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Late Night Thoughts (Reposted from February 20, 2011)

There are few noises at this hour.   A car passes in the distance.  The house creaks.  The furnace starts.  I have not heard a dog bark in hours.

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…”It is really annoying when people, particularly those in positions of power, can’t even be bothered to take the trouble to lie well.” — Yves Smith.

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…To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

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…It seems what’s happening in Wisconsin is part of the class war in America that’s been going on for sometime now.  As Warren Buffett pointed out, the war was begun by members of his class, and his class is winning it.

Unfortunately, if rich billionaires like the Koch brothers win the Wisconsin round in the class war, that means they will have managed to break the Wisconsin public service unions.  And if they manage to do that, then the Democratic party will be left as nothing more than a paper man in that state.

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…The other day, I noticed an advertisement that claimed the Bible was, of all the world’s wisdom literature, the most profound.  Now, I’ve heard that claim made before in various ways and places.  But, I confess, I have never understood why anyone would make that claim.

As wisdom literature, the Bible seems to have been often surpassed. And not just by many of the ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, or Chinese authors.  But also by more modern authors.

To give some of the Biblical authors credit, though, their concern for social, political, and economic justice was remarkable for their time, and — thankfully — very influential on the West.

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…There seems to be a sense in which almost all complex, hierarchical societies — even going as far back as to the origin of complex, hierarchical societies some 5,500 years ago — have been scams.   Moreover, it’s been the same scam perpetrated again and again.  And, in essence, that scam has been to fool the masses into believing the society’s elites have the backing of a supernatural order.

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…There are many people in this god-drunk town who cast their blurry vision on science and declare that it, too, is a religion.  The last drunk to tell me that declared, as his reasoning, “Religions are based on beliefs. Science is based on beliefs. Therefore, science is a religion.”

By precisely the same “logic”, “Cats are furry.  Dogs are furry.  Therefore, dogs are cats.”

But, even if his reasoning was logically valid — which it is not, unless dogs are cats — what would not then become a religion?  Indeed, even one’s overwhelming desire to take a shower after hearing him espouse his drunken  “logic” would, according to his drunken  “logic”,  become a religious act.

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Just now, a motorcycle started up, then sped off.  In the day, it would be just another cycle.  But in the night, it seems a story in itself.

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…Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

Now, when we fall in love, she sooner or later challenges our maps…

And, if our love survives those challenges, there’s a chance that our love is true.

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…Tonight, I came across in a faded notebook a line from a poem I once wrote to a woman: “No one has made me wish / To face with grace the challenge / of her morning breath like you, Joelle.”   And consequently, reading that line, I had a sudden and abrupt realization of precisely how it is that I have managed all these years to remain celibate despite the occasional woman who’s now and then been interested enough in me to even read my poems.

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…Once I saw a Seven-Eleven that was closed.  Locked up and abandoned.

Since everything inside the impossibly dark store windows was in place and intact, I eventually concluded it must be a clerk who didn’t show up for work.  But I at first thought: “Not even a president’s death can close a Seven-Eleven. It must be something.  It must be big.”

Perhaps there is inside all of us a thing — a strange, hard thing — that now and then longs for an event so big it will close even the world’s Seven-Elevens.

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…When I met Becky she was in her 30s and would now and then do something completely spontaneous: Always some little thing, but it was an attractive quality.   Even in a city, birds from a branch put to air like her.  So, though they live like the rest of us amongst the concrete and noise, you can see how those birds are beyond the artificial world we have created for them — how they are still native to the earth and sky.  Some people are like that.

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…So far, I have found only three things with power to redeem the human condition: Love, work, and play.  And of those three, love is the greatest.

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…Brett called to invite me to lunch the other day  (Brett was 15 the year we first met at the coffee shop.  I was perhaps 40 or 42).   So, we met at a tavern where the beer is watery, but the food is good, and I enjoyed talking with him so much the time slipped past on rabbit’s feet.

At some point in the afternoon, after we had exhausted half a dozen topics, Brett said he suspected the reason quite a few kids had hung out with me years ago at the coffee shop was because I was for the most part nonjudgmental.   So I told him that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard from a fellow human, if indeed he was actually human. So, I thanked him for confirming a suspicion I’d had.  Then, being an insufferable old fart, I told him a story he’d already heard at least twice from me, and one he probably didn’t want to hear again.

After we had parted for the evening, I reflected on the fact that Brett had certainly been one of the most intelligent people at the coffee shop, and very likely one of the wisest.  Yet, it had never been any one thing that led me to those conclusions.  Like a stream of gold dust, Brett is someone who stands out from the crowd not for any one big thing, but for the cumulative impression made on you by a thousand glittering details.

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…My second wife had a taste for dresses by Ungaro.  Is Ungaro still around?  That Italian knew how to make a woman wearing silk look like a nude.

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…This night, for the first time in ages, I recall once a woman and I spent nearly two years laughing together.  No, she was not my wife, but a co-worker.  We worked together in the evenings, and we’d spend every moment we could with each other.  Then, when I moved on to a day job, I still dropped by her workplace in the evenings to laugh with her.

One day, I invited her out to a movie.  But by the time she got to my place, it was too late to catch a show.  At a loss for much else to do, I tried nibbling on her ear.  Consequently, two years of laughing together led to her having three explosive orgasms: The best in her life, she told me.  After that, you might think she’d be happy.

Yet, somehow, by the next day, she had translated everything — all of it — into guilt and regret.  “You must think I’m a slut”, she said, “because I slept with you on our first date.”

“No, I feel as if I’ve been courting you for two years”, I said, “Besides I’m in love.”

“Even if you don’t think I’m a slut”, she said, “When I saw you this evening, it made me think of myself as a slut, and then my heart sank to the floor.  I can’t see you again.”  And she meant it.

It was much later I realized that, despite our rapport, only one of us had been in love.

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It is almost dawn.

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A Most Curious Journey: The 100 Year Long Transmutation of Americans from Good Citizens into Good Consumers

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his view’s of how and why Americans have been socially engineered over the past 100 years to become good consumers rather than good citizens.

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THE CRITICS EXPLODE! “Sunstone needs to get laid.  Politics to him is what sex is to the most naive nun on earth — whoever she may be.  It is no more than a world of sins, venial sins, and deadly sins.  It is a world that his delusional mind fearfully attempts to grasp with all the misconceptions of a pure virgin.  But what fool would lay Paul Sunstone?  Not I!  And not you either!  Sunstone merely needs to get laid, but he absolutely must be guillotined.”  — Aloyse Leblanc, Le Critique Passionné de Blog, “La Tribune Linville”, Linville, France.

Continue reading “A Most Curious Journey: The 100 Year Long Transmutation of Americans from Good Citizens into Good Consumers”

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The Value of a Teacher

SUMMARY: Teachers in the US are poorly compensated for the work in comparison to teachers in Japan.  Outside of the best public schools and elite private schools, students are educated to become loyal, obedient citizens with adequate job skills.  This contrasts sharply with earlier educational goals in America.

(About an 8 minute read)

My second wife, Tomoko, spent her early years in Tokyo, Japan.  She attended an elite school whose students were mainly the sons and daughters of government and corporate leaders.

Tomoko’s father, for instance, was an American on loan from Motorola to Sony who headed up Sony’s East Asian quality control during the years Japanese goods became synonymous with “quality”.   Her cousin, who tutored her growing up, was at one point the head of North American sales for Toyota.  His major accomplishment was taking Toyota products from about 6% of the car market in the US to over 22%.

Continue reading “The Value of a Teacher”

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“With Freedom Comes Responsibility”

(About a 6 minute read)

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  — Martin Luther King, jr.

 

In high school, I had a math teacher — who I blogged about here — who was something of a political outlaw back in his day.

He was a member of the John Birch society.  A political organization founded by a millionaire that espoused, among other things, the notion Eisenhower had been a communist agent of the Soviet Union, and that had even attacked the nation’s parent-teacher associations as somehow subversive of American values.

The Birchers had been cast out of mainstream American politics by William F. Buckley, the most influential right-wing political thinker and pundit of the time (They would not return to the mainstream until our own age, in 2010).  Buckley considered them dangerous fools and radicals.

Continue reading ““With Freedom Comes Responsibility””

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Alex Jones and the “Paradox of Tolerance”

(About a 7 minute read)

I think it can be said of Alex Jones that he is the poster-child for the “American disease” of tolerating the intolerable.  Perhaps out of all major democracies, America’s democracy is the most susceptible to the disease.  That’s because we tend to be extremists when it comes to protecting freedom of speech.

To be sure, America does limit free speech somewhat, but the limits are absolutely minimal.  You cannot advocate physical violence against someone and/or their property, nor can you “yell fire in a crowded theater” for the mere sport of it, since that might lead to physical injuries.

Continue reading “Alex Jones and the “Paradox of Tolerance””

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Never Break the Circle

(About a 1 minute read)

Years ago, there was Mike,
A Native American man who belonged
To the people of a Southwest nation,
And who was trying to teach his son
The people’s traditional values.

Can you imagine how tough that was?
Maybe the values are the same
But the world is not.
No, it’s not the same at all.
But Mike was determined,
Still made the effort.

Each weekend he drove his boy
Eight hundred miles South
To the villages where
He could play with his cousins,
Talk with his grandparents,
Learn from the whole village
How to walk with one foot on the earth,
And with the other foot firmly planted
In the spirit world.

His son made Mike proud.
Once the whole community
Gathered to share candy —
I think Mike called it,
“Halloween, Hopi style.”

Forming a circle of young and old,
The people tossed the candies around
For several minutes, catching and tossing
Back the candies, the people shared
A good thing in life, and stopped
Only when everyone had something sweet.

Everyone.

“Cooperation”, Mike told me,
“It’s how the people live.
Not like what he learns in school.
There it’s fight for yourself,
Live for your close kin alone,
And screw all the rest.”

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How Our Ancient Human Nature Influences Politics Today

(About a 5 minute read)

In light of recent fossil discoveries in Morocco. it now seems true that our noble and esteemed species of fur-challenged, poo-flinging super-apes is at least 300,000 years old.

By most scientific accounts, we spent almost all of that vast time evolving to live in small, remarkably egalitarian, social groups of typically about 200 or so individuals.

Not only is the evidence conclusive that our own species was always a social animal living in groups, but it is nearly just as conclusive that the parents of our species, and their parents, and their parents — and so forth — were all social species going back for up to 20 million years.

All of which almost necessarily means that we have spent “considerable” time evolving, adapting, to cooperate with, and even to depend on each other, for our survival.

But it goes even further than that. Much further.

Continue reading “How Our Ancient Human Nature Influences Politics Today”

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Can Rational Persuasion be Saved?

(About a 5 minute read)

The European Enlightenment laid the philosophical foundation of today’s representative democracies by coining the notion (or at least by secularizing the Christian notion) that people were basically more or less equally rational — obvious cases of madness, contrariness, and American citizenship notwithstanding.

Of course, the clear implication was that, if people were basically rational, then they were under no obligation to simply swallow whatever they were told to swallow by some authority or powerful elite.  Instead, they had a natural right, by virtue of being rational, to weigh matters for themselves and arrive at a just and fair conclusion that Teresums is insufferable in those matters all on their own.

Obviously, that notion became a basis for justifying republics and representative democracies.  To be sure, you can justify those things without resort to asserting “epistemic equality”, but it’s harder to do.  If some people are naturally much less rational than others — that would amount to saying, they are born to be followers of their “betters”.

Very few of us know all of that today, or at least, very few of us have thought about it.  Even less thought about today is the somewhat more practical role reasoning with folks plays in republics and representative democracies.

To illustrate, consider a biologist and an creationist debating whether or not to include evolution in high school biology courses.  The biologist rationally lays out his or her facts, along with their reasoning, but the creationist immovably responds with pseudo-facts and fallacious logic. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!  Although that sort of thing never happens in the real world, ’tis not the point here.  The point is: How could the two possibly reach an agreement about what to do?

Well, there are other methods besides rational persuasion.  The public relations and advertising industries have amply demonstrated that you can take all the rational reasoning — all of it – out of persuasion and still persuade.

But when you do, you are in serious risk of soon ending up in bonkersville — or, as we call it in America, the Presidency.  That is simply not the optimal foundation on which to base laws and public policies — for any of a dozen reasons.  The further you depart from reality based persuasion, and the more you indulge in merely emotional persuasion, the faster you create some of the conditions for rule by an oligarchy or dictator.

“Vote for Stanislov! Forget the fake news he wants to crush your skull under his fat butt!  Stanislov will put weed in every pot!”

Beyond that, if even merely emotional persuasion breaks down, then one is left with only heinous means of forcing people to agree upon what to do, or to comply with what is done.  Sooner or later, they’ll be tanks in the streets.  So I think it can be seen, there are advantages to rational persuasion.

Unfortunately, rational persuasion alone seldom if ever works.  Both nearly universal personal experience and the sciences confirm that.  However, most people blame the fact on the fundamental irrationality of human nature.  In truth, I think it would be a bit more accurate to notice that “pure rational persuasion” is missing something.  Namely, any motivators.

Depending on how you slice and dice them, you could write a book on motivators, but here we can boil them down to just two categories: Fears and desires. Not just “pleasure and pain” — some folks seek pain and avoid pleasure. Those categories won’t do here.  But fears and desires pretty much cover all the bases.

Motivators can be so effective, you scarcely need anything else.  “Your house is on fire!  Quick!  Chug these beers so you can pee on it!”  But we’ve already gone over a good reason why they ought to be combined with rational persuasion in a republic or representational democracy.

I do not suspect any of the above — except maybe a minor point or two — is unknown to anyone, but I’ve laid it all out here in the hope it might be useful to further discussion, and because I like to write.  As a bonus, if you wish to finesse your persuasive talents and abilities to rationally persuade people to hop in bed with you, then see my four volume work, The Epistemology of Carnal Knowledge I would recommend you study Ben Franklin’s techniques.

Franklin was a master at the art of rational persuasion, but he was a bit under-appreciated for it even in his day, because he was such an habitually self-effacing man, that he routinely gave credit for his own ideas to whomever he was persuading to adopt them.  That self-effacement was, of course, one of his techniques.

You can’t go wrong studying Franklin.

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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

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The Social Brain

(A 9 minute read)

“The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected.”  ― Will Rogers

Politicians are not the only practical jokes that get elected.  A lot of bad ideas also “get elected”.  Get elected in the sense that they become as popular as cheap hamburgers, and more popular than much better ideas.

Social Darwinism is surely one of the worse ideas that humans have ever invented.   Humans are quite talented at inventing bad ideas, but talent alone lacks the necessary brilliance to have invented Social Darwinism.  No, Social Darwinism took genius.

There were actually several geniuses involved in the invention of Social Darwinism, a whole intellectual clusterfuck of them.  But perhaps William Graham Sumner was the most brilliant clusterfucker of that whole group.

In 1883, Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin’s findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification.  According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.  [Source]

To be able to take an idea as brilliant as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and turn it into an idea as hard-packed with stupidity as Social Darwin is absolute genius.  Sumner might have been one of the people George Orwell had in mind when he said, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”.

Anti-intellectualism is just as American as apple pie or selling diabetic horse urine as beer.  That does not mean, however, that Americans skeptically refuse to  embrace the ideas of intellectuals.  No, in practice, it has meant only that Americans are so unfamiliar with intellectuals and their ideas that they can’t tell the good from the bad.  They are like those poor, sad folks who are so anti-sex they never develop whatever raw talent they might have for sex into becoming moderately decent lovers, let alone dynamos between the bed sheets.  There is no other way to explain the continuing popularity in America of Sumner’s ideas.

Social Darwinism is many things but so often at the core of it is the notion that human evolution has been predominantly driven by intraspecies competition.  As it turns out, however, to say that intraspecies competition predominantly drove human evolution is just as absurd as saying that a dozen minutes of start-to-finish jackhammering is mainly all there is to sex.  There is so much more!

For a long time, scientists have known that the human brain is exceptionally large relative to body size.

Early attempts to explain the fact tended to focus on environmental factors and  activities.  Thus, humans were thought to have evolved large brains to facilitate banging rocks together in order to make tools, hunt animals, avoid predators,  think abstractly, and outsmart competitors for vital resources like food, territory, mates, and rocks.  This was known as the “ecological brain theory”.

Then, in 1992, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar published an article showing that, in primates, the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increasing social group size.

This strongly suggested that primate brains — very much including human brains — grew big in order to allow them to cope with living in social groups.  As a consequence of that and other research, the new “social brain theory” started replacing the old “ecological brain theory” in the hearts and minds of scientists.

We don’t have the biggest teeth, the sharpest claws, the fleetest feet, the strongest muscles in nature.  But, as it happens, we are in most ways the single most cooperative species of all mammals, and in unity there is strength.  One human is usually no match for a lion even if he’s the most competitive human within a hundred miles. But through cooperation we are able to achieve more together than we can achieve through competition.

I once saw a film in which a band of two dozen or so men and women chased a huge male lion into a thicket and killed it in just a few seconds with nothing more than pointed sticks.   That is the bare minimal kind of cooperation that no doubt helped us to become the extraordinarily successful species we are today.

Even the fact we are able to (to some extent) reason abstractly might have much to do with our evolving as a social species.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with the fascinating theory that reasoning evolved — not to nobly discern truths — but to persuade our fellow apes to cooperate with us, and to help us figure out when someone is telling us the truth.

Thus Mercier and Sperber begin with an argument against the notion that reasoning evolved to deliver rational beliefs and rational decisions:

The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

In other words, those of us who wish in at least some cases to arrive at rational beliefs and rational decisions are somewhat in the position of a person who must drive screws with a hammer — the tool we have available to us (reason) did not evolve for the purpose to which we wish to employ it, and only by taking the greatest care can we arrive safely at our goal.  But I digress.

Mercier and Sperber go on to ask, “Why does reasoning exist at all, given that it is a relatively high-cost mental activity with a relatively high failure rate?”

They answer that reasoning evolved to assess the reliability and quality of what someone is telling you (“Is Joe telling me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his beer cellar?”), and also to enable you to persuade someone to do (or not do) something (“How do I talk Joe into giving me all his beer?”).   That is, reasoning involved in a group context.  The implication is that we reason best and most reliably when we argue or debate with each other.

I have long thought that one of the reasons the sciences have demonstrated themselves to be all but the most reliable means of inquiry that we have ever invented — second only to getting baked on Colorado’s finest weed in order to ponder the “Big Questions” of life — is because the sciences rest on the principle of intersubjective verifiability.  Basically, you check my work, I’ll check yours, and together we might be able to get closer to the truth than either of us could get working alone.

When Thomas Hobbes was writing out his political philosophy in the 1600s, he embraced the sensible notion that any political system should be based on human nature, as opposed, say, to based on what we might think some god or king wants us to have.   Hobbes, who often cooked up brilliant ideas, now proceeded to burn his meal, for he envisioned that human nature is essentially solitary.  He thought if you go back far enough in human history you will come to a time when people did not live in social groups, but alone.  There was no cooperation between people and it was instead “a war of all against all”.

Hobbes was not only wrong about that, he was very wrong about that.  What evidence we have suggests our species always lived in groups, our ancestors always lived in groups, and their ancestors always lived in groups.  In fact you must go back at least 20 million years in evolutionary history before you find a likely ancestor of ours that might have been a loner.  Our brains have been evolving as specialized organs for dealing with we each other for at least 20 million years, which is almost long enough to listen to every last complaint my two ex wives have about me.  And hell, we’re only talking about their legitimate complaints!

Of course, the fact we are social animals does not mean we are hive animals.  We are very much individuals, so far as I can see.  But that means, among much else, that there is and always will be a tension or conflict between our social and our individual natures.

Before we started living in the first city-states about 6,500 years ago, we lived in relatively small hunting/gathering bands of 200 or so people at the most.  So far as we know today, the bands were mostly egalitarian.  Just about anyway you can measure it, there wasn’t much social, political, or economic difference between people.  And the individual and society were probably in a fairly well balanced relationship with each other. Then some killjoy invented the complex, hierarchical society of the city-states.   And the people of the time, instead of doing the rational thing, and hanging him on the spot, let him get away with it.

From that infamous day forward, there’s been very few times in history when the balance between the individual and society has favored the individual.  Most societies have been oppressive.  That needs to end.   Yet end in a way that restores a sane balance, not in a way that destroys societies through extreme individualism.

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The Regressive Left and the Suppression of Free Speech

Are there proper limits to free speech?  If so, what should they be?  In Western history, the first, and perhaps still the most popular, attempt to establish liberal limits to free speech was made by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty, which was published in 1859.

Mill brings up the British corn merchants in making his case for liberal limits to free speech.  In the mid-1800s, the corn merchants were hated and feared by the poor.  Radicals stirred up the poor by accusing the merchants of hording grain in order to drive the price of it up and force the masses to choose between paying inflated prices and starvation.  Conservatives feared the radicals would succeed in politically mobilizing the poor, and wanted to protect the social order by silencing the radicals, using the powers of the government to do so.

In turn, Mill argued that the government did not have unlimited rights to silence people, but could do so only if they were in violation of “one very simple principle,” which is now usually called the harm principle, and which states, “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

But what did Mill mean by “harm”?  That question is the subject of debate, but I think Mill intended to narrowly limit what constitutes harm in these circumstances to actions that harm or violate another person’s rights, or threaten to do so.

For instance, a corn merchant could be harmed by someone publishing information that resulted in the boycott of his business with a resulting loss of profits.  But this sort of harm does not appear to be what Mill had in mind  because it does not violate the rights of the corn merchant.  In other words, the merchant has no right to force people to patronize his business in order to guarantee his profits.

On the other hand, a merchant could be harmed by someone denouncing him to an angry mob gathered in front of his house for hording grain in order to drive the price up.  If someone did that, it could incite the mob to violate the merchant’s property rights (e.g. by burning his house down), or even to violate his right to life.  Consequently, the speech of the person denouncing the merchant could in this case be legitimately suppressed.

As I said, what Mill meant by “harm” is debatable, but I think it can at least be argued that he wished to narrowly limit what constitutes harm.  Whatever the precise meaning of it, Mill’s harm principle became for generations the traditional liberal ideal for imposing limits on speech.

In the 1980s, Mill’s harm principle came under attack from the American philosopher, Joel Feinberg.  Feinberg asked, “whether there are any human experiences that are harmless in themselves yet so unpleasant that we can rightly demand legal protection from them even at the cost of other persons’ liberties.”  That is, do we have a right to be protected, not merely from harm, but from offense, as well?  His answer to the question was to argue that at least some forms of harmless but profoundly offensive conduct can properly be criminalized, and he urged that Mill’s harm principle be replaced with his offense principle.

Feinberg’s offense principle provided the initial philosophical justification for the infamous attacks on free speech by the Regressive Left that are in the news today.  The Regressive Left — as distinct from the Progressive Left, which still strongly supports free speech — has now built on Feinberg’s work to go further than him.  For instance, Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford professor, suggests these days that speech that merely attacks the dignity of others should be banned.  “We have gone from the principle that only speech that incites crime can be banned to the principle that speech that incites gross offence can be banned to the principle that speech that provokes discomfort can be banned.”

What most strikes me about the theorists of the Regressive Left is that they do not seem to notice — or perhaps they notice, but do not fully grasp — that they are putting themselves at grave risk of having the tables turned on them.  As Nick Cohen writes:

Few contemporary theorists grasp that people oppose censorship not because they respect the words of the speaker but because they fear the power of the censor. It is astonishing that professed liberals, of all people, could have torn up the old limits, when they couldn’t answer the obvious next question: who decides what is offensive?

If it is the representatives of a democracy, you have the tyranny of the majority to discriminate against “offensive” homosexuals, for instance. If it is a dictatorship, you have the whims of the ruling tyrant or party—which will inevitably find challenges to its rule and ideology offensive. If it is public or private institutions, they will decide that whistleblowers must be fired for damaging the bureaucracy, regardless of whether they told the truth in the public interest. If it is the military, they will suppress pictures of torture for fear of providing aid to the enemy. If it is the intelligence services they will say that leaks about illegal surveillance must be stopped because they might harm national security, just as pornography might harm women. Why should they have to prove it, when liberals have assured them that there is no need to demonstrate actual damage?

Yet, they are not only putting themselves at risk of having the tables turned on them, but everyone else as well.  A society that embraces the notion rights can be abridged simply because their exercise causes someone, somewhere profound offense, much less mere discomfort, is a society ripe for dictatorship.  Were such a notion to prevail here in America, our notably thin-skinned president would have legal standing to shut down any criticism of himself whatsoever.

I think perhaps the best thing that can be said about Feinberg’s position is that, to see the truth of his notion that offenses can be profound, one only has to recall some instance when one suffered grievous hurt from a mere slight.  “Only sticks and stones” can harm us is a lie: The emotional fallout from words alone can at times outlast the pain of a broken arm.  That’s to say, his position is well grounded in human psychology.  Yet, to recognize that fact is not necessarily to endorse his views that certain behavior should be criminalized simply because it causes profound offense.

Whether we like it or not, all societies require of their citizens some sacrifices in order to preserve the society itself.  It seems to me that liberal democracies, especially, require their citizens to accept that they will at times be disgusted, repulsed, shocked, shamed, or embarrassed by the opinions and behaviors of their fellow citizens and yet, they will be unable to suppress those opinions and behaviors, least their society descend into tyranny.   For the real choice here is not between being offended and not being offended, but rather between freedom and oppression.

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What Do You Make of the Occupy Wall Street Movement?

I’ve been quite curious about the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  In some ways, it reminds me of the prairie populist movement of the 1890s.  That is, it might be paving the way for some real changes down the road.  I’m curious what you think about it?  Especially in regards to these questions:

Do you think it has much chance lasting through the winter?

Will it bring about any real changes?  If so, what kind of changes can be we expect?

Will it have an impact on the policies or politics of the two major political parties?  If so, what kind of impact?