentiment with reasoned process, but as Michael J. Sandel has it, rights put the individual prior to the social. [5] This is an important edge on the Self, a preconceived posture in opposition to the social before the social is even recognized. What we give ourselves in one way, we take away in another.

With these evolving ideals we no longer share the same elevated essence. All are the same but we have nothing in common except our freedom to have nothing in common. With rejection of a common good and its hierarchy of values, rights float in constant clash, without anchor in nature, authority, or religion. “If rights are no longer based on nature, there is no reason to limit them,” writes Bénéton. “Anything one wants becomes a right.” Hence, there’s now a right to carry guns in University of Texas classrooms, a right to “non-sexed” restrooms in Iowa, autonomous cars reveal a right to drive, and from one presidential candidate, anyone claiming sexual assault “has a right to be believed.” In that case, the 2006 Duke Lacrosse team, and 2014 University of Virginia fraternity pilloried by The Rolling Stone should be imprisoned on false accusations. Human rights which substantiated equality have become particular to groups, not to humanity.

The ancient’s respect for vital distinctions of character is rejected by modern equality as the old view places some above others. Character threatens autonomy through inevitable comparisons to create another victim. Today the right to be different applies only to certain insignificant surface features. These differences make no difference, the way character used to make heroes. And if differences make no difference, distinctions between a host of issues are easy to lose, claims Bénéton: genius vs. farce, profound vs. superficial, decency vs. indecency. Under modernity every dogma is outlawed save relativism. “It is an evil to speak of the Good,” writes Bénéton. Because just what would that be, and who’s going to define it? We no longer have a reference. The modern human is liberated, separated from an order that transcends them, and a death sentence to meaning.

Part of that old order belonged to institutions Bénéton views as now a loose assortment of functions. Institutions like the family, school, civic associations, political organizations, church, and state, all having lost their forms (think Plato). And all, as Robert Putnum shows, descending in America. [6] Somehow, forms that once animated society held substance for people. Sentiments, not laws.

I wonder if this is reverence for creative innovation of these forms. Forms that make the man more than a man: the minister in regalia behind his podium, the judge in gown seated above proceedings. And conjure this: the father as patriarch of the household. These are precisely the forms we relish in dismantling. Even a child of post Sixties America in the Seventies (like I was) could see this as a means to self-indulgence. I was able to hide behind the latest evolution in equality to demand due consideration with adults, as a child, at the expense of community to demolish traditional restraints on me. Bénéton marks this era of the Sixties as “late modernity,” when final condemnation of the forms take place. Individualism’s battle against tradition won.

Given this evolution, deep down, does equality with our fellow human beings now mean nothing more than a statute? The evolution of equality’s reach has rectified many wrongs, from slavery to women’s suffrage. But today, popular violations of equality sound like pretending. To garner victims special rights and privileges under what Bertrand Russell called, “The superior virtue of the oppressed.” One more factor in the disconnected existence we’ve come to accept as normal. Where does this evolution lead?

Until the first Monday in May, the 2nd, 2016.

[1] Lukianoff and Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, The Atlantic, September 2015 [2] Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World, ISI, 2003 [3] Philippe Bénéton, Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, ISI, 2004 [4] Hamilton, Jay, Madison, The Federalist, Modern Library, 1937, (1787) [5] Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Belknap Press, 1998 [6] Robert Putnum, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Touchstone, 2001



January 4, 2016: Hedonistic hairsplitting and scientific certainty

Despite all my many efforts to combat daftness, it still visits me. And in the least likely of places, such as this blog where I ponder at length something I’ve read. One presumes that both reading and pondering would ward off daftness. But in real life, and as one learns in engineering, no system is perfect.

Days after posting my last entry on this blog I attempted to fix daft notions it contained, but it’s still a mess. That mess seems to come down to some quite subtle hairsplitting over terms and assumptions. As I’ve found, even defining gets dicey. It’s no wonder political philosophy and politics in general generates so much heat in this country. As the cartoon character, Elmer Fudd, once told Bugs Bunny, “It ain’t science!”

Last time I made reference to Gogdignon and Thiriet’s (G&T’s) assessment of the modern individual's willful obsession with work, and our destiny as hedonists, which didn’t happen. I then submitted their hypothesis applied only to white color professionals, not labor and trades, i.e. hedonism did matter to labor and trades because, “Their action tends not to be rewarding beyond remuneration.”

Well…really? While I maintain that most vocations are no longer in and of themselves inspiring (more on that below), does the domination of our workplace argue for a hedonistic life for anybody? If G&T are right, that we in the Western world now work ourselves to the grave by choice, where’s the hedonism in that? So, in this post, I reject the remark I made last time, and suggest that hedonism is not the goal for almost anyone, professional or labor.

But wait! During arguments with myself about this topic, I was confronted with another fine French philosopher from the same text in which I discovered G&T - Gilles Lipovetsky. [2] Lipovetsky convincingly says the opposite: hedonism has been not only a dominant player in modernity, but surreptitious. For him, a cultural transformation can be pinned down to France, May, 1968 (while similar events were afoot in the US). Lipovetsky submits that student movements of ’68 were unprecedented from previous revolts in their combination of unified action, like all such revolts that deny supremacy of the individual for a cause, but for purely individualistic reasons, like no such revolt. In ’68 there was no plan, no future, only challenge to every form of order, organization, and hierarchy as oppressive of immediate gratification. Students of that period, according to Lipovetsky, denounced capitalistic hedonism through a practice of hedonism in which complete permissiveness was demanded without restraints, reinforced by Freud’s (fanciful) notions of repressed desires.

Lipovetsky writes, “In no way did May announce the restructuring of society; indeed, it signaled the very opposite. It was the psychodramatic and parodic end to the [true] revolutionary age [of Enlightenment]. It augured the victory of individualism, and the irreversible privatization of the social sphere. May ’68 was less an antitechnocratic movement struggling for collective self-determination than a wild moment in our relentless descent into the world of modern individualism and personal autonomy.”

Recall that according to Louis Dumont, this individualist movement has a long evolution; from Greek Cynics to Roman Stoics, absorbed by Christians, changed by the Enlightenment, passed forward and amplified to deafening volumes in the 1960s. [3] This evolution exchanged virtue for liberty, duty for rights, responsibility for choice, belonging for autonomy, meaning for purpose. For Lipovetsky, the hedonistic spasm of the ’60s accelerated hedonistic tendencies common to all democracies, and steepened the tumble of what was already in decline. Social bonds weakened with withdrawal into private life, and people further turned in on themselves becoming indifferent to public life with little interest in ties to the collectivity.

While further hairsplitting might be enjoyed between Lipovetsky’s hedonism as cause vs. G&T’s hedonism as outcome, does hedonism really play a role in either context?

America is today a materialistic society, and I doubt I’ll confess to daftness on that. However, materialism - in its social sense as material possessions superior to spiritual values - is not quite hedonism. Materialism seems to have four causes: survival, sexual selection through display, rank in the primate hierarchy, and hedonism. While materialism is not necessarily hedonistic, hedonism is most definitely materialistic. Though Lipovetsky’s impressions of ’68 are inviting - the faddish character of its motivations and its permanent outcomes - hedonism as the outcome of our fall from belonging or its cause, seems less so. To G&T’s point, hedonism should have been the result of radical individualism, but it wasn’t. Instead, our materialism seems to me less about self-indulgent devotions to pleasure, than backfill. As Morgan Whitaker said, “Once on the material track, people strive for more to fill in for less.” [4]

But less what exactly?

Meaning.

I stated in an earlier blog my hypothetical distinction between meaning and purpose. That meaning is delivered to us from external sources – the loving pet, adoring child, trustworthy spouse, belief in God. While purpose, on the other hand, is up to us, internally determined. We’ve always got something to do. Echoing G&T (and Tocqueville [5]) so long as we stay busy, the realization that we have limited or no meaning whatsoever can be hidden. Hence, the effect of lost community, tradition, and religion, exchanged for the satisfaction of self-interest which our economic machine is built for. Of course there are still believers, and people still have families, both of which provide meaning. Both also took serious injury in the 20th century, and according to surveys referenced earlier, that trend is accelerating. The individualist movement powers forward.

Now we’ve arrived at “(more on that below),” and how I came to wrap this business about work, hedonism, and meaning together: “Work hard, play hard” is a mantra in America. From my own youthful experience in labor, the last half of that mantra was an escape. It was a kind of rebellion against making myself return daily to work I loathed, under the whip of my own needs and desires for income. At that age I could not yet separate need from desire. At one factory I worked in (when America had factories), each night on second shift from 4 p.m. to midnight I was confined to a one square meter space, performing the same repetitive action. Over and over, fast as I could perform it, as I dreamed about mealtime, and hoped my daydream didn’t cost me my fingers or a hand. For a 19 year old boy, I was chained to a dungeon. When the midnight whistle blew, I struggled to contain my euphoria until the freeway entrance a half mile away. There, my shouts through an opened car window echoed off the outer planets as I drove up the ramp. I did this to psychologically cut that chain with the power of audio. I bought a motorcycle to ride on trails as hard as I could ride it. I drove my car as fast as I could drive it. I skied as long as I could stand it. I fought factory confinement with outside activity.

My perception of this vocation is telling in a manner beyond personal idiosyncrasies. During the Great Depression, such employment would have been seen as a gift from God. During World War Two, it was seen as a duty to America engaged in the hoped for salvation of civilization. After the war, factory labor was seen as part and parcel of the good life, a mark of the responsible citizen on their way from deprivation to comfort. Things changed. We changed, and the system we made succeeded. My example as a youth, ignorant of the part I represented in that arc of transforming perceptions was merely one instance of that alteration. My actions were about an ordering of life I didn’t want to conform to.

But this sounds like an argument for Lipovetsky, that my actions were little different from students in ’68. I say, no. My actions were not about pleasure seeking, but the fact I saw no meaning to my labor. My purpose at the factory was clear – the dollar. Meaning experienced by these circumstances in previous generations was gone by the time I arrived because the sanctification of individualism moved past any remaining communal roles and their connections. My world was all about me, not some larger picture of the common good so cherished by the ancients, or more recently, by my parents. Be it labor or professional, how many of us today toil in service to a higher cause, or simply to pay the bills? I wanted the meaning my parents had, but didn’t know it. My rebellion wasn’t going to provide that, it could only be a tantrum for reasons unknown at the time.

What I sought was not pleasure, so it wasn’t hedonism, it was relief from whatever I couldn’t define. Those growing numbers of us today without tradition, religion, and true community, have cast off those anchors as an outcome of the individualist movement. We don’t seek a future of material pleasure in hedonism, but try in the only way we know (individual will) to cover for the loss of a past we don’t even know.

But if we don’t even know it, how can we seek to fill in for whatever it was with something else? Because we feel it. Humans are social creatures, starting with birth to mother that determines our meaning from the outside. She is the first valuation of ourselves. We don’t “know” that as infants either, but we feel it. Anyone who’s been around infants can see the importance of that connection, and we know what psychological mutations occur when this is denied. We moderns live in similar denial, but as adults, willfully detached, then wonder why our societies experience such dis-ease. This is why our so called self-realization is impossible on our own, because ironically it can only be found through proper relations with other humans in those true face-to-face communities that no longer exist.

Sadly, political philosophy, which I find so intriguing, is not physics. The precision with which one argues these topics is not a precision engineers would find satisfactory in making real things real. Devices built with the kind of certainty prevalent in political philosophy might work with better than chance randomness, but in engineering, that’s not saying much.

In science and engineering, nature is the unbiased judge. We test our understanding against it and find we are right, close to right, or wrong. Nature has no concern for us, it is what it is. We either understand it, or we don’t. In the human realm, no longer is there a certain test.

Perhaps this is one reason we so often argue past each other now. Who knows what’s true? For we modern products of that Enlightenment reason I so cherish, neither the Greek Cosmos, nor Christian order in God’s divine plan can result in certainty, and thus we have no reference. These views were once considered objective facts, external to us. Now they’re merely subjective opinions.

In America, our Founders intentionally demoted religion from fact to opinion in order to defang passions. Better peace with ambiguity, than war with certainty. Hence, government (not the people) was to be neutral on matters of morality, while the Founders hoped religion and morality would hold their own. That’s not what happened. Today, truth, values, evil, the good, and our individualistic lifestyles are all relative, chosen by the individual. What we have in common now is not a sacred human essence that the ancients held so dear (at least among non-slaves). As Philippe Bénéton writes, “What we have in common is the right to have nothing in common.” [6] We’re free. But deep down is there a growing sense that we are rudderless, and don’t know why? These authors make it appear that way, and my experience seems to agree, but “this ain’t science.”

Oh well. It’s early morning. The stores are open. I’ll feel better – for a while - if I go buy something.

Until the first Monday in March, the 7th, 2016.

[1] Anne Gogignon & Jean-Louis Thiriet, The Rebirth of Voluntary Servitude, in New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994 [2] Gilles Lipovetsky, May ’68, of the Rise of Transpolitical Individualism, in New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994 [3] Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism, University Of Chicago Press, Reprint 1992 [4] Brett Williams, The Father, Combustible Books, 2014 [5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Penguin Classics, 2003 [6] Philippe Bénéton, Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, ISI, 2004



November 2, 2015: Work ‘til you drop – the fruit of independence

Gogdignon and Thiriet wrote, “As a vehicle for self-fulfillment and personal growth, work has quickly become the focus of individual freedom, as its impure origins in physical subjugation and subsistence needs have been forgotten…transforming [work] from a means to an end in itself.” [1] For Gogdignon and Thiriet (G&T) this aspect of self-determination, elaborated by the Enlightenment to circumvent abuse, has become an abuse all its own, against the individual, by the individual. I’m reminded of that old axiom, that all great ideas commit suicide through excess.

Echoing modernity’s lack of orientation in true community and tradition that we saw from them last time, G&T write, “Since [the self] remains entirely undefined, the self becomes nothing but the act of its own definition. This definition immediately resolves into a new one, and so on, into infinity…Self-affirmation can therefore be achieved through pure action. It must take the form of an endlessly self-renewing project, in which we set ourselves new goals…[where] nonstop work becomes the ultimate measure of [our] being.”

By this point it was clear, this was not so much an essay to the world as a letter to me. I fully embraced (for the most part, still do) what G&T denounce, and what author Philip Bénéton labels “late modernity,” when individualism acquired warp speed from the Sixties. [2] I made full use of the new emancipation: rejections of authority, free choice, self-determination, and a level of work effort that would have made the Puritans blanch. From the standpoint of personal achievement, it eventually served me well, albeit not without pain for my parents in the early years. Later, not without some measure of pain for me, having lost those opportunities for connection that can never be recovered. When I left a career focused on the methods of nature for a quest to understand the human condition, I felt a bit like Linus Pauling when he said he was so engaged in his work that he met his son for the first time at his son’s fortieth birthday party. It’s a common ailment of our times. As G&T note, what was once engagement with the social arena is “exchanged for the exclusive relationship of the self to the self.”

“We can now understand why work has become the individual’s most important, all-consuming activity,” writes G&T. “Its exactions constantly feed the willful appetites that haunt the modern world. If freedom must remain permanently unrealized, work is the perfect place to exercise it…We are witnessing a strange reversal of perspective, in which servitude – be it voluntary or forced – becomes freedom in action…If modern consciousness ever pauses to rest, it only finds a void that serves to fuel its own anxieties. We have no choice except activity or void, work or anxiety.” Tocqueville rings in my ears, having pioneered this perspective with his accurate evaluation of Americans already by 1840. [3] But to take the point only slightly farther, G&T write, “Freedom today takes the form of voluntary servitude to an absent master. Modern man is his own master, yet he has all the characteristics of a slave. Although he is hyperactive, excessively vigilant, and extremely driven, it is entirely by choice. He works frantically because he is free; not because he is held in bondage. This is not a sign of madness; it is the logical outcome of modern freedom.”

For those with a career in the sciences or engineering, there are two sides to this. One side agrees with G&T’s assessment. There were those occasions when a 98 hour week would lead me outside a windowless lab building in the midst of darkness. There I could find refreshment under a smog piercing moon, its rays cast upon asphalt and concrete vistas of another American mega city. Schedules imposed on those efforts were grueling, but my brain needed a break. So I stood there in the dark, wondering what life would be like without equations, computer code, and radio frequency circuits.

The flip side of this experience was the awe one discovers with those deep emersions in nature. In my case, they were pierced by those equations, computer code, and radio frequency circuits. The concepts of things we will never see, only calculate and measure, can be very close to the edge of human capacity. So close that losing one’s mental pattern of understanding spells another struggle to get it back. Being in the presence of that understanding was something like a religious experience. To witness those equations lift off the page with a life of their own was the same feeling as the brush strokes that makes the painting, or the scene that clicks on stage. You didn’t want to leave it. What Alasdair MacIntyre extols as private practice that earns satisfaction by doing it to the best of one’s ability. [4] A private satisfaction with no publicity.

There’s also something to be said for all those individualists gathering to complete some great project. While as transient as G&T would decry, who would not want to have been part of building the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, Apollo moon mission, or Voyager now beyond our solar system’s heliopause. Most great projects can’t be done alone. But are such triumphs only possible by organized individualists within disconnected societies? The Pyramids, Parthenon, and Lighthouse of Alexandria marking the port to their great library provide arguments against this. (Incidentally, slaves did not build the pyramids as Cecil B. DeMille would have us believe.)

“We were mistaken to think that the emancipation of the individual would lead to the liberation of all desires and passions, to hedonistic self-fulfillment,” writes G&T. “Far from responding to the call of pleasure, modern man is entirely focused on the realization of his power to act, which is the sole indication that he is free.” Though one can barely imagine a laborer pining for another hour on, say, a road crew to dig another ditch. For them, in America, hedonism seems to matter. And why wouldn’t it? Their action tends not to be rewarding beyond remuneration. Often it’s “life eviscerating,” as Joseph Campbell coined our modern work. [5] Having toiled in several factories and on a road crew before my college years, I have some experience in these matters. What counted most on the job was lunch. Of course this is my perspective of labor, and surely – hopefully – there are those brave souls who truly do enjoy it, with a touch of MacIntyre’s private practice.

As witness to others still in the grind of whatever sort, my perspective is from the outside in now, and often I see what G&T meant when they wrote, “[Modern man] is no longer curious about the outside world or capable of aesthetic enjoyment. He has no time to wander freely, no time to waste in wonderment, reflection, or diversion. The self has dispensed with the outside world, and its tireless activity has now forbidden any intrusions…[sounding] the death knell not only of dilettantism but also of art.” And if you don’t believe that, consider modern art. Everything from “excremental works” (for $20,000 per can), to shouting until unable to speak, called “performance art.” With modernity’s disengagement from high culture, the replacement is cash culture or pop culture, while art is anything an artist says it is, and an artist is anyone who says they are. As with moral bearings provided by true communities now gone, we have no reference.

With all this in mind, my engagement with the workplace had a happy ending. Somehow, the utilitarian society I live in didn’t rob me of curiosity and that thrill of discovery. I left the workplace, not without reluctance, to expand my horizons. To write, to paint, to study other fields of science, history and philosophy, to reengage photography, hiking, and visits to what’s left of wilderness or antiquities the world over. Admittedly, I, like most Americans, have no community connection. And while G&T would be disappointed in my general lack of longing for those connections, at least I am enlivened by the wider world they advocate. Western civilization makes its rotation from confinement of the individual by someone else, to confinement of the individual by the self. What else can we do but make the best of it?

Until the first Monday of January the 4th, 2016.

[1] Anne Gogignon & Jean-Louis Thiriet, The Rebirth of Voluntary Servitude, in New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994 [2] Philippe Bénéton, Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement, ISI, 2004 [3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Penguin Classics, 2003 (1840) [4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2010 [5] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1987



September 7, 2015: Cerebral Birth Pangs

Godignon and Thiriet wrote, “As the world undergoes what has been called ‘the death of meaning,’ freedom for the [individual] has arrived, since nothing external defines him anymore. He is reduced to timeless, insubstantial, and empty subjectivity. Only two possibilities remain: activity (primarily work), or stagnation (the modern form of hedonism). Any residual ‘self’ resembles any other, and like the world on which it is modeled, this self is [void], insignificant, uncultivated, and without history.” [1] When I read this, I wanted to cry. Not because it was a revelation, but because I was sad to see, yet again, that others felt as I do, or at least as I have begun to feel. This time from the French, who have made epic strides to revive French philosophy since the disgrace of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan.

I wasn’t born with the insights of a Thomas Paine or a Christopher Hitchens. So, while always curious about the world, I was still a product of my civilization. Hence, I have personally experienced both the incessant activity, and stagnation (though only briefly as a youth) that Godignon and Thiriet note. Our American custom is to attach ourselves to the perpetual present – fads, fashion, thrills, this morning’s hottest celebrity, this afternoon’s latest outrage, and of course today’s emergency at the workplace. Our civilization has become one most responsive to primal urge, because we’re so busy, as Tocqueville could already see 175 years ago. [2] Depth – of any sort, really – is not essential to employment. I feel an absence of real and substantial history the more I learn about it. And the more I learn, the better I understand what Godignon and Thiriet wrote.

For years I’ve preferred the Durant perspective: “Our capacity for fretting is endless. No matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable. There is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval.” [3] With Durant’s evaluation, I could chalk up my attitude to that “stealthy pleasure.” Until about fifteen years ago when I read Allan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind. It was the sad birth of a new certainty and remains the most impactful book I’ve ever read. Bloom’s book was a commercial blockbuster that raised a continental stink in the US, because, in my opinion, it was the first and most courageous modern text to tell the truth about us as we are now. And, as much as can be done in a single volume, the whole truth, not only that half or less that serves our dogma, Left or Right. We American’s are no longer used to that kind of honesty, especially when delivered with such intense clarity. Closing generated mass editorials, conferences, disciples in and out of academia, a book of responses, a 25th Anniversary edition, blogs with later evolution of the Internet, and is still vilified by those who were stung the hardest.

In close competition with Bloom is Delsol’s, Icarus Fallen [4], and Sandel’s, Democracy’s Discontent. [5] I read a number of books to refute these perceptions including Levine’s Opening of the American Mind [6] which quite unintentionally so reinforced Bloom while struggling to refute him, it only made things worse. At the heart of all these works is the state of humanity in modernity, with reference to the ancients, given the colossal adjustment in human life between then and now.

As a result of these studies, my fear grows; that the world we made is an historic mistake. But fears are often fueled by uncertainty. As the opening paragraph above notes, and the thread on this blog indicates, this “historic mistake” appears strongly associated with the modern conception of the individual. While I embrace the individualist solution of busyness as it serves my purpose, it does not address issues of the soul, i.e. meaning, how we got this way, or if there’s a way out.

It’s easy to dismiss modernity for a rosy image of the ancients as I watch whatever I fancy on NetFlix, seated on a comfy couch from Canada, enjoying my one-gallon-of-water-per-almond (a bag full of them) shipped from drought wracked California across an ocean to my local store. (Sounds like Durant’s stagnation.) But the difference between the ancients may be arranged in two categories, material and spiritual. They were materially poor, spiritually rich. We are the opposite. And that’s the problem. We better stay busy.

Most of our success and advancement over the ancients can be placed in material terms – stuff, technology, biological longevity, comfort, convenience, obesity. However, the technology of access can be uplifting. Consider a jet flight to Delphi, Greece, standing amidst all that magnificent history. Or the Internet, a doorway to information and rubbish. And isn’t there a great deal to be said for the abolition of slavery? (Greece had slaves too.) Once a world industry with people stolen from as far away as Iceland for Arab countries, or Africa for America, now gone but for illegal trafficking that still lingers by comparison.

What the ancients had was belonging to true communities. Ours are long since dead, though the word “community” is used hundreds of times per day in the media. (Just listen for reports of next week’s gun massacre.) As Aristotle notes, and I agree, community is not simply a common location people occupy to ease exchange. But that’s what we have. Community was once about “a people” who belonged to a way of life they sought to perpetuate. But for minuscule subgroups like the Amish, Mennonites, or orthodox Jews, there is no community left in America. Having been raised in an individualistic civilization, I would find such subgroups suffocating. But I’ll never experience the deep connections they have. We are a nation of strangers now, more so with time. Independent islands evermore disconnected from our neighbors, often our own family, nuclear or extended, separated by demands of work that limits our time and expands our distance. For a growing number of us, the ancient soul’s peace is replaced by modernity’s purpose.

Enlightenment - that cherished era of scientific and philosophical discovery from roughly 1650 - 1750 AD - sanctified the individual, but at the expense of true community, and thus began the demise of belonging, faith, and meaning. We have emptied our soul once filled by human connectedness, and the meaning that belonging once provided. We as a society disposed of deeper connections in favor of individual independence, for good reasons, but with unintended consequences. We unwittingly damaged ourselves; we jettisoned all the old certainties; we live with eternal doubt about fundamental things. As Michael J. Sandel wrote with one of my favorite lines, “Liberated and dispossessed.”

Once the accepted moral hierarchy, defined as “the common good,” was replaced by individualism, we woke up in a world of self-contradictory dogmas. As a result, in the private sphere we’re confused as to just what is right, true, good, because nobody knows. This does not stop us from staking our flag in claim of certain terrain. But this is bravado to cover for the truth we hide from ourselves – that we are not in control and we don’t understand why. In the public sphere, liberals claim there is no overarching moral code as this is an infringement on individual choice, as they hyperventilate over the latest violation of an overarching political correctness. Conservatives embrace both the Christian morality of selflessness, and Adam Smith’s capitalism of selfishness. No wonder we’re confused.

And still, after all that, despite the current status of Western civilization, I’m not yet convinced that modernity was a bad trade. It’s true, by comparison to the old ways, we are on our own. But that in itself is not always bad. Long ago, trapped in a hyper-dysfunctional relationship, I learned The Great Secret: “It’s better to be alone than wish you were.” I’ll take free choice, independence, unattached to any sort of external objectivity, rather than suffer unending face-to-face combat, any day. Though it must be said, Bloom and the others are concerned with the nature of Western society, its norms and trajectory, more than calamitous intersections between individual men and women, which the ancients had too. Though Bloom et. al. see this as a symptom and/or contributor to our demise.

I’ve benefited greatly from the social movement those Europeans started in earnest with the Enlightenment. I had a career in the sciences they invented that allowed me to leave it to do as “I” wish. It’s a wonderful thing for me, and a slow motion disaster for society. I am both benefactor and hostage to Enlightenment reason’s dispersion of community. My perspective is expanding to others with acceleration, not, I think, for the better. As a result, the soul craves meaning. But blessings of individualism won’t allow its satisfaction. We’ll have to satisfy ourselves with activity instead. At least we’ve got that.

It seems to me the good news is, we now have the freedom through democratic and capitalistic institutions, virtually without constraint, to choose our own path (unlike the ancients). The bad news is, we now have the freedom through democratic and capitalistic institutions, virtually without constraint, to choose our own path. Consequently, I’ll be doing all I can to stay busy with the dual hope that I can keep that purpose train running, and that I am not too severely haunted by an absence of meaning. There’s something to be said for a sober response to the hand life dealt us. If Oswald Spengler [7] and Brooks Adams [8] are correct, there’s no steering the demise of Western civilization anyway, may as well enjoy the ride down.

Of course, if I believed that I’d never read another book on the subject, often as hard to crack as a stone, nor bother with coalescing those thoughts they generate on this blog.

Until next time, November 2, 2015, when we dig more into Godignon and Thiriet, and their take on the state of the modern individual.

[1] Anne Gogignon & Jean-Louis Thiriet, New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994 [2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Penguin Classics, 2003 (1840) [3] Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, Simon & Schuster, 2010 reprint (1968) [4] Chantel Delsol, Icarus Fallen, ISI, 2010 [5] Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Belknap Press, 1998 [6] Lawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American Mind, Beacon Press, 1997 [7] Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, Vintage, 2006 (1921) [8] Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, Forgotten Books, 2015 (1896)



July 6, 2015: Mount Economics – It Wasn’t Always So Tall

This time we’ll look a bit closer at that catapult of individualism: economics. Not from the standpoint of supply and demand, efficient markets, or Wall Street gamblers, but the development of economics into an independent ideology. Using Louis Dumont as a starting place, we touch briefly on how modern economics was born, evolved, and became paramount to our definition of the world we made. [1]

Modern perspectives on economics are now fundamental to political philosophy. As Dumont puts it, “Modernity has witnessed the emergence of a new mode of consideration – a carving out of a separate domain evoked by the word ‘economics’ or ‘the economy’ – a separate compartment of the human mind, a paramount value of modernity.” The ancients dealt with economic matters too, but these matters were associated with the public good, not an individual’s self-interest as there was no such thing as “individuals” in the ancient world, only members. With the exception of modern individual rights, economics has since become the very expression of the individualist movement, and this evolution has been of keen interest to this blog.

Modern economics is, among other things, the implementation of practical science as technology, made useful through engineering, taken to the masses by markets. I wouldn’t be writing this blog were it not for every link in that chain. I might not even be alive. We now assume economics is a field all its own, a kind of science of production and consumption. But its liberation from politics and morality is historically recent. Before this transition the concept of wealth was immovable property. Rights were granted by land ownership, enmeshed in the social organization, conferring power over others. Once wealth became autonomous as mobile cash, ownership of property as a form of power over people declined. All the old hierarchies were in flux around the same time, lending greater freedom to the individual. As Dumont writes, “When the authority of holistic hierarchy disappears then authority degrades into power and power into influence.” We have seen the positive and negative effects of this.

The transformation from selfless Christian morality to selfish economic morality was mentioned here last time (May 4, 2015) when we considered definitions of the human being. In that entry we considered how different definitions result in different political philosophies that accord with that definition. These different political philosophies then give rise to different societies people live and die in. It was my contention that Enlightenment definitions (ca. 1700) of the human being, with Enlightenment’s emphasis on individualism, were for good reasons: in response to their times, and also wrong in their fundamentals. Wrong because they established the notion that each human is fully autonomous, free of prior connections – an ideal foundation for consumerism. But biology says otherwise, with the connection between mother and child as the fundamental social unit that expresses what we are: social creatures prior to autonomy, dependent and connected. I submit the success of economics born from Enlightenment, with all of its miraculous benefits, has also saved us the trouble of social interaction. The economic promise to make individuals independent was a resounding success. With abatement of social connections goes traditional morality as a characteristic of groups greater than one. This resulting loss of morality, ethics, virtues, traditions, all as victims of our independence serve to exacerbate our growing sense of disconnectedness, isolation, and emptiness. Compared to the past, we are materially rich, socially and spiritually impoverished. We’ve decided without knowing it to trade one domain for the other. As Michael J. Sandal puts it, “Liberated and disposed.” [2]

These mostly European philosophers responsible for acceleration of the individualist movement and economics to service it, stressed sovereignty of the individual to break free of arbitrary power of kings and Popes. By the time these philosophers began to ponder new social systems, the king had been demoted, and the Church was about to be. Almost five hundred years earlier the Magna Carta formally started this long process when King John of England (1167-1216) accepted limitations to his power demanded by the barons he was taxing to pay for lost wars. John had already capitulated to the Pope during an era when the Church had turned its pursuit for heaven into a pursuit for the world. As Dumont clarifies and many have noted, this was in violation to the teachings of Jesus: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” [2] An expression of indifference, which in context makes clear which is superior, thus dismissing Caesar. Or, more accurately, dismissing worldly things like possessions and wealth as distractions from matters of the soul.

But bigger things were evolving for the Church than papal-king jousting. Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. It extended Johannes Kepler’s Cosmographic Mystery a hundred years earlier (1596), which validated Copernicus and his Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres fifty years before that (1543). What once belonged only to God, man was now in charge of. Some of the shine had been wiped off the mystery and it wouldn’t be the king that posed the greatest threat to Church authority. Even more than the Protestant Reformation itself (1524) that threat would be direct and indirect effects of science. Science is the force behind technology, technology is the power that drives modern economic expansion.

Seventeenth century accentuation of individual autonomy accompanied an often unstated religious and moral sense. Many, though not all (e.g. Voltaire), wanted religion maintained to balance the obvious dangers of individualism: selfishness, greed, hedonism. These men assumed such guidance would always be present. They were wrong, as some did fear and expressed at the time. Individualism and the rights created to sustain it would eventually reach a point where the law would determine one individual able to freely choose to end the life of another incapable of choice. Regardless of one’s political stance on abortion, it serves as a supreme example of modernity when something that has taken place since humans started reproducing, would now become philosophically justified as an individual right. (The reader might recall, this author is agnostic – not atheistic as some are found of confusing.) Such a right, like all rights, sanction the ascendancy of the individual, while simultaneously distancing them from the belonging, reference, and burden of true community.

With Mandeville [4] and Smith’s [5] dissociation of economics from traditional moral restrictions, individuals would be invited to determine their own morality, able to claim that their pursuits of self-interest were distanced from communal judgement as it served the new morality of private vice as public good. As Ernst Troeltsch noted, “Claims are no more proof of validity than needs are guarantees of satisfaction…” [6] And as Dumont points out, “Something that remains opaque in this transition in mental perspective is that the new morality regulates social relationships whether or not goods are involved.”

Economics is individualism in material practice. Economics is the jet engine under the wings of individualism that make individualism palpably sovereign and clearly visible, not merely philosophically held to be true in a political arena. Economic practice is now so refined we require no human interaction as our transactions can be done electronically with delivery to our door by unseen strangers. We’ve come to prefer this lack of interaction. This economic ideology would quite logically commercialize agriculture into the number one planet-wide selective pressure under which complete species now disappear. Often these species and their habitats are an obstacle to efficiency. Such effects are said not to be the proper purview of economics as they are irrelevant to “maximum utility of efficient markets.” All of this, from our growing isolation without moral tradition, to planet-wide modification by just one species was not created by economic perspectives, but accentuated by it, more even than the original philosophy of individualism itself. Economics is not merely a tool of analysis to tell us what happened or attempt predictions; it sets public policy to structure the very society we live in. [6] Are we the masters of our ideas, or do they master us?

But is this the final status for economics? There may be room for more realistic economic models. By “more realistic,” I mean models that take into consideration community responsibilities a bit closer to that home the ancients realized, one closer to a truer definition of the human, with the recognition that every economic decision has a traditional moral element. University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler’s recent book admits that capitalist economics has been overconfident of unrealistic theories. [7] (Incidentally, the University of Chicago has 29 Noble Prize winners in economics, called the Chicago School, which Thaler opposes.) Thaler shows that humans are not rational agents in economic transactions but frequently quite the opposite. The robotic “free agent” may be in for a common sense replacement by people as they really are. Perhaps not far behind is the realization that all economic transactions have a moral component demanding due consideration, and with that a return to a traditional morality of empathy that rejects greed as good.

Until next time: the first Monday in September, the 7th, 2015.

[1] Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology, University of Chicago Press, 1977 [2] Michael J. Sandal, “Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy,” Belknap Press, 1998 [3] Mathew 22:21 [4] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, 1705 [5] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776 [6] Stephen Marglin, “The Dismal Science: Why Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community”, Harvard, 2010 [7] Richard H. Thaler, “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics,” Norton, 2015



May 4, 2015: Philosophic Foundations – What Defines “Human”?

Philosophers have spent a great deal of effort attempting to define humanity. It used to be tool use, until chimps were found to use tools. Possessing a moral compass has been a long standing definition, until other primates were found to display morality in their sense of fairness, aid to the sick, and sharing. Language, mathematics, religion, and brain size have all been considered. Though it’s begun to look like other mammals have what might be termed a rudimentary language, and even lemurs can count, though so far as we know, they can’t solve differential equations. Elephants appear to revere their dead in “elephant cemeteries.” Dolphins have the largest brain-to-body-mass ratio of any species on earth. None of this is to say humans and other animals are the same, only that we share the same or similar traits.

For the purposes of this blog – and political philosophy - the question, what defines human? is more about what fundamental characteristics humans do have, regardless of whether other creatures share these or not. From these fundamental characteristics come the kind of society that strives to be in accord with what humans are, a society grounded on a political philosophy built on that definition. If, for example, humans are naturally wicked or unruly, a strong arm model of governance should be employed. So said Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his favoring of a monarchy. But if humans are naturally good, then shouldn’t they be able to govern themselves? So asked John Locke (1632-1704) in his preference for democracy with its stress on the individual (individual liberty, rights, equality). Get the definition wrong, and a mess is made – a society that forces real humans into unreal molds.

Until recently, religion, as well as natural law and morality, played such a large role in the human definition, one finds it inseparable in any survey of the past. Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) argued religion is not a requirement to discover natural law, nor then its antecedent, the human definition. [1] Right reason is enough. In Rothbard’s refutation of David Hume’s (1711-1776) “demolition” of any objective capacity to know human nature (the root of modern day social relativity), it becomes clear that, of course, passions command motivated reason, but not right reason. Hume did not distinguish. Maybe he didn’t know when he said reason is slave to passion. (Was only Hume exempt from this “fact”?) Motivated reason – quite popular outside the sciences and engineering – is a type of reason that rejects evidence in disagreement with what is already believed. In other words, lip service as the appearance of reason. American politicians, talk radio, and television are experts in this method. On the other hand, right reason restrains the individual from an act they could otherwise gain from - the application of which had a name called virtue.

However, in Rothbard’s analysis, and my own, there are unstated assumptions: that religion really is separable from the human definition, that “unassisted” reason (without revelation) is possible, that at its heart, right reason differs from motivated reason. While I agree with Rothbard, that religious inspiration is not a requirement for the human definition, these assumptions remain. Historically speaking, this subtraction of religious reference is new. Outside of the invention of agriculture, this separation may be the biggest change in the human condition. And it paves the way for the next biggest change: the separation of morality by modern economics.

In the practical day-to-day arena of America, religion and traditional morality were disconnected from the definition of ourselves along three parallel routes. First, our Enlightenment-influenced Founders demanded government be morally neutral in order to avoid imposing a morality on individuals. Gradually, Americans would assume the people themselves were to be morally neutral. This was not intended, but bound to happen in an individualist State. (Of course, moral neutrality is not neutral as it selects against prevailing moral standards.) Second, and for good historical reasons, America’s Founders expressly parted their government from religion by separating church and a state sponsored faith, though colonies at that time still funded their favored denomination. Third, the Founders demoted religion from fact to opinion, but an opinion that became an individual “right.”

Prevailing moral standards at the time of America’s Founding came from Christianity. According to Louis Dumont (1911-1998), Jesus emphasized empathy as central to humanity. [2] Recognizing the potential for error, we should then strive to be selfless. Jesus placed emphasis on what I’ll term here as spiritual morality, degrading the material world of the here-and-now in favor of a world beyond. “For what has a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” [3] But seventeen hundred years after Jesus, that "next biggest change in the human condition” arrived in the form of Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) Wealth of Nations. [4] Smith claimed that selfishness is central to humanity - a paramount interest in self-preservation, why not give into it? So long as we create a set of rules to play by, each can pursue their own self-interest by a new type of morality, of “private vice serving public good.” Smith reversed the Christian teaching by elevating the material world of here-and-now, seeking physical comfort for the greatest number of people. And it worked. Smith’s capitalist economy thrived in an atmosphere of “moral neutrality” and individualism.

It’s clear that traditional morality and economic morality are in opposition: selflessness vs. selfishness; empathy vs. “greed is good,” as Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) clarifies in his work that so influenced Smith. [5] Hence, the most profound self-contradiction in Western civilization, which is generally Christian and simultaneously capitalistic. (To point this out in public America risks condemnation from our political Right as though it were an assault on Christianity or, perhaps more sacred, capitalism.)

From Smith eventually arrives the notion that material wellbeing is a realization of social justice, not that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This change in the human definition changed our ideology (according to Dumont) and thus our actions from an ideology once based on “man’s relation to men,” now “man’s relation to things.” It might be predictable that at this transition the individual accelerates their separation from others via control of the natural world, achievement, displays of materially defined success, etc. As such, true communities disappear. After Smith, the plodding pace of individualism becomes a sprint, eventually to trample traditional communal life with its many duties and responsibilities that we moderns view as positively stifling.

So what is the fundamental nature of humans? First, we should accept that late modern humans of the West are a walking contradiction. We want love and independence, belonging and autonomy, someone of extraordinary measure to look up to and equality that guarantees no one is better than anybody else. Even our laws represent this confusion. In the US, Affirmative Action favors African American, Hispanic, and Native Americans (one line of my heritage). Simultaneously, Equal Opportunity Employment states no one shall be discriminated against (or favored) for any reason. It’s a recurrent conundrum for those who pay attention at their monthly diversity training when both laws are lauded as pinnacles of American fairness. (To note this contradiction in public America risks condemnation from our political Left, as though it were an assault on political correctness.)

The compensation of these contradictions produce what Chantal Delsol (1947-) terms “black markets.” [6] As Delsol writes, “The figures [our essence] of human existence are again [emerging] in spite of their illegitimacy [by late modern norms]. Ban the economy and the black market will blossom. Decree that religions are obsolete and you will have sects. Deny that human beings seek the good and the ghost of the good will appear surreptitiously under the guise of correct thinking.”

Black markets strive to balance our psyche. Modernity is filled to the brim with just such contradictions. Why? I submit it is because our definition of the human being has been distorted by a natural evolution of ideals born with Enlightenment philosophy of the 1700’s. Those ideals were established to deny arbitrary abuse of power by the king and the Church. What Enlightenment defined as liberty, equality, and autonomy have become something dramatically different.

It serves us well to look back at what the great minds defined as central to us. Socrates emphasized virtue, Plato knowledge, Aristotle our political nature. Kant notes morality. For Kant the source of morality comes from reason. Kant’s is a practical morality applicable to the faceless multitudes of strangers we deal with in business. But biology dictates we are social before we’re born. We don’t choose it. Physically and emotionally we are connected, utterly dependent on that first elemental society, mother and child. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both had a mother. They did not arrive on earth fully armed in defense of their individual rights. Individuality is naturally secondary, not primary.

This biological determination defines the human as a social being, therefore moral, and echoing Locke, therefore good, with all that implies for governance. (As with Enlightenment offerings, this definition is necessarily brief, begging questions like, Why is there crime? Why are there wars?) It is from nature that the template of humanity is born. We are social, as are other species: flocks of birds, herds of buffalo, schools of fish. Each seeks out others for companionship, safety, resources - society. An expression of social yearning, not social contract, as though we could initiate or dispose of our social nature with an agreement. Compare this to Mandeville, who said the only reason people form society is to satisfy material desires. And - prefiguring Marx – that morality was invented by moralists, philosophers, and politicians to make man social.

Morality, born of social bonds, does not exist in a fictional universe of one. (Take that, Libertarians – for whom I once voted.) In a world occupied by more than ourselves alone, universal moral codes have their place as an obligation on the individual. Aspects of individuality relinquished to the Good, not merely the good of all, but for the Self if that Self expects to flourish. To deny our biologically determined social nature and the morality that comes with it through modern hyper-individualism is to float us on moral water, seen so clearly in America, Left and Right, where erratic indignation and sentimentality serve as guidance.

If human social nature is prior to individualism, not just chronologically, but biologically, shouldn’t we rank aspects of individuality in accord with this reality? Not to make the individual disappear, but to rank the individual in a larger picture. Such an idea might have created a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The individual dare not be dismantled as the individual is forced to do in totalitarian regimes of socialism, communism, or blind nationalism leading to another “righteous” war. We can’t remake moderns into ancients and expect to make a better world. We’ve got 30,000 years of human examples to examine, with social systems more, less, or not the least in accord with human nature. Like notes that exist but not yet composed into a great musical composition, somewhere out there is the answer we’ve searched for from the moment humans expressed their condition in those ancient caves of France and Spain. By comparison, it’s relatively easy to find errors in a system, much harder to find a solution. If it were easy, after thirty millennia, we’d have found it. “A tall order,” as we say in America. Tall, as in stratospheric. Let’s see what we can find. Until next time: the first Monday of July, the 6th, 2015.

[1] Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 2002 [2] Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx, University of Chicago Press, 1977 [3] Mathew 16:26 [4] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776 [5] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, 1705 [6] Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, ISI Books, 2003



March 2, 2015: Why we are the way we are – some groundwork

This essay prepares the way for an elaboration of powerful nuances in political philosophy that have a deep impact on us. Nuance, philosophy, and politics are on a long list of least concerns to we Americans, but I suggest that with exposure to these ideas, Americans will be as stunned as I was to discover why we are the way we are.

Evolution of these philosophical ideas, born in Europe, have not ceased. Their beginnings are an amazing story. Their development has progressed almost in the dark. We now possess a set of ideas derived from the original that are so different as to be often the inverse of what began. Our views of self and the world were constructed piece-by-piece by these concepts, and we don’t even know it. We built a social system that now builds us. What is it? What should it be? These questions were central to the great political inquires of the West – ancient Greece (ca. 400 BCE), and the Enlightenment (ca. 1700 CE). As we witness the precipitous decline of politics as a worthy endeavor in America; the demise of ethics in every sector; and an acceptance of the hollowness of our principles now paid scarcely lip service, these questions should be asked again.

Political philosophy is at the heart of The Father trilogy. In the first volume of the series, the silent workings of this public perspective results in the Great Upheaval of 2057. In the second volume, with the cheery title “The Worst Of Things,” occasional Socratic debates between John and his followers make the philosophic failings of America and the West more explicit. Hence, the research, and this blog, where every other month I intend to peel back those unrealized matters that make us who we are.

These ideas are not peculiar to America, but they are particular to the West – as in Western Civilization. The Reformation followed by the Enlightenment were the one-two punch that catapulted the West into modernity. Humans left belonging for autonomy; community for individualism; virtue for liberty; hierarchy for equality; permanence for change. Today we take individualism – the basis of all these aspects - so for granted, most of us don’t know there were alternatives. We assume the way we live and see the world to be the way it’s always been, or at least the way it should be. But ideas – like anything humans touch – are never static. Humans are innovators, not just of technology, but of society. What is considered acceptable and taboo; our sense of others and ourselves; beliefs in nationalism and God – all are poked, probed, worn, torn, disposed of and recovered again in new forms. While this implies there are no “societal truths,” I don’t mean to suggest agreement with postmodernist notions of relativity in the root nature of the human being. (See John’s debate on the subject pg. 284-290, of The Father, print version.) In short, there are universal truths common to all humans. What a surprise, given our common biology and brain structure. But it’s not a simple matter. We are also self-contradictory creatures. Our natural yearning for belonging as social beings was emphasized by the ancients through duty and virtue (i.e. self-restraint out of desires for a common good). In opposition to this, our natural longing to be free of restrictions is now elevated by rights of free choice (i.e. satisfaction of desires with no agreement on a common good). That we possess these contradictions is one of those truths that allow us to understand why tensions exist between the system we made and what we are. Of all the Western nations, America - absent of tradition and its limits - now leads the way in this social revolution. What happens here will dictate much of the Western trajectory.

Next in this groundwork, a word about my affiliation to this subject – after all, there is a political element to political philosophy. We’re all affected by where and when we live. I was born, raised, and will likely die in America. I am part of a nation with positive and negative characteristics. A country increasingly dogmatic and polarized, mostly by our ignorance (including my own, thus the quest for coherent understanding). America now appears to be a place where all things are hopelessly politicized by both of our partisan sides, and we have only two. We’re very interested in which political party a person adheres to, such that we can save ourselves the trouble of deciphering whether their arguments have merit or not. Our educational system didn’t teach much, so we’ve got to check with our dogmas before giving a response to anything. We Americans are a people who find it very hard to give a straight answer. I want straight answers.

When education seeks employable people as its sole goal, then the tribal nature of what we created is predictable. Employability is a good first order intention. Saudi Arabia’s politically motivated education of boys in their radical Wahhabi schools, with zero employable skills, attests to the dangers of not satisfying the first purpose in tutoring. But in keeping with Enlightenment philosophy’s emphasis on “self-interest,” our education stops at vocation. We program humans to be mere consumers. The American machine appeals to primal urge with immediate, efficient, low cost satisfaction. An education in higher things, once practiced even here, has been replaced by more materially practical concerns. Deep learning, considered a requirement for understanding ourselves from our past for our future, such as Greek, Latin, and our own Founding Fathers, was discontinued decades ago or warrant barely a mention. We Americans live on a shallow surface. My hope is to dig deeper.

For me, late modern America is a place I neither love nor hate. Representing our opposing views with the words love and hate is not an accident. Ancient Greek support for moderation requires the application of reason, but we are an ever more emotional people. Terms in the extreme are how we announce our affiliations now. Referring to America with, “Love it or leave it,” is a trite expression of our conservative wing. Referring to our Founders as “the dead white males,” is a trite expression of our liberal wing. I adhere to neither, and feel myself as an (almost) outside observer.

All of these aspects of America are rolled up in me and my attitudes in one way or another. All the vital human things I learned – except the secrets of nature and its mathematics - I learned on my own from the Great Books. What I found was that whether it be the miraculous mechanics of the living cell or the brightest shinning quasar, few things compare to the lavish spectrum of marvels that humans produce, joyous and tragic. Political philosophy is among the most vibrant in that spectrum. While there is no such thing as neutral – including government / moral neutrality as these select against something - what I strive for from this study is an honest answer to the truth about us without partisan contaminants; why we are the way we are; ultimately how we might repair it. Now that some groundwork on the subject and my position have been elaborated, those nuances that shape us get underway next time, the first Monday in May: May 4, 2015.



January 5, 2015: My Long Silence

My last entry of September 1 was in appreciation of a Global eBook Award for The Father. At that time I was fully engaged in writing the second volume in this trilogy. Things were looking up. Then two things happened. First, my research of source material for that second volume revealed problems in a deeper study of Western civilization that shocked me. Some of this landscape I’ve walked before, but the big realization was that the ideals I have fully supported – present in the West from its founding - are the very ideals that appear irresistibly fatal to human meaning. Not a secret to philosophers, many have tried unsuccessfully to rectify this for centuries. Most of us are tacitly aware of the social symptoms large and small, like disunity, disconnectedness, isolation, retreats from ethics, monumental greed and common rudeness. Fewer of us – including me – have taken time to dig up the roots of these problems. That’s what volume two was meant to be about. The Father is, in a sense, the symptoms of social decline and their ultimate consequences. The uncovering of more fundamental causes were to be central to volume two, and what John goes off to find at the end of volume one. Hence the research.

And just what are these issues that paralyzed my pen? To be quite approximate, they boil down to one: individualism. Sounds harmless at first glance, and who could be against it? From individualism came the authorization (which became a demand) to question and challenge everything, especially authority outside the individual. The “discovery of individualism,” especially after it took flight with the Enlightenment (1650-1750), created a surge in innovation and personal meaning through exercise of the will in a way never before experienced by humans. People had previously been subservient to their role in a hierarchy determined before they were born. There was no independence, no self-determination, no rights or equality. That anyone would dare consider such ideas would have been revolting to ancient and medieval peoples. Meaning came from belonging to a true community of like-minded people known for life, in face-to-face relations with common beliefs, primarily that of religion. As Pierre Manent put it, in modernity “we are henceforth doomed to confront our autonomy without transcendent foundation.” [1]

In the West, individualism has triumphed in a 400 year battle with religion, tradition, community belonging, and the guiding reference these once provided. We traded virtue (self-restraint for the greater good) for liberty (expression of the will for self-satisfaction), and now live in an era when individual rights, expression, and gratification of every kind are paramount. A perpetual present where “free choice” is king - well suited for consumerism – and disconnected not only from others but from a past that once animated civilizations. I have embraced all these freedoms. But as Morgan states in The Father, “We…invent ourselves. We can just as easily uninvent it all. Problem is, once you know what you’re up to, you can never pretend again.” There comes a time in all our lives when this is a dangerous realization to make.

There is a direct correlation between education and religious belief. The more a population is educated, the less it really believes stories of murderous gods, miracles and resurrections. Be they one of the many resurrections listed in the annals of history, like the Egyptian god Osiris, or other examples that some of us believe are absolutely true. Or do we? There is an ever more strident tone from those appearing desperate to reassure themselves rather than convince others, notably in the battles of Creationism against the proven material success of science. Some of this is a reaction to smug, almost evangelical pronouncements from a handful of atheist scientists who have their share in generating the response. Pointing to atrocities in the Mid-East as the certain outcome of supernatural beliefs only fans the flames, and sounds a good deal like arguments I made at Creationist museums – looking for a fight - when I was younger. But the Enlightenment command to question and challenge everything, so central to individualist states, does not spare beliefs people consider sensitive. Sensitive because those beliefs give their lives meaning. Most on this planet are poor, their lives short, misery a daily fact of life. Belief is all they’ve got. Yet even in America, the most religious of Western nations, religious belief is in retreat. Those considering themselves non-religious were 5% of the population in 1930, 8% in 1990, 20% in 2013, reports UC Berkeley and Duke University surveys. The January 3, 2015 Wall Street Journal noted a front-page story on mass closures of churches across Europe, transformed into clothing stores, skate board play grounds, taverns. Congregations are disappearing. Apparently this is not true of Judaism’s stability and Islam’s expansion in Europe. [2]

As Boston University’s Peter L. Berger notes, it would take something like a genetic mutation to remove the religious impulse from humanity. [3] And there’s the problem. Our own human nature of the heart is denied by a human creation of the mind. Gladly, education continues to expand. Though most of it is utilitarian, avoiding philosophy, the urge to question everything grows more widespread. As a career physicist, I’ve been comfortable with the practice in science. And yet, even as an agnostic, the consequences of it in the social domain terrifies me. (Some presume agnostic equals atheist. Not so.) Our loss in the belief of anything not measurable creates a variety of social strains in modernity that the ancients were free from (they had other problems). Noted symptoms are an example. As Marcel Gauchet writes, “As though society is incapable of supporting its own internal contradictions discovered on the social terrain once religion ceased to conceal them.” [4] It is perhaps the irony of all ironies that, according to Louis Dumont, it was Christianity that had the single strongest hand in transmitting ancient Greek Stoic individualism to the Enlightenment through Christianity’s personal (individual) relationship with Christ. Followed by Calvinism that turned lose the Puritan idea of sanctifying the profane world with tireless, endless, obsessive work as a “calling,” becoming the Protestant ethic. [5]

In America, work is our purpose. Purpose we have in abundance. As Tocqueville noted in 1840, Americans are incessantly busy. [6] We’ve got plenty to do. (Purpose is internal, meaning is external, our value reflected in someone or something else.) On the other hand, meaning is inherent and irrefutable regardless of how bad things are if and only if we can keep our beliefs alive and unquestionable. That is no longer possible for a growing number of people in the modern world. When calling was attached to belief – seen as human participation in a divine plan – purpose and meaning were united. Once Enlightenment reason acted as a solvent on belief, work became a matter of the material world, not salvation in the next. Meaning became isolated from work but survived outside our toils as the longstanding gift of God. But God of the Judeo-Christian world was defined by ancient writings and traditions. It was open season on religion and tradition, targeted with the deepest philosophical scrutiny. Read literally, not symbolically, the beginning of dismissal commenced.

As history shows, the old gods depended on us, our perception of them to keep them alive. Those gods had been absolutely real to those people. They didn’t sacrifice, in some cases, humans, because they thought their gods were myth. They all had their witnesses, and held that their gods existed regardless of belief in them. But when perceptions changed, the gods were buried. Do current trends imply we’re on the same path? Perhaps our beliefs require a new definition – as Karen Armstrong notes, one that can match our scientific prowess. [7] In other words, must humans redefine our beliefs to save our beliefs and thus ourselves? Along the way, on the first Monday of each odd-numbered month, I’ll post to this blog my latest findings on these subjects.

So goes the first of two things that happened to stall this blog. The second occurred just days after I’d had a conversation with my mother, telling her how good things were. How I had nothing to complain about, knowing I would anyway. “It’s times like this,” I said, “I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake. But there’s one thing for sure in this life: whatever it’s like, good or bad, it will change.” Change it did. I was preparing for a coffee shop writing session, but running late. The routine was modified, and in the moments of catchup one of my six children was out of his usual place. (Those who are not animal lovers won’t understand, but my children consist of 3 cats, 3 dogs.) This was the cat, Cooty, that tended to everyone else in the house. There to mother any of them; come to me when there was trouble between them; and act as an almost constant appendage of mine. Then Cooty appeared in a panic, running straight for me as he always did when something was wrong. He fell and began to convulse as I hesitated for the longest second, staring at him. I ran to him like a fool, pleading with him to tell me what was wrong, his mouth wide, eyes buldged, already dilating. I could think of no reason for this. Seized with panic I could think of nothing. The best I could do was assume a heart attack, but he was only 12, an indoor cat. My job seemed to be to comfort him, to be there in these last terrifying seconds as oxygen ran out in his brain, hearing me tell him how much I loved him, how everything would be OK. I held him and scratched his head in the way he liked as he stopped moving and I kept talking, telling him what a good boy he was. This happened to me before, in life and in a scene I wrote about, and maybe that was the only thing I had to reference under the circumstances. Later I found he’d chewed off a piece of carpet backing. Online I discovered there are ways to save a choking cat. I didn’t know this. I’d never seen a cat choke. But I was the man with 21 patents. My career was spent thinking of new ways to solve hard problems. I was decisive under pressure. There wasn’t a situation I feared I could not solve. In those few instants on that autumn morning all that changed. Decisive I was not. When faced with someone in their most dire moment, with trust I'd fix any problem, to do nothing feels like betrayal and a guilt hard to shake.

While 52 million people have been displaced by war, the northern white rhino functionally extinct with five remaining, and another Malaysian plane full of people lost at sea, the death of Cooty hardly ranks on a scale outside my home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still miss him. Tiger (a dog) doesn’t look for Cooty anymore, but Smokey (a cat) still does. Cats have different sounding meows that mean different things – at least to other cats. When I’m in bed at night and hear that meow that would bring Cooty running, it breaks my heart. Smokey seems to recognize Cooty’s photo as he smells the glass and frame, then looks behind it, like he’s going to find where Cooty’s been all this time. It’s surprising to me how large is the space occupied by just one of these creatures. Unlike we humans, they are pure innocence. When the nightly routine has each in their respective places, mostly pinning me to a fixed form and location in bed, then, like the long lost and rather "corny" TV ending of The Waltons, I say goodnight to each by name, including Cooty and two cats I lost long ago, Hawkeye and Sammy. In the world we’ve made where nothing is permanent, I suppose, like meaning, we have to invent it, and tend it to keep it alive.

[1] Pierre Manent, “The Modern State,” in “New French Thought: Political Philosophy,” Princeton, 1994, [2] Naftali Bendavid, "Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale," Wall Street Journal, 1/3/15, [3] Peter L. Berger, Ed. “The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics,” Eerdman, 1999, [4] Marcel Gauchet, “Primitive Religions and the Origins of the State,” in “New French Thought: Political Philosophy,” Princeton, 1994, [5] Louis Dumont, “Essays in Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective,” University Of Chicago Press, 1986, [6] Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,” Mentor, 1984, [7] Karen Armstrong, “The Battle For God,” Ballantine, 2000

Cooty


September 1, 2014: The Father wins Global eBook Award!

The 2014 Global eBook Awards have been announced, and The Father took home Bronze in the New Adult Fiction category. “As a debut novel, I’m grateful to see this book recognized by the judges,” says the author. “This adds to my excitement for the next volume in The Father trilogy. Thanks to the Global eBook organization, and a salute to all those authors seeking their ideal creation.”



August 6, 2014: Congratulations Goodreads Contest Winners! (Check here for delivery updates.)

Goodreads has selected 50 winners in the free book giveaway of The Father from 740 entries. Check this blog to see when yours have been mailed. Only country or US state will be listed as they are delivered into the hands of the USPO. Deliveries begin 8/8/2014. A book is a serious investment in time. We hope The Father exceeds your highest expectations. Thank you for your interest.

All copies of The Father destined for Australia and Canada were delivered to the post 8/7/14. Watch your mail!

Half of the 22 copies headed for Great Britain are on there way as of 8/8/14.

All remaining UK and all US books were shipped today, 8/12/14. That's it. All 50 books are on there way. Enjoy!



The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern EuropeThe Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe by D. Bruce Dickson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

July 19, 2014: The origin and travels of religious belief

This book is about the remains of ancient man and the varieties of interpretation these remains allow in regards to religious beliefs, while accepting that the interior space occupying skulls of long lost humans (and close relations) are hard to extrapolate. There’s excellent speculation on the subject based on the reasonable assumption that humans share the same wiring with fairly consistent brain volume regardless of timeframe. It’s amazing that different primate lines appear to have ritual, myth, and a sense of afterlife, including Neanderthals, perhaps even Australopithecines 1.7 million years ago. A university text in anthropology and archeology, Dickson’s book joyfully rattles the brain of readers, though in large part it’s written as a “report” on findings and hypotheses. In other words, not a great deal of literary story telling of the facts, as someone like Peter Gay will do (“The Enlightenment”).

Thrilling are findings on the evolution of religious belief. Cultures will inevitably complicate themselves (through innovations – technical & social) and religious practice tracks this complexity from small groups with a shaman early on, to cities with ecclesiastical organizations, creeds, orthopraxy, and orthodoxy as an end state. A survey of many hunter-gather groups (contemporary & extinct) to complex civilizations reveals the process: 1. Gods are gradually withdrawn from the local setting, 2. Anthropomorphism fades, 3. Religion is increasingly separated from everyday affairs (secularism), 4. Homogeneity of belief diminishes, 5. Religious system fragments (e.g. Reformation), poised for cult-state conflict. At least up to the point of codification, humans keep struggling to invent ways to make their gods greater, more distant, unconfinable, undefinable, as growing numbers of people intrude with greater numbers of common sense eyes laid on claims of priests, prophets, and miracle workers. Like the classical question of large vs. small republics in political philosophy - it’s hard to keep everyone thinking the same. Once the ecclesiastical state is reached, the gods – Olympian, monotheistic or pantheistic – gain universal powers, are difficult, dangerous and temperamental.

As Dickson notes, the more control (knowledge) humans have over their actions and future, the less they employ religion. A big step change takes place with the shift from hunter-gather to agriculturalist at the invention of agriculture ca. 10k years ago (see Wells, “Pandora’s Seed”). Notable was the hunter-gatherer’s absence of accumulation, low population density, absence of full time specialization, and feuds but no warfare. (With Ukraine/Russia, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Syria, China / Japan / the Koreas – maybe we should give that hunter-gather model another look?)

Recalling that this blog illuminates books that assist writing of the next (fictional) volume in “The Father” trilogy, “Dawn of Belief” serves that purpose well. “Belief” provides fodder for a chapter from which the temporary safety of their Arctic Circle hideaway, John and his comrades debate religion, its source, meaning, and place in America now shattered by civil war and foreign exploitation.



Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of EvolutionBlueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution by Maitland Armstrong Edey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

June 20, 2014: Facts of nature can sometimes win

Having this 1989 book on the shelves for so long, I feared its contents may be dated – not so. Why? Because it’s about how the idea of evolution evolved, from the 1700’s to modern times. The authors make concepts clear with good analogies, and periodically segue into conversation between themselves to clarify ideas. It works well, anticipating reader questions. Besides a step-by-step accumulation of evidence that built this theory, what the authors do best is presentation of the personal lives behind this drama. The mountainous insecurity faced by telling truth to dogma; fierce resistance to natural reality; human arrogance and missteps on both sides along the way. Many heroes go unrecognized or ridiculed and ostracized until long after their death. The scene between Archbishop Wilberforce and Darwin’s bulldog, the dazzling and sulfurous T.H. Huxley in a packed public forum of raucous onlookers was a thrill to read three times. The whole story is a prime example of how facts of nature can sometimes win against more comfortable and entrenched ignorance – at least in those nations and those times confident enough in themselves to accept that nature really has no political party.

The evolution of evolution did not begin with fossils of extinct human lineage, but with geology’s requirement of an earth billions of years old (rather than created on October 23, 4004 BC at 9 a.m.), and witness of living animals in constant transition thanks to environmental change (natural selection). Fossils began to echo the same theme. Mendel’s peas pleading for recognition of heritable genes; Darwin’s first flashes of insight on the Beagle; fistfights for the Nobel for being first to decipher DNA’s structure where we find natural selection at the molecular level, and, finally, how species try to stay the same while changing – a story well worth knowing.



May 18, 2014: Congratulations Goodreads Contest Winners! (Check here for delivery updates.)

Goodreads has selected 50 winners in the free book giveaway of The Father from 967 entries. Check this blog to see when yours have been mailed. Only country or US state will be listed as they are delivered into the hands of the USPO - no names or addresses will appear. Deliveries begin 05/19/2014. A book is a serious investment in time. I hope this one exceeds all of your highest expectations. Thanks again to all for your interest. (Once deliveries are complete your information will be deleted.)

5/19/14: Signed books for all winners from Australia, Canada, The UK, and the US states of AZ, CA, CO and part of FL were mailed today, 5/19/2014. US delivers are estimated to arrive no later than 5/27/2014. While overseas deliveries are provided no arrival estimate from the USPO, they suggest 2-3 weeks are typical.

5/20/2014: Signed books for all winners from FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, MA, and MD were mailed today. Delivers are estimated to arrive no later than 5/27/2014.

5/21/14: All signed copies of the The Father were mailed out to the MI, MN, MO, MS, ND, NJ, and NV winners today. USPO estimates deliveries by 5/29/14.

5/22/2014: The final block of Goodreads giveaway copies of The Father went out in today’s post. These include OH, OR, PA, TN, TX, VT, WA, and WI. The USPO claims delivery expected by 5/28/14. Enjoy!



May 1, 2014: Why do we die? Well...It's personal.

Given The Father deals with the trajectory of civilization, I’ll review a number of books I read that helped develop this idea in the story. But civilizations depend on individuals, so before perusing theories on why all societies eventually fail, I’ll start with our own personal demise (recognizing that mortality is very much part of why our social organizations are the way they are). In William Clark’s astonishing book Sex And The Origins Of Death we find death by old age was not a requirement of life, but it wasn't accidental either. Such a fact caused Morgan in The Father to ask, “Do civilizations fail, not by chance or circumstance, but because decline is intended, without knowing it? Like William Clark said of our aging bodies, death is worked toward without wanting to.” In my life, nothing has been more powerful than the recognition of death - not love, sex, money. Here's my view of Clark's book:

Sex And The Origins Of Death

From the outset, what UCLA’s Wm. Clark reports is staggering: Death is “not an obligatory attribute of life,” he writes, and did not appear with the advent of it. Cellular aging resulting in death may not have occurred for more than a billion years after life’s first entry on earth. Programmed cell death (PCD) which we suffer (displayed through wrinkles and forgetfulness) seems to have arisen about the time cells were experimenting with sex.

Sex is an energy costly activity, engaged in because it rolls the genetic dice, inviting variations with each new offspring. An advantage because with environmental change what was well suited in the old world is often not suited for the new. Gene variations result, and through natural selection, a few offspring amongst the dying progenitors may survive to save the species. For example, bacteria reproduce though cloning themselves, and can do so at a rate of 16 million per hour from one parent (take your antibiotics). But when the environment becomes harsh, bacterial parents spontaneously engage in sex, swapping genes with others as a gamble on survival.

In a description of catastrophic cell death, Clark displays a talent to meet or exceed even Sagan’s best – clear, rich, compelling. Here heart attack, and the wonder of cell machinery resist the inevitable as systems and their backups struggle to counter power failures and starvation in a chain reaction of fading miracles. Like a community, some components are wholly unaware of disaster while others sacrifice themselves, transferring energy to last lines of defense - pumps stationed in cell walls countering a siege of water pressing in about to wash them away.

Such stunning, intentioned actions of this tiny, helpless, complex organism, the cell (of which we possess about 100 trillion – as many cells as there are stars in the nearest 400 spiral galaxies including the Milky Way!) is starkly contrasted against our cell’s decision to commit suicide. This happens when life is late, or as early as the womb when ancient relics of evolution are flushed out of us - like reminders of an ocean origin when interdigital webbing of our onetime fins are removed through PCD, leaving what’s left between our fingers. Once the nucleus decides to pull the trigger, one last set of instructions emerge as its DNA begins disassembling. All the while a stack of unread commands are being executed by unwary elements of the cell. The cell detaches from its neighbors, undulates, breaking into globules while still ignorant workers in these blobs work away, floating into a void, devoured by immune systems. Awful…

But there are rays of hope for immortality. “Growth factors” are given to cells like lymphocytes to put a safety on their trigger. And there are executioners in this tragedy, T-Cells. Having spotted an invader they do not murder the foreigner, they command the interloper to kill itself, orders dutifully followed. T-Cells know the security code.

Clarks notes an important difference between us and other “primitive” life forms. For example, paramecium dodge death by letting their macro-nuclei run the show while a micro-version lays dormant. After enough cell splitting, it has sex with another paramecium. Its macro-nuclei suffers PCD and the micro takes over as a newly minted micro-nucleus goes to sleep. Once eukaryotic cells (what we’re made of) became multicellular, reproductive DNA would be not only kept in separate nuclei (as the paramecium) but in separate cells – our germ cells (sperm, egg). The rest of us, our bodies, are their guardians, not only redundant and irrelevant but we turn dangerous with too many divisions. When our germ cells meet others, clocks are reset just as they are for paramecium. Sex can save our germ cells but it cannot save us.

These growth factors, security codes, telemeres or some other mechanism may finally be commandeered to salvage us from oblivion. For now, as Clark writes, we must die and there are many mechanisms built into us to make sure we do. Death does not just happen, it is worked toward, with safeguards to assure cells don’t backslide into immortality – as cancer cells do, a recipe for disaster. The winner is our species because germ cells are immortal through sex as we contribute molecular chains of ourselves to the future and whoever is made of us. Clark reveals this and so much more. A pure joy to read.

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