Monday, June 27, 2011

Why I always thought "Freakonomics" was a scam

This is the latest "debate" on the intertubes (at least according to Andrew Sullivan and Momocrats). It brings to mind again that fools rush in where angels fear to tread; and not because it's a scary space, but because fools are, well....fools.

As I was saying, we've dealt with these kinds of issues before: if you make a thought experiment of it, it's easy to craft a hypothetical situation which seems too dire to allow for a rational resolution. Yet such a resolution must be found, and suddenly you feel trapped on the horns of a dilemma. That, or you are a first year law student in torts class, where no answer you give seems right, and for every rule of law you'd swear was soundly established, there is a contrary court ruling setting an entirely different precedent.

That is, until you understand torts, and law, and court rulings, and precedent. Until, in other words, you do the hard work required in learning to think like a lawyer. Which is not to say all decisions about law should be left to lawyers, but it is to say there's a reason laws are complicated, and judges and lawyers are educated, and that nobody really gets to put into action arguments about public policy as simplistic as Steven Levitt's (or, if they do, they don't stay in public office long, and the laws get repealed or ridiculed off the books). Honestly, law makes enough mistakes without being this dumb.

There is in the law, for example, the standard of the reasonable and prudent person. Lawyers will immediately recognize that fictional being has almost no relevance here, but this is for the non-lawyers, so bear with me. In trying to figure out hard situation in which justice must be done, but also in which justice must be balanced, the courts long ago recognized the concerns of society and the concerns of the individual, and sought to balance those. Thus appeared the reasonable and prudent person, who...well, here, let me give you the classic definition, courtesy of A.P. Herbert:

The Common Law of England has been laboriously built about a mythical figure-the figure of ‘The Reasonable Man’. In the field of jurisprudence this legendary individual occupies the place which in another science is held by the Economic Man, and in social and political discussions by the Average or Plain Man. He is an ideal, a standard, the embodiment of all those qualities which we demand of the good citizen. No matter what may be the particular department of human life which falls to be considered in these Courts, sooner or later we have to face the question: Was this or was it not the conduct of a reasonable man?
This noble creature stands in singular contrast to his kinsman the Economic Man, whose every action is prompted by the single spur of selfish advantage and directed to the single end of monetary gain. The Reasonable Man is always thinking of others; prudence is his guide, and ‘Safety First’, if I may borrow a contemporary catchword, is his rule of life. All solid virtues are his, save only that peculiar quality by which the affection of other men is won. For it will not be pretended that socially he is much less objectionable than the Economic Man.

Though any given example of his behaviour must command our admiration, when taken in the mass his acts create a very different set of impressions.

He is one who invariably looks where he is going, and is careful to examine the immediate foreground before he executes a leap or bound; who neither star-gazes nor is lost in meditation when approaching trap-doors or the margin of a dock; who records in every case upon the counterfoils of cheques such ample details as are desirable, scrupulously substitutes the word ‘Order’ for the word ‘Bearer’, crosses the instrument ‘a/c Payee only’, and registers the package in which it is despatched; who never mounts a moving omnibus, and does not alight from any car while the train is in motion; who investigates exhaustively the bona fides of every mendicant [beggar] before distributing alms, and will inform himself of the history and habits of a dog before administering a caress; who believes no gossip, nor repeats it, without firm basis for believing it to be true; who never drives his ball till those in front of him have definitely vacated the putting-green which is his own objective; who never from one year’s end to another makes an excessive demand upon his wife, his neighbours, his servants, his ox, or his ass; who in the way of business looks only for that narrow margin of profit which twelve men such as himself would reckon to be ‘fair’, contemplates his fellow-merchants, their agents, and their goods, with that degree of suspicion and distrust which the law deems admirable; who never swears, gambles, or loses his temper; who uses nothing except in moderation, and even while he flogs his child is meditating only on the golden mean.
That is a satirical definition of a fictional figure, but you get the idea. The law (common, not necessarily legislative; there is a difference) considers carefully the difficulties involved in commonly encountered situations, and seeks a way to resolve them that is as fair and just to as many as possible. What it comes up with may be easily portrayed as farcical, but that's because the basis for it is not what any one person might prefer. It is a clear attempt to set a standard that the affected community would largely find equitable, especially given the competing interests present in even the most insignificant of legal disputes.

And then there's Steven Levitt's "Daughter test;" which, frankly, is just stupid. And being stupid, it prompts stupid responses:

There are lots of activities we AP-class types find acceptable — drug use, gambling, etc. — because we sort of assume that everyone has the same level of impulse control that we do. And if you have good impulse control, then drugs and gambling are just pleasant ways of filling in your free time. ... But if you're not part of the AP-class cohort, there's a pretty good chance that your impulse control isn't quite as good as all that, and an excellent chance that even if it is, you're keenly aware that good impulse control isn't exactly universal.
The question of what is acceptable to whom is a valid legislative, and even legal, question. But presuming "we" are different (hem-hem, i.e., "superior") from "them" is...need I go on? Perhaps I should, with a pertinent example:

I had a client, some 20+ years ago now, who was a former narcotics police officer. Driving to a deposition with him (on a personal financial matter, small potatoes, nothing to do with corruption or drugs or anything interesting), I asked him about the drug laws and the "drug war," then not yet 20 years old. He said that if some people could only get ahold of Sterno, they'd use that to get high. You weren't, he said, going to keep certain people from trying to get high, no matter what you did.

I suppose Kevin Drum would say those people had "impulse control" problems. Or maybe they just want to get high, and damn the consequences. I heard in passing that drug testing of wastewater indicates a higher use of methamphetamines in the U.S. than previously thought. I guess a lot of us have trouble with "impulse control."

And, of course, who pays the price for Steven Levitt wanting to treat the world like we are all his daughter? Mexico is collapsing on its northern border, and the violence is spilling into America, because of the demand for drugs in America, and the fact that they are illegal. Drug usage has not diminished, and the costs of the "war on drugs" continue to rise, with no end to the battle in sight, and absolutely no declaration of victory, however minor, in the offing. We in America blithely ignore our part in what is happening. A pipeline has two ends, and that stuff isn't being pushed north, it's being sucked here.

The law, as I said, considers carefully the difficulties involved in commonly encountered situations, and seeks a way to resolve them that is as fair and just to as many as possible. The law doesn't say: "Well, I don't like it, so you can't do it." When it does say that (as it has with current U.S. drug policy, which is a creature of the Legislature, not the common law), it creates far more problems than it solves, and even creates criminal empires where none need exist. It is not a question of impulse control, nor of what I don't want my daughter to do. It is not even reducible to a simple phrase or a simple test.

The idea that public policy should be based on how I can understand its effect on me, personally, is the nadir of the "Me Generation." It isn't, as Douthat avers, a "touch of Kantianism." There isn't even a whiff of Kant about it. It's simply stupid and mindless. But maybe that's the magical thinking that turns apples into oranges.

And in the news today an event which prompts me to publish this post: the Supreme Court has decided that the First Amendment protects minors having access to violence and gore, but not to sex. Why? Because we've always done it that way:

California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read—or read to them when they are younger—contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim in-deed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales 198 (2006 ed.). Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. Id., at 95. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven. Id., at 54.

High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. The Odyssey of Homer, Book IX, p. 125 (S. Butcher & A. Lang transls.1909) (“Even so did we seize the fiery-pointed brand and whirled it round in his eye, and the blood flowed about the heated bar. And the breath of the flame singed his eyelids and brows all about, as the ball of the eye burnt away, and the roots thereof crackled in the flame”). In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they beskewered by devils above the surface. Canto XXI, pp.187–189 (A. Mandelbaum transl. Bantam Classic ed.1982). And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other
children while marooned on an island. W. Golding, Lord of the Flies 208–209 (1997 ed.).
That will undoubtedly be the money quote (or part of it) from this opinion, but this line should not be overlooked:

JUSTICE ALITO recounts all these disgusting video games in order to disgust us—but disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression.
Unless, of course, you find sex disgusting. Which is a longstanding American tradition, so it's okay to use disgust in that situation.

All of this, of course, could violate Levitt's "daughter" test. My daughter went through a phase where she watched violent movies, the kind of thing that would literally make me sick. It was kind of odd, since she saw a video about animal butchery that put her off meat for a little while; and she faints at the sight of blood, or even when she gets an injection. But she enjoyed violent films. Should I support the ban of violence in books, movies, and video games?

I dunno. I find the whole conversation disgusting. Maybe I should support a law banning it, so my daughter never has to hear about it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I'm not sure what it means....

I have a burning desire to introduce Stephen Metcalf to Reinhold Niebuhr:

Another way to put it—and here lies the legacy of Keynes—is that a free society is an interplay between a more-or-less permanent framework of social commitments, and the oasis of economic liberty that lies within it. The nontrivial question is: What risks (to health, loss of employment, etc.) must be removed from the oasis and placed in the framework (in the form of universal health care, employment insurance, etc.) in order to keep liberty a substantive reality, and not a vacuous formality? When Hayek insists welfare is the road is to serfdom, when Nozick insists that progressive taxation is coercion, they take liberty hostage in order to prevent a reasoned discussion about public goods from ever taking place. "According to them, any intervention of the state in economic life," a prominent conservative economist once observed of the early neoliberals, "would be likely to lead, and even lead inevitably to a completely collectivist Society, Gestapo and gas chamber included." Thus we are hectored into silence, and by the very people who purport to leave us most alone.
Never mind the implicit invocation of Godwin's Law there (which always brings an end to every argument, or at least is meant to); Digby tells me this article is heating up the intertubes. I wouldn't know; my internet neighborhood is so far out in the sticks it's off the map. But it's an interesting article, if a bit facile (then again, it's Slate, not a philosopher's forum). And I have to admit I'm not familiar with Robert Nozick's work (a book-length response to Rawl's Theory of Justice? *Yawn!*) There are a universe of responses to any position, but I would simply respond to Nozick's position with this:
John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.
The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Charles Scribners' Sons, New York, 1952.

"Every thinking person," writes Metcalfe, "is to some degree a libertarian." Yes, but in Christianity, we call that original sin, not an original insight. The problem with libertarianism is not that it leads to false conclusions of the type even Nozick finally rejected, but that it makes a virtue of selfishness. Niebuhr (a much better choice for examining this problem than Kant, I'd say) recognizes this limitation, and also recognizes we must act to overcome it, or at least to keep it in check. The evil of losing my personal liberty is not outweighed by the evil of keeping my liberty as unchecked as possible: both ends employ the same means to reach the false conclusion of perfection (or, at least, of perfectability). In a passage that might well have been written in response to Nozick (and to Metcalfe), Niebuhr writes:

The liberal world which opposes this monstrous evil is filled ironically with milder forms of the same pretension. Fortunately they have not resulted in the same evils, partly because they are not as consistently held; and partly because we have not invested our ostensible "innocents" with inordinate power. Though a tremendous amount of illusion about human nature expresses itself in American culture, our political institutions contain many of the safeguards against the selfish abuse of power which our Calvinist fathers insisted upon. According to the accepted theory, our democracy owes everything to the believers in the innocency and perfectibility of man and little to the reservations about human nature which emanated from the Christianity of New England. But fortunately there are quite a few accents in our constitution which spell out the warning of John Cotton: "Let all the world give mortall man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will. . . . And they that have the liberty to speak great things you will find that they will speak: great blasphemies."
And Niebuhr neither limited, nor excused, the Church or the religious believers from this error:

In any event we have to deal with a vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history.
I should note, again, he wrote those words in 1952. 59 years later, they still describe the situation America finds itself in. Good to know there's been some progress.....

Just consider that quote from Adams, against Nozick's idea of "liberty:"

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.
Nozick is, of course, asking for power; the power to preserve his liberty against all perceived challenges. And isn't that standard precisely the one that convinces us we are doing God's service when we are actually violating all of God's laws? Or at least tearing up precisely what we mean to preserve, if you prefer non-religious language? According to Metcalf, Nozick finally repudiated this position.

"The libertarian position I once propounded," Nozick wrote in an essay published in the late '80s, "now seems to me seriously inadequate." In Anarchy democracy was nowhere to be found; Nozick now believed that democratic institutions "express and symbolize … our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction." In Anarchy, the best government was the least government, a value-neutral enforcer of contracts; now, Nozick concluded, "There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion ..."
(which, ironically, is not a great deal stronger, more persuasive, or all that different, from John Rawl's theory of justice.)

In other words, he came back to the conclusions of Adams and Jefferson. My only question is: what took him so long?

Oh....I think I know. And I dare to say religion had something to do with it; the absence, in this case; but clearly the presence, in Adams' case. Which is not to say this is a Christian nation after all; but the determined efforts to expunge all religious influence from all public discourse, efforts that began with the Enlightenment and reached their peak in 19th century Europe, especially in Anglo-American philosophy, is failing still to bear the fruit it promised.

Which is, more and more, very interesting....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The man with the hammer is handing out nailing guidelines....

Chris Hayes:

What he'd come to realize, he wrote, was that "it isn't a question of correct theory or incorrect theory, but whether or not the results of the implementation of that theory are right or wrong in a moral sense."
Economics began it's life as moral philosophy. Adam Smith was considered an ethicist. Utilitarianism, which became wed to modern economic theory so thoroughly almost no one questions it any longer (see., e.g., Rawls' "Theory of Justice," which doesn't critique utilitarianism at all, but only seeks to modify its harsher, "Omelas" effects), began life as a moral philosophy. Almost all Western thought, upon the rise of the university, was considered a branch of theology, and theology was always concerned with ethics. It was only after empiricism took precedence over the system of thought (in the Anglo-American realm) that all thought slowly but inexorably became "scientific."

As I've said before, there's a reason existentialism and phenomenology are products of Europe (the "Continent") and give rise to schools of thought (such as modern day philosophy of religion, and many modern theologies) which are disparaged in Anglo-American circles. And there is a reason, which Chris Hayes doesn't quite touch on, why "efficiency" is preferred in economics (at least by the "Chicago school") over equity.

Equity, after all, is a product of the ecclesiastical courts. There is a reason English barristers wear robes and white wigs; it is a tradition. But it is a tradition that began with the Church. The barrister's robes included a pocket in the back, where payment for services rendered was supposed to be placed (without the barrister seeing it or, publicly at least, touching it). Barristers were related to clergy, and clergy were not supposed to be paid directly for their services. Money is the root of all evil, don't you know? But the traditions of equity in the law stem from the ecclesiastical courts, courts one could turn to in England at one time when the civil courts had failed to do justice, usually because of some "technicality." The ecclesiastical courts might be available to a party, if certain conditions could be met; and a greater interest in justice than in the letter of the law (or, more accurately, the demands of the common law) meant the courts of the church could offer relief not available in civil courts. When the church courts were finally abolished, the principles and rules of those courts survived in the civil courts as "equity." Sometimes, you see, the civil courts were too "efficient," and so the church courts had to be "fair." Contrary to what Professor Sanderson says in Chris Hayes post, society does deal with what is "fair" through its institutions, and has done so for centuries. Indeed, if we hadn't, the entire structure of the justice system would have come down centuries ago.

There is, in other words, always a moral sense; and setting it aside in the name of "efficiency" or, better, "measurement," is a fool's game. It is also, in the language of Professor Sanderson, grossly inefficient. Consider the state of the prisons in the United States today as one example: we can measure "justice" by the yardstick of prison time, and that seems to be a most satisfactory measure for many people. No politician ever lost office by arguing for stiffer prison sentences and more jails to house criminals, all of whom are dangerous, else why would we have to lock them up? But is the system efficient, at all? Are we really better off, as a nation, with the highest incarceration rates in the world? It's easily measured, but is it efficient? Shouldn't we consider a system that is more fair, that is more rational, that takes into account something other than number of prisoners and number of years behind bars?

Science is associated with measure, and measure is associated with truth, and the closer science gets to what is measurable, the closer to truth it comes. That is the assumption running about in the United States, anyway. "Hard" sciences have measurable data on their side, and therefore they are more "true" than "soft" sciences, which try to emulate the "hard" ones by getting data they, too, can measure. It helps if the data doesn't seem to need interpretation, of course. Interpretation introduces error, and error is the bugbear of "science." Or, at least, it's supposed to be.

There are still people who reject Thomas Kuhn's work in the philosophy of science, because he calls into question the measurement of the universe, and the reliability of data. But Kuhn points out a salient fact that is all to easily overlooked: all data is a matter of interpretation. Indeed, this was the simple secret of David Hume, the one that drove Kant out of his academic dreams and into philosophical history. Hume divided the world into two kinds of information: that which would be easily empirically verified, such as "This stone is heavy," (or weighs a specific amount, as determined by an agreed upon scale of measure) and "This object is beautiful." The former, he pointed out, was trivial information, of no real value beyond the obvious (perhaps, we could say, useful to engineers, but of no philosophical or greater value). The latter, he said, was merely interpretation, and could not be verified. And so it was equally irrelevant. What were we left with, then? Tending sheep, said Hume. Philosophy, he decided, trying to say anything universal about objects and ideas, was a mug's game.

Which pretty much shuts down science and, in this case, economics, too. If Professor Sanderson were to point out to me that "fair" is an indeterminate concept, I would point out to him that describing a system as "efficient" is really no different from describing it as "beautiful." His "efficiency" is really no more grounded in truth or science, than "fairness" is. Now what?

In truth, of course, we don't insist upon such absolutism, nor do we need to (which, if we stick to the realm of philosophy, is where Kant comes in; but let's leave that alone for now). Sanderson is insisting upon a kind of absolutism in his lectures, at least as Hayes describes them; one slanted to give him the outcome he prefers. When Hayes describes Sanderson's technique as "Socratic," it is precisely the carefully calculated approach of Socrates that Sanderson is following. Socrates was not so interested in discovering Truth as in establishing his philosophical preferences as truth (although more accurately, Socrates was interested in irony. Socratic dialogue, in its logical conclusion, is a snake that not only eats its tail, but swallows everything attached to that tail).

Back, then, to ethics.

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's Utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
We tend to think of ethics as a matter of individual behavior and individual concern; this is completely wrong. Aristotle's "Ethics," which introduced the word into non-Greek European tongues, was wholly concerned with the individual fitting into the society at large. Aristotle's advice, boiled down to its essence, was to find the happiest, most successful person in your society, and emulate him (it would be "him" for Aristotle). Conform, in other words, to what society expected and rewarded, and happiness (and success!) will spring from that.

It is well to remember Aristotle is the "observer" of the universe, and the prototype for the "scientist" as popularly understood today. He tries to draw his conclusions from what he sees rather than from what memories he recovers, as Plato's Socrates does.

So ethics, for most of European history, was a societal concern. Ethics was not (and still isn't, really) a matter of what was in your heart, but what was in your actions. And your actions took place in a society of humans, so ethics was a matter of how the society functioned, not how you got on with your personal concept of God or good. So when the concept of society began shifting, because of the Industrial Revolution, from property to productivity, from patronage to open markets, the question of how should we then live almost inevitably became an economic question (and it was no coincidence the influential economists in the 18th century were British, or that a Frenchman like Charles Fourier despised them). And so economics began its life as a moral philosophy, where the morality was for the society at large, or at least for the greater good. And, according to Chris Hayes' post, it's still a matter of morality: those who benefit are those who deserve to. "Trade works the same way as technological progress: While it might put some people out of work, in the end, it makes everyone better off." Or, in simpler terms, the greatest good for the greatest number. Losses are inevitable, and regrettable, but this is the great truth of the universe: "in trade, there's an enormous amount of agreement between economists about what constitutes the truth. The disagreements are between economists and everybody else."

Economics explains it all to you, if only you choose to understand. Not only is it ethical, it's scientific and therefore true. But, of course, nothing is that simple, especially ethics:

On the whole, then, we must conclude that no philosophy of ethics is possible in the old‑fashioned absolute sense of the term. Everywhere the ethical philosopher must wait on facts. The thinkers who create the ideals come he knows not whence, their sensibilities are evolved he knows not how; and the question as to which of two conflicting ideals will give the best universe then and there, can be answered by him only through the aid of the experience of other men. I said some time ago, in treating of the `"first" question, that the instuitional moralists deserve credit for keeping most clearly the psychological facts. They do much to spoil this merit on the whole, however, by mixing with it that dogmatic temper which, by absolute distinctions and unconditional "thou shalt nots," changes a growing, elastic, and continuous life into a superstitious system of relics and dead bones. In point of fact, there are no absolute evils, and there are no non‑moral goods; and the highest ethical life--however few may be called to bear its burdens--consists at all times in the breaking of rules which have grown too narrow for the actual case. There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see. Abstract rules indeed can help; but they help the less in proportion as our intuitions are more piercing, and our vocation is the stronger for the moral life. For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists. The philosopher, then, qua philosopher, is no better able to determine the best universe in the concrete emergency than other men. He sees, indeed, somewhat better than most men what the question always is-‑not a question of this good or that good simply taken, but of the two total universes with which these goods respectively belong. He knows that he must vote always for the richer universe,, for the good which seems most organizable, most fit to enter to complex combinations, most apt to be a member of a more inclusive whole. But which particular universe this is he cannot know for certain in advance; he only knows that if he makes a bad mistake the cries of the wounded will soon inform him of the fact. In all this the philosopher is just like the rest of us non‑philosophers, so far as we are just and sympathetic instinctively, and so far as we are open to the voice of complaint. His function is in fact indistinguishable from that of the best kind of statesman at the present day. His books upon ethics, therefore, so far as they truly touch the moral life, must more and more ally themselves with a literature which is confessedly tentative and suggestive rather than dogmatic‑-I mean with novels and dramas of the deeper sort, with sermons, with books on statecraft and philanthropy and social and economical reform. Treated in this way ethical treatises may be voluminous and luminous as well; but they never can be final, except in their abstractest and vaguest features; and they must more and more abandon the old‑fashioned, clear‑cut, and would‑be "scientific" form. (emphasis added)
Interesting how the economics professor wants to squeeze all the ambiguity out of the world, while "the American James, who seems so mild, so naively gentlemanly....remains, a genuinely radical thinker." As LeGuin points out, it was also James, in the same lecture quoted above, who pointed out that:

All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.
Need I point out that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were never about the past, or the present, but always about what was coming?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Who Sinned....?"

9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.

9:2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
I'm always searching for the fundament in any issue, the foundation upon which ideas rest which nobody notices, like the ground or the air around us; but which shapes the discussion in ways that go entirely unnoticed.

On "Fresh Air" today Terry Gross interviewed Dr. David Ansell, who explained that he went into medicine to help people, and found medical school wasn't interested in that at all (any more than law school is interested in producing public defenders or making the law more available to the poor; they aren't disinterested in that, either, but bringing justice to the greater society isn't the telos of most legal educations). He explained that disease doesn't have an individual etiology, it has a social one. People get sick because of the world they live in, not just because of individual behaviors. Yet medical school, when Dr. Ansell was a student, was still focused on disease as an individual problem.

And I realized that's the nut of the debate over "Obamacare" and Medicare and even (albeit almost silently) Medicaid.

Dr. Ansell told horror stories of 4000 people waiting for colonoscopies in Cook County, Illinois, because they couldn't afford private ones. These were not, he said, diagnostic procedures; these were people with blood in their stool already. It is a stark example of how we already ration healthcare (as he pointed out later). But the "Ryan Plan" rests on the idea that individuals are responsible for their diseases, and disease should be treated individually, and so individuals alone are responsible for their health. If you are sick, it's your own damned fault.

But, of course, it isn't.

I don't know how much of the cancer we suffer from in this country is due to carcinogens v. genetics, but the discussion has shifted away from carcinogens (the whole battle against cigarettes was based almost solely on that) and toward individual treatments and even individual causes (such as unfortunate parentage and, so, your genes). "Cures" like Interferon have vanished from the scene, along with any discussion about environmental causes of cancer. Unless research has proven this wrong by now, mesothelioma, for example, is a cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos. Asthma, not a cancer but a disease, is a disease that seems to be worse in the industrialized world. How do we treat it? As a society? No; with inhalers and drugs and on a case by case basis. Cancer is treated the same way; not as a problem of the environment we have created, but as an individual horror story that can only be surmounted by more chemicals ("hair of the dog") and radioactivity (ditto, perhaps) and surgeries, and then by an industry of support for the "patient" (many of whom may not be patient at all, nor should they be). We don't tackle it as a society, we push it off on the sufferer and their families. I've even read statements by public officials that health insurance should be provided by employers, not the government. So we push that away, too.

We shun responsibility like children who don't want to grow up.

Our diseases are not the result of individual choices or even solely our genetics. They are a result of choices made long before we were born, or far beyond our personal control. This, of course, has become the modern basis for horror. Now, instead of creating monsters like Dr. Frankenstein, or encountering evil in far off Transylvania, we are enslaved by powers that take control of us whether we like it or not. The theme of "Alien" is the same as the "Saw" movies: the worst horror is being at the whim of others, who don't care if you live or die, and who will inflict pain and death on you in ways you cannot stop. We recognize, at some level, the modern world we have created. At another, we refuse to accept that truth; and so climate change is a "myth" and cancer is a problem of finding the right treatment center for you. You are not alone, so long as you can find, and pay for, the right friends; friends who can also treat the disease you, and you alone, have.

There is something existential about disease. Tolstoy understood that; but then, so did the anonymous author of "Everyman." Death is individual, and so is suffering, so perhaps it is almost reasonable to assume disease is individual, too. But while "man is born to suffer as surely as birds fly upwards," we do not get our diseases in a vacuum, and we do not live on desert islands all our lives. But if we can treat your illness as an individual issue, then your healthcare is an individual issue, and it's a short step to deciding your health is none of my business.

When, of course it is. No man is an island. The funeral knell tolls for thee.

It's a simple shift in emphasis, from social to individual. If the problem is yours alone, or a sign of your disfavor with God, then society has no role to play and can only, as Auden said of history, "say 'Alas,' but cannot help nor pardon." And there you are: we have no responsibility for you, so why should we be burdened by you? "Mankind was my business!", Marley reminded Scrooge, but to this good day we remember Scrooge for weeping over his own misery, not for learning he was responsible for humankind. We still consider such problems individual matters, not matters for society at large. We learn the lesson we want to learn, we frame the problems and answers according to the frame that suits us. Is the problem how the government spends its money? Or that the government spends its money? Or is the problem that "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root"?

We know disease is a public issue. We have clean water and clean food and sanitary sewage in order to control disease and prevent illness. We know these things, but we act like they don't matter anymore, we act like those problems have been solved and are no longer relevant. I've heard the same argument made about "Bronze Age tribal stories" to dismiss the teachings and wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures. Technology may have changed, but has human society? If we are soon to be god-like, as Michio Kaku most recently suggested, will we be the gods of our dreams, or the gods of Greece? Zeus, according to Ovid, mostly used his god-like powers to rape women. The Greek gods usually caused havoc among humans. Ask Homer. Ask Odysseus. Ask all the women raped by Zeus, starting with Leda ("A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead."). Will our god-like powers finally sweep away poverty and crime and disease? Or will they simply make it even easier for us to ignore or bedevil those who don't have the powers we have?

Our issues, our problems, are all public issues, social problems. But changing society requires changing us; and time and again, we refuse to do that. Far easier for me to demand a change in you, and when I can't effect that, to wash my hands of the problem. After all, if you were a sensible and good person, you wouldn't get sick; or be poor; or be in jail. How can I possibly be responsible? How can I possibly be my brother's keeper?

Even as his blood cries out from the ground.....

It's a simple shift of emphasis. So simple we could make it; if we only chose to. I heard a doctor once describe it as finding babies floating in a river, and doing all you could to fish them out as quickly as you can. But the effort is overwhelming; there are more babies coming down the river than you can rescue. Still, you continue to try. But why, asked the doctor, don't we go upstream, and stop the person who is throwing the babies in the river?

That is the situation we are in. And that is the way we are dealing with it. We are trying harder and harder to fish the babies out of the river. But we are overwhelmed. Some of us are tired, and don't want to save the babies anymore. It's their own fault they are in the river. Or God or the market (two conditions which often appear alike) meant for them to be there. Or something. Anyway, it's not our fault, and not our problem. Not anymore. Maybe we'll take care of the babies who are in the river now; but as for the ones coming down the stream?

They'd better learn to swim.

Is this the country, the people, we are becoming?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Future Is Not What It Was

The problem with reading science fiction that "predicts" the future is that it always gets the future wrong, in laughable ways.

William Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic, for example, has six megabytes of storage in his head. Megabytes! If I can't put a terrabyte in my pocket by now, I can put several gigabytes in there in one drive. I know an intern at an engineering firm. They measure their hard drive capacity in terrabytes, mostly to hold the computer programs they need to compute the data they give it, and design what they have to design. That's terrabytes for one computer, not shared among several.

Of course, I can remember when megabytes was a very large storage capacity. But then, I'm old; not quite as old as William Gibson, but almost.

And Michio Kaku was just on BBC World Service, confidently predicting the world 100 years from now, when we would (finally!) have god-like powers. Apparently Stuart Brand was wrong in the '70's, and we haven't yet become as gods, but Professor Kaku assures us that we finally will. He made this prediction by saying that our grandparents would consider us wizards if they could see what we take for granted today. Well, I guess. Except I've met people who could be my grandparents; people who remember when the area I live in was farmland, and transport was by horse and buggy, and light came from kerosene lamps. We lived like that (well, the lights, not the horses) after Hurricane Ike took the power out for 10 days. It occurred to me at the time that the people who lived here when the area was rural, would have picked up the branches and trees (as we did) and continued with life almost undisturbed (as we did not). They could go to work; I couldn't. Everything was closed. Without powerlines, we were not wizards: we were helpless. We were stuck. At night it got dark, and it stayed hot, and we had to run generators that roared like motorcycles just so we could watch TeeVee; mostly because we didn't know what else do to.

O machine! O machine!

How wizardly was that? How god-like? And the people who remembered this area as rural, an area as urban as and suburban as any space in America today, did they marvel at what had happened? Were they overawed with our magical abilities? No, of course not. They were as alienated from each other as the rest of us. Technological power made them live longer. They no longer cured sore throat with bacon wrapped around the throat, secured by a rag soaked in kerosene. But neither did they perform magic tricks. None of us did; or do. It wasn't magic that cleaned up our yards and streets after Ike; it wasn't magic that restored our power after almost 2 weeks. There was no wizardry involved, no god-like powers invoked. 100 years after this area went urban from rural, we live more like the people in Forster's story than like the imagination of Dr. Kaku.

And I don't expect that to change much in another 100 years. The internet has changed us? So did the spice routes, and the Silk Road. So did the railroad, in the 19th century. The difference is that left a legacy that lingered for 100 years, in the lives of real people. Railroads were still important to people in my childhood; and I knew widows living on their husbands railroad pensions, well into the end of the 20th century. What legacy will the internet leave that is similar, and how much more has it bound us together than railroads did, or the telegraph, the telephone, the television? Bradbury was right: when we got cell phones, we were not improved, we were just compelled to be "in touch" even more, and to what end? None that has improved humanity one jot.

The future? Feh. In science fiction, the future is always run by tape drives or vacuum tubes or limited to megabytes. And nothing about it is improving of the human spirit; nothing about it makes us better people, more compassionate, kinder to one another, more aware of our mutual dependence. If anything, technology, communication technology especially, has fragmented us, and we have become more and more only the pictures of ourselves we can share with strangers, to prove we might actually exist. Exist; the fundamental issue of phenomenology, of existentialism, of what drove Kierkegaard to his melancholy and his vast output of writings: to solve the very modern problem of what it means to an individual to exist. That is the problem we wrestle with; that is the problem which haunts us; that is the despair that makes us sick unto death. To exist. What does it mean, "to exist"?

Will our technology tell us? Or simply make it harder for us to answer? Will our technology make us like gods? Full of power but lacking all wisdom? Armed with powerful potentials, but no richer in soul than we are now? And will that be heaven? Or hell?

Come, get bread without money, wine and milk without price!

Well, not quite. But Panera Bread (which began as St. Louis Bread Company) has opened a "Pay what you Want" restaurant in Clayton, MO (a St. Louis suburb and the county seat of St. Louis County) and it's working.

Speaking at last week's Sustainable Brands conference, Shaich said about 20 percent of his free café's customers leave more money than the suggested donation, while 20 percent pay less. What's more, some of the people who can't afford to pay for their meals have volunteered to work at the restaurant, thus helping cut costs in the only way they can. The Clayton location was working out so well, in fact, that there are already two more pay-what-you-can Paneras in the United States, one in Dearborn, Michigan, and one in Portland, Oregon. Shaich says he'd like to begin opening up one per quarter from here on out.

The key to his success, says Shaich, was opening shops in diverse communities in which richer people could help defray the costs for their poorer neighbors. He also replaced cashiers with donation boxes so nobody would feel ashamed for being too generous or needy. The result is socialism that really works, not to mention a lot of families who didn't have to go without food when they needed it most.
"Socialism that really works." Huh. Who'da thunk it?

Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Meditations of My Heart

WRIGHT: The governmental leaders, those — as I said to Barack Obama, my member — I am a pastor, he’s a member. I’m not a spiritual mentor, guru. I’m his pastor.

And I said to Barack Obama, last year, “If you get elected, November the 5th, I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.” All right? It’s about policy, not the American people.

And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about — although it got edited out — you know, that’s biblical. God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, “demn,” is where we get the word “damn.” God damns some practices.

And there is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn’t make me not like America or unpatriotic.

So in Jesus — when Jesus says, “Not only you brood of vipers” — now, he’s playing the dozens, because he’s talking about their mamas. To say “brood” means your mother is an asp, a-s-p. Should we put Jesus out of the congregation?

When Jesus says, “You’ll be brought down to Hell,” that’s not — that’s bombastic, divisive speech. Maybe we ought to take Jesus out of this Christian faith.
--Jeremiah Wright

Where is the good news?

I must have heard that phrase a hundred times in my pulpit ministry. At least my wife remembers it as one of the criticisms often leveled at me, probably not always unjustly. But what is the “good news” that we want to hear?

Jesus, according to Luke, said he’d come to proclaim release to the captive, sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. What he meant, of course, in Luke’s gospel, was that he’d come to disassemble the status quo. What is the good news, if you like the status quo? That God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world? Or that God has come to open the prisons and set the captives free, to give sight to the blind whether they deserve it or not, to heal the sick whether they are worthy or not? If you like things they way they are, and think people are blind and sick and imprisoned because God wants it to be so, and someone claims God wants to turn everything upside down and start over on an equal footing, is that good news? Luke understood that for every action, there is an opposite reaction.

Congratulations, you poor!
God's domain belongs to you!

Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.

Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.

Damn you rich!
You already have your consolation!

Damn you who are well-fed now!
You will know hunger.

Damn you who laugh now!
You will learn to weep and grieve.

Luke’s “beatitudes” don’t bless the poor and offer the world to the humble and the sight of God to the pure in heart. Luke’s version congratulates the poor in their poverty, and the mourners in their crying, because their state will improve. And in Luke’s version, it’s very much a zero sum game: someone goes up, and someone goes down. “Damn you, rich! You have had your reward!” There’s a tit for tat in Luke’s version, but it’s balanced and easy to follow: those who are down now, will go up. Those who are up now, will go down. It’s an idea that starts with Mary, when she sings to her cousin about what her child-to-be will do:

My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-56, SV)
The mighty are pulled from their thrones so the lowly can rise; the hungry are fed, the rich sent away hungry. It’s a balancing of the scales, one that doesn’t just raise the lowly, but that slaps down the mighty so their places can be changed. Where is the good news in this, especially if we think we are lowly, but find out we are rich and about to be sent away hungry?

When was the last time you were hungry? Not between meals, not after missing breakfast, but really, truly hungry? Hungry because you hadn’t eaten, and didn’t know when you would eat again? Are you sure you aren’t rich? Are you sure you want to hear the good news Jesus proclaims?

If the good news is that the captives go free, is that good news to the prison guard? Is it good news to the family who thinks that captive is a criminal? If the good news is that the blind will see, is that good news to the world, that everyone will see everything? Is it good news that the sick will be healthy? What will all the doctors and nurses and hospitals do? How will the nursing homes stay open? If the good news is that everyone will be released, is that good news to those in authority, those who control by fear or intimidation or moral suasion or personal charisma? If their rule, however petty, however personal, is at an end, is that good news?

It probably isn’t to them.

Who are the rich, anyway? Anyone who has something I don’t have? If they have it and I don’t, don’t they have more than me? Doesn’t that make them “rich”? But is there really any value in congratulations to the poor? Wouldn’t I rather be rich, or be thought rich by someone, rather than be poor? But if I am rich, am I damned? If I have already had my reward, is there nothing else to look forward to? How do I know I’m not rich, that I haven’t already had my reward, that this isn’t all there is? Lord have mercy, Jesus! Where is the good news?!

If I am laughing now, the only possible future for me is to learn to mourn. If I am not hungry now, in the future I truly will be. If I am rich now, I have no comfort to look forward to. Where is the good news?

Maybe I should turn away from Luke. Mark, maybe? Who are we in Mark, if not the disciples? And who understands Jesus least of all in Mark, if not the disciples? Matthew, then? With the wedding feast that ends with the king throwing out someone dragged in to fill the house, because he wasn't properly dressed? He throws him into the outer darkness, the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. He sends the poor guy to Hell. Or Luke's version, where people are forced to come to the party? Literally dragged in? You'll say I'm proof-texting to find the worst examples, and I'll say: "You're right!"

But what is the "good news"?

It's an unfair question, when I leave it that way. But I intend to be unfair for a moment. "God damn America!," Rev. Wright famously said, and still no one paid attention to him, until a congregation member became famous and his opponents tried guilt by association. So my unfair question is equally unlikely to attract any more attention than I already get. If we inquire of the Gospels whether God blesses America, we don't get much of an answer. If we inquire of the Gospels what the "good news" is (which is what "gospel" means), we don't get much of an answer either. "You have heads, use them!," Dom Crossan has Jesus say. Maybe we were meant to be in the position of the disciples in Mark: scratching our heads, constantly bewildered by what Jesus is saying and doing (the doing is as important as the saying, otherwise we'd all just read sayings gospels like the Gospel of Thomas). Maybe there are some questions we are meant to think about, not know about.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Generation Gap

The new bugbear in economic circles is, apparently, inflation. Both Atrios and Digby think the war on workers is based on a false war on inflation, and they scratch their heads trying to figure out how come, and marvel at the machinery of falsehood Republicans must employ to pull the wool over our collective eyes once again.

Which just proves neither of them were alive or paying attention in the 1970's.

My memories of inflation are admittedly fuzzy, but it was the worst problem facing America after the Vietnam War. Milton Friedman rose to prominence denouncing it, and made his monetary policy virtually US economic policy (I can't say how much real influence he had in the halls of government, but he had a great deal among conservatives) by declaring it would bring a final end to inflation. Robert Lekachman established it as a permanent problem of capitalism. Paul Volcker finally brought it to heel under Reagan by raising interest rates until the economy slowed down enough for inflation to die (there is a reason there are no more usury laws in the states, or that such laws are effectively toothless. Inflation was the culprit. There was a time, for you who don't remember, when any interest rate above 10% was a violation of black letter law and impossible to charge. If the sky is the limit now, you can thank inflation and the only solution to it anyone could find. The Fed's interest rates went back down, but the statutes didn't revert.).

Inflation, for more than a decade, destroyed buying power and eroded incomes. Most of the reason women entered the work force was not empowerment, but inflation. It gradually but inevitably took two incomes to pay for what one had paid for all along. Inflation did that. When it ended, under Reagan, we got yuppies and "Beamers" and $2.00 coffee, and the current rage for possession above all things. Inflation laid the foundations of the economic world we live in today. And yes, it's true fighting inflation is fighting the last war, but to wonder why that is happening is to wonder why people still talk about Vietnam or MIA's or the struggle for civil rights. It may not be sound policy to worry about inflation, but to act like it is a chimera is to act like the lessons taken from World War II that lead to our standing army and a permanent military headquarters (the Pentagon was designed to be an archive, when after the war we returned to a non-standing army status) are equally mythical, simply because that war ended before many of us were born.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Where does intelligence lead?

I've been re-reading old science fiction stories, stuff I read in my childhood. One thing I noticed was that the real "prophet" of the future was not the "hard" science fiction, which inevitably got technological progress wrong (it didn't foresee transistors, much less solid state circuitry, much less the "digital age.") Computers in the future still use huge reels of magnetic tape and run on vacuum tubes; Asimov posited that interplanetary flight would be done by steam (no, not steampunk. Steam.). Only Ray Bradbury seems truly prophetic: Americans go to Mars, and do to it what we did to this country. They remake the world in their image, and that image is still familiar to us. "The Fireman" and Fahrenheit 451 haven't come to pass, but the society they presented isn't so far from ours today. Bradbury foresaw lonely pedestrians in towns where nobody leaves the house at night, so engrossed in their TeeVee's are they. He also understood personal communicators (not quite cell phones, more like Dick Tracy's wrist radio) would turn us into chattering apes recounting where we were on the bus ride home (ever listen to someone talking on their cell phone? Very few of them are talking about anything but gossip and minutiae of their own lives. How much has technology really improved human society?). Bradbury, I've come to understand, focused on the human aspect of the "future," not the technological one.

But what about intelligence? What if we could make everyone smarter, make them think as we do, make them realize what is really important? What would they realize? Poul Anderson, in Brain Wave, imagined a world where the damping effect on human intelligence was removed, and everyone suddenly got smarter. How do they use it? To become more empathetic? To become better artists, statesman, philosophers, caregivers, teachers? To become more compassionate? No. They become better engineers, and abandon earth to the slow-witted, who are now as intelligent as the average person today. They take their technology and flee to new frontiers.

Clifford Simak would suppose much the same thing, as technology made it easier for people to live apart. In City he imagined a world without them, where cities were an atavism necessary for protection and communication, until protection was no longer an issue and technology could supply instant communication with 3-D projections (an improvement over flat TV screens). In one of the better stories in the book, this isolation leads to ruin when a surgeon, inured to his private estate, is too agoraphobic to leave and travel to perform surgery on a philosopher, a man whose ideas might well change humankind (although there, of course, the story turns to pure fantasy. If any one philosopher was going to change the course of humanity for the better and for all time, it would have happened by now.). His isolation, made possible by technology, has made him less human, not more human. And in the end, evolution (which always means "progress," and progress always means "better") wins out, and humans evolve intelligence great enough to, once again, leave the planet and everything on it, including their once beloved dogs, behind. To become more human is to become more intelligent and to lose call compassion or connection or concern for anyone not exactly like you.

Only two examples, but cite me one of a projected future in which people become more compassionate, more communal, more concerned with each other than with themselves.* The future is never imagined as more humane; it is only imagined as dystopia, or technological paradise. But we have seen the future, and it is more like Bradbury's vision than anyone else's:

I don't know Anthony Weiner and, like pretty much everyone else, can only speculate about why he did what he did, even after marrying a highly desirable woman. But I do know the rush of getting a text, or an instantaneous email response, or a "like" on Facebook, and realizing that someone is thinking happy thoughts about me. This feels good. Sometimes, depending on the sender, it feels really good. And however chemical-driven this reaction may be, it is easy to imagine wanting to feel that way again. And again. And ...

Therapists and religious leaders sometimes call this addiction, and I'm not qualified to say if they're right or wrong. I'm more interested in why so many perfectly decent, happily married people nonetheless engage, even fleetingly, in what we'd all like to tell ourselves is uncharacteristic, bawdy behavior. Perhaps cyber-flirting briefly eases the tedium of sitting at one's desk, day after day, trying to achieve something of value and wondering what's the point of it all. Maybe it promises comfort that someone has time for you or finds you attractive, when your spouse no longer seems to. No doubt it is, for some, a fantasy that helps one escape something -- a job, a marriage, the endless changing of diapers, that stressful commute -- that feels deadening. It helps one feel, let's face it, less lonely and afraid, more powerful and captivating. Or, in Megan Broussard's fateful word, hotttt!

Of course, besides being ephemeral, all of this soothing is utterly counterfeit, just like any other form of escapism. Visit the websites for women ensnared in electronic affairs and you'll see that they know they're being conned. Anthony Weiner surely knew this too; we all do. But loneliness, boredom, and fear persist in our everyday lives, and the old habits resurface. "Sexting is a lot less harmful than hard drinking or drug abuse," one might think. "Really, it hurts no one." But this belief too, I suspect, is false.
Francoise Truffaut caught this in his film version of "Fahrenheit 451." There is a brief scene where Linda, staying at home all day in her television room, cut off from all real human contact but thinking she's more in communication with the world than her husband, sits staring blankly while she fondles herself. There's only one sequence in the film where her husband touches her. Most of the time, she sits in front of a screen, staring and listening. Despite the easy communication of Facebook and text messages and e-mails and blog comments, it's not a human contact that is made. But it is human contacts that we want; it is human contacts that we need.

Recently the power went out in my neighborhood. The dry weather has caused trees to shed limbs, and one tree dropped a large limb on a power line. So the weather was fair outside, no stormy or windy, and everyone in the neighborhood came out to see what had happened. The result was that we actually talked to each other. I'm ashamed to say we hadn't done that before, but this isn't my parent's neighborhood, those post-war suburbs where everyone was much the same age, with kids. Some of us are old, having lived here all their lives. Some of us are middle aged, and raising our grandchildren. Some of us have no children, or they are very young. We have our separate lives, and the heat and humidity of the city keep us indoors. We prefer the technological comforts of air conditioning and the tools of communication to personal contact. We actually liked each other, we found out; but not that well. No block parties erupted as a result; no new bonds were forged. It lasted about 30 minutes.

The same thing happened when Hurricane Ike took down the power for almost two weeks. People came out to clean up their yards, to assess damage, to see who had power (no one did). Soon the generators began to roar as people closed their windows and retreated into air conditioning and the television again. The roar of generators made conversation outside impossible, and sleep inside difficult for those of us who had to keep our windows open. The only other time a crowd gathered was when the crews came to clear the trees and start to reconnect the downed power lines. Victims of our own technology, denizens of our own worlds, we couldn't wait to retreat into them again. And frankly, anyone walking down the sidewalk in front of my house is suspicious: what are they doing out at night? Why are they here? Why aren't they in a car, or at home, or somewhere else, inside?

Well, it's a big city, and there have been shootings only a few blocks from where I sit, and crime is not unknown nor an illogical concern. But I read about this life decades ago.

So what is human about intelligence? Engineering? Technology? What in modern technology has made us better humans? I agree there is little of it I would give up: but has it improved me, or people in general? And is it inevitable that it will, if we are just patient and trusting ("trust" is perhaps a clearer, less encrusted, translation of the koine Greek pistis, usually translated as "faith")? Or is it more likely technology will not change us, that we must do the hard work of changing ourselves?

Or is that just planting trees in concrete?

*I will correct myself. Moore's Utopia, which gave us the word, posits such a society; one in which the individual is subjugated to the society. Not such a stretch for Moore in a pre-Romantic era; but not one emulated since, in imagining, not "no-place," but our future.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

No, Sarah's wrong....

Not that Sarah; Sarah Posner, this time. The one Digby is quoting:

But Sarah's right, both about the innate hypocrisy of the religious right and the useful idiocy of the Religion Industrial Complex. Most importantly, I shouldn't have gotten so lost in my own gleeful snark that I failed to note that using the Bible as the basis of any political argument is antithetical to enlightened democracy. I hereby correct that mistake.
Better we should rely on the Laws of Plato, eh? Or the Nichomachean Ethics? Maybe we should look to Machiavelli? Locke? The Federalist Papers? Jefferson's letters to Baptists? At any rate, we should base political arguments on something we can all agree can and that can be read only one way! Right? Soon as we can find it.....

I mean, when Sarah Posner writes this:

Indeed, for many on the religious right, support for Ryan's government-slashing budget is found . . . in their Bibles.
There's certainly no room to conclude that many of us find support FOR government social programs, and even social our Bibles. Indeed, support not only in the Gospels but in the dreaded "Old Testament," right back into those Laws of Moses everybody knows bans the eating of cheeseburgers and outlaws homosexuality (which it doesn't, but then the Bible fits Twain's definition of a classic: a book everyone praises (or denigrates) and no one reads).

So I have been chastised and proven wrong again, and I should stop using the Bible as the basis of any political argument, as that makes me antithetical to enlightened* democracy.

After all, it's what Digby said.

*we'll argue over the meaning of "enlightened" another day

Sunday, June 05, 2011

and all the trees of the field shall clap [their] hands.

Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty,

give unto the LORD glory and strength.
2 Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name;

worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. Ps. 96.7-9
3 The voice of the LORD is upon the waters:

the God of glory thundereth:
the LORD is upon many waters.
4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;

the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars;

yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He maketh them also to skip like a calf;

Lebanon and Sir'i-on like a young unicorn.
7 The voice of the LORD divideth the flames of fire.
8 The voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness;

the LORD shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the LORD maketh the hinds to calve,

and discovereth the forests:
and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.
10 The LORD sitteth upon the flood;

yea, the LORD sitteth King for ever.
11 The LORD will give strength unto his people;

the LORD will bless his people with peace.

I only imagine the climate of ancient Palestine, but I imagine storms didn't come with the frequency with which they visit the Texas coastal plains. Lately, though, we have been as dry as I always imagine Palestine, and today it was as hot: 103, surely a record for this early in June. There were rumors of thunderstorms, but we'd given up any hope of it, and when the first thunderclap rolled across the sky, there weren't enough clouds to make us think we weren't imagining things. It was followed by another, and then by rain drops as wet and fat and cold as frogs. And then it passed, as quickly as it came.

And that was it; except it wasn't. The sun came out, the skies cleared, the winds settled; then it began again. This time the wind roared, and the rain came in sheets, even as the sun beamed through the clouds. There were rainbows in the rainfall, right above my driveway. And the trees waved and twisted and clapped their hands. And what could you do but shout: "GLORY!"

My garage had to substitute for a temple; my isolation for all the people.

And right on time (30 minutes after the storm has passed) the National Weather Service predicts a storm is moving through the area, and we should beware.


Saturday, June 04, 2011

The More Things Change Watch....

The Writer's Almanac:

[Machiavelli] also argued that most people value their property more than the lives of their friends and family, and so in some situations it's okay for rulers to kill their citizens, but it's almost never okay to take away their property. He wrote, "Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries, but not for grievous ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind where there is no fear of revenge."
We have gladly slaughtered hundreds of thousands (mostly by willfully denying the slaughter) in Afghanistan and Iraq (I stand by the studies published in the Lancet), and sacrificed thousands of American lives as well (for which we are supposed to feel greater concern) for the sake of oil and ideas. And all, of course, without serious fear of revenge (although fear of retaliation has been used to justify our actions, and is still used to justify our military operations to this day). I've often noted that if you want to be disbarred, at least in Texas, just mess with your client's money. Even sleeping through a murder trial won't get you removed from the bar, but taking $100 of your client's money for your own purposes will.

What has always fascinated me about Machiavelli is how close Reinhold Niebuhr came to agreeing with him.


Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Besides, pretexts for taking away the property are never wanting; for he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse. But when a prince is with his army, and has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties.

Among the wonderful deeds of Hannibal this one is enumerated: that having led an enormous army, composed of many various races of men, to fight in foreign lands, no dissensions arose either among them or against the prince, whether in his bad or in his good fortune. This arose from nothing else than his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valour, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect. And shortsighted writers admire his deeds from one point of view and from another condemn the principal cause of them. That it is true his other virtues would not have been sufficient for him may be proved by the case of Scipio, that most excellent man, not of his own times but within the memory of man, against whom, nevertheless, his army rebelled in Spain; this arose from nothing but his too great forbearance, which gave his soldiers more licence than is consistent with military discipline. For this he was upbraided in the Senate by Fabius Maximus, and called the corrupter of the Roman soldiery. The Locrians were laid waste by a legate of Scipio, yet they were not avenged by him, nor was the insolence of the legate punished, owing entirely to his easy nature. Insomuch that someone in the Senate, wishing to excuse him, said there were many men who knew much better how not to err than to correct the errors of others. This disposition, if he had been continued in the command, would have destroyed in time the fame and glory of Scipio; but, he being under the control of the Senate, this injurious characteristic not only concealed itself, but contributed to his glory.
Or, if you will pardon a longer excerpt, this:

EVERY one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word. You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man. This has been figuratively taught to princes by ancient writers, who describe how Achilles and many other princes of old were given to the Centaur Chiron to nurse, who brought them up in his discipline; which means solely that, as they had for a teacher one who was half beast and half man, so it is necessary for a prince to know how to make use of both natures, and that one without the other is not durable. A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about. Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this nonobservance. Of this endless modern examples could be given, showing how many treaties and engagements have been made void and of no effect through the faithlessness of princes; and he who has known best how to employ the fox has succeeded best.

But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived. One recent example I cannot pass over in silence. Alexander VI did nothing else but deceive men, nor ever thought of doing otherwise, and he always found victims; for there never was a man who had greater power in asserting, or who with greater oaths would affirm a thing, yet would observe it less; nevertheless his deceits always succeeded according to his wishes, because he well understood this side of mankind.

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.

One prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name, never preaches anything else but peace and good faith, and to both he is most hostile, and either, if he had kept it, would have deprived him of reputation and kingdom many a time.

The selfishness of nations is proverbial. It was a dictum of George Washington that nations were not to be trusted beyond their own interest. "No state," declares a German author, "have ever entered a treaty for any reason other than self interest," and adds: "A statesman who has any other motive deserves to be hung." "In every part of the world," said Professor Dickey, "where British interests are at stake, I am in favor of advancing these interests even at the cost of war. The only qualification I admit is that the country we desire to annex or take under our protection should be calculated to confer a tangible advantage upon the British Empire." National ambitions are not always avowed as honestly as this, as we shall see later, but that is a fair statement of the actual facts, which need hardly be elaborated for any student of history. (p. 84)
As for relationships between nations:

It is of course possible that the rational interest in international justice may become, on occasion, so widespread and influential that it will affect the diplomacy of states. But this is not usual. In other words the mind, which places a restraint upon impulses in individual life, exists only in a very inchoate form in the nation. It is, moreover, much more remote from the will of the nation than in private individuals; for the government expresses the national will, and that will is moved by the emotions of the populace and the prudential self-interest of dominant economic classes. Theoretically it is possible to have a national electorate so intelligent, that the popular impulses and the ulterior interests of special groups are brought under the control of a national mind. But practically the rational understanding of political issues remains such a minimum force that national unity of action can be achieved only upon such projects as are either initiated by the self-interest of the dominant groups, in control of the government, or supported by the popular emotions and hysterias which from time to time run through a nation. In other words the nation is a corporate unity, held together much more by force and emotion than by mind. Since there can be no ethical action without self-criticism, and no self-criticism without the rational capacity of self-transcendence, it is natural that national attitudes can hardly approximate the ethical. Even those tendencies toward self-criticism which do express themselves are usually thwarted by the governing classes and by a certain instinct for unity in society itself. For self-criticism is a kind of disunity, which the feeble mind of a nation finds difficulty in distinguishing from dangerous forms of inner conflict. So nations crucify their moral rebels with their criminals on Golgotha, not being able to distinguish between the moral idealism which surpasses, and the anti-social conduct which falls below, that moral mediocrity on the level of which every society unifies its life.... [A]s Tyrell the Catholic modernist observed..."So far as society has a must be self-assertive, proud, self-complacent, and egotistical." (p. 87-89)
For Macchiavelli, of course, "society" is the Prince.

What Niebuhr was arguing against was the idea of a "Christian nation," of a country (not a group of people) that would adhere to Christian principles. Those principles require sacrifice and "moral idealism" which, as Niebuhr points out, no country can aspire to or even hope to achieve. Consider how easily emotions have been stirred in this country just since 9/11. Or that I received an e-mail the other day once again denouncing "Hanoi" Jane Fonda (the past really isn't over, especially for those of us who remember "Hanoi" Jane). The Jane Fonda example is a perfect example of the "difficulty in distinguishing...dangerous forms of inner conflict." Indeed, you could say the same about the entire Vietnam War, a conflict still alive and well for those of us who lived through it, but already ancient history and a unitary, settled issue ("College protests ended the war and everybody knows it was unjust!") to those with no memory of it. Some still think Jane Fonda committed treason; much simpler to see it that way. Some don't; and many, of course, know nothing about it, or consider it at best a minor historical footnote. But if Fonda is not guilty of treason for what she did during the war, what meaning does treason have? And if some are not guilty of war crimes, or at least violations of U.S. law, for committing and directing torture, what meaning do the laws have? Perhaps it's just a matter of whose ox is being gored. Perhaps it is a matter of whether the nation acts, or demands action. Clearly it is not a matter of individual choice, except for the individuals who have the power, or who exert the influence of the dominant class.

I see something similar in the accepted history of World War II. You need only watch "The Best Years of Our Lives" to see characters who declare a new depression will follow the end of that war, and that the war itself was unjust and unnecessary and a conspiracy among dark powers, to realize the picture even then was not so simple, nor the national mind so clear and rational and united, as we imagine. To this day we imagine that war as an ethical exercise, especially as we use it to justify new wars because "freedom is not free!", or some such nonsense. Of course, no one in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya, for that matter, threatens my freedom. As Osama bin Laden reportedly said, if he was fighting us because he hated our freedoms, why didn't he attack Sweden? But there was nothing ethical about World War II; it wasn't fought to end the Holocaust and establish the nation of Israel. It wasn't even fought to keep us free. We fought because we were attacked, and for no other reason. We have since decided it meant we must remain ever vigilant and truly make the world safe for democracy, and from that delusion came all of our post-war and Cold War history, right down to the current actions in Libya.

The nation Nieubuhr describes is little different from the prince Macchiavelli describes. Both must act in the interests of self-preservation, but preservation of a larger group, not of a small, homogeneous group. That reality is its own set of problems. The other set of problems comes when we cover our self-interest in self-justification, in a "higher purpose," in the decorative colors of a purpose other than our selfish ones. Perhaps at this point its timely to remember the words of Niebuhr far less famous than his "Serenity Prayer," but more appropriate:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.

“Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."

--Reinhold Niebuhr